My Mother

By Tiana Leonard

My mother was born in Crimea in 1906, the youngest of six children in a family of German Mennonites. The Mennonites were a pacifist Christian sect whose communities moved around Europe trying to escape conscription. Catherine the Great invited them to settle in Russia in the hope that they could teach the Russian peasants their farming practices. But my grandfather was an unsuccessful farmer. Each place he settled, locusts or drought brought disaster to his crops. When he finally gave up farming and started a mill in Pavlovsk, a town on the Don River in Ukraine, he became prosperous immediately. My mother was four then, and, until the collapse of the monarchy, the family lived a comfortable life although my mother barely survived a series of childhood diseases – diphtheria, whopping cough, and a episode of scarlet fever that left her deaf in one ear.
The family became Russian subjects and my grandfather was even elected to the Duma-the city council. Since there was no Mennonite colony in Pavlovsk, my mother went to a Russian school. She spoke German at home and grew up bilingual and multicultural. Her mother cooked German, Tatar, and Ukrainian dishes like meat Borscht with Peroshki and sour cream. They celebrated Christmas with German cookies and Russian Orthodox Easter with smoked fish, caviar, Sernya Paschka and Kulich. She read James Fennimore Cooper, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.

All became chaos when marauding soldiers, insurrectionists, White and Red army bands successively occupied the town. My mother’s oldest brother was repeatedly imprisoned and anti-German sentiment led to fantastic stories about airplane building in the basement and radio antennas in the barnyard. At last the children were packed up and sent to Crimea while my grandparents hid in friends’ houses in order to watch over the mill. Years of escaping armies in box cars, hiding out in below zero weather and hosting commissars who plunged dirty hands into serving dishes equipped my mother with a series of hair raising tales with which she entertained my childhood. I was immensely envious of such an exciting life. Once she was sent to the outhouse with the family silver while the house was searched. Hours later she finally emerged to find that the danger was over but that the family had completely forgotten about her.
After many years, the family was allowed to administer the mill for the collective and the older children went off to University in Voronesch. But then the government decreed that the University was for peasants, not exploiters, and the students had to return home. A few months later, it appeared that the peasants were mostly illiterate and could not fill the places at University. My mother and her sisters were invited to return. But by this time the family had become discouraged at the lack of stability and one by one they had returned to their roots in Germany. The older sisters went to technical college and gained jobs as chemists and engineers. My mother went to live with her sister in Berlin and lived on a diet of potatoes so they could buy theater tickets.
It was the thirties and my mother soon became appalled by the Nazi atrocities. For the rest of her life she scoffed at people who said that they hadn’t realized what was happening. She said you only needed to go to one rally. She was working for a prominent Jewish scientist from a wealthy assimilated family. In 1932 they were able to obtain visas and escape to England where he took a position at the Medical Research Council in Mill Hill, London. My mother accompanied them as governess to their children, who called her Tante Beny. She had a visitor’s visa for one year and was treated as one of the family rather than a servant. One night, Alexander Forbes, a visiting American scientist, was invited to dinner and the conversation turned to poor Tante Beny’s situation. Her visitor’s visa was almost up and she was going to have to return to Nazi Germany. Dr Forbes said, “Why, we can’t have that. I’ll give her a fellowship at Harvard!” Everyone thought it a joke because my mother didn’t even have a college degree. But a few weeks later, a telegram arrived inviting her to accept a post doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. The Forbes were an old Boston family who owned an island off of Cape Cod. Dr. Forbes probably funded this fellowship out of his own personal funds.
My mother telegraphed back accepting the position and reserved an ocean passage. On the ship she asked to be seated with English speakers at meals, in order to improve her English. This didn’t work out as planned because the family at her table came from South London and their Cockney accident was almost completely incomprehensible. When she arrived in Boston Dr Forbes met her and took her off to his family on Naushon Island for the weekend. She then found a room at a boarding house where she made many life long friends.
At work she always said that her most important task was to unplug the string galvanometer. Dr Forbes was very excitable and always brimming over with ideas. He would enter the lab in the morning ready to go without quite thinking through the proper procedures. The galvanometer was sensitive and required a long calibration and my mother was practical. She knew Dr. Forbes would eventually settle down and realize that there were some necessary preliminary steps. My mother never got over her lack of education and always downplayed her contribution to these experiments. Her collaborators appeared to feel differently for she was an author on many of their papers.
It wasn’t long before she met my father. She was eating lunch in the cafeteria when a group of young men entered and one of her boarding house friends said “Oh, that’s Dr. Morison, he’s a new teaching fellow.” My father and mother were both 28. My father’s previous flame had been Maribel Vinson, a US national skating champion. My mother had had many suitors but they had never been interesting enough for her to contemplate a life long attachment. She told me later that she dreaded being bored. She was prepared to be single but she would regret not having children.
My parents started courting and when they became serious my father invited my mother to visit his parents in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the little town that his ancestors had settled in 1750. The visit did not go well. My grandmother stayed in bed with a sick headache and only emerged to say goodbye. My grandfather, a stiff, formal individual, made my mother feel her lack of formal education and New England breeding. But when my father later wrote my grandfather to tell him that he was planning to marry, my grandfather wrote back that his own parents had probably viewed his decision to marry a girl from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as more outlandish than he now viewed his son’s plan to marry a Russian émigré. My grandfather did not have to worry. Having grown up in a warm, loving family, my mother knew how to be an exemplary daughter in law and she later had a warm relationship with both my grandparents.
My parents were married the day after Christmas in front of the fireplace in my grandparents’ house in Peterborough. Only his family was present. It was 1936 and none of her sisters and brothers or parents could make the trip from Germany. My father had bronchitis and went to bed immediately after the ceremony. My mother stayed up drinking with his brothers. She was a survivor.


