Irene Young’s story of Clara

29 - Clara family IreneMy earliest memories of my mother Clara are of a petite woman who never stopped moving, from the moment she woke until well past supper. She was always working, whether it was cleaning the house she shared with her husband Theodor and four children, or shopping for groceries, sewing clothes, cooking meals or baking cookies or pies for desert after dinner. Whenever I complained as a child that I was bored, she would offer me a broom with which to sweep up the dust or some other chore that needed to be done around the house.

Clara was born in 1924 in the village of Garlita, Constanta, Romania, the second child of Emma and Gheza. Emma was the eldest daughter of Magdalena and August Frank, owners of the village flour mill. The Frank family had a comfortable lifestyle and would have been considered middle class in their tiny community close to the Black Sea. Gheza was a handsome, swarthy professional electrician who met Emma when he moved into the community to work at August Frank’s flour mill.

The course of Clara’s life was forever altered before she was a year old when, one fateful night in 1925, the family flour mill caught fire and burned beyond repair. The family was financially devastated and blamed Gheza for faulty electrical work believed to be the cause of the fire. Emma was forced to take sides and dutifully returned to her parents’ home with her two children, Michael and Clara. Gheza was fired from his job at the mill, cast out and returned home to Bulgaria.

Gheza could not bear the loss of his son. A year after the fire, he drove to Emma’s home and, seeing Michael playing outdoors with the neighborhood children, abducted him. Clara resented her father her whole life for only taking Michael and leaving her behind. She was hurt that he didn’t come to see her during her childhood and only sought her out when she was sixteen and almost grown up.

When her mother remarried, Clara was not welcome to join the new family, because it was believed that children from a previous marriage would interfere with the success of the new relationship. At the age of eight Clara felt she was abandoned again. Clara stayed with her grandmother and Aunt Lena.

Upon completing grade six at age twelve, Clara was asked by family friends Friedrich and Ella Steinmann to live on their farm. The Steinmanns were unable to have children and asked Clara to be their daughter. Clara accepted, because she was thrilled to be part of a family. She soon realized this was a bad decision, because the Steinmanns also had no other help and expected her to work from morning to night running the farm. After six months she begged to return to her grandmother’s home, but was told she had to live with her decision. Years later she would say that it was on this farm she really learned how to work.

As part of Hitler’s Lebensraum initiative, the German government offered citizenship and a new home in Germany to any European resident who could prove their Germanic heritage. The Steinmanns and Clara were granted German citizenship and, after a year-long wait in Vienna, settled on an estate farm in East Prussia, almost 2000 kilometres from their home in Romania. Although they only lived there a year, Clara was happy. They had so much help running the farm, her chores were limited to managing the house. In the spring of 1945, they were forced to evacuate, as the Soviet army was approaching and it became clear that Germany would lose the war.

Not quite a year after returning to Romania, Clara met Theodor. The tall, lanky former soldier was also of Germanic heritage. During World War II, his family settled on a farm in Czechoslovakia, but German citizenship came with a price: when Theodor turned eighteen, he was drafted into the German army. He returned to Romania after being released from a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Minsk.

Since she was German, there was a real risk Clara would be sent to Siberia to help rebuild the Soviet Union from the damage caused during the war. Her father, who was now living nearby, did what he could to protect her, but didn’t know how long he could help. Theodor also feared a hard life and early death in Siberia and told Clara about his dream of moving to California to make his fortune. He invited Clara to join him on his journey, and she accepted on the condition that they marry. After a two-month courtship, Clara and Theodor were married on October 20, 1946, in Nisipari, Romania. They were both 22.

Theodor developed a plan so he and Clara could immigrate to the United States. He convinced local Romanian officials that he was a good communist and persuaded them to allow him and Clara to immigrate to East Germany to help further the communist cause in their homeland and help repopulate it with children.

After settling into barracks in East Germany, Clara and Theodor were ready to push on. Leaving behind his pregnant wife, Theodor snuck over the borders to get the documents he needed from his mother to make the legal move to West Germany.

Shortly after arriving in West Germany, Clara gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and over the next three years, she bore two more sons. Although they were comfortable living for seven years in a 300-year-old farmhouse, Theodor was restless and continued to explore his options for moving to California. He concluded that another interim step was necessary. In August 1954, when she was 30, Clara, Theodor, their three sons and five of Theodor’s six brothers and sisters arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to start their lives again. Clara’s fourth child and only daughter, Irene, was born there a few years later.

