Initially, they arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, their journey from Bremenhaven, Germany, paid for by the good Reverend Carter and his Methodist Church. The voyage took at least two weeks and they rode on the deck of the ship the entire way, sometimes getting chairs, sometimes not. I believe it was February.
The ship landed in New York’s Ellis Island, and after all of their documents were reviewed, they were shuttled to Grand Central Station where they waited many hours for the train that would take them to Charlotte. Only my mother spoke any English at all.
As part of the agreement they had to sign in Europe, the sponsoring family had to find work for my father. The work provided was a railroad yard where he was the only white man, besides the foreman. This was not an issue for Karlis except that he was not allowed to partner with a negro. While they carried railroad ties in pairs (rightly so) he had to carry them alone. Within days, he hurt his back. My mother, incensed at the injustice of him working alone, was confronted by her first real taste of racism. (From that day forth, she championed all “underdog” causes.)
Shortly after quitting that job, my parents moved us again; this time, to Indianapolis, Indiana where a small but thriving Latvian community had sprung up. It was here that my father worked until his late sixties, along with my mother, as a janitor.
In Latvija, my father had been the chief of police in his home town of Gulbene. He was a long way from home.
Although I had planned to write about some of the foods I enjoyed as a child, my reveries morphed into memories of our kitchen; and whenever I think about that old kitchen, I am creeped out about the roaches–again.
Even if I see only one roach today, in a restaurant or while visiting someone, a sick feeling rises up. I loathe them. There are not many living things that bring out the very worst in me, but roaches are the exception. I see them as having no redeeming value. And, as a I child, they made my life a living hell in the kitchen.
Here’s how it would happen. At night, in particular, when anyone would walk into the kitchen and pull the string for the top light, there was a massive scattering. Brown shiny wings and waving antennas running, jumping, leaping, and even flying for cover.
My mother refused to get bug spray, first of all, because of the cost, and secondly, she was some kind of 1950′s environmentalist. This was poison and if it could kill them, it could kill us. Instead, we were expected to manually squash them. (At any point in this story, if you would like to say or think, “ewwwww!,” feel free.) Sometimes, I would stand by the kitchen door and throw things into the kitchen in hopes that the scramble would be over before I turned on the light. Never.
I got so sick of it, I would avoid the kitchen at night whenever possible. Sometimes, I would let my mother lead the way, who cursed the bugs in German and squished them with her thumbs.
Eventually, and after much disgust and complaints, my mother fumigated professionally. She didn’t have much choice when the vermin began spreading into other areas of the house. When the tenants complained, she acquiesced. We actually fumigated twice. The second time after the alley house burned down and all of their roach tribes re-distributed to other homes on the block, including ours.
Years later, when I lived in Chicago with a friend for a few months, her apartment became infested. All the memories of my childhood flooded in and it was hard to be there, to sleep there, to walk into the kitchen. I finally had to to move when the cat bowl was filled, not with crunchy cat food, but with a teeming, squiggling, roach army. No. It was too much.
They say, and this is probably urban legend, when and if we ever have an atomic war, the roaches will survive. Just let that first bomb drop dead on my house. I can’t do it again.
But it’s true, when I was a little girl, milk was delivered to our front door. The glass bottles, quart-sized, were filled with pasteurized milk, which meant a layer of cream was at the top of each one. We would put out the empty bottles in the morning in a “metal milk box” and the milkman would come by and make the exchange.
Since I was a latch key kid, it would be my job to pick up the milk after school and carry it to the kitchen and put it away.
I was a bit of a lazy thing. Aren’t all kids, just a little? And the last thing I wanted to do was make two trips. I was instructed to make two trips. I was encouraged to make two trips, but I still did anything I could to avoid it. That meant, at nine years old, I was carrying four quarts of milk in glass containers and whatever else my mother might have ordered from the dairy.
One day, when I was schlepping as fast as I could with an armful of milk, I just couldn’t hang on any longer. The bottles were slick and cold and heavy. What to do?
