Music in the Rec Room

As a kid, growing up in the sunny suburbs of St. James, the family rec room was a place for cast-offs. While my dad’s hunting trophies hung on the walls—dead deer heads, trophy fish and rifles—it was also where my mom put stuff no longer good enough for the living room. Because it usually seemed cold and had bad lighting, nobody spent much time down there—except me. 

It was where I catalogued old 78s and listened to them over and over. While my school friends listened to the Beatles or Beach Boys, I listened to Dad’s music collection comprised of hits from the thirties, forties and fifties. I loved the music and while upstairs the TV ruled with either hockey or football, I filled the basement with Dad's old music. 

Growing up in a church where dancing was considered sin, I could only invent dances to the fox trot, waltz and tango melodies, in private. I breathed in the romance of another time. 

One of my favourites was Ich Weiss es wird einmal ein Wunder Geschehen by Zarah Leanders. I imagined the German soldiers—my dad—fighting a hopeless war and yet hoping that a miracle would happen to save them from their inevitable end. No, I wasn't cheering for the Nazis, I think I was just trying to relive the tragedy of it all. 

Zarah Leanders, photo from 
Wikipedia

Another favourite singer was Lale Andersen, singing the original Lili Marlene. (Later released by Marlene Dietrich who'd left Germany for the States.) How many times did I listen to that song and visualize the lamplight and the endless waiting?  I imagined my dad’s heart broken over and over again by his first wife whose name it was taboo to mention. I imagined Dad dancing the tango, to Roter Mohn, sung by the Chilean nightingale—Rosita Serrano. Hey Jude or Good Vibrations could not compete with my favourite music down in the rec room. 

Then one day, most of those records got broken. (I'd leaned back and put the weight of my hand on the fragile pile I’d been sorting). Now through the magic of technology, streaming has brought back the music and while out walking the dog, I'm down in that basement rec room all over again. Trying to imagine how it all went so wrong. 

Grateful for October

                                                                               

                                                            Moody skies, crisp temperatures, strong winds


                                                             Deep blues, golds, browns and reds


Undecided melancholy


Month of contrasts, re-found joy


Thick socks, toques, slow-cooked stews


Walking quickly, warming up.


Spotting  blossoms on tenacious plants


 refusing to succumb to killer frosts.


Tease of hauntings, whispering ghosts.


Creaking trees and burning wood.


  October.  



Children of War



I have no photographs of my dad’s first marriage. The only photos I have of that 1940 union is of a gravestone for Wilhelm, who died as an infant, and another one where my dad holds a toddler. Two young boys. And my dad was their father? How could this be? 

I only got to see this photo once when I was growing up, while hiding under the dining room table. My hiding place was discovered and the album grabbed away from me. (The same thing happened when I viewed a medical book with nudity in it). It was enough to ignite my imagination. 


Who were these little boys? Why was a photo of a baby’s gravestone in the family photo album? No one would tell me. It was just one of those secrets that kids weren’t supposed to know and you know how it is about secrets . . .. It’s a challenge I’ve embraced and explore by writing my novels. My current work-in-progress focuses on my dad’s broken first marriage.


The Nazis were all about strong families, with programs to keep mothers pregnant and in the home. It’s ironic that after the war there was a higher than normal divorce rate and my dad’s first marriage was one of the casualties. He married Lydia in 1940 when mass-weddings were popular. Armistice Day November 11th—was a popular choice and each couple received a copy of Mein Kampf as a wedding gift. It was required to prove Aryan-purity and acquire an Ahnenpass —proving Aryan heritage

—before getting the marriage license. The Nazis wanted their soldiers to impregnate their Aryan women and produce new soldiers for the Third Reich. 


My dad and his first wife created two potential soldiers. Unfortunately, with the ultimate failure of Hitler’s ambitions, the two little boys died in the final months of the war. My half-brothers never got to grow up in Hitler’s planned utopia. No doubt, their deaths helped in the dissolution of my dad’s first marriage. Another factor was his five-year-long silence. As a prisoner of war, his mailings never made it to his wife and she gave up on him. Found a new lover amongst the Allies who occupied Germany.  My dad returned from USSR in late 1949, and in 1951 the marriage was officially over. 


