Family & Friends

Mother’s Day Reflection: Bringing My Mother Home

I brought my mother home this spring. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t want to leave her at the old house. We have been talking about this re-planting since the last of her four children left home.

My mom’s roots run deep and strong, but for 13 years she was forced to be a wanderer. She was a World War II survivor—a refugee from the day the war started, in September 1939, on her 16th birthday, until June 29, 1952, when she came to this country. 

When my siblings and I were young, she told us story after story about her many moves from village to village, town to town in Ukraine, Poland, and Austria, sneaking across borders without passports or identification papers—fleeing the Nazis when they won battles and took over the territory, fleeing the Russians when they had the upper hand.  As a Ukrainian she was on the wrong side of either fight.  She was in survival mode for much of those years. The Nazis seized people randomly, hauling them to the labor camps and eventually sending them to the death camps. The Russians simply starved or shot them if they became “unhelpful and unnecessary.” Neither Nazis nor Russians differentiated between the locals, unless of course the person was one of “theirs.”  The brutality they inflicted has been well documented. 

UntitledPhoto of Joanna Bemko while she was living in a displaced-persons camp.

Her stories of the war years included near-misses and close calls.  At age 21 she spent six weeks in a German concentration camp, Strasshof, just outside Vienna. What was her crime? Simply being a young woman living in Turka, a town in western Ukraine that bordered the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. The Nazis had recently occupied it.  She was a young, beautiful woman walking down a street during lunchtime. She and her family had thought they would be safe there. 

Her family knew nothing except that she had disappeared suddenly, like so many others who vanished every day.  What the Nazis saw in my mom was a strong young woman with a bright smile—someone they presumably thought would work hard in the labor camps. What they didn’t understand was her determination to survive.  And survive she did, escaping with the help of a truck driver. I can only imagine what price she paid. 

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My mom felt it was her destiny to help people, which she did at every turn.  Her postwar years were spent in Salzburg, Austria, in a displaced-persons camp.  The camp was divided into sections—the Polish section, the Jewish section, and so forth.  She shared a room with three other young women in the Hellbrunn barracks. There she finally got to go back to back to school. She became a nurse and dreamed of becoming a doctor. The International Refugee Organization hired her; every month her job was to take 300 refugees from Salzburg to Denmark and put them on a boat headed for brighter futures.  Her salary? The equivalent of a dollar a day.  She spoke of the hard work the job entailed, along with the importance of her responsibility: “I had people’s lives in my hands; I had to get them to safety.”  She was 25.

It was during this time, I believe, that she found some small ray of hope that the world was not as horrible as her recent years had led her to believe.  She met my father, Bohdan Bemko, at the camp, in the church choir.  My dad lived with his parents in the Parsch barracks. She and he sang every Sunday and hiked the glorious mountains around Salzburg. In 1951, the Austrian government announced that it was closing the camps and everyone had to find a country to take them.  Mom knew she could never go back home; living in what had now become the Soviet Union would be too dangerous for her.  When it became her turn, she got on a boat that brought her to a life—in New York City initially, then in New Jersey.  Imagine: She was dropped into Manhattan on June 29, 1952, with life savings of $10 and no English-language skills!

UntitledJoanna’s updated certificate of admittance into the U.S. as a displaced person.

My mom and dad hunkered down to building a new life: my dad learning English and working at Anheuser Busch in Newark, my mom washing dishes at the Lionel model-train factory in Hillside, New Jersey. (After the first week, she demanded higher pay for lifting pots bigger than she was. Shockingly, she got it.) 

My parents lived in Newark for six years, saving every penny so they could buy their own home, a place where they could be safe and where they could raise their growing family of four.  On June 30, 1959, my parents bought their home in Cranford, New Jersey.  The first thing my mom did was plant a crimson-red-rose bush on the side of the house where it could be protected, yet admired from the street.  Her father—a legend in her home town for his knowledge of gardening and skill in grafting apple branches—had taught her much about how to read the soil and amend it for proper planting, how to coax plants to give their best results.  He died shortly after she left for America.  Planting the rose was her connection to him and to her home.  As he had taught her, she taught me how to care for her rose—when to trim the stems, how much to feed her with the homemade compost, how to collect the petals and make rose jam. She taught me the importance of patience, love of nature, and to look beyond the day-to-day trappings of the modern world.  You don’t need to rely on handouts from others, you can always make your own (anything] with a little effort, she would say.

That house was her home until December 16, 2015. My parents’ marriage didn’t last; perhaps the hardship and ghosts of the war was just too much for them to bear together.  My mom fought to keep our home.  We grew up without a TV, so Mom learned English sitting in the neighbors’ kitchens, talking as best she could.  She learned to drive when I was 13 and started to work again.  She worked countless hours cleaning and cooking for others’ families; then she found better pay in a factory. The union representatives elected her shop steward because of her work ethic and her sense of fairness, combined with her ability to “sweet-talk” the boss. Sometimes she had to work two or three jobs at a time to keep her four children fed and warm.  In her spare time she sewed most of our clothing, even making me a pair of red jeans.  I cried for hours; they were supposed to be blue!!!  No matter; that was the piece of fabric she found.  We never had store-bought bread—she baked four loaves of whole wheat bread a week.  We recently calculated that she baked over 8,000 loaves of bread—what love!   There was no shortage of houseguests: friends who had suffered as she had, who needed a respite, a warm, generous heart, and a safe place to sleep, as well as kids who’d had fights with their parents, kids who felt they didn’t fit in and had no place to turn.  She was “Mom” to everyone.  It was in this home that we all learned about her younger years; like most children, we’d roll our eyes at some of the stories, saying, that’s impossible.

