Sunday, January 13, 2013

Remembering My Mom

My mother died seven years ago this January 18.  She died in a hospice in Sun City, Arizona.  

When she died, we had her funeral service near Darien, Illinois, where my sister Donna lives.  She made the arrangements for the services and the burial later up in Niles, Illinois, at St. Adalbert's Cemetery.

The priest who was going to perform the service was Father Bob, and he didn't know my mom at all so I offered to send him some information about her.  

Here's the letter I sent him: 

Dear Father Bob,

My sister Donna tells me that you will be doing the memorial service for my mother Teresa Guzlowski, and that you might like some information about her.

I’m not sure what my sister told you.  But here are some things I know about my mom. 

My mother was born in a village west of Lvov in Poland in 1922.  She lived there with her mother and father and sisters and brothers.  Her dad was a forest warden and they lived a quiet, peaceful life.  She liked telling stories of what it was like being a kid living near a forest.  She liked to pick mushrooms and sing and ride her pet pig Caroline.  She liked to joke that the pig Caroline was smarter than her brothers.

This all changed of course when World War II started.  In 1942, she was taken to a Nazi concentration camp in Germany.  She left behind her mother, his sister and her sister’s baby, all killed by the Nazis and those who collaborated with them. 

For the next 3 years she worked on the farms connected to the Buchenwald Concentration District.  She worked in the fields and the barns.  She said it wasn’t a death camp, but rather a slow death camp.  And she used to say that a lot of the pain she felt later in life in her legs and back came from work she did in those camps. 

When the war ended in 1945, she married my father Jan who had also been a slave laborer, and the two of them lived in refugee camps in Germany until 1951.  That year my parents, my sister and I were allowed to immigrate to America.

When we first got to the US, my parents and my sister and I worked on a farm in upstate New York to pay off part of the money that it cost to bring us to the states.

My mother once told me a funny story about this time. 

My sister and I were 5 and 3 years old respectively.  But we were still expected to work.  One time we were picking straw berries and we started complaining how hard the work was.  We started crying and begging our parents to let us go back to Germany and the refugee camps.  Life, we said, was easier there.  My mother told us that this was America and we had to stay here.

After putting in a year on the farm, we came to Chicago and lived in the Polish areas along Milwaukee Avenue.  Both of my parents worked hard.  My mom worked in a factory, in a molding room where she would work with hot plastic.  The plastic would be pressed into a mold to make telephone and such.  She would come home from work with burns on her arms from the plastic.

When she died, the scars were still on her hands and arms.  I bet if you look in the coffin you will see them still.

Both my parents worked hard at minimum wage jobs.  My mother often worked the midnight to 8 in the morning shift, so she could be around when we were home.  But their hard work paid off, and they were able to buy a house and to send my sister and me to Catholic grade schools and high schools.  This education gave me a love for learning that I’ve never lost and that led me to get a Ph.D. in English Literature and to spend my life teaching others and trying to convey to them what my parents taught me about the value of an education.

My parents retired to Arizona in the early 90s, and my dad died there in 1997.  Since then my mother lived alone, taking care of herself.  She was fiercely independent and didn’t want to be beholding to anyone.  When she went into the hospital that last time, she was still living alone, even though she could hardly stand and every step took effort that would break some one with less resolve.

In summary, what I would like to say about my mom is that she was a very very strong person.  She survived the camps and she survived a life of working on factory assembly lines and in skyscrapers where she cleaned offices from midnight until 8 in the morning taking out other people’s garbage and polishing the stains off of their desks.  And she survived the sometimes turbulent relationship she had with my dad and my sister and me.

If you could have seen her when she was dying, you would have seen that same desire to go on, to survive, even when there was little hope that she would ever be able to walk or talk or hear or breathe the way she had before her strokes.  For the last two years, when she and I talked, she would often say, “Johnny, how can I live without hope?” 

I don’t know how she did it—but she did.  She lived without hope.

