Thursday, March 7, 2013

Helen Kumor Nemec -- A Remembrance

Poet Linda Nemec Foster honors us with this memory of her mother and a poem:

My mother, Helen Kumor Nemec, died on July 8 of 2012 (aged 92).  Soon after her death, I shared the poem, "Contour of Absence," and a photo from my mother's obituary notice with my good friend, John Guzlowski.  At the time, John asked if he could post the poem and photo on his blog, but he also wanted me to send him some words about her life that he could include to give the poem and photo context.  It's taken me a while--over seven months--to finally honor his request.  I think the reason for the time-lapse has to do with grief and how we process it.  My father died in 2009 (aged 88) and, because I always felt closer to my Dad, the grief I went through at the time seemed to be "the good grief" that happens when relationships are resolved and there is a sense of closure.  

That's how it was for my Dad but with my mother it was different.  We never had a close relationship, although I always wanted one. She had a hard time relating to her children (I have a younger sister) and her marriage to my father was not very happy (even though they were married for 60 years).  For years, I felt frustration and bitterness until I remembered a tragedy that occurred in her family.  

In 1918, the year before my mother was born, her parents lost two daughters: an 18-month-old girl who died of the influenza epidemic that struck the world after WWI; and a 7-year-old who died after a tragic playground accident (she fell off a slide and suffered a massive head injury).  Whenever I would ask my mother how she felt about the deaths of these two sisters she would say, "They died before I was born, so I never cried for them.  How could you miss someone in your life when you never knew them?  Their deaths never affected me."  But she was so wrong.  Her parents died early because of their guilt and grief.  My maternal grandfather, Tomasz Kumor, died of a heart attack at 42 when my mother was 10 years old.  His wife, Marianna, was left to raise four children.  She died five years later (aged 49) of blood poisoning caused by an acute bacterial infection.  My mother was 15.  Her parents (and my father's parents) came from southern Poland in the early 20th century to find a better life in America.  Imagine the shock of the family in Poland when they heard the sad news of the deaths of the two daughters and, later, the deaths of the parents.

My mother rarely spoke of these tragedies but I know they affected her life in many ways.  I'm certain those hard years of loss and abandonment affected her emotional and psychological development.  And, because of this certainty, I have finally been able to see my mother in a totally different light:  not colored by anger, frustration, and bitterness but by compassion and forgiveness.

And she did give me a very important gift.  Helen Kumor Nemec was the one that kept close contact with our family in Poland and urged me to do the same.  When she died, my relatives in Poland were saddened by her passing--they remembered all her letters and cards, gifts and parcels.  She never forgot them.  In some way, perhaps her relationship to her family in Poland was easier to nurture than the challenging relationships to her husband and children.  

In the last seven years of her life, my mother suffered from dementia.  But instead of a curse, it was a blessing.  She became mellow, easier to talk to.  She laughed a lot and would say some amazingly wise things about life and everything in it.  Even though she was an emotionally distant mother for the first 55 years of my life, I'm grateful for those last seven years.  I'm grateful for that last visit when she laughed and showed me her newly polished if I was the mother and she was the little girl.


Contour of Absence

(after the painting "Provincetown in Winter, 1918"
by Gerrit Beneker)

Is this what the new world has given us?
A place of broken ice, its center of negative
space devoid of real color except for the dream-
like mauve, teal, and red of boats locked
and listing in their quiet sleep of winter.

Half-way into the continent, in a place of factories
not boats, my mother is being conceived
by her immigrant parents.  Not for love
or passion or longing but to erase the contour
of absence:  the silhouette of two daughters
who died the previous year.  By illness
or accident, it makes no difference.  The death
of a child releases one soul and enslaves
all others.  The mother forgets to brush
her hair for weeks.  The father can barely
remember how to walk down his street.

But how can my mother know this,
starting the thin journey to her life?
And how can the winter with all its snow and ice
mask true sorrow when everything
in this frozen universe hopes for spring?
The two boats leaning into each other
as if in unmarked graves.  The sky,
gray and calm, waiting to be born.


This poem was previously published in Linda's book, Talking Diamonds (New Issues Press, 2009).


oriana said...

I am so glad to have had the prose introduction -- all that added richness. The poem is very good, and I'm particularly struck by the insight that the "release" of two souls enslaved the souls of the living.

But I especially liked the part about the blessings of the mother's dementia. I know similar stories. And I saw the mother poems in Talking Diamonds as the deepest part.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear John, thank you so much for posting this piece by my very good friend, Linda.

We spent hours here in my house talking about our lives, problems, comparing and guess what - no matter where you live, they are the same.

We understood each other very well. I was so moved to read this piece by Linda, she is such a kind, generous in friendship, remarkable woman.

I hope she'll come to Poland again soon. Thank you once again. Best regards from Katowice, Ewa Parma

Martin Stepek said...

Thanks for sharing this John and do pass my comments on to Linda. As Oriana wrote the introduction explaining the family history and background to the poem does immeasurably add to the beauty and poignancy of the poem. It is a gorgeous piece of writing, very visual and cinematic as well as raw and emotional. In many regards it seems that we, the children of Poland's suffering, share whole threads of love, loss and "absence" and it is good to feel thus connected to people who otherwise we do not know at all. xx