Essay: Mother's Day, Holy Chaos and Getting on the Train

Bedtime theology interlude: an essay about the holy chaos of mothering and a reflection on my grandmother's life. I'll use this space for occasional essays about the sacred work of parenting. Bedtime theology will continue! 

My mom and child, on a train
This is my first Mother's Day as a mom of three. My baby is a month old, and just this week my husband returned to the office after working from home since the start of the pandemic. It's holy chaos here with Zoom school and breastfeeding and “watch mom...MOM!” all day long. It is the best but it is exhausting and honestly, I'd like to hop off the crazy train for a few minutes to rest.

The good thing about breastfeeding is that you get to sit down (usually); I've spent hours on the rocking chair in the nursery with a blanket made by my grandma draped on my lap. I found it in a bin while setting up the nursery this time around – an orange and black crocheted blanket, the colors of my alma mater, but also a decent match for the nursery d├ęcor. I use it every day as I nurse my son and I remember my grandma.

I don't know if, like me, she always wanted to be a mom. She died in 2007; I never thought to ask her. She and my grandfather lived nearby when I was growing up and I though I basked in her affection, warmth, gifts and cookies, there were many things I did not ask her. I was told not to ask, because grandma wouldn't want to talk about the war.

I realize now that my grandmother's story of surviving a World War II forced-labor camp in Siberia as a Polish teenager is a story of trauma and resilience, though I didn't have that language when I was young. I also now realize that stories of trauma and resilience belong not just to the one who experiences it, but to all who share blood relation. It was her story, but it's mine, too. We're all impacted. We make sense of it through the lens of our own experiences. I thought about her story differently as a young girl than I do now as a mother.

My grandmother lost her mother at the age of 14, not by death, but because my grandmother was taken. There are so many layers of grief to my grandmother's story, but on this Mother's Day, I'm thinking about this one: the separation of a mother and daughter who would not see each other again.

There was nothing holy about that chaos. Hitler's army took Poland in 1939. Over the next few years, more than 1 million Polish people were deported to forced-labor camps. In 1940, the soldiers came for my grandmother's family. She was at home with her father and sister; her mother was staying with my grandma's older sister in a different town. Bewildered and scared, my grandmother's family threw belongings into suitcases and were herded into boxcars, four families to a car.

The train was headed for the next town, where my grandma's older sister and family lived. A neighbor had escaped and got to her sister's house, giving them the grim news and advising them to meet up at the train station.

When the train hauling my grandmother, her sister and her father stopped at that station, my grandma's mother, older sister and her family met them there. They saw them through cracks in the windows. They screamed for each other. Soldiers opened the door. The ones outside of the train begged to join their family. The soldiers said no, and slammed the door. My grandmother never saw her mother again.

Like a scene in a horror movie, this one haunts my mind. I try to imagine myself as the daughter, screaming through a gap in the boxcar for my mother. I cannot get out. I try to imagine myself as the mother, screaming over the soldiers for my children and husband who are stuck inside. I cannot get in.

I shared this story with a mentor, who said that the image haunted her too, in a different way. She noted there are many stories about people escaping from danger during World War II, some successfully. Escape or at least hiding was the goal, like Schindler's List or Anne Frank. To survive was to get away from the Nazis. You ran from danger. In my grandmother's story, her mother doesn't try to run away. Her mother tries, desperately, to get into danger. She tries to board a boxcar headed for misery in Siberia. She begs armed soldiers to enter this place of suffering, just to be with her children.

I never knew my great-grandmother, Barbara, though she did survive the war. My grandmother survived, too. After years in the Siberian labor camp, she was liberated and sent to an allied base in Iran, met my GI grandfather stationed there, and then became a Midwest farm wife for the rest of her life. My great-grandmother somehow stayed in Poland. She and my grandmother wrote letters when they found out the other was alive, but due to Cold War travel prohibitions in the 1950s and beyond, my grandmother was denied a Visa to visit Poland. By the time a Visa was approved, my great-grandmother had died.

I don't know what it means to have a story of trauma and resilience like this in my ancestry. Maybe it gives me a little perspective on the modern demands of motherhood. I am going on four hours of sleep and my kitchen is a mess but right now my babies are all safely tucked in bed, under my roof, in an era of relative peace. As the poet Jane Kenyon writes, someday it will be otherwise.

I pray I'll never have an experience like my great-grandmother's, running toward real danger, just to be with my children. But you never know. There's a way in which parenting is a like this, putting yourself in an unfavorable position for the sake of love. The long nights with a newborn or the patient endurance required with teens and toddlers isn't quite the same as risking your life, but you run toward the danger just the same. You step into the discomfort, the tears, the rage with your child. You get on the train with them or at least you try, desperately. You might not know what else to do, but the chaos becomes holy just by showing up. Happy Mother's Day.


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