A simple story that was never shared with me. I had to be a sleuth and figure it out on my own. Now it’s fodder for my writing brain. German readers might consider Heimkehr, 1948 edited by Annette Kaminsky where a collection of essays describes the broken marriages faced by returning prisoners of war. 

 

Another Mystery

Growing up without grandparents has only increased my need to know who they were. While I've sort of figured out my mom's side of the family and how they were affected by the Stalin years, my dad's side has remained elusive.

I’ve been working on a novel partially set in northern Germany, where my dad was born back in 1918. One thing leads to another—as things do during research and writing—and I’m wondering, what would daily life have been like for my grandmother, Elisabeth,

when she was a young mother.


Germany had just lost a war and my grandfather had returned from it with serious injuries. He became mostly bedridden (although that didn’t stop him from fathering five children). Hyper-inflation destroyed family finances. Not only that, but in 1918 the Spanish Flu was raging across Europe. 


I never met my grandmother and she died before I started school.  When I asked about her,last year while visiting Schleswig-Holstein, she was dismissed as a bitter, unloving woman. 

 

But my curiousity is piqued. People aren’t born bitter. Personalities are created—at least partially— through relationships and circumstances. Because she played an important part in the dissolution of my dad’s first marriage and thus in my own life, I’m now hooked. Another mystery to explore. 





 

What's in a Name?

At the end of the war, Germany was quite broken. It’s no wonder that organized religion took hold—replacing their faith in a crazed Führer. Going through my parents’ old red leather photo album, I came across several photos of nuns, with the label Die Diakonessen.

Who were these Diakonessen? I’ve now found out that they are still active—still working with refugees and immigrants. They're a faith-based charity made up of Germany’s Protestant churches—apolitical and social welfare-minded. At the end of the Second World War they expanded their mission to meet the intense needs of the millions of homeless. They were there for my mom as she recovered from her time in the Soviet mines. 

 

In the late forties and early fifties, my mom helped out in a hospital run by these Sisters. The experience must have had a strong impact on her because I was named after a set of twins she helped to deliver. I used to complain about my German-sounding names and express relief that Gabriele was at least born before Ulrike

 

My poor parents, how were they to know what the trendy names were here in Canada? What's in a name? Maybe it's honour towards the past and hope for the future.





 

 

Rebuilding history?


The cities of Gdansk and Kaliningrad (both former members of the Hanseatic League) were each re-built differently after the Second World War. Gdansk, now again part of Poland, has a beautifully restored old inner-city tourist area. Eighty-one Septembers ago, the Nazis had claimed the port city for themselves, called it Danzig and left it largely intact. Not until later, in 1944 and 1945, as Germans civilians fled to the harbour city to get on ships to avoid the advancing Soviet Army,was the city crushed by Soviet bombs. 

Last September I was in Gdansk, Poland finishing up a cycling trip. I’d biked in four countries and through some intense family history. The books I’ve read, both pre, and post trip, continue to enhance my appreciation of these lands. 

It was also interesting to view Lech Walesa’s shipyard office—the beginning of the end for the Soviet communism. Gdansk—a place of beginnings and ends.


A few days earlier, I’d been guided through Kaliningrad, once Königsberg. It was also destroyed by the Allies in 1944/45. When the former East Prussia was divided up after the war, Konigsberg stayed under Soviet control, and renamed Kaliningrad in honour of a Soviet hero. Because the local population was expelled, there was no effort to showcase or remember any of its history. It wasn’t until the 1990s that efforts began to rebuild the massive cathedral and even honour Immanuel Kant a German philosopher. Once quite revered by the Soviets, he's now causing irritation. Reminds me of our own changing views of history here in Canada.

Our yesterdays are complicated. We can try to erase the past by pulling down monuments, buildings, or renaming cities. It will continue to haunt our present. Educating ourselves is key to awareness, acceptance and finally, action.

Old stuff. So many stories. I was struck by how proud the guides were of both their cities and their complicated histories.

