Remembering the Sound of a Mother’s Voice
Long ago and far away, she sang for the sheer joy of living
Katherine Lysyj at 18, dressed in traditional Ukranian garb for her 1920 wedding.
a memoir by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko
The lilacs have finished blooming in Chesapeake Country. Farther north, they are always in bloom on Mother’s Day. Their sweet intense scent reminds me of my mother. Our driveway was lined with the tall bushes with the purple flower, and I can still picture her head bent over the flowers as she inhaled their old-fashioned perfume.
I remember the unflinching gaze in her intelligent dark eyes, the beauty mark next to her eye, was it left or right? I can still see the silver streak in her black hair that ran from her smooth forehead and hid into a bun at the nape of her neck.
But, try as I might, I cannot remember her voice: its timbre, color, intensity. No wonder. I have not heard it for nearly half a century.
The Single Mother
My mother’s story, at least the part that I was familiar with, begins not in southern New Jersey but in a small town precariously balanced on the Ukrainian-Polish border. Yes, lilacs bloomed there too, and white acacia, whose flowers were sweet on my tongue.
My parents had been married for many years when my mother became a single parent. When the Germans took my father to a slave labor camp that cold Easter Sunday, she became our sole support in an occupied town. We were fortunate that we had friends, my godparents, who owned a restaurant. They offered work to my mother. She put in long hours there while my godmother looked after me. But how I missed her! Suddenly I had lost both my parents. I was not yet five.
My father was hundreds of miles away, but she was here in the same town, although I rarely saw her. I was usually asleep when she came home from work at night and when she left early in the morning.
One afternoon, it must have been in May, I slipped out of my godmother’s house and headed to the restaurant. I caught glimpses of the church steeple and knew I was running in the right direction. Finally, I gained the square. It seemed huge to me, a wavy cobbled sea with my mother on the other side. With a child’s logic, I closed my eyes and started to run across the vast expanse.
A screech, the sharp smell of diesel covering up the scent of lilacs. I tripped; the cobblestones rose to meet me, a German army truck just centimeters from my face. I saw my mother running across the square, her white apron sailing in the breeze. I felt her arms around me and heard excited voices in a guttural language I did not understand.
Why did you do this dangerous thing? Her dark eyes scolded me as she rocked me in her arms. She carried me into the restaurant and the aroma of something delicious cooking enveloped me.
She found her voice. “Why?”
Thinking about the incident now, I want to say to her: “I must have inherited a touch of your courage … and recklessness, too.”
For, she was not a timid woman. Staying one step ahead of the advancing Soviet army with tales of rapes and shootings preceding them, we left home and friends. We plunged into the unknown to find my father somewhere in that German slave labor camp. The chances of our success were slim. The chances of our staying alive were not much better.
A Birthday Celebration in a Train Station
She held my hand tightly in the Krakow train station where we were changing trains. It was the end of July and hot. I was fascinated by the huge clock that dominated the high open space. In her other hand, she held a sack and a small suitcase, our hand luggage, everything that we owned in the world. We had just come back from checking on our trunks. They were lost, stolen in the chaos of war: my mother’s Persian lamb coat, my father’s good grey suit, my silky little dresses, delicate as dragonfly wings. Irresolute, we stood there, and a sick feeling in my stomach rose into my chest. She was silent. Then her eyes followed mine to the little shop.
“What was I thinking?” she exclaimed. “Today’s your birthday. I need to buy you a present. Look at those scarves. Which one would you like?”
I clutched the scarf with tiny white and yellow daisies on a field of black.
“Perfect,” she said. “A scarf any five-year-old would treasure.”
I basked in her approval.
“Let me have the other one too, the one with the red poppies and the cornflowers,” she said almost gaily to the young salesgirl. “That one’s for me. I want to look good when I find my husband.”
I heard something a little wild in her voice, unafraid; otherwise how could we have survived? At that moment, I knew everything would be all right.
In two years mother and father earned enough for a down payment on a tall house, sheltered under huge silver maples on an acre of land in New Jersey.
My Father, at Last
We found him. I do not know how. He must have sent her a message telling her where he was interned. But I believed in my mother’s magic.
He looked different. His camp uniform with the OST patch identifying him as an East European hung loosely on his thin frame. His face was a sea of wrinkles; his hand callused as he extended it through the barbed wire. The wire-rimmed eyeglasses that were a part of his bookish appearance were patched with more wire.
