Category Archives: Meanderings
Brief comments, quotes or things I want to remember or share.
When my parents fled the racism of North Carolina, they followed an invitation from a friend of my father’s to come to Indianapolis. The Latvian community was fairly strong there, running around 2500 people. They had a community center and even two Latvian Lutheran congregations (I assume those two congregations couldn’t come together because of politics & personalities, but I don’t really know the truth behind that division). Latvians had a community choir, a variety of musicians, and of course, visual artists & traveling theater companies. Like other emigres, the goal was to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Many of the older Latvians, grandparents and the like, never learned English.
In 1952, we entered that community and because of my father (who was 100% Latvian and a “good ole boy” from the old country) we had early acceptance. Despite our poverty (like most of the immigrants of the time), my parents had a fairly busy social life in the community (card parties, dinner parties, and the like). The first hitch came when my Father refused to attend church. This put everything on my mother and since we didn’t own a car (nor did my mother drive until she was well into her late forties), the constant jostling for rides etc., put us down on a lower rung of the Latvian social hierarchy. Nonetheless, my mother did her best to be active in various Latvian organizations: she sing in the Latvian choir, attended folk festivals, worked on church committees, and so forth.
In another compliance to the culture and community, my mother insisted that both my brother and I attend Latvian School on Saturdays. I can’t speak for my brother, but I’m fairly sure we both hated it.
But of course, little did the Latvians know, that my mother was also touting our German roots, singing us German folk songs, telling German folk tales, and telling us her story that revolved around her experiences within the German world of Latvia and later her years as a “re-patrioted” German. Oh yeah, she was a long way from the Latvian model.
But the breaking point in our Latvian connection came with my father’s death in 1961 and the evolving eccentricities of my mother. My mother’s status as “widow” put her in a precarious position. Twenty-five years younger than my father, she was still quite eligible for a second marriage and the women of the community found her presence threatening. At least, this is what my mother told me.
In later years, I began to see another dynamic of the “mixed breed” syndrome. With my father’s death, my mother’s German heritage became more and more apparent and questioned by the Latvians. At the same time, our small triad of a family became interested things American (particularly with my brother in high school and achieving some acclaim there). I became quite rebellious in “junior high” and wanted to stop being different and just wanted to “fit in.” I wanted to be a regular American.
Year by year, my brother and I pulled away from the Latvian community. Oh, we still celebrated the big holidays and Latvian cultural events, but I became a Latvian School drop out and set my sights on high school acceptance and elusive “popularity.”
My ultimate return to my Latvian roots is another story. But for this moment in time, I became a self-inflicted girl without a country. Because, truth be told, despite my best efforts, I remained just a bit different from my American friends and by then, had burned too many bridges in the Latvian world.
I have no one to blame by myself. I occasionally wonder what my adult life would have been like if I had put more energy into the Latvian part of me: going to Latvian summer camps, learning all the Latvian folklore & folk songs, joining a Latvian sorority, perhaps having an “authentic” folk costume sewn, and of course, making pilgrimage there. Perhaps I would have married a Latvian and insisted that my children speak the language. This was the ultimate path for first generation Lativan/Americans, the dream of the those who emigrated here, to sustain their culture.
In the days of the Cold War, all the way up until 1991, it was a point of pride for many Latvians (and really, any of the Baltic peoples), to protect their heritage while the Soviet Union did everything it could to destroy it back home. Their ultimate dream was that the Iron Curtain would come down and all satellite countries would be free again.
But for a teenager or even a twenty-something off to live life, the idea of a free Latvia was absurd and the fall of the Soviet Union an impossibility.
So much for impossibilities. The curtain did come down in 1991 and many stalwart Latvian/Americans returned to their homeland. Not me. Not until much later. Much, much later did I yearn to know and to go back. Almost too late. Almost.
In our case, we actually had a three car garage, but since we didn’t have a car, my parents rented out two of the garages and the third was storage for my father’s stuff (tools, wood, wheelbarrow, whatever). We also had two wide gates that met in the middle and would swing into our back yard; these gates had had to be closed each night, no matter what (that’s another story: the walk from the gates to our back door). Any trash that couldn’t be burned (that’s right, we burned all paper products back then) or added to the “compost” pile, was put out into the alley for trash pick up. Alleys were handy that way.