Idea: toss them on something soft!
And so, on my way to the kitchen, and yes, it may seem odd, but my mother’s bedroom was the old kitchen/dining room, so her twin bed was on the way, and that’s where I dropped four quarts of milk. Every last one of those bottles broke and milk was everywhere.
I was punished severely for that stupidity, a pounding I would never forget.
So, what did I learn? Don’t toss more than one thing on the bed at a time. And no, I did not learn to make two trips.
We always had boarders in our old house. Only two still have names that stick in my memory. One was Charlie and the other, Mr. Ferris. But there were many more that came and went; but those two must have been there the longest.
Charlie was a sweet old codger. I remember him with gray/black hair and rough calloused hands, missing teeth, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth or fingers at all times. I’m pretty sure he rolled his own. He laughed a lot and he would talk to me as we sat on the front porch watching the rain or people pass by. His most distinguishing feature was his left ring finger. Somehow, as a result of an accident, a sloppy repair of his hand bent his finger permanently down into his palm. I remember watching his hand whenever he did anything, the oddness of it.
As a child, I thought of our house as big, but really, it wasn’t; the rooms were good-sized and square with high ceiling, but we only lived on the main floor in three rooms until my father began renovations, adding a kitchen and back porch. There was a fourth room, the “front” room, like a parlor, but that was rented to Charlie. Upstairs, there were three rooms, each with a sink but no toilet. Everyone, boarders and family alike, shared a single bathroom on the main floor. Back then, the bathroom had a tub (no shower), a toilet (precariously placed facing the hallway door), and a small sink. There was a storage area under the stairs we accessed through the bathroom and where my mother stored her wringer washer.
While my father was alive, he handled the boarders, collected rents, and made repairs as needed. Most of this was accomplished with his minimal English and lots of gesturing. My mother saved the log book he kept of the rents. I may still have that too, in a box in the basement. Like her, unable to throw it away.
The other boarder, Mr. Ferris, outlasted them all. He had the largest upstairs room and although my mother let the other boarders go, one after the other, she never had the heart to ask Mr. Ferris to leave. He was a Mr. Magoo lookalike and had a mysterious accent always wore a tie. He was amiable but in a limited way. He never sat outside with the rest of the men and even when he was the only boarder left, he stayed to his room most of the time. He gave me the creeps.
Was there any negative impact on my life from these renters? Oh, there were occasional embarrassments when I would forget to latch the hallway bathroom door, the same door the men used, but other than that, their existence remains a general blur. As an adult, I know they were essential to our family’s ability to pay off the mortgage, which was all of $7,000, and yet, a small fortune for my parents. But did it matter to me personally? Was it dangerous? Was I damaged?
It simply was the way it was. Just like everything else. We were poor and I didn’t really get it. I didn’t know until I got into my middle grades when I began to see how other kids lived. But until then, I was blissfully content, dirty bare feet and stubbed toes, hanging out on the porch with the guys.
It’s hard for us to understand those cultural dynamics before and after the first World War. Although Latvian nationalism was high with their declaration of independence on November 17, 1917, there were still large numbers of Germans who remained in the country. They were very much the upper class with privileges, vestiges of nobility, estates, great wealth, and power.
My mother’s mother, Wilhemina, was one of four sisters who had grown up on a German Manor in Lithuania at a time when such nobility was breaking up and Russians were entering territories to make their claims to the lands and the peoples. The sisters left and headed for the New York City of their region: Riga. And it was here that Wilhemina stayed, married a Latvian barber, and bore a child. But her goal was that her daughter would have more than she had: a better education, a future, a chance to make something more of her life.
And so, in her mind, it was smarter to enroll her daughter in a German school, not a Latvian one, to embrace the power of the Baltic Germans and their influence and to meet “better” people.