5 thoughts on “My Mother

  1. Wally Morgan says:

    Message from London…
    This is a beautiful story, delightfully told. Your mention of the research centre at Mill Hill reminds me of my boyhood in North London. I used to cycle to Totteridge Long Ponds with my friends and from the fields behind the pond, the skyline to the south was dominated by the enormous silhouette of the MRC Laboratories. We were always fascinated that you could see through the building since the windows on the south side were exactly in line with those on the north side. It always looked like a cardboard replica! When, a few years later, we had to run, once a year, past the grounds as part of our school cross-country run, we realised how enormous it was. The still impressive building remains dominant but has been substantially added to.

    You can see the building on Google StreetView,-0.2195353,3a,75y,343.65h,92.9t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sAVmSae923rwbWQZtFTErsA!2e0!6m1!1e1?hl=en

    Thank you for your story – and for triggering those memories of my own past.
    Wally Morgan

    • Tiana Leonard says:

      How lovely to get a response from abroad. My mother told lots of stories about her years in London and I got to visit for the first time when I was 11. I became a firm anglophile and have made many visits since. My mother talked about the tube and Kew Gardens and Hampstead Heath. It was such a relief for her after the horrors of Berlin.

  2. Elinor Levin says:

    Such a fascinating woman. Thank you for your lively account.

  3. Dear Tiana, I find your writing fascinating; it is clear, lucid, matter of fact, orderly, full of information, told logically, without passion. I envy you that you had a mother who told stories.
    What stories they are! My parents had similar geographical origins, Germany, Ukraine. They must have had stories, but were intent on discarding the past and becoming thoroughly
    integrated into this new language and culture, and in moving from poor immigrant neighborhood in South Philadelphia to more middle class areas, finally to beautiful Catskill Mountains.

    Thank you for your stories. I have missed some through absence and some through poor memory. I would love to read the story of Susan. I remember very well the description of Christmas cookies and tree. I also like to read your stories more than once. I am very pleased you are sharing with us. Rebecca

  4. nancyeder says:

    Rich in history, colorful in detail, it’s a pleasure to read. I can almost taste the piroshki! Thank you for your detailed memory and descriptive writing, Tiana.

    The comments from London are from my brother-in-law, Wally, who is also in a writing group. He and my sister were prompted to join one – very much like ours – after reading stories from our class on the blog.


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