A Tale of Two Frankfurts


One place that’s confused me during my research into my parents’ history is the town of Frankfurt. It served as the eye of the needle for all returning German prisoners of war as they left their Soviet labour camps and headed back home. Turns out there are two Frankfurts. Both defined their rivers. 

Frankfurt am Main has the Main River, a tributary of the Rhine, flowing through it. The city might be best known for its busy airport. 

Frankfurt an der Oder is on the Oder River which, for 187 km. forms the border between Poland and Germany.  The Oder river divides Frankfurt an der Oder (Germany) from Slubice (Poland).  It’s a quiet place now, but back in the late forties and early fifties it was a hub of activity.

Returning POWs first stop in Frankfurt (Oder) was the Hornkaserne run by the Soviet NKWD (until 1947). Here they were given new clothes, toiletries and a chance to clean up so they would look presentable for the 3 km walk to Gronenfelde barracks run by a German administration. In Gronenfelde they were divided into destinations and sent further on to their homes. 


It was a thrill for me, last year, to travel through both Frankfurts and to appreciate the history of Frankfurt (Oder). On the train from Gdansk to Berlin, we crossed the Oder River. I was surprised at how wide it was and how green its banks.  I couldn’t help but imagine each of my parents crossing that same river—Mom in the summer of 1947, and Dad in the November, 1949. They were not yet aware that their separate journeys would eventually become one journey, together, to Canada.


Luftwaffe Graduates

 

Here’s a story. In this photograph, my dad (second from the right in the second row) has graduated from Luftwaffe pilot training school. It’s 1936. He’s eighteen . . . and he’s flying high. 


Aren’t we all just a collection of stories? You get enough stories and you have a book (and a life)!


In Defense of Physical Books

 

 

I was casually putting away some books, absentmindedly rearranging others on my shelf, when it struck me how I see my books as an extension of myself. I’ve got books exploring the past, helping me problem-solve current issues and books letting me dream. I’ve used books to escape, to self-isolate (with or without pandemic) and to connect.  


So I notice these three books and I think, yup, that’s the history part of me summed up in three books.  The Germans from Russia, the photo book of East Prussia and a book listing the refugees who streamed into Canada with the support of one particular church organization after the Second World War. Of course, my history collection is incomplete. One book always makes me hungry for another book. 

 

So even though I’m wanting to purge and declutter, my books and most of my rocks must stay. Let me keep the stories, the rest is just stuff.

Sandcastle Anyone?




Now available: Abandoned sandcastle. New inhabitants needed
to maintain this scenic lakeside property. Some repairs required,
but has endless possibilities. 

Full disclosure: Prone to flooding and intrusive human footsteps. 

Fairies only need inquire. No royal lineage required. 

Price: A good imagination. 

 

Inside July

Not a breath of wind in the garden today. It’s like July doesn’t want to leave and I want to stay with it, cocooned in its heat, its light and its growth. Like a bird in its nest, I want to stay inside July. For at least this one last day. 

Prairie Trails

Probably because of the pandemic, one of my favourite Manitoba places—Hecla Island—was terribly overcrowded when I visited two weeks ago. I’d never seen it so busy. At least twenty vehicles were lined up to pull their boats out of the water when storm clouds threatened. Nature seemed second place to all us humans trying to socially distance ourselves. Oh, the irony.

So, the following weekend I headed in the opposite direction. We went south to the Tolstoi area and hung out with hordes of wood ticks enjoying the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. The dog wore a tick collar, but I had no such protection. Anyway, we survived both the ticks and the heat and discovered some interesting blooms, including an endangered orchid—the yellow lady’s slipper.

Also interesting, was the town of Tolstoi (Why was it named after a Russian author? I don't know, but I like it!). Its Ukrainian church, built in 1927, has been beautifully restored. With the landscape and the church, I could imagine being in Ukraine and not rural Manitoba. It had bothered me, while visiting Ukraine, to see their beautifully restored churches amidst such abject poverty. Here in rural Manitoba, there were no babushkas sweeping the steps, hoping for a few alms. I wonder if they’re still sweeping entranceways in Ukraine and Russia? 

