Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Valentine's Day: Why My Mom Stayed with My Dad

My parents met in a concentration camp in Germany toward the end of World War II.

My mom had been brought to Germany by the Nazis to work in a slave labor camp. The day she was captured she saw her mom and her sister and her sister's baby killed by German soldiers. My mom was crying so much when she got to the camp that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying they would shoot her.

Near the end of the war, my dad and some other slave laborers were brought to my mom's camp by German guards who were escaping the Russians. The Germans left him there and fled toward the American lines. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.

She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.

They met in that camp, and after liberation they did what a lot of people did. First, they had something to eat, and then they got married.

It was a hell of a marriage. They fought and argued for the next 50 years -- even on Sunday mornings -- and even on Christmas Day.

It got so bad at times that -- after we came to America -- my sister and I would plead with my parents to get a divorce.

They never did. When my dad died in 1997, they were still married. 52 years.

When I was about 57 or 58, I started wondering why they didn't get a divorce, why they stayed together through all the misery they put each other through. The answer to that question became a poem in my book about them, Lightning and Ashes. The poem is called "Why My Mother Stayed with My Father."

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

She knew he was worthless the first time
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried
the smell of the dead men who wore them before.

In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak
or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing
about the world, the way the planets moved,
the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,

electricity a mystery as great as death.
The first time lightning shorted the fuses,
he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary
to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.

He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
his check away as soon as he left work.
When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away.

He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg
in the bars on Division for food or rent
till even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb polack.

My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through her madness in the camps
when she searched among the dead for her sister,
and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this was why my mother stayed.
She knew only a man worthless as mud,
worthless as a broken dog would suffer
with her through all of her sorrow.


If you want to read more about my parents, you can check out a couple of the blogs here that talk mostly about them. One is called DPs in the Polish Triangle about what my mom and dad were like when they got to America. The other is called The Wooden Trunk We Carried With Us From Germany.

Just click on the above titles, and it will take you right to them.


Ewa said...

I am very moved by this poem. It helped me to see love a gift and a sacrifice. Something given.

Anonymous said...

I've read many of Mr. Guzlowski's poems, and this one, in my opinion, is the most poignant. Mr. Guzlowski's childhood must have been very painful -- in that he had to live with his parents' anguished memories and turbulent relationship with each other. But certainly the devotion that kept them together for 52 years is an accomplishment, albeit a rather terrifying one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. This is a great poem and a powerful post! I think I'll teach it in my creative writing classes, if you don't mind! -Michael Meyerhofer

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Michael, thanks for the kind words. I would be honored to have you teach the poem.

oriana said...

A very moving poem.

I've observed that people who have been together and helped each other through very difficult times (not exclusively wartime)tend to have developed their own simple clarity about what is most important in life. It's not fame or fortune or even romantic love, but simply being there for each other. That has its own ultimate dignity.

sonia said...

very moving

Linda Nemec Foster said...


I've read this poem before and it moves me every time I read it. Another comment posted here states that it is John's most poignant poem and I agree. This piece is a powerful antidote to the "usual" love poems we see during the Valentine's season.


Linda Wisniewski said...

For many years, I believed my parents should have gotten a divorce, too, they fought so much. Your poem has put their marriage in a very different perspective. Thank you.