This isn’t to say that she was a saint.  A lot of times when we think about those who die, especially when they suffered so much in the concentration camps and had seen so much suffering in their own lives, we want to eulogize them, talk about what was good and blessed in their lives; but my mother wasn’t the kind of person who would want us to turn from the truth.  And the truth here was that her experiences and her suffering made her hard and made her cold.  I sometimes think that she may have survived the war but what she left back in the camps was her heart. 

Here’s a poem I wrote about her:

What the War Taught Her

My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps.  The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you. 
You only pray that they will not kill you.


My book Lighting and Ashes tells the story of my parents.  You can also read some other blogs about my mom and dad:  

An earlier post about the day my mom died.  

Two Lives Shaped by World War Two: A Video

Valentine's Day: A World War Two Love Story



Sue Knight's Blog said...

Thanks John the Poet for that loving memorial of your mother. And I am glad you make it clear that experiences such as those she went through do not tend to be ennobling. If they were, there might be something to be said for them - but they aren't, and there isn't.

My father was a country boy too - his childhood playgrounds were the fields and forests of Belarus. But then the wars began.

I have read your poem before - think I have it in here on my poetry bookshelf. And, once again, I want to say how powerful I find it.

Your mother learnt, correctly, that the world is a broken place.

It is. It should have been paradise - and the beauty all around us gives a witness of that - but the serpent is still in the garden.

When your mother wakes from the sleep of death, she will wake up into a world so different from the one she knew - a world which has become the paradise it was always meant to be - a world ruled by the law of loving-kindness.

Gloria Mindock said...

This was beautiful what you wrote Father Bob so it would help him eulogize her. The strength you received from both your parents is amazing and writing about them is something everyone should read because the world forgets how things were in WW11 and even what is happening now in the world with so many genocides/atrocities. You think the world would have learned a lesson by now. I loved the poem you wrote for her too. Thank you for sharing and I am sorry for your loss on this 7 year anniversary of her death. Much love to you John and prayers. Your Mom is at peace and I know she is in a beautiful place.

Anonymous said...

John, moving memorial to your mother. I recognize her. I had a mother like her, though mine was born in Detroit, she suffered from hard work and worse ignominies. Christina Pacosz

Urkat said...

Every time I read something you wrote about your parents, I want to cry. Not in a bad way, but it makes me terribly sad. “And the truth here was that her experiences and her suffering made her hard and made her cold.”

Martin Stepek said...

Thanks John, for your honesty, authenticity and the quality of your writing in this most difficult of subjects.
My mum and dad died only two and three months ago respectively so what you had to write is raw to me and I benefit from your words.
My other was Scottish, never suffered in the way your mum did, and was warm and gentle.
Dad as you know, was in the gulag - born not far from Lwow as your mum was. He was hard too, until his strokes gave him ten last years of increasing gentleness. Not often strokes give such gifts but I made the most of that time to form a loving bond between us. I was lucky.
Your work penetrates to the core, to the heart. Keep going. It makes a difference somewhere deep inside the hearts of people you have never met. That's a gift, a quality of grace, a reason for being.

John Guzlowski said...

Here's a post from Margie Skelly:

Your tribute to your mother makes her a very special person, and I like the honesty in your writing. That she turned into a cold and unfeeling person was one hundred precent inevitable. How could it have been otherwise? Still, as her child, that is very hard to take. And yes, if anybody is now in a beautiful place, it would surely be your mother! Margie Skelly

Judith van Praag said...

Dear John, Yesterday I read your Mother's Day poem, which in a way surprised me, because my first introduction to your parents had been a harsh depiction. Then I came here, and contemplated the order of writing and reading, writing and reading, rereading and the power of not rewriting or rather altering that which conveyed true feeling, but writing more at different stages, grabbing hold of words that speak the truth, words that sustain, words that show the alteration of sentiment, not because feelings change, but because our perception changes over time. What was written exists to acknowledge and be able to share. What do you write first, what do you share first, when opinions are formed by the first words uttered and heard? There's such gregariousness in your sharing the sum total, the bare boned honesty and then some. Thank you, thank you. You are an inspiration.