Maria is a consecutive career chameleon — currently a family lawyer, formerly a history teacher and author of text books. She is a bi-lingual New Zealander of Polish ancestry. The Polish refugee and immigrant past of both her parents motivates her writing memoir.
Predictably, I arrived late, just missing the Waitangi Day public holiday. I was born on a Friday, in St Helens Hospital — a place which no longer exists. It was 1964.
The heat and humidity of the tropical Auckland summer sapped everyone’s energy. Our labour was long. But the joy in being born, a new family after so much loss, awash in tears of joy. So far away from the cold wastelands of Siberia and Communist Poland. We were a family at long last.
I am Maria Katarzyna Kazmierow, always Kasia. Maria after Dad’s mother who died in Siberia in the second World War. Kasia, after his baby sister who perished soon after in his arms at three years, when he was just a boy of primary years. Death took all the women in my father’s family first. Little Kasia was the last.
What’s in a name? Much — sorrow, honouring and love of those lost. Tears are flowing, for the first time as I read what I have just written, words which I have said many times before, for a family I will never know, for my father who named me so.
I was born, and I am me. What’s in a name for young me? Kasia, my childhood name, became “Kashin” like the elephant at the Auckland Zoo, pronunciation mangled at primary school. Because of this I changed my name and was known as Maria at secondary school and from then on. But Maria who? She was Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, or a Hispanic maid in a US sitcom. My name was a cultural crown of thorns, in a country ill equipped to value its beauty.
Being a new mother in a foreign land was not so easy for my mother. It was much more than speaking little English. There was the loss of her mother to cancer at thirteen years after Hitler’s horrors, then immediately replaced by a genuinely evil stepmother in the best Disney tradition. Her heart’s compass was lost, its pole torn away. The signposts for parenting this small bundle of noise and demands, that was me needed to be found.
Mother and baby had to learn what to do, and we were struggling at home. Soon our new family was parted again, as mother and child moved to a Plunket Karitane Hospital without Dad. That hospital was as histories say “for newborn babies who failed to thrive, and to help new mothers cope with their newborn baby”. Just how difficult things were for a new mother who had lost her own so early was not ever said.
Suburban Auckland isolation was never so close as for those silenced in the language asylum of a Polish quarter acre paradise. Fortunately, warm and welcoming neighbours and that “noisy bundle” broke down the seclusion through humorous exchanges and the international language of children and food.
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