After Theodor’s formal application to immigrate to the United States was rejected in 1961, he decided to return to a trade he knew: farming. Despite Clara’s objections, in the summer of 1963, the family moved to a farm near Inwood, an hour’s drive north of Winnipeg. Clara was 39 years of age when she was forced to return to the very hard life of running a family farm. Theodor couldn’t afford to give up his job in the city, and the boys were in school all day, so she had most of the responsibility.

Clara’s typical day started with milking cows, feeding chickens and pigs and making breakfast for the family. During the day she baked, cooked, sewed, washed clothes, kept the house warm and clean, emptied chamber pots and, on occasion, killed and cleaned a chicken for the family dinner. The farmhouse was rustic. There was no indoor bathroom, central heat or running water. Even the kitchen stove was wood-burning. Although Irene was too young to attend school, Clara was a natural teacher and taught her daughter the alphabet, counting and how to read.

The farm was never financially viable, and in 1965 the family moved back to Winnipeg. Clara worked at a sewing factory for several years to supplement the family income and later as a janitor for Hughes Owens and the Royal Bank. Clara took Irene with her to the janitorial job almost every weekday evening. While Clara washed floors and emptied ashtrays, Irene entertained herself drawing pictures and playing with the discarded crayons and pencils.

Theodor started buying rental properties in the early 1960’s and through financial leverage expanded his property holdings. He eventually acquired 26 housing units and worked six days a week to keep his business going. Clara frequently confided her fears to her child Irene that Theodor’s business plan was too risky. More than anything, she wanted Theodor to pay down the mortgage debt on properties he already owned before purchasing more.

The family made a trip back to Germany in 1970, traveling to meet Clara and Theodor’s family (including her kidnapped brother), who all envied their apparent prosperity. Clara was still fiercely German and wanted her children to marry Germans, but none of them complied.

Although her formal education ended in grade six, Clara’s financial sense was prophetic. By the late 1970’s, the government tackled inflation by raising interest rates to unprecedented levels. Theodor’s finances were already precarious, and as his mortgages came up for renewal, he was forced to refinance at 30 percent. There was little money left to run the household after the mortgages were paid. Clara became expert at juggling bill payments, waiting two or three months before paying the gas bill, so she could pay the hydro bill one month and the telephone bill the next.

In response to the financial pressure, Theodor began drinking heavily. Clara quit her janitorial job to work with him at the rental houses as a helper and to keep him focused on working rather than drinking. When it became apparent that they might lose their own home, Clara begged her oldest son to buy it. He reluctantly agreed, and Theodor and Clara lived there with him for the rest of their lives.

By the early 1980’s Clara was exhausted. It seemed to her that no matter how hard she worked, they could never get ahead of the next mortgage payment. She concluded that her time would be better spent providing childcare to her grandchildren Carrie and Serena. Irene’s son Ian was added to Clara’s childcare workload in 1989, enabling Irene to return to fulltime work. Clara felt secure with her children and grandchildren living so close.

In 1995, Clara was upset when Irene accepted a job in Victoria and moved there with Ian. She felt abandoned again and worried about Ian who had been in her care since he was a baby. However, Irene and Ian visited regularly, and over the next few years Clara adjusted to the change.

During the 1990’s Theodor’s drinking got worse. Once, to prove a point, Clara gathered his whiskey bottles for a month and presented him with over 25 empty bottles but he didn’t care. She was then too embarrassed to put the empty bottles in the recycling bin, fearing neighborhood gossip.

Clara has always been the family peacemaker, intervening in disputes in an effort to return the family to harmony. She always provided an alternative interpretation. When her sons asked that she stop buying cigarettes for Theodor, because it was hurting his health, she insisted there was no point. However, when he was put on oxygen and continued to ask for cigarettes, Clara finally refused, fearing he would blow up the house.

At this time Theodor weighed over 300 pounds, while Clara was only five feet tall and about 120 pounds. Every day for four years, Clara pulled him out of bed, escorted him into the living room with his walker, made all of his meals, helped him in the bathroom and catered to his every need. She stubbornly refused to put Theodor into a nursing home, insisting it was her duty to look after him as long as she could. By early 2006, at the age of 81, she finally acknowledged that she wasn’t strong enough to continue caring for him. Before the family could consider other options, Theodor became seriously ill and passed away in April 2006. Clara organized his funeral and purchased a cemetery plot next to his. She didn’t grieve for him long.

Clara is 87 now and remains in good physical health, however, her memory is failing. She still lives in Winnipeg with her eldest son and several cats. She cooks the evening meal for the two of them. She spends a lot of time sitting and resting, perhaps making up for all those years of hard work. Her three sons, as well as four granddaughters, all live minutes away. Clara’s daughter Irene lives in North Vancouver, and Clara is thrilled her grandson Ian is currently living in Germany.

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