Saturday, September 14, 2013

The "POESIE" BOOK 1942 part one

If I told you that I am the only one left alive to tell this story you surely would wonder if I am in lalaland and ready for the straight jacket.

My story I have lived and still around to tell it.

In 1942 Belgium, middle of a war, I had my Holy Communion. Very important for young Catholic girls.
I was 10 .
It was a very hard time for all of us but I had maiden aunts who always spoiled me.
They surprised me with a gorgeous "Poesie" book.
It was the trend of the time to get one of these books and have your friends write in it or do a drawing.
This book was pure luxury, faux suede in nuances of grey and "Golden" letters to tell us it is indeed for poems and whatever else.
I stroked that book a thousand times over the years.

The importance of the book is truly not so much about my school friends who wrote known poetry but most of all that grown professional men in wartime sat down gifted me with their own poems and illustrations.
Let me explain: My house was situated about 100 yards from the electrical plant which was bombed and a target. In 1939 the plant started to built a bunker. Quite large with different rooms. My father who was a policeman in that district was watching the construction and was told that a bomb could land on top of it and the walls would not budge.

At least this is the story he told me and my Mom.
The plant gave us permission to go in it day or night and take shelter.
We did not have time to use it before the invasion because it all went so fast and we changed flags in no time.
Equally fast the German army decided to put a huge cement fence around the whole plant properties which included around the bunker.
Mom and I could only look at that wall and our hopes for safety were gone.

My mother was a woman with determination in her eyes  she decided to go talk to the commandant at the plant. She dragged me with her, both of us trembling and trying to look brave. My mom was fluent in the English language but did not know a word of German. She told me to kick her if she started in English.

We stood in front of this neatly uniformed officer and started to explain with gesture ...bunker climbing over...bombs falling....permission to go to the bunker over the fence. She had even drawn a picture. He had other things on his mind and quickly dismissed us with a "JA".
Triumphed we marched home and asked father to fix it so we could climb over that cement mountain. He got two ladders and we started to learn how to use them.One on each side.

My mother has always been like a Rubens model, she was heavy, but she could beat me in running and climbing. I was all legs and did not quite know yet how to use them, they seemed to grow an inch every day and I had extra length that I was not quite used to.

So our adventure started which would last till our liberation in 1944- the war not over yet as it lasted till 1945 and the Battle of the Bulge had yet to happen .
Daily alarms let the workmen and engineers free to come in the bunker if they wished. The people involved with work that could not be left were stuck in the factory.

My mother at first was very uncomfortable. She was the only women in there and she was afraid of men.
I on the other hand had lots of attention. Rooms full of fathers telling me stories was just up my alley. Soon groups were formed and card playing was the entertainment. I knew how to play whist, my grandfather had taught me. I had a memory like an elephant, I knew and constantly counted the suits. So I became the partner of choice, the man would ask me in advance like with a dance card to play with them.
They would say" Jeannot next alarm is my turn, play on my table!
Mother did always play with others, she never got a chance to be in my corner.
She did not allow to play for money but the guys would slip me a centime or two and I would always have left over but returned it for fear of a spanking when I got home.

The bunker had it's own generator or such an item that we did not often sit in the dark. Even so we often had days without the electricity in our house, My mother took up taking care of the wounded as there was a sort of small infirmary . It was said that when a man came in with part of his scalp cut that she saved his life and bandaged him until the electric little van from the factory could take him 7km away to Gent and a clinic.
She was good at that she should have been a nurse.

How often did we have alarms, almost daily because we were also on a flight path for other cities and as soon as airplanes had been spotted the alarm went off. They did not know who would get it so they did not take chances. I could hear my mother ramble when the siren started and she was mid stream to cook on her coal stove, had to remove it all and then start again later.

Mother always told me we were bombed 13 times. The factory was hit quite often. One  time bomb landed in our yard in a deep hole stand waiting. My fearless father wanted his picture taken with it and we did not have a camera so he borrowed one. He picked up the bomb and my trembling mother had to take his picture. What a stupid thing to do. I think he knew more about the bomb than he was telling us.
Then the soldiers came and took it away.