As a result, my mother was raised in a dual culture, with one foot in Latvia and another in German history, traditions, and attitude. She was ambitious as a youngster and although they were poor as mice, living all together in one room, she, her younger brother Harry, her mother Wilhemina and her father, Paul. The men shared one bed and the women the other. She had only one dress and one pair of shoes and her black stockings were many times repaired. And yet, she went to the German school and she studied hard, even learning English and French because of her love for languages.
This was her life until she turned fifteen, when everything changed forever.
When it was finished, the hut had one tiny window and a smaller than average wooden door, a slanted roof that was anchored in two places, the garage wall at the back and the trunk of the tall white sycamore that littered our yard each season with a variety of cast-offs like crackling bark, huge leaves and woody balls that broke apart into seeds. Inside, there were two built-in benches for seating or sleeping, lots of old pillows, and a table at the back for snacks. I believe it had electricity at some point, a primitive work light of some kind, but that could be my own fabrication. In general, I thought of the hut as dark and mysterious and sometimes a little scarey.
At some point, my brother lost interest in the secrecy of the hut and for a few years, it was my own haven, a little house I could sweep and pretty up with a curtain on the window, a vase of small flowers, and a few pictures on the walls. I would sit in there alone, write in my diary, and daydream about the boys I wish I could have, those brilliant boys of my middle school years.
I have some blacked-out time from the hut years that is somewhat disturbing. But what I can I do? I remember some hanky-panky with my brother’s friend, Eddie, who wanted to “show me his” if I “showed him mine.” But, did I? That transaction doesn’t seem like it would be very interesting to a teenaged boy, but who knows? Besides, these are unclear memories, are they worth sorting out? Do I want to remember? And if I did remember something unpleasant, what would change?
In the hut’s heydays, my brother and his pals spent hours working on their hobbies: cars and models mostly, but really, their big projects were the scrapbooks of naked (or nearly naked) women. Oh, they were pretty clever with their creations, the first ten pages were filled with trendy car pictures but then, voila, on the next page, a centerfold from Playboy was meticulously cut out and pasted in. How risque could Playboy of the late 50′s have been? Surely innuendo and allusion played the greater role of raising the boys’ libidos. Many years later, I asked my brother about these times of secrets and sexy pictures; he looked at me like I was nuts. No way, he said. Not him. Didn’t it happen? Did I make all that up? Apparently, those were not memories he had chosen to keep.
What happens to such lost incidents? If the players themselves have forgotten them; where are they? Do they still exist somewhere? Supposedly, as we grow older, the memories of our childhood come back more vividly. I wonder, will these “lost” memories return as well?
Were there other secrets of the hut? Was it a dark and sinister place or was it just an innocent shelter where children could be masters of their destiny for an afternoon? I’ll never know for sure.
I’ve been running my mind through the aisles of Pete’s Market as best I can, but mostly, there are fragments: the worn wooden floors, potato chips in the long aisle at the back, penny candy near the register, a black worn counter at the register that I could dig my fingernails into when no one was looking, a round lit clock that advertised cola of some kind, and double screen doors was at an angle to the corner of 11th and Park.
The meat counter ran along the short left side of the store but its top was way over my head which put me at eye level with red meat,huge linked sausages, and whole chickens behind glass. When my mother bought meat there, Pete was the one who cut and wrapped the pieces into dark red/brown paper and sealed them with a strip of masking tape.
The year after my father died and I was trying to get used to the latchkey routine, my brother was supposed to come home straight from school to look after, but he rarely did. Not really. On the days he would come home, he would be grumpy and plop in front of our old Philco black and white TV (my mother still had that TV when we moved her out 44 years later). Somehow, he seemed to always have a little money and he would “send” (command?) me to run up the street to Pete’s to buy his favorite snack: a bag of chips and a quart of milk. My enticement would be the promise of shared chips, but of course, the results were unpredictable in the number of chips I would actually get. After some months of this, I caught on and negotiated more firmly for a specific count. That was a flabby year.