REMEMBERING MY MOTHER

My mother was born on October 30, 1910, in Czernowitz, Austro-Hungary.  She was born, as they say, with a silver spoon in her mouth.  Her father was among the über-rich with oil wells in Ploiesti north of Bucharest, and large cattle farms which served to export beef to England, in the south of what now is Romania. She had one brother, Polka, who was the heir to the fortune when Stephen Dowhanczuk, her father, died prematurely at age 50 of Diabetes, refusing the second leg amputation due to gangrene.  Polka was not that lucky either.  The Russians shot him execution-style in the street in front of his villa for the sin of being rich. 

My father had humble beginnings, which most likely was the reason the Russians left my mother alone.  His mother was widowed, and supported him going to medical school by cleaning houses for the likes of Stephen Dowhanczuk.  My father’s biological father was long gone, a portrait painter from Moldavia on the way to emigrate to Jerusalem to make his fame and fortune.  So the silver spoon did not last long.  All she had left of her parents’ wealth was the jewelry she had accumulated growing up.  It was a sizable collection.  When my father realized he had to get out of Communist Romania to save his life, he and my mother packed up one suitcase each and started to run, disguised with forged passports. Secret housing changed every night on the way, to special trains that moved refugee populations.  The jewelry was tossed out the train window when the risk of being discovered as a rich bourgeoise became a sudden issue when heavily armed Russian military wandered through the trains looking for the rich parasites escaping the clutches of Stalin’s justice.  

From the frying pan into the fire, my Catholic mother wound up in Nazi Germany, married to a Jew who hid his credentials, and carried documents proving his German ancestry, even converting to my mother’s faith to further prove his Aryan origins.  They lived in a small town in what was Austria, but annexed to Germany in the Anschluss around 1939.  It was an idyllic place in a valley where a sparkling blue-green river full of rainbow trout ran through it.  The Alps cradled the valley, as if to shield it, which in fact it did during the Allied bombing of B 24 runs to decimate the German panzer factories.  Thus I was born in the middle of World War II, 1943. My mother was a self-taught consummate cook.  She knew the Slavic kitchen from her childhood, haluschke, stuffed cabbage rolls, gogoshar charcoaled red peppers in a marinade of oil, vinegar, and onions, Borscht (red beet soup) etc.  But added the Austrian palate of Knödel, Zwetchken Kuchen, Sauerkraut, and the like to her repertoire.  I learned it all from her.  She never measured anything.  It was a pinch of this and a handful of that.  I do wish I would have paid more attention, though, and written it down. 

After the war, my father lost his job as the town doctor because Austrians wanted to put their own doctors to work, and as is common in most wars, doctors survive better than front line soldiers.  Luckily he got a job with the US Army, and through that, we were able to come to the Promised Land.  The trip to La Guardia in New York was exciting.  An emergency landing in Iceland due to one of the four engines of our TWA plane catching fire delayed us a bit, but we made it alive.  To come to this country, you must have a sponsor, at least that is how it was in 1954.  Our sponsor was Anna Tolstoy, the daughter of the famous Russian author of War and Peace fame.  Her motivation was not entirely benevolent.  She had a large farm in upstate New York that she ran with basically slave labor of people she sponsored.  You had to give her a year of labor to repay her services as a sponsor.  She had sent two Ukrainian “thugs” to escort us to our new home.  With great skill and cunning, we managed to escape from them by hiding in toilets and doing a lot of running.

From the Alps to the slums of Chicago, a real culture shock for us.  My father did not make enough income the first year to support my mother, nor me, and my sister.  My mother had to join the labor force.  She got a job making and loading shoelaces in the Florsheim shoe factory.  My sister, age eight, and I, age eleven, were on our own, finding our way, ten blocks or so through the back streets of Northside Chicago.  It was a Polish, Jewish, Puerto Rican neighborhood with the occasional robbery and shooting, even then.  After my father finished his mandatory internship, which he was required to do even though he had been a doctor for a quarter of a century, we moved to Peoria, Illinois where he got a job in the largest insane asylum in the mid-west.  We lived on the grounds of the hospital that had about 200 acres at its disposal with multiple buildings and even a farm where the inmates could grow vegetables and fruits. We lived there for ten years.  

Then luckily, my father got a job working for the Veteran’s Administration in Los Angeles.  Who would not want to live in Southern California?  My parents finally had achieved a level of lifestyle which, although not opulent, was similar to their early life.  I emulated my father and became a doctor while my sister became a teacher.  My mother was happy! Despite a very hectic life, losing all possession twice, once running away from the Russians and the second time leaving Austria, my mother adapted and never complained.  In fact her favorite saying was, “You must adjust!” It certainly was what she did.

When my father retired from the VA at age 70, they lived in Santa Monica.  After I had fulfilled my military obligation, I practiced in Santa Paula, CA, and convinced them to move up with me.  They sold their house and bought a house in Santa Paula, which allowed my father to have an artist’s studio where he painted to his heart’s content and allowed my mother to spend time with her children and her grandchildren.  When my father died at age 80, she moved into a small guest-house on my Citrus and Avocado ranch.  She cooked her favorite dishes and drove her little Ford until age 96.  She was in good health until 86 when she developed a B cell Lymphoma.  With modern treatment, she beat that and remained active for 10 more years.  The last 3 years were not so easy for her though.  I had just come home from a medical meeting in Chicago, our original home in the US.  She asked me if I had visited our 1st home in the US.  I spent several hours with her reminiscing about that time in our lives.  Later that afternoon, her caretaker called me that she had chest pain.  I went to see her and recognized that she had had a heart attack from her thready irregular pulse and low blood pressure.  I have always had a supply of essential medications and found some Morphine that gave her immediate relief of her pain.  Her caretaker was appalled with me that I did not call an ambulance.  She was 99 years old.  She did not wish to go to the hospital.  Knowing that I could get in trouble by being accused of “elder abuse,” I called a friend, an internist, to come and see her for at least a second opinion to appease the caretaker.  He came, and we agreed, no hospital, just comfort measures.  That evening I felt I  should stay the night with her.  I slept in the adjoining bedroom.  It was October, and even though we were in California, it was cold outside.  The house was shut, windows down.  Even the heat was on.  At 2AM, a cold wind woke me.  I got up to check on my mother. She breathed her last breath, then no more.