My parents had immigrated to Canada after the second world war and I had often heard stories about my father’s happy and idyllic childhood at the dinner table.
One of his most favourite stories was about his early life where my grandparents had managed an estate of a Countess. My father’s childhood was spent amongst different types of horses and dogs. This estate raised horses for the military, required to have matching white stocking feet, and were chaperoned by a fleet of Dalmatians to keep them calm.
So you can imagine how excited we were to make this trip.
After a whirlwind of sightseeing in Krakow, Gdansk, and Warsaw we arrived by train to Lezajsk, a small town on the outer fringes of Poland near Ukraine. This quiet and lovely little town was where my grandparents and my father’s brother, his wife, and small child had escaped to in their horse and wagon as the horrors of World War II swirled around them. They had been forced to leave their beloved home ahead of the advancing army from the east and found sanctuary with relatives near an ancient monastery run by Benedictine monks.
We stayed with other close members of my father’s family not very far from this interesting complex of Polish history and I savored the first moment as we were taken through the red brick fortifications, entered within the sacred grounds, and then into the cool green-tiled roofed monastery itself. The paintings on the bow-shaped ceiling were so amazing! The beautiful old biblical artwork, painted mostly in pastel shades of pinks and blues, reminded me of the Sistine Chapel.
There were gilded figures everywhere, one of the largest pipe organs in Europe and a rare painting called the second Black Madonna where visitors genuflected and which my father felt great awe and respect for.
Tourists were allowed into the back behind the pulpit and were encouraged to touch a small glass case that held a supposed piece of the cross. My father dutifully touched the glass as did our hostess, with no dramatic effects, and I was cajoled into coming up to try and see if I would have a vision from this religious artifact.
I was skeptical. I thought that the “relic” was probably a medieval hoax perpetrated on the masses to gain money for the church. Reluctantly, I stepped forward and touched the glass. Immediately, I felt a minuscule electric current run up my arm and I instantly pulled my hand away. “It’s a sign, it’s a sign,” our hostess declared and I walked away shaking my head wondering what on earth was going on. To this day I still don’t know, but I had a strange feeling of déjà vu in this old monastery built in the 1300s by a Prince of Poland, as I sat in the pews with Dad in the same well-polished spot where my grandmother had prayed for deliverance those many years ago.
My overly emotional, 86 year old father sat with his head in his hands in front of the Madonna and Child, saying over and over again that he had failed his parents by leaving them to eventually fight in the Battle of Britain. I reminded him, “Dad, you didn’t fail them at all. You and Mom brought them to Canada along with your brother, his wife, and six children in the 1960’s, fulfilling your promise to your parents that you would see them again.”
This sponsorship undertaking hadn’t been an easy task, with many sleepless nights, calls, and much paperwork to immigration asking for permission to bring ten close family members from behind what was then called “The Iron Curtain.” Eventually, after a quick drive to Ottawa to personally ask for help from the Immigration Minister, the papers were finally granted. The story told by my mother at many dinner tables, was that the aide to the immigration minister informed Dad that he would have fifteen minutes with the minister. Dad bowed, clicked his heels, kissed the minister’s hand, and proceeded to tell the story of his goodbye to his parents in 1939, and his promise that he would see them again. After forty-five minutes, Dad emerged triumphantly holding the newly signed papers.
I recalled, in my mind’s eye, my aging grandmother dressed from head to toe in black with white hair under her headscarf, gingerly stepping off the plane, her face filled with joy as she saw her eldest son for the first time in twenty-two years. He had escaped from Poland on his motorcycle and eventually, after making his way to Turkey and the French Lebanese Airforce was fortunate enough to be transported to England where he joined the RAF in 1940 and later met my Scottish/English mother.
Soon all, including my grandfather, uncle, his wife, and six children, would be clambering into our two cars with everything that they could carry in three suitcases, including gifts of crystal, amber, and one suitcase filled with a surprise that we were to find out about later.
“Don’t you see,” I said, sitting in the monastery’s pew, suddenly grasping the obvious words and Dad’s arm, “Grandmother’s prayers for deliverance were answered.” Finally, my father listened to me for once and I was so glad that I had been in the right place at the right time to offer him a modicum of peace and comfort.
A few days later, we were having a picnic in Lezajsk with our hospitable Polish relatives. Everyone was happy and excited as Dad had told all that he had gifts in his suitcase and each person could choose the one that they liked best. I had tried to find out just what was in this suitcase but to no avail. “You will see, you will see,” my father proclaimed. “When the time is right!”
All gathered around as Dad, with great ceremony, opened the suitcase. “Perhaps there is a watch, I could really use one right now,” I heard one of my cousins saying.
I heard a collective groan emanating from the family as I leaned forward to see what was in this mysterious case.
”Here is one for you and another one for you, take your pick,” Dad was saying, waving his arms around and looking so pleased with himself.
Finally, the contents of the suitcase were revealed, filled to the brim with an assortment of partially melted Cadbury chocolate bars. I was so embarrassed, but one of my cousins was laughing so hard he soon had us all giggling hysterically with how comical the whole thing was and then everyone quietly walked away, thanking Dad for their very own prize, including me.
Whenever I think of Lezajsk, I always envision the beautiful old monastery, my grandmother praying, a suitcase filled with chocolate, and the beaming look of happiness on my father’s face…
Read my poem, The Land of Freedom, My Canada on A Writers’Blog here: The Land of Freedom, My Canada – Anubha Mehta
Points to Ponder: For those of us who visit our countries of origin, what are the first thoughts that come to our mind? How is your experience?