Sunday, January 06, 2008

From Austria to New Jersey to Michigan: A long Journey

Austria is my homeland. I was born in Graz, its second largest city. My mother’s whole family was from Graz and Dad was born in Czechoslovakia while it was still part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. I was born shortly after WWII and the economy in Austria was very bad. My grandfather, a former journalist and poet, sold newspapers on the street, with holes in his shoes and newspapers lining his jacket for warmth. Bread was our main staple. I remember where my grandmother kept it, a big round dark loaf on top of the tall buffet in the kitchen. We couldn’t afford butter, so she would spread it with rendered pork fat. Mom used to make me swallow a huge tablespoon of cod liver oil every day to keep me healthy. We lived on soups and various kinds of dumplings and it was a rare holiday to have any kind of meat. On weekends we would take the streetcar on outings to hike in the mountains.

Dad was a machinist by trade, and when I was four years old he had an opportunity to emigrate to this country through a work program sponsored by Seabrook Farms of Seabrook, New Jersey. Seabrook Farms was unique in that they hired not only immigrants such as my parents from all over the world, but also 3,000 Japanese that had been interned in camps in this country during the war. It was a great opportunity to start a new life, yet my mother was apprehensive. She would be leaving her mother behind and her beloved beautiful Austria.

All our belongings were packed into a 3 by 4 foot trunk and we were on our way. Seabrook had commissioned an American warship, the General Ballou, to bring us across the Atlantic ocean. It was not a cruise ship by any means and the voyage was rough. I remember most adults being sick much of the journey. There are photos of me happily swinging on the guide cables with rows of grey faced adults behind me. When we arrived in New York my mother was overwhelmed with the sight of all the people, the buildings, the smoke and the smog and not a mountain in sight. She told me in later years she would have turned right back and gone home again if she was able. We had a long bus trip to Seabrook, New Jersey and were introduced to the rat-infested army barracks which would be our first lodging.

Soon we found ourselves in a global community with everyone speaking different languages and sharing varied cuisines, yet all working together harmoniously. Perhaps this exposure at such a young age planted a seed in me for what has now blossomed into a love for international cooking and travel. Since I was merely four years old I have just a few fleeting memories of our time in Seabrook. I remember running through the open fields with my friend Ingrid. I remember getting a necklace for Easter and promptly losing it in those fields. I remember the first day my mother took me to daycare. It was my first day without my parents. As we walked toward the building I could see a small play area with a slide going into a small wading pool. It was my first exposure to Japanese kids. I thought they were so cute, especially a pair of twin girls. At midday, we all had to sleep on cots in our underwear and they made us sleep on our stomachs. I could not sleep in that position and consequently never took a nap the whole time I was there. My parents gathered with other German families for meals and holidays. My friend Ingrid and I continued to correspond with each other over the years and we are friends still to this day.

That is me on the left and Ingrid Lesche Hawk on the right.

When my parent’s one year commitment to Seabrook Farms ended, my father heard about a German tool and die company in Roseville that was hiring and we moved to Michigan. The kind owner of that company loaned my Dad the down payment for their first house. (Little did I that twenty years later I would be married to that man's nephew.) Soon afterward, my brother Peter was born in that house.

I started piano lessons when I was eight and continued until I majored in piano at Wayne State University. Music was always a part of my life and is to this day. It wasn't a struggle for me to practice. In fact, when my parents punished me, it was to threaten to lock my piano. When I was eleven I started participating annually in the Michigan Music Festival at Olympia Stadium sponsored by Grinnell. Grinnell manufactured pianos in Ann Arbor and at the time I was taking piano lessons at a local Grinnell store. Mom would take me and two-year-old Peter to downtown Detroit, riding Gratiot Avenue on the bus every Saturday morning for rehearsals. Over 1,200 kids participated and performed in what was the world's largest mass piano concerts. Children sat two to a piano and performed different pieces, with the youngest performing first, to the oldest and more skilled as the night went on. Francis W. Smith was the conductor of this huge piano orchestra and he had his hands full with the squirming youngsters.

The Michigan Musical Festival "The world's largest mass piano concert".

When I was 14 we switched my piano instruction to the Grosse Pointe Conservatory. Helene Nordstrom became my inspiration and my mentor and in 1965, at the age of 18, I graduated from the Conservatory and gave my graduation recital at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

When I was a junior in high school my sister Caroline was born and my parents moved to East Detroit (which is now called Eastpointe). My dad’s supervisor at the tool and die company told him the house across the yard from them was for sale and asked if he would be interested in it. When we moved in, I couldn’t help but notice the cute boy that lived across the fence. That was when I met Georg and we got married seven years later.

