From The Windmill – A Journal of the Diverse Voices of Women
HOPE By Nadia Szuhan
My name “Nadia” literally means “hope” in most Slavic languages. My parents chose the name because my birth at the end of World War 2 personified hope for a happier future. They were living in Displaced Person’s camps in war-ravaged Germany, hoping to emigrate to the safety of Australia. No more war. No more fear.
We sailed from Bremen, Germany (via the Suez Canal) on M/V Fairsea – an American troop carrier converted to ship migrants, and arrived at Station Pier, Melbourne on a bleak, wet July evening, in 1950. The next day we were transported by train to Bonegilla Migrant Camp to be processed. The camp, our home for a month, consisted of corrugated iron army barracks, no internal partitions to provide privacy for families or eaves, so birds and possums were regular visitors. Food, however, was plentiful, particularly fatty mutton and fatty curried sausages. Many were unable to eat the meals. Many became victims of dysentery, my dad amongst them.
Migrants were indentured to the Australian Government for two years. Qualifications were ignored. Families were separated. Mum and I were sent to Mildura so mum could harvest grapes. Work became progressively difficult as her pregnancy advanced and nothing prepared her for the heat and sunburn. Dad visited every few months, when he could afford the cost of a plane flight.
Dad, a qualified motor mechanic, was sent to work with pick and shovel, for the State Electricity Commission in Thomastown. He dug holes to erect power-line poles. His pay was seven pounds and fourteen shillings with a deduction of two pounds and twelve shillings for board and lodging in Brunswick, and he was part of a “gang” who were dispatched to various locations. Work in the Werribee area was particularly memorable for the daily battle with venomous snakes. Dad completed his two years and was encouraged to stay with the S.E.C. for the rest of his working life, eventually retiring as a Supervisor, complete with a gold watch.
Mum and dad purchased a block of land for one-hundred-and-seventy pounds, and a part-house comprising of two rooms for four hundred pounds in St. Albans, as did many migrants. I was four years of age when we finally came together as a family. So, despite the hardships and various hiccups, family life in Australia became everything hoped for.
One such “hiccup” occurred when I was nine years old… Mum was diagnosed with failing kidneys and she was given approximately six months to live (a kidney transplant was not yet a medical option). For the first time I experienced gut-wrenching dread and I was no longer ‘Miss Independence’. I needed my mum. A renal specialist was found who recommended some experimental surgery to remove part of one diseased kidney and insert a plastic stent in the other. A person could live with just one functioning kidney, providing at least one of the procedures was successful. There were no promises, but a glimmer of hope was materializing. It was also a time when people feared “going under the knife”. The experimental surgery could extend mum’s life for an unknown period but could also snatch those six months away. A glimmer of hope was better than no hope at all. Mum’s surgery was scheduled within a fortnight and as soon as that decision was made, I was recruited into mum’s boot camp. I embraced it as a mission to make mum proud, but it was also my lifeline. Within two weeks, I learned to cook, clean, keep house, and look after my little sister Vera, all under mum’s watchful eye. Even so, I needed many Band-Aids, and I still hate peeling potatoes to this day.
Then, mum was hospitalized and scheduled for surgery the next day. I stood bereft in her bedroom soaking in the comfort of familiar sights; her pillows, clothing, and the smell of her rose-scented talcum powder. Mum had a dress-maker’s dummy in the corner of her bedroom. I hugged it tight and allowed silent tears to run down my face. I spoke to the dummy, “Love you mama, and don’t be scared, everything will be okay.” Vera walked in sobbing, “I want Mama!” So, we dressed the dummy in an assortment of mum’s clothes, some of which still carried her scent. The dummy was headless, so we topped it with mum’s sunhat. Each night we went through the ritual of speaking to mum’s dressed dummy, hugging and crying, so we could go to sleep at night.
Clinically, mum died during surgery and resuscitation took some time and effort. Nevertheless, the surgery was successful. Mum was hospitalized for three weeks at the weatherboard, single-storey Sunshine and District hospital, formerly known as St. Andrews. Mum’s fourteen-inch (35cm) surgical wound was held together with metal clamps, from one side of her lower back to the other. It was hideous.
Children were not allowed on mum’s ward so we could only see her to wave and blow kisses when dad held us up to peer through the outside window. Once, dad and a friend grabbed Vera and me and smuggled us into mum’s room for a quick kiss. Of course, they were sprung upon and scolded by the Matron, but that was after we had our kiss.
Mum turns 95 on 1st March 2020.