The best use of the alley in our neighborhood was kickball, softball (which I hated), tag, kick the can or hide and seek. It was a narrow playing field for kickball, but it worked well enough. Of course, there were dangers.
Opposite our garages were the ball-eater couple with their immaculate yard. Naturally, they had a fairly high chain link fence and gates but of course, not high enough to block a sailing kickball. When the ball did land in this yard, we would gather for a lengthy discussion and round of “one potato, two potato,” to determine who would scale the fence for the ball. Any kid discovered in the yard would receive 40 lashes or so we feared. Usually the adults would inevitably come out and simply confiscate the ball. I always wondered what they did with all those balls.
But the real danger, unbeknownst to me at the time, was the alley floor itself. On the other side of our property at the back was the machine shop. It was a small white concrete block building with a double wide door on the alley side, usually open, particularly on warm days. Along their back wall were a number of metal barrels which they filled with metal shavings and scraps. (The mother in me of today just cringes to think of it.) Our section of alley was littered with sharp shiny metal fragments among which we merrily played, and often in bare feet. Naturally, there were dramatic moments of blood and accidents, but it was never enough to keep us away. It was simply part of our world.
My mother called it the shack. It stood at the corner of the alley facing 10th street next to the green duplex. If that house would have been in Appalachia, it would have seemed more appropriate, or if it was on a farm somewhere, you could have called it the “old house” grandpa built. Instead, it was one of our neighbors. No one knew what really held it together.
I was forbidden to go inside the shack under any circumstances. My parents considered the family suspicious, dirty, and probably dangerous.
In the summertime, the shack was downright entertaining. All kinds of people would pull up to the house from hot rods to trucks to motorcycles. It was a loud house. People were screaming at each other all the time but it was never clear if it was out of anger or normal conversation. It was a drinker’s house and a smoker’s house. It was a laughing house.
I wish I could remember the name of the girl who lived there. It was something like Brenda or Sue or maybe it was a combination like Brenda Sue. And in her own way, she became my friend. And of course, I had to go inside. It was an adventure, another world: men in undershirts sat around the tiny black and white television, grandmas and daughters sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking iced tea from Ball jars, toddlers walked around in dirty underwear and heavy diapers, while younger guys with slick greasy hair drank milk from cartons as they stood by the open refrigerator door or picked at a guitar on the stairs. There was always music playing, day and night, on the radio.
Brenda Sue was worldly to me. She wore make-up and she teased her hair and she wore curlers at night. She smoked cigarettes, used a lot of swear words, and listened to country music. She probably wasn’t more than three or four years older than I was, but she acted much more so. Brenda Sue soon became my source of information for all the dirty stuff and bad words I would ever need to know.
I don’t remember who ratted me out for hanging out at Brenda Sue’s. It might have been my brother or Gladys or maybe my mother just figured it out. I’ll never know.
The shack finally burned down. It was a miracle no one was hurt. Like putting a match to a very dry, dead pine tree, the house blazed and was gone in what seemed like minutes; then nothing was left but black timbers, a brick chimney, fluttering papers, and roaches. Every house on the block got a share of the shack’s roaches.
Later, as young adults, my brother and I would reminisce about the rednecks and white trash from our old neighborhood. We would tell stories of the fights and the brick throwing and the filthy graffiti. But there was another part of me that also remembered the people, the ordinary people, who had made a life in a ramshackle little house on 10th street.
We didn’t live on a farm, remember? We lived within a mile of the Monument Circle of downtown Indianapolis. Nor did my mother grow up on a farm. There was absolutely no reason for her to believe that it made sense for us to have rabbits, ducks, chickens, and the nastiest, meanest, most belligerent rooster I have ever known or want to know.
Here’s how it all started.
My mother thought it was cute that the downtown stores would sell baby animals at Easter time. That’s right: tiny bunnies, ducklings, and chicks. So each year, my brother and I would be gifted one or more of these little critters. And they were wonderful: so sweet and cuddly. But they do grow up. The bunnies were first: the only reason I remember them is an album of black and white pictures with my father feeding them carrots by hand, a white one and a black one.