Further up the road, we crossed the fast-moving Roseau River using an historic swinging bridge partially made of old farming equipment. When we visited, swimmers using rubber mats and kayaks were enjoying the cooling currents. 

Always great to find new corners of Manitoba while exploring history and nature.




Peony Dreamer

Maybe nothing special for you experienced gardeners,  but I'm so excited about my first-ever peony blossoms.

My mom used to pick me a peony bouquet every June and I grew up thinking of them as my special flowers. This is the first year I’ve been able to continue on with my mom’s tradition. 

For years I was convinced that I had too much shade for peonies and that I was not a good-enough gardener to nurture them. Well, I've proven myself wrong. I wonder what other misconceptions I’ve held over the years. 

So to all my June birthday friends, I say, just go for it. Do it. Whatever it is you’ve been afraid to try. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers. The world needs more peony-dreamers. Yes?

Victory Day—Ends become Beginnings.

May 9th, Victory Day in Russia. 75 years. A really big deal—still. Although the pandemic has limited the crowds in Russia, over in Minsk, Belarus, crowds were as big ever.

Back in May, 1945, my parents became official losers.  Soviet POWs. They didn't know each other then. In fact, my dad was married to another woman—a woman who lost track of him and subsequently, their marriage. But that's another story.

With many rail tracks broken, the defeated had to walk much of the way into the work camps. What a walk that must have been. Defeated, discouraged, guilty. Their country and their belief system crushed. Their charismatic, insane, Führer dead. Six years of sacrifice for a cause that killed millions of innocents and changed the world order. Losers in every way.

Dad headed towards Moscow, working in coal mines and using chess skills to survive. Mom ended up in an open-pit mine near Shadrinsk in the Kurgan Oblast.  Russian language skills helped her manage.

So for them the war was over but peace, freedom and mere survival were still years away.  The Soviet Union had sacrificed 26 million people in their fight against the Axis. So in May, while the victors celebrated, my parents were trudging into the enemy's backyard. No wonder they found support in each other later in the fifties.


The Dangers of Turning Ten


April 20th. Hitler’s birthday. The day ten-year-old girls loved because they got to be inducted into the BDM. Such proud little souls—eager to belong. Oh the pomp and ceremony. Not a sci-fi novel. A living memory. My mom was too old to be forced to join the Nazi youth groups, but my dad was eager to wear a uniform and march to Hitler’s beat. What a wicked time to be young and vulnerable. 

I have to recommend the movie, The White Ribbon, with the sub-title, A German Children's Story, released in 2009, as a chilling glimpse into the mindset that formed a people who swallowed up the Nazi’s warped view. 

Heligoland's April 18th Anniversary

Lange Anne


A highlight of my time in Schleswig-Holstein last September was a two-hour cruise to the North Sea island of Heligoland. It’s had a variety of overseers . . . Danish, British, and Germans and was of strategic importance to the Nazis. Now, as a tax-free haven, it survives on tourists like me who come via small ships. That's the ship called 'Funny Girl' behind me. What is it with Germans and their love of English names?



During the four-hour guided tour, I was able to appreciate a bit of the history and a lot of the natural beauty as we climbed 184 (yes, I counted!) steps up from the rocky pier. There are no cars or bikes allowed on the island (except for electric service vehicles) and this added to its peaceful ambience. 

One grave for many
The island was far from peaceful during the Second World War. Soviet prisoners of war were used to build the extensive underground bunker system. I never had enough time to do the underground tour, but the above-ground tour had many ruins related to the war years. 


Northern Gannets breed here
Soccer field on east side of island
The island was almost crushed on April 18th,1945 with bombing by almost one thousand British aircraft. After the bombings, scattered bones from old graves were gathered into one.  For two years after that the island was left empty and used for military practice.  

Then, again on April 18th, in 1947, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions—The British Bang or Big Bang—occurred. The Allies had gathered up most of the remaining ammunition stored on the island and blew it up. A huge crater still remains and it's forever changed the shape of the rocky island. 