We bought a schoolbus camper with our wedding money and decided to leave home and travel, stopping to work when we ran out of money. It was during that trip, (Georg was laid off, I had quit my job to travel, no house, only a camper to live in), that we got pregnant. Somehow, with the help of our families, nine months later we had a house in Detroit and a new baby boy. And exactly 12 months after that we had another baby boy. Two babies in two years and Georg’s grueling night work schedule took it’s toll on us and slowly our marriage began to erode. When Georg got laid off again, I went to work at a doctor’s office. One of the patients offered me a book, “Understanding God”. It was the beginning of a journey which was to permanently change the course of my life.

One day I noticed a small ad in the newspaper for art classes. “Art and Illusion” was being taught by a hippie white guy with knee high boots and a huge afro. His name was Bob Hover. For some reason, we signed up for the class but we didn't sit together. We were on our way to divorce. Our seemingly perfect life began to disintegrate to the point that when Georg told me he was leaving on a week-long fishing trip I was happy to see him go and wasn’t sure I wanted him to return.

While he was gone, I attended the art class without him. I stayed after class to chat with Bob and the conversation turned to religion. Bob told me about Fisherman’s Net Church and invited me to a Friday night prayer meeting. When I walked into the room that night I felt as if I had come home. My heart broke when I realized for the first time on a personal level what Christ had done for me. He who was without sin was willing to take on my sins and all the sins ever committed and die on the cross so that I could be with with Him. I cried through much of the meeting and responded to the call when it was given.

When Georg returned home a week later I was excited to tell him what had happened to me and for the first time in a long time we really talked. He came to the next meeting with me and soon he had accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior as well. Our lives changed dramatically within a few weeks. God renewed our love for one another. We were telling everyone who would listen about the wonderful thing Christ had done for us. We met and bonded with our new friends at the Net and began attending Bible studies. That summer the church began meeting on Sunday mornings at Macomb College and they opened an office at the Fisher House in Warren. I had office experience and volunteered my services. I began officially working in the office in 1977 when our boys began nursery school. Little did I know at that time I would still be there 30 years later. Georg and I are still happily married. I firmly believe our marriage would not have survived had we not had that encounter with Jesus in 1975.

The next years were rich. We were blessed with health, good kids, a strong marriage, a steady income, wonderful friends and family and a good church. I remember telling a friend that I couldn’t imagine being more happy. I didn’t know there was a time of trial and testing ahead. I thank the Lord now for our church’s policy of stressing Gospel studies. The Lord allowed us this time of respite to learn about Him and grow strong in the faith. We needed that to get us through the difficult times ahead.

But first he had a little surprise for me. One night, as I was watching “Unsolved Mysteries” on TV, the phone rang. It was my brother. “You won’t believe what Dad just told me.” Pause. “He was married before he met Mom and we have a helf-sister in Marburg, Germany. But he made me promise not to tell, so you can’t tell anybody.”

I didn’t say anything, but every time I saw Dad after that I waited for him to tell me. Nothing. A month later the phone rang again. It was my sister Caroline. “You won’t believe what Dad just told me.” Another month went by. Finally, one night my father mustered up the courage to show me photos of my half-sister who was 10 years older than I and her grown children. He and she had been estranged for 45 years and through a miracle had recently reconnected. I couldn’t sleep that night and spent the hours composing a letter to her in German, welcoming her to the family. Three months later she visited us for the first time. Since then we have become very close and she and her adult children have been constant guests in our home and we in theirs. I am grateful she and my father were able to find closure in their lives.

In the last five years we lost Dad and then Mom. In 2007 our younger son David went to be with Jesus. He fell asleep with the Bible open next to him on the bed. Many people have said to me, I can’t imagine going through that. I can only tell them that when a time of difficulty comes, the Lord gives you what you need to make it through. His Word tells us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Joshua 1:5 Or, from Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters I will be there.” And it’s true. He is there if we will look for Him. We all, at one time or another will go through the fire. We can go through it with Him at our side, or not. Malachi 3:3 says, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”. The refiner has to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver is being refined, watching to be sure it was not in the fire too long, lest it be destroyed. That is what the Lord does with us. He is there with us through all our trials.

I’ll end now with my favorite Scripture – one I try to live by every day. It’s from Philippians 4:4 and it’s inspired by the words of my good friend, Bruce Todd, who always exhorted me to “seek peace”:

“Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Don’t worry about anything; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

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