Plot and Counterplot

When I toss a story out into the world, I never know if it will take wing, or where it will fly.   I’m still amazed and grateful that Johan Lebichot found me via a post I’d written about my father.

 

 Last year my sister and I traveled to Belgium to visit the Lebichot family to honor a friendship that reached across the ocean and seventy years back through time.

Lightning struck twice when I was emailed by a stranger who works at Machpelah Cemetery, where my father is buried.  Kim wrote:

“While doing research on unused burial spaces here at Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale, Michigan I googled your family name and found you!   When I found “A Box in the Attic,” I realized I’d found the family who owns the space.  I must tell you I couldn’t stop reading, to be able to put a face and story with these people was a gift…”

The plot thickens. My father died fifty years ago!  The burial plot Kim wrote about was intended to be Mom’s final resting place. But when she died twenty-five years later, she wasn’t allowed to be buried beside my father because she wasn’t Jewish.

My dying mother said, “It doesn’t matter.  He’s not there.”

What followed reads like the plot of an Afterlife Soap Opera.  My mother Eleanor’s mother, Rhea, was buried next to her first husband, William, the true love of her life, and my grandmother’s second husband, Gus, was buried in another cemetery beside his first wife, Laura, but Mom’s stepdad, my Grandpa Gus, ended up with an extra burial plot, probably because his son Karl wanted to be buried beside the love of his life, Barbara, but Grandpa had always loved my mom, his stepdaughter, and so he offered it to her, since she couldn’t be be buried by her one and only, which is why my mother was buried next to her stepdad and not her husband, Harry, who was the true love of her life, but that’s okay, because Mom loved Grandpa too.

Last year, when visiting Mom’s grave, we spent nearly an hour kicking around the weeds before we found it and cleared away the grass. Mom would say, “It doesn’t matter. I’m not there.” In a way she’d be right. All her kids left Detroit long ago. After Aunt Loena is gone, I doubt I’ll return. But I decided to replace her headstone with one easier to find, just in case someone, maybe even from the next generation, wants to leave a pebble on her grave.  Kim’s email was an eerily timely message, or at least a poke with a sharp stick.

Kim said we could plant a tree in the empty plot or even engrave Mom’s name on the glaringly empty space on Daddy’s headstone. “We could do that?” I asked. “If you write ‘In Memory…’ so people will know she’s not actually buried there,” said Kim. “I’ll consult my siblings and get back to you.  It could take awhile–there are seven of us. In the meantime, please don’t bury a stranger beside my dad!”

I admit there were undercurrents of resentment because Mom was denied her place by Daddy all those years before. But times change, rules relax, Kim probably wasn’t even born when this drama occurred, and the people at Machpelah were eager to make amends.  Our parents’ lives were hard, their story bittersweet, but no one could deny their love was true.  Why not be grateful for the opportunity to give them as close to a happy ending as can be expected?

Most of us were onboard, and the others simply abstained as we discussed ideas for the inscription. It being my mom, “Wish I’d Brought a Book” would’ve been fitting.  And at the start of each road trip, she’d say, “If there’s something we forgot to pack, we’ll buy a new one or do without.”  This was a monumental journey for our mom, but we finally settled for the simple truth. “In loving memory.”

No bones about it, after fifty years or even just twenty-five, all that remains is ashes and dust.  And their story.  In West Africa they say, “One is not dead until one is forgotten.”  Dear Mom and Dad, that which was surely connected in spirit has been commemorated–and written in stone.  And now I’m lovingly sending your story out to the world.  May it take wing, land where it will, and never be forgotten.

All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, But Not Forgotten.

Island Time

Little pockets of Britain, such as Gibraltar, can be found in the most unexpected places.

You will know them by their breakfasts.

Their mailboxes…

Their unique signage…

And their excellent thrift stores…

…which are staffed by the friendliest most helpful people, like Thelma and Kathy with a ‘K’.

In Britain, thrift shops are centrally located, often on the high street, each dedicated to a worthy cause: for the poor, cancer research, head injuries, or mental illness.  Thelma and Kathy, Hospice Shop volunteers, saw us trying on Queen Mum hats and took it upon themselves to outfit us.  Each time Kathy handed a new outfit into the fitting room, she said,  “My talents are wasted in the office!”  And we had to agree.

Our Channel Island adventure actually began with last month’s trip to Belgium.  My sister Constance and I had both enjoyed reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  While we were on that side of The Pond, we decided to visit at least one of the Channel Islands.

Jersey Island is home to the famous Jersey Cow…

…home to the famous Jersey Royal Potato…

…and home to author Roy McCarthy, who has written several books set on Jersey.  He is an expert on Jersey history, a blogging buddy of mine, and he offered to show us around.  Who wouldn’t pick Jersey?

But first, you may ask, how does Jersey, which is spitting distance from France, come to be so very English?

Back in 1066, after William the Duke of Normandy conquered England he changed his name to William the Conqueror and expanded his job description to include ‘King of England.’

The Channel Islands were a possession of Normandy long before England was, and remained so until 1214, when King John of England (aptly nicknamed ‘John Lackland’) lost Normandy to France.  The islanders picked up their marbles, cast their lot with England rather than France, and were rewarded for their loyalty with privileges other English possessions did not enjoy.  To this day they are “bailiwicks’ of England, possessions of the crown, but separate from Britain, with their own financial, legal, and judicial systems.  This, BTW, is why financial business is Jersey’s main industry, and the per capita income is much higher than in most countries.  And why, Thelma explained, the thrift stores have such great merchandise.  They can afford to wear it once to a wedding and give it away!

Roy started our tour here.  On June 28th, 1940, the Nazis preceded their occupation of the Channel Islands by bombing this harbor.  He showed us bullet holes in the stone wall from machine gun strafing and, sadly, a memorial to the dead.

