Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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Everybody Has a Story: Tub brings back memories of mom


My mother’s name was Mihalina but everyone called her Matka, which is Polish for “mother.” She was uneducated but spoke six languages. She was the smartest, kindest, wisest and most industrious woman I have ever known.

With flour and potatoes, she could make all kinds of delicious dishes. In all my travels, I have never found a better apple strudel than the one Matka made. She had 11 children and taught us all to work hard, save money and be good people. All of us adored her. I am her oldest. She has been gone for 20 years and I miss her every day. I am 80 years old.

In 1942, when I was barely a year old, the family was moved from Yugoslavia to Germany, where we lived as refugees for 10 years. We were forced to do farm labor until the war’s end. Then we lived in refugee camps, waiting to be included the U.S. immigration quota.

During an air raid in 1944, my mother delivered my brother with only a midwife and me in the dark room. She is my hero.

The war years were filled with poverty, hunger, fear, running for bunkers and praying that the bombs would not kill us. We all went to bed with our clothes on and shoes on the floor by the bed. We never knew when the sirens would go off and we would have to run for the bunkers.

My father would put me on his shoulder and we all would run for safety. I remember crying for my grandmother since I was terrified that the bombs would kill her because she could not run fast.

Food was scarce. Matka would take us for walks, but she avoided the bakery because the she had no money to buy us anything. Farmers would let refugees go into their fields after harvest and pick leftover food. How hard this must have been for Matka, not to be able to provide for her children.

Our possessions consisted mostly of what we could carry. One those possessions was a metal bathtub (“wanna” in Polish). The tub was for bathing and washing our clothes with a washboard. We hung the laundry on bushes to dry, weather permitting.

Every Saturday, behind the wood stove, we would take our baths. Water was carried in. Matka would pour fresh water over our hair. After our baths, we had to haul the water outside and dump it.

By luck and the grace of God, my family survived. (My husband and I visited Germany years ago and Matka gave us names of places where we lived in the refugee camps. The last camp where we lived was little over a kilometer from the Iron Curtain. One kilometer in the other direction and my family would have been on the other side and never would have gotten out of Germany.)

After waiting in the refugee camps for years, we emigrated to the U.S. in 1951. We took only what we could carry and the metal tub held a few of our possessions. Matka was pregnant with her sixth child. It took 11 nights and 10 days on the USAT General M. L. Hersey to reach New York. Everyone was seasick throughout our journey, but so incredibly happy to finally reach America.

Our destination was Portland. We traveled a week on the train, starting in Grand Central Station, where someone picked my father’s pocket of the only $3 he had. Kind folks made sure we had food to eat until we reached Portland. Our sponsor provided for us from then on, finding us a house and jobs for my parents.

We lived in Northwest Portland where there were large Yugoslav and Polish populations, and were helped a great deal by Catholic charities. After coming from the refugee camps, to live in a whole house with more than one room was such a gift. The house had a wood stove where Matka cooked our meals. She took care of her family while working full time in the laundry at the old St. Vincent’s Hospital.

None of us spoke English. The nuns at St. Patrick’s Church would keep my brother and me after school, and we would practice English. Eventually we picked it up. English was my fourth language.

After St. Vincent Hospital moved, Matka got a job in a factory where immigrants worked. It was arduous work. Matka would have been promoted from the factory floor, but she could not read or write, even though she was the official translator between management and the workers.

Our house had a basement, and this is where we again used the metal tub to do our laundry. We had clotheslines in the basement. I remember laundering clothes on a washboard. Eventually we got a used wringer machine, but we never had a dryer. The tub became our hamper.

After my parents died, I, the oldest sibling, inherited the tub. I had no room for it and gave it to my son, who loaned it to a neighbor. Every time I visited my son, I saw the tub in the neighbor’s yard. After a couple of years, my heart said, “Get the tub back.”

The neighbor understood my attachment to the tub and relinquished it. I finally welcomed my tub home last month.

As I was cleaning it, without the handles which broke years ago, I noticed embossed in the metal “Munich,” a city in Germany, and the number 80 under it. It has come a long way. My tub is sitting proudly in my yard, filled with flowers. Matka would have liked that. What memories I have of the tub, plus my sweet Matka.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.