Character used to be spoken of in terms of the “heart” of courage, or the “heart” of generosity and loyalty. This heart heartens the downtrodden, cooks a hearty meal, and has a hearty laugh. It has heart for the fight and beats for what’s right: family, friends, comrades, causes.
James Hillman, The Force of Character
Paul and I drove down to Scone last week to celebrate Rose’s birthday. She was eighty nine.
I met my mother in law in the summer of 2005 on my first trip to Scotland, in the period just before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, at a time when she could still, with artless charm, tell a story late into the night. And what a captivated audience she had in her daughter in law who never tired of hearing them. The vitality in her voice, the animation in her recall had not quite disappeared so the stories were tenacious and full bodied.
“If you had told me in 1939 that in six years I would be living in Scotland for the rest of my life, I would have said you were from the moon.” But by 1945, this twenty five year old woman who had courageously survived the war in Poland, together with her husband freshly released from a German stalag, made their way to Bankfoot to do just that – build a new life in Scotland.
She spoke French and of course Polish; French because it was the language of the aristocracy, what they spoke at table and the language in which she was educated, but not a word of English when she crossed the border into Great Britain carrying only the clothes on her back.
Clearly anyone who knows Rose or is related to her will know her story of colossal loss. They will know the childhood home that was burned down by the Germans as her father and sister stood witness. The loving and devoted mother she lost before her twentieth birthday; the family portraits, the furniture, the clothes, the friendships, the land, the last good byes don’t need to be recapitulated here for us to remember her extraordinary journey.
In the back garden of New Scone when sun was promised but the rains came, we carried on with our modest barbeque in typical Polish style – meat only, accompanied by the occasional slice of marrow. Rose sat beside me confused by the events of the day, by the many guests who came bearing chocolates and flowers, bewildered as to why we were even sitting outside under grey skies eating ribs.
This frail wisp of a woman who once commandeered a houseful of forty refugees and stood up to the German Gestapo pollinates my heart with the eternal in her story. Amid the intersecting conversations, the smell of grilled meats, the occasional drippy sky, I thought to myself it’s perhaps what a person loses and not what they acquire that defines them so completely. Of course during times of war there are many more stories of unspeakable horror that one might say pale in comparison, but this is not how we measure story or suffering or loss. I regard my mother in law as in part Naomi, in part Mara. She is ambassador to those who have lost their families, to those who live in exile, to those who make a choice to live their lives with as much dignity as they can possibly muster under the circumstances.
Rose Kieniewicz lost everything during the war but her beloved her spirit, and her faith. These are the things she brought with her to a new land. She came in part bitterness and in part anticipation but she never came believing or accepting she would never return to her homeland. She never believed she wouldn’t see her father again before he died, or not be able to attend the funeral of her sister who was killed in a car accident. “I think I cried all the tears I had on that day,” she says. Rose did not always graciously accept her destiny and railed against the fates for obstructing her will to go back to Poland. According to her husband’s memoirs, she suffered this loss long and hard.
When I moved with my husband from the States to Scotland in June, 2006, my parents were both deceased but I lost the friendship and communication of my dear brother and his family, my great nieces and nephews and other extended family members. I didn’t lose them to war but an equivalent kind of stupidity, fear of change. Rose would never understand this kind of emotional recklessness as family means so much to her; the preservation of what is significant in life is paramount.
But like the Book of Ruth, passed down to us through the centuries, Rose does not need to know my story for her story to be a blueprint of love, loyalty and redemption.
In times of quick fixes, fast food, desires unfulfilled, and short lived relationships there is something inspirational in the person who summons their strength from a storehouse of integrity and simplicity. Rose is not perfect by any means, but then, perfection is not what is remembered when we tell the story of one’s life; it is the essence.
From Rose I take her courage, her doubts, and her acceptance of circumstances, her trials and her defeats as a yardstick for my own life. Will I live it as humanly as she has lived hers? I will certainly try.
“Love the Lord with all your heart, be happy be happy today.” This is what she would tell me. I love you Rose Kieniewicz. Thank you for being my mother in law, my Naomi, my Mara, my Rose, and my north star.