So in between the card playing I begged my  partners to write in my poesie.
My mom did not like that, she said they had better things to do than writing in a girl's poesie book.
Well, she lost in that game. Many did. Therefore I am writing this because I was the only kid in there during the whole war and of course no one who was there then is alive anymore. My own Mom left us in 1993 and she was 83 and young when we were bunker occupants.

To think that engineers, workmen, (remember we were very class conscious in those days) but regardless of blue or white collar workers they replied to this girl's pleas.

I did forget to mention that mid stream the Germans put  barbed wire over the fence. That was more tricky to get over in a hurry while sirens are blasting away or a squadron is over your head flying too low for comfort. We did not wear slacks in these days, Mom and I had to repair many a dress or skirt because we just hung in the barbed wire. The one day I took the climb too short and landed on the wire with my thigh.
No doctors near us, no cars to take us, Mom doctored me up but I still have the patterns of  open wounds (4 of them) which I claim as my "war injuries".

Our cat knew way before the alarm that planes were on the way, she was so adept on climbing over the wires and sat by the bunker door waiting for the first visitor. My father used to say that she knew when they took off in England.

Here a few examples of the men who made my heart sing with their entries in my "Poesie" book.
Hero's of a different kind to a child in her early teens.

Two brothers took the time to do these little vignettes.
They were both engineers in the drafting department.

 Translated somewhat : twelve years , how lucky is the child who can live without worries with mother and fatheer.
Twelve years what a great time even if the war is raging and humanity has hate and destroys all that is good.
And with days loaded with sadness and sorrow , clouds covering o ver you with the years, perhaps with a tear you will feel better remembering your twelve years.

a workman at the plant.

The book, like myself is a bit ragged.
The spine is giving out (how well I feel that one)
the color has vanished for both of us
the skin .....well..let's not go there.
But this book has been with me from the time I left Belgium 1953
then Canada till 1955
then New Jersey till 1962
then California till 1970
then Spain Costa de Sol till 1974
then North Carolina
The Poesie book never left me neither did my Holy Communion dress and I am no longer Catholic...go figure......Oh! I forget I have the Catholic GUILT still.

This was an engineer in the plant who was also a writer, my mother would type his manuscript in the evening in the plant while I slept on the chairs. One day he asked my mother if I could live in the summer with his family. His house was a few miles away from the danger zone and I do not believe that area was bombed by mistake either. The writer had 2 daughters 2 and 4 years older than I. I was completely at home in what they called le petit chateau."La Tourelle" , at one point I slept in the tower. Even so they had maids I was like a member of the family and roamed all over and ate with them. My only problem was that Mr. Ryffranck wanted me to drink water with the meal. Mother had never insisted in that. I just hated it and still do.
He wrote the poem and the eldest daughter signed it. She may still be with us.
The second daughter passed on after the war in a horrific car accident.

The top brass at the plant had a plot of garden and a gardener, so it was instructed at the gardener to make a nest under the hedge and when there were eggs he was to place one egg every day just for me.
Their gardens touched ours just separated with hedges. My daily egg hunt was always a pleasure, if the gardener would have a lot to share he would put more in the nest. I could not thank that man enough, he helped my family during the whole war.

I asked a friend a few years ago to show me where that "Tourelle", we could not get near it but here is a photo taken a few years ago. Obviously everything around it now is new.
The poem he wrote : On the road of existence
goes dear little Jeannot
serene full of hope
happiness is not a vain word

Be always good and sincere
adore your parents
joy has no other mistery
than your work well accomplished

from this cruel war
perhaps you will remember sometimes
also think of la Tourelle
which gave you shelter under her old roof.

I think about it often.
The fun was when I went home and refused to dry the dishes.
I said the maid could do it.
Mother said: Look in the mirror, you are the maid.

And now we have a few from friends and my mom:

My Mom with photo,.
cousin Jeanine pencil,
last one second cousin Stephanie also my teacher and a great artist.
Mom would always give me cyclamen for my birthday (our house was cold enough to keep them for a long time).
Not all my entries are in here and some will come in part II and have changed my whole life.

I posted this in honor of the grown ups who took the time to humor me and enter something I always cherished.
It was war time but I did have some fabulous people around me who cared.
I am wondering in our busy days today if a 12 year old would approach a CEO and ask to write a poem or draw something in her book what the answer would be. I can only hope it would be YES.

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