I was overcome with a sudden fit of shyness. My parents’ eyes locked. Even at that young age, I understood that we had all changed.
We visited him every day at that barbed wire fence, as autumn gave way to an early winter, slipping him a piece of black bread or a turnip when we had it. My parents talked while I dug in the dirt with a stick; my shyness had not yet left me. Frequently, the air attacks screeched above our heads, and we ran to hide under the sheltering firs. The prisoners, of course, remained behind the barbed wire.
Then one day my father told us that the camp was rife with rumors that the Germans were going to retreat, leaving the camp. It was cold then, I remember, with deep snow on the frozen ground.
Out in the Cold
Indeed, the jailers left like thieves in the night. The inmates tore down the wooden barracks to build crude sleds. There was no other transportation.
Long black lines of refugees snaked over the barren snowy land. You may have seen them in the newsreels. I, too, have seen them in the news, years later. I always searched for a woman in that long line with a silver streak in her hair and a little girl bundled up on a sled. I didn’t find them.
The winds were howling at night, and I came down with pneumonia out in the cold on that small sled. We did not have so much as an aspirin. My fever soared. I went in and out of consciousness. For perhaps the first time in her life, my mother had lost her will to go on, and we stopped for shelter in a bombed-out church.
It was there I heard her say, “At least we can give her a Christian burial.”
Who me? Young as I was, I had seen dead people and certainly did not want to be buried.
Still, it was too risky for me to continue in the frigid temperatures of the winter of ’45. A priest arranged for us to stay with an elderly German farm couple. They had lost both their sons in the war and were in desperate need of farmhands. Weakened from malnutrition, when spring came, both mother and father worked in the fields.
The Americans came finally, marching down the main street of the tiny town whose name I cannot remember throwing out Hershey bars to the children. They are still my favorite chocolate.
Life among the Americans
We spent the next five years in a Displaced Persons Camp, where my father taught school. Finally we were sponsored to the United States by a young couple with whom we had once shared a barrack room. Getting a sponsor was easy: Our people are kind. Health and the ability to work were issues for the Americans. My father’s health was ruined, and I could not shake a persistent cough.
But my mother was a strong woman. In Philadelphia, my parents worked hard, my mother, calling on her previous bitter experience, long hours in a restaurant; my father in a Stetson hat factory. Saturdays, I was left home to do my homework, read and clean our small apartment, as a pot of beet and cabbage soup simmered on the stove. They took the trolley together, she to her restaurant, he, dressed in a suit and tie, to teach at a Ukrainian language school.
I saw little of them. But in two years they had earned enough for a down payment on a tall awkward house, sheltered under huge silver maples on an acre of land in New Jersey.
Too Short a Time
The house needed a lot of work, and the land had been neglected. My mother loved the freedom of the outdoors, even fighting the poison ivy. She planted zinnias, marigolds and vegetables while my father fixed the house. This was all done on weekends, as they kept working in the city.
In good weather, we ate our meals on a picnic table under those tall silver maples. Friends came to escape the heat of the city, and we shared the tomatoes, cucumbers and raspberries my mother grew.
She was in her element and, always the disciplinarian, ruled us with an iron hand for too short a time. Three years after we bought the house in the country, my mother the strong one was diagnosed with cancer. The smoke of Europe’s burning cities had lodged in her lungs. Given less than a year to live, she was fierce in fighting her illness and lived for two.
The last summer of her life, I helped her out to the lawn every day she was so light then and she sat in a cushioned lawn chair. She talked then about her childhood in her native village and her youth in a faraway city. I listened avidly.
Then, she stopped talking altogether, and we sat silent for hours, listening to the wind rustling the silver leaves, the pain in her eyes studying my face, following my every move. Is that why I can’t remember her voice? I can hear the silence from that traumatic time.
Now it comes to me. Not her speaking voice; it eludes me still, although I remember the gentleness in it. I remembered her singing. She had a strong, unschooled alto, its richness unusual in a small woman. She sang for the sheer joy of living. Not often, true, but amid all the pain, she must have had some happiness in her life.
Helena Mann-Melnitchenko, a retired teacher, has written another memoir for Bay Weekly: “The Girl Who Forgot Christmas” (Vol. xiii, No. 51: Dec. 22, 2005), as well as other articles and reflections.