We actually had several rounds of chickens; some even laid eggs and my mom was thrilled to eat them. But the excitement of getting eggs was completely overwhelmed by the rooster who ruled the yard, the chickens, and ultimately, me. I don’t know how we ended up with a rooster. It must have been some kind of mistake in the chicks for Easter farm. Whatever it was, I hated that rooster. Whenever I had to go in the yard, he would chase me or if I didn’t see him and thought the coast was clear, he would jump out from behind the garage and scare me. He would peck at my legs and stare at me with his beady eye, left and then right. Eventually, the chickens died, but he lived on. One time I tried to run him down with my tricycle, but to no avail. I wish I could remember his exact passing, but it’s a dark spot in my memory. Did I repress my part in some dastardly deed? It’s possible. Certainly, he deserved it.
On the other hand, the year of the ducklings was another story. We all loved the ducks, even when they grew up. It was during this time (my mother had been a widow for awhile by then), that my mom did several upgrades to the house. In addition to switching our heat to gas (from wood), she also decided we didn’t need a bathtub and had a shower installed in its place. The bathtub was bequeathed to the ducks. That’s right. She had a friend dig a bathtub sized hole in our back yard so the ducks could have a pond. You can’t make this stuff up.
A couple of miles away from us the Central Canal weaved through the city. Along its shores were many domestic white ducks along with the migrating mallards (and a few mixed concoctions as well). We tried to convince my mother to take the ducks to the canal like everyone else did, but she would not let them go. Finally, there was only one left and she would not die. We named her Petunia. All right, I doubt there was a “we” in the naming of that duck. I did it.
Petunia didn’t seem to mind that she was the only duck on the block. She had her bathtub pond, she enjoyed being carried around by little kids, she quacked during church services next door, and she would eat just about anything out of my hand. I do remember her end, however, since I was the one who discovered her: drowned in the tub. All true.
Being born of foreign parents, for the longest time, I had no idea I would have a problem with my name. Latvian was spoken in my home exclusively since my father, already sixty-three at my birth, never learned English. Both my brother and I gathered up English off the street.
My family called me Irmite (3 syllables, short “i’s”) or Irmi which are diminutives for Irmgarde. Before hitting the neighborhood and other American environments, I didn’t know how foreign-sounding and difficult my name would be for people. I didn’t know kids wouldn’t be able to say it or that I would need a short explanation or “pronunciation” lesson every time I met someone new. (This is true even today.)
Of course, I’m not the only kid in the world who has suffered the slings and arrows of a difficult moniker. We should probably create an online club, perhaps a 12-step program to accept our need for a “higher power” to deal with it. I have always marveled at modern parents who strap children with oddball spellings and sounds. What are they thinking?
Anyway, by the time I reached middle school, most of my schoolmates and neighbors had settled into calling me Irm, pronounced Erm, along with all of its rhyming sequences. It was not until college or maybe even later that I decided to insist people try saying the more Germanic “i” which is shorter and closer to the “e” in ear than anything else. I’ll never forget one woman who discarded my correction and said, “my mouth can’t make that sound.” Nice.
As I entered adulthood and lived away from childhood friends and family, I began looking for new names. I would give myself a new name and a new identity. But, it’s an odd thing to “rename” oneself. Secretly, I had hoped for some little catchy nickname that would catch on with the crowd. Never happened. Never. No cute little “cricket” or “bubbles” or “Bam-bam.”
Two of my erstwhile attempts at renaming myself were Zoe (the playwright years) and Shiloh (the cocktail waitress years), neither of which fit me particularly or stuck. I even tried initials, my middle name (Inese – 3 syllables, short vowels), and different spellings. Nada.
Today, nothing much has changed in the name department. I have changed my last name by marriage twice, but I have made peace with my first name and given up all other aliases. It’s a rough peace, but acceptance all the same. I discovered my name means “guardian of a small enclosure” and so I imagine myself as a shield for those beloved few who have stayed close over the years: my deep friends, my family, and my inner self, who will always be Irmite. It’s enough. It will do.
This is the first day of what I hope will many more days of thoughts, memories, and story. I am only standing at the door a little today and already my mind is flooded.
I need to consider and think more about this site and how I can best use my words to reach into and pull out what has meaning, what has usefulness, what beckons me to write.
Today is just one day. Will you join me?