Remain Open to “Happy Surprises”

by Memoir Mentor on July 31, 2012

Sometimes you make a mistake that throws you off your original, well-conceived plan and leads you to something so unexpected and lovely, it becomes what my friend called “a happy surprise.” We were in Basel, Switzerland, our last day in that beautiful city before we were to board our ship to sail down the Rhine River to Amsterdam. It had been one of those perfect days, the weather absolutely splendid, and we had filled the time with as many activities as possible, including a long, heart-pounding hike up a narrow winding staircase to the top of the Münster, Basel’s landmark cathedral. Our guidebook had told us we’d find the best view of the city there…and we did. What’s more, the little staircase adventure afforded us a back-patting opportunity. The old folks still have it!

Now it was nearing late afternoon, and we still wanted to squeeze every ounce out of our time in Basel. One of our friends suggested we take the tram to the Kuntzmuseum, where there was a traveling Renoir exhibition. Our guidebook instructed us to take the #2 tram to the museum, so we set out, not entirely sure where to get off, but calm in the belief that we had plenty of time to get there by five, when the museum offers free admission for the last hour before closing.

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Following in Frederick’s Footsteps

by Memoir Mentor on July 1, 2012

From time to time, I’ve mentioned my efforts to chronicle the story of my father’s family, the Parretts, who were the Parrotts prior to 1814.  I’ve worked on the project for many years, ignoring the advice I give my students about steering clear of large, multi-generation projects. I’ve kept plugging along, pushing through the frustrations and distractions that continually make me wonder whether I’ll ever publish my Parrett family history.

The Parretts have an interesting story, one that has not been told the way I’m telling it. That’s what keeps me going…that, and the worry that if I don’t tell the story, who will?

The Rhine of long ago

The story of my father’s family begins seven generations ago with an eighteenth century German immigrant named Frederick Parrott, who was likely Friedrich Parette or Paret in his youth. Frederick left the Rhineland for America during the mass exodus in the 1830s and eventually made a prosperous life for himself in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Frederick’s story makes a good beginning for a larger story that follows the next four generations who move ever westward until the end of America’s frontier period. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the various places where the Parrett story occurred after Frederick’s arrival in America. I’ve followed the migration path from Philadelphia, to Virginia, to Tennessee, to Ohio, and finally to Iowa, where my story ends. It was an exhilarating experience traveling America’s rural back roads in a rental car, a trip I did completely on my own—hence, the exhilaration.

Since then, I’ve had this wild dream of visiting the land of Frederick’s origins—the German Rhineland—and tracing his route down the Rhine River from Switzerland to The Netherlands, where he joined the masses of German emigrants heading for America. How fun would that be? Educational, too. Could I write it off as a business deduction? Hmmm.

Picture postcard perfect!

Dreams do come true now and then. This week my husband and I are boarding a plane for Basel, Switzerland, where Frederick likely began his trip down the Rhine. By next weekend, we will head to Basel’s vast harbor on the Rhine and board the Embla, one of Viking River Cruises’ new “longships” (advertised in “Masterpiece Theatre” commercials by a man who sounds like he’s right out of Downton Abbey). For the next eight days, we’ll sail down the Rhine, following Frederick’s path to Rotterdam. It’s ridiculous to think anything about my journey will remotely mirror my seventh great-grandfather’s experience. No doubt, he bartered all he had for a chance at a better life in America. He may have financed the journey by binding himself as a servant to a Pennsylvania benefactor after he arrived.

No, I won’t exactly be “walking in Frederick’s shoes.” (Stop your smirking!) Even if I did find a leaky, creaky old vessel and crowd into its bowels with hundreds of smelly fellow-travelers, the sights along the riverbanks have been destroyed and rebuilt countless times since Frederick made that journey nearly 300 years ago. A storyteller needs a good imagination. It’s something I work at. So, as I sail down the Rhine in my luxury stateroom, in my new traveling duds, glutted with all the gourmet food I can handle, I’ll be thinking of Frederick and trying to envision his journey in my mind’s eye. After all, if I don’t do it, who will?

I’ll keep you posted about my journey, so stay tuned in…

View from the Munster Cathedral in Basel, Switzerland






Over the years, I’ve had a number of students who immigrated to the United States after World War II. Most all of them have incredible, sobering stories to tell about struggling to survive during the war, stories often more personal and poignant than we read in history books. Many of these students have never written their stories before attending my class. When I read what they’ve written, I feel so grateful they’ve decided share their experiences with future generations, who can only be proud to learn they have such courageous forebears. What would happen to these stories if they did not write them? Maria Romanski, enrolled in my class this year. She is a delightful woman, a beautiful Polish immigrant with thick silver hair and brilliant blue eyes. Her riveting story about her childhood in Poland after the Nazi invasion will touch you through and through. Read on to see what I mean.