Signs of the German occupation remain all over the island.  It was one of the most fortified German holdings in Europe, far out of proportion to its strategic value.  Hitler, disappointed at his failure to conquer England, took particular satisfaction in occupying the Channel Islands, and he meant to keep them at all costs.

The Jersey War Tunnels are a huge complex of underground tunnels built by the Germans during the occupation, using slave labor.  The Germans maintained a hospital there for wounded German soldiers.

The tunnels, like the history, seem to go on and on forever.  The museum established in the tunnels echoes with footsteps and voices from the past.

They pull no punches, telling both the good and the bad that occurred on the island.

At first there were only a few hundred Germans, who were told to keep relations with the natives civil.  Being stationed on Jersey was like a picnic to the Germans, with merchandise on the shop shelves to send home to their families, no bullets or bombs to dodge, and little resistance.

Below are just two of the museum mannequins that came to life and spoke in English with German accents, trying to engage us as they might have done to islanders in 1940.  He was the enemy, the occupying army, and had the power of life and death over you, and then there were the stories of Nazi brutality that had preceded the soldiers.  With all that in mind, would you respond to a German soldier if he shouted a cheery greeting to you, or could you ignore him?

Would you do his laundry if he offered you extra food rations?  What if he said your child looked like his little boy at home and offered to buy him an ice cream?

As the war proceeded, conditions worsened.  Thousands more soldiers came, as many as one German soldier for every two islanders.  Rules tightened, food and supplies grew scarce, civility waned.  Owning a radio was a crime punishable by death.  One woman was shot for rejecting the advances of a German soldier.  Other women had affairs with them, were judged harshly and called “Jerry bags” by the islanders.  Some escapes were attempted, but few were successful; those apprehended were shot or deported to Auschwitz, where most perished.  Some people sheltered fugitive slaves, shared their resources, or found other ways to resist the Nazis.   Also on exhibit were letters sent anonymously by islanders to Nazi commanders betraying their neighbors’ transgressions.  Why?  To settle old scores or to curry favor or simply for financial gain.  It happened all over Europe, but it was still sobering and sad.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that a woman is like a teabag–she never knows how strong she is until she gets into hot water.  I think that’s true, and it is in times of war and desperation when your true colors show.

The occupation of Jersey is the subject of Roy’s book, Tess of Portelet Manor.  

“In pre-war Jersey, Tess Picot is young and in love.  Living with her mother in a cottage on idyllic Portelet Common, the days are sunny and long.  But can it last? Soon the clouds of war approach and the Channel Islands are occupied by Hitler’s Nazi troops.  Tess’s heart has been broken, maybe beyond repair.  But like the cottage on the common Tess grows stronger as the long years go by.Follow Tess Picot as she battles through the harsh Occupation years, loses friends and tries to love again. Will she succeed? The journey is a remarkable one with an unexpected ending.”

We took a hike…

…and saw the raw beauty of the island.

…with stories to be discovered everywhere, from many different periods in history,

…or legends based on natural features, such as The Devil’s Hole.

All of it was pure gold.

Roy pointed out the places we had read about in his book. This was the beach Tess walked on, until the Germans mined it.

Here was the hotel where the Nazis set up their headquarters.

And here it is today, just around the corner from where my sister and I were staying.

I can’t remember whether Tess and her mum came to this pub for a pint, but we did.  It was the perfect way to top off an incredibly full day.

As our ferry pulled away,  Jersey faded into the fog, but the island’s stories and histories remain vivid, colorful, and compelling.

c2013Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Photo Challenge: The Hue of You.

Bumbershots

In my hometown of Seattle, there are two kinds of people.  Those who carry “bumbershoots”…

…and those who don’t.

I always regarded carriers as sissies, but before we left for Europe, my sister Constance talked me into buying an umbrella, and I’m glad she did.  We had one day to explore the city of Liege…

…and one day in Paris.

It rained both days.

What are you gonna do?  As the sign says, “You are here.”

You can’t make hay while the sun don’t shine, but there’s no better time to snap bumbershots.

We decided to just relax and enjoy it, from the bus stop in front of the Guillemins train station in Liege

…to the citadel park overlooking Liege.

By the end of the day, even with our umbrellas…

…we were so saturated that we had to find our way home by map wad.

In Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg is the go-to place for pond sailing.

Just as we got there, the last boat was hauled out of the water…

…and wheeled off into dry dock.

But it was still perfect weather for dads…

…ducks, and little children.

Not to mention friends…

..and lovers.

After all, this was Paris.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for The Weekly Travel Theme: Relaxing.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Saturated.

Streamlined

When I told my Belgian friend Johan that my sister Constance and I would be staying in the hotel across from the Guillemins train station, he said, “You will see the most amazing train station in Belgium.”  Guillemins was near the historic heart of Liege.

I was looking forward to seeing something old and elegant, like Grand Central Station in New York.  It was not at all what I expected.

We arrived in the afternoon.  Sunlight streamed in through skylights, highlighting an amazing structure of steel, glass, and white concrete.

Our eyes were drawn by graceful lines and patterns inside and out.

It was like beaming into our own episode of Star Trek.

After a wonderful visit with our dear friends, we had to catch a very early train out of Liege.

Sleepy-eyed, we left our warm beds to board the 5:30AM train to Paris.

One glimpse of the station lighting up the darkness was enough to stir our senses and wake us up.

Night or day, Guillemins is an inspiration.

A work of art.

True, it was not what we expected.

No stained glass.

No iron grillwork

No weathered stone that echoed with footsteps from the past.

Life is a blend of new and old.  We treasure tradition, but new and unexpected can be a good thing too.

And the trains still run on time.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: From Lines to Patterns.
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