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My mom’s greatest wish was to stay in her home till her last breath.  From our childhood on, we heard my mom repeating this request over and over.  We were never to put her in the hospital or an old age home: “Shoot me first!” In later years I became her power of attorney and Medical Directive.  It was up to me to make sure her wishes were carried out.

I was lucky that my siblings agreed.  The years got tougher: in 2009, one broken hip; in 2010, the other, and then a shoulder.  In spite of her falls and brittle bones, she still wanted to be home, to drive, to cook, to take care of her garden. She was furious when we took the car keys away in 2012—”You have taken away my freedom!”  In the end, my three siblings and I were able to give Mom her wish—to pass at home, not tethered to tubes, with her family and friends around her.  I wasn’t there when, at 12:45 p.m., she took her last breath. I believe she planned it that way, since I had told her I was stepping out and I would be back at one. 

It has been a tough four months of firsts. Arranging the first funeral, the flowers, and the lunch afterwards.  My mom was 92; she would have been thrilled to know how may “young people,” who had called her Mrs. Bemko/Mom through their formative years, came to see her off.  In the Ukrainian Catholic Church, we believe that the soul of our dear ones does not depart for 40 days. Just as Jesus walked the earth for 40 days before ascending to heaven, our soul wonders and visits, says good-bye in anticipation of the afterlife.  A beeswax candle is lit for the entire time at home, and Masses are said daily.  On the 40th day we celebrate with a final Mass. At the end of the service we say a final prayer and send her soul off for eternity.  We continue this tradition yearly, on the first Sunday 40 days after Easter (this year that’s today, Mother’s Day).  It is a reminder of our dear departed and a continued request for entrance into the heavens.

I just had my first Christmas Eve without Mom, my first Easter, and now have followed her wishes for the speedy sale of her home.  Emptying her home of 57 years, disassembling her life, bit by bit.  Today could have been my first Mother’ s Day without my mom. But I believe I brought my mother home when I chose to bring her beloved rose bush—which now stands six feet tall, ready to bloom for the entire summer—home with me.  I negotiated nothing during the sale of our home other than Mom’s rose bush.  Shortly before the closing on the sale of the house, I came back to Cranford with a spade and began to dig around the perimeter of the bush.  This is not a simple rose bush; she is over a half a century old, from good stock, with deep roots. No, she’s no sissy.  You know when you get pricked by this rose; you bleed, so be careful!  My arms and hands have some deep scratches, and my back is still sore. I dug carefully around the perimeter, I dug deep, I gently rocked her back and forth until she gave in to me.  And in the end, success!  I removed Mom’s beloved rose bush, packed her in a black bag filled with the soil in which she has rested these last 57 years, and I took her home.  The following morning I planted her in my garden at the front of the house, were she is protected but all can see her, where she can see and smell the salt water.  When I come out with my morning coffee, I say “Good morning” to my mom.

IMG_3500(3)Joanna’s rose bush.

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  • Kristine Bemko May 20, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    What an incredibly beautiful tribute to a woman my family loved. Beautifully written, heartfelt and accurate to the cousin I knew growing up. Bless you, Larysa. It sound like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I also remember the beautiful tortes she made and brought to our parties. Love to all the Bemkos.

  • Noreen Paul May 10, 2016 at 9:15 am

    Dear Larysa,

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, loving, and powerful tribute to your Mom. I knew many of the parts, but never your mom’s whole story. Love you,Noreen

  • Pat Schneider May 9, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    Dear Larysa

    What a beautiful tribute to your Mom. I still fondly remember the Easter dinner we (Lisa, Jake and I) spent with your family. Jake was just over 1 and is now 12. Your Mom was a beautiful person and I thank you for sharing her story. I will be sharing it with another friend from the Ukraine.

    Hope to see you soon if you get to San Diego.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. May 8, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Dear Larysa,

    Thank you so much for agreeing to write this moving Mother’s Day tribute for our site. I am honored that you chose to trust me enough to write about your mother, her life and the many gifts that she gave you. We look forward to more work from you.

    Dr. Pat

  • Mickey May 8, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    God bless you, God bless your mom. Thank you, yes, thank you so much for sharing her story, your story with us. Hugs.

  • andrea May 8, 2016 at 10:57 am

    This is such a beautiful love letter to an amazing woman. We cannot imagine the hardships she endured- thank you for sharing your memories of your mother with our readers

  • Francs Monk May 8, 2016 at 10:52 am

    A beautiful,complete jewel of a story!!! What an amazing mother you had. Keep writing you have the gift! Thank you for sharingi her courageous, lovfilled life.

  • b.elliott May 8, 2016 at 9:10 am

    What a beautiful piece and so well written! Please continue to write — you have much to share.

  • Andrey May 8, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Well done. Somewhere, some how, without me noticing when exactly, my little sister grew up and wrote this fine eulogy to our mom. It is strange to be sitting in star bucks on this rainy spring day safe warm unthreatened drinking chai tea latte reading Larysa”s eulogy and experiencing scenes from The Third Man with my mom as a character. That is as close as I can get to experiencing her life without leaving my safe cacoon. I have this privilege in large part to my mom”s determination to survive. I am grateful for that and for siblings like Larysa, who despite the challenges of growing up as strangers in America with parents who carried more pain and fear than any Freddy horror movie can portray, nevertheless inherented my mothers determination to do right and be fair and worked together (not always very elegantly) to treat her wth the dignity she deserved. I look forward to carrying the best of her legacy into future generations so that some day no child or elder will need to face the terror and struggles that she did. Thank you for the great eulogy.