December 1939
by Maria Romanski 

It was a bitter cold, bleak and depressing month. We had no heat in the apartment and not much food. Money was scarce. We had no Christmas tree that year, but Mother managed to prepare our traditional Wigilia meal for Christmas Eve. Before sitting down to our meal, we wished each other a blessed Christmas and wished for the war to end so Dad would come home. That is all we wished for.  The meal consisted of pickled herring, potatoes, mushroom soup, fish, sauerkraut and mushrooms, and noodles with poppy seed. For desert we had cooked dried fruit compote. The portions were small but we upheld the tradition. There were no presents and none expected because we knew our situation.

To add to the depression, Mom ran a high fever during the night and had to stay in bed the next day. I was terribly frightened because I had never seen her ill.  On Christmas Day, my brother and I went to church by ourselves. After Mass there was a program for the children prepared by the Red Cross. Each child received a present, including me. I took the package home for my mom. As it turned out, it contained a pair of ladies pajamas. Mom could certainly use them. We spent the day quietly and talked about food and toys we would have when war ended. Mom had not heard from Dad since we left Zegrze.* She did not know whether he was dead or alive.

I remember Mom telling us to have faith there would be happier times in the future and to just keep praying, which we did. I distinctly remember the words in our prayer: “Oh Lord, please help Daddy to come back safely to us.” Of course, this was in Polish: “Boziu dopomóż aby Tatuś szczęśliwie powrócił do nas.” Although I was just a child, life became very real and I realized the dangers of war. All through the war years, Mom received two small packages, one with raisins and one with almonds from Portugal. There was no sender, but Mom hoped they came from Dad to let her know he was alive. Dad could not write because if the Germans intercepted the mail and found out that Dad was out of the country, we would be killed. During that time Dad fought with the French Army and later he was in the Polish Army under British Command. He and thousands of Polish soldiers fought with the Allied forces abroad.

There was constant anxiety about food, safety and survival. Mom had to travel across town to her place of employment. Years went by.  We lived in the same one-bedroom, or I should say one- bedroom and a tiny room off the kitchen that was given to my grandfather because he was old and needed privacy. In the evenings and during the nights we lived in constant fear of German planes flying over Warsaw and bombing. We prayed that none of the bombs fell on our building. We were lucky. We survived, mainly because the German Air Force headquarters was right next door to us.  Life was tough and it got worse as time moved along. My brother and I did not really have a childhood. The constant concern for survival and safety was always with us. Would Mother come safely home from work? Would there be bombings during the night? And if so, would we survive, or would our building be destroyed and we’d all die?

Mother worked all day, but she spent evenings with us. She always asked how our day was. She was a very loving person, religious and a great disciplinarian. She had a gift of not raising her voice, but at the same time we listened. Of course, she had help from Aunt Lusia and to a certain extent from our grandfather, who was very religious and stern. Because of that we watched ourselves.  He spent many hours a day in church and went for a walk every day, but he always managed to be around when my brother Kazik and I were home.

On the morning of January 13, 1943, Mother started out for work as usual, riding the trolley. When she arrived at her destination in the Praga district, the street was closed off.  Everyone was ordered off the trolley. Hundreds of people were already standing on the snow-covered street, surrounded by German soldiers with their weapons drawn. Mother had no choice. She found herself pushed towards the crowd. These street closures and arrests were common during the German occupation. Mother, realizing the danger could only think of one thing: to let my aunt know what had happened. Standing right in front of a shop window, she wrote a telephone number and her name on a piece of paper and pressed the paper against the window, trying to attract the clerk’s attention inside the shop. The number was to a friend’s home. We did not have a phone. These friends helped many military wives who lived in Zegrze before the war. Their home was like a refuge for all displaced military wives. It was a center for information in case of any problems.

Mother knew the clerk that worked in the shop, and since he was allowed to remain inside, this was her only hope. Although quite frightened and scared what might happen to him, the clerk copied down Mom’s information and ever so slightly nodded his head. Mother had no way of knowing whether he would be able to make the call or also be arrested on that day. It was her only hope that Aunt Lusia would get the message.

After standing in the bitter cold for about an hour, all the people were divided into groups, and no one knew the reason for this mass arrest or what was going to happen. It was an everyday occurrence, just the location was unknown. Even kids like myself knew and fully realized the danger of a potential street closure, arrest, and the possibility of never being able to return home. All these things flashed through Mother’s mind. After all, she had lived in this constant fear for four years. The questions in her mind were would she be released later, or would she be shipped to a labor camp? Or…would she be executed on the spot or at a later date?

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