In 1952, the surviving locals were allowed to return and rebuild their island village. We hiked along winding paths past cottage homes with beautiful gardens. Our tour guide was a most affable fellow, obviously proud of his home.  Heligoland is a nature refuge where birds stop off during migration and northern gannets breed amongst the ruins of war. Amazing how life begins anew over and over. How I'd love to go back and stay longer. A true treasure.


Tenacious Pussy Willows

It always amazes me, when things get difficult for us humans, how unaffected nature seems. Whether it's death or disease or financial stress, nature just goes on doing what it does.

Because I'm immersed in the past, always researching something about my parents' lives, I can't help but compare and constantly refer to it. I'm boring that way . . . maybe that's why the kids moved out?

Anyway, in April of 1945, when the war was ending . . . with a painful, agonizing whimper . . . spring was emerging. No doubt there were pussy willows blooming as the bedraggled POWs straggled eastward to do their time in the Soviet gulag.

Did they find hope in pussy willows like I do?

Yantarny Holocaust Memorial

We had an incredibly mild holiday season here in Winnipeg. Single digit winter weather was a treat—we know it doesn't last. This is Winnipeg, after all.

Now imagine a war happening in bad weather. Imagine January, 1945.  Lots of snow. Wind.  Double-digit cold. Hunger and exhaustion has numbed people. The Nazis, now on the run, are desperate to hide their crimes.

One horrendous 1945 scene happened near Yantarny (in German times known as Palmnicken—site of an amber mine). 
Amber Mines Yantarny

In '45, the Stutthof concentration camp, now Sztutowo, Poland, thirty kilometers outside of Gdansk, formerly Danzig, was hurriedly evacuated and its thirteen thousand inmates forced to march the two hundred kilometers up to Palmnicken.

Baltic Ice Floes
The Nazi SS planned to dump the inmates in an underground mine tunnel, called Anna, to let them die. Of the thirteen thousand people, forced on this two-hundred-kilometer march, only three thousand survived. The rest succumbed to the cold and physical strain. (In contrast to the victims, we biked the same route in wonderful weather, enjoying the beautiful forests, gentle hills, and great restaurant stops along the way.) 

When the prisoners arrived in Palmnicken, the amber mine manager refused to allow trek survivors into the mine. So the desperate SS guards forced three thousand dying people into the icy Baltic, shooting the victims who weren’t dying fast enough. Somehow . . . thirty-three people survived.

The Yantarny monument, created by Frank Meisler represents the hands of the dying people reaching up in surrender. In August of 2011, only seven months after it was made public, the memorial was vandalized. Anti-semitism hasn’t gone away. But neither has goodness.  Cherokee wisdom says we must keep feeding the good wolves in each other. 

Own it!

I think writing the year 2020 is going to be a lot of fun. It flows so easily on the keyboard: 2020. 

A writing friend, and fellow blogger, has challenged her readers to come up with a word for the year. I’ve done this in the past, before I knew it was a thing. Last year, I had the word, enough, like in I’m good enough, life’s good enough taped near my desk. I got that inspiration from reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

This year, my word’s going to be two words (but they’re short). Own it. Cheating. I know. Own it. That’s my word. By own it, I mean, little gabby isn’t going to shy away from who she is or what’s happening. My inner child—self-conscious, insecure and hyper-sensitive—is going to own up to who she is—warts and all. Oh, and those warts, they ain’t pretty. But maybe I’m just at the age where the authenticity of pain . . . of salt in my wounds . . . beats the dead scar tissue of past hurts. 

Maybe when I say own it, I also want to include Brene Brown's theme of being vulnerable. Yes, I'm going try to own vulnerability this year. . . wherever it takes me . . . even if it means writing boring blogposts. Trying to be perfect is way too stressful, too lonely, too boring. Thanks for the inspiration to MP Catherine Mckenna. Happy 2020.

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Music in the Rec Room

As a kid, growing up in the sunny suburbs of St. James, the family rec room was a place for cast-offs. While my dad’s hunting trophies hung ...