Another Dying Long Ago

The core of this story my mother told me. But the details are mine.

Boris Feldblyum Collection; Riga 1928

Boris Feldblyum Collection; Riga 1928

May, 1928.

I was sitting at the kitchen table working on my English homework. English was my favorite subject. It was late and I guess the light at the table was bothering my mother who wasn’t feeling well and trying to sleep. It was just one large room, our apartment. There was a coal stove for cooking and heating and sink for washing up, but only cold water from the tap. We had a settee and a soft chair where my father would sit to listen to the radio. There were two beds: my mother and I slept in one and my father and brother slept in the other.

My mother called out to me, “Herta, come to bed. Come and lie beside me. Herta.”

“In a minute. I will. Just let me finish this. In a minute, I promise.”

I didn’t realize that those would be the clearest words I would hear from her again. By the next day, she was struggling to breathe. Her slow labored breaths made such a terrible sound. She didn’t get out of bed again. And I sat with her then.

After he came home from school, I told my brother to try and find a doctor, anyone to come and help her. He didn’t know who to ask. He knocked on a few doors but no one was home. My father was at the barber shop working. He worked long hours, often ten hours a day, at only ten cents a hair cut.

I tried to get her to drink some tea. But it only made her start coughing when I tried to raise her head. Her eyes wept when she looked at me. She couldn’t speak. She tried, but only a few words I couldn’t understand. Maybe my name or Harry’s or my father. Once, I thought she called for one of her sisters. I wasn’t sure. And so I sat there because I didn’t know what else to do.

Finally, my father came home. He told me to make him something to eat and then he stood by her bed. I couldn’t hear what he said to her, but I could tell she was listening. He held her hand. He pushed hair back from her face.

I don’t remember what I made. Maybe it was potatoes. We didn’t have much. My father and Harry ate at the table. I couldn’t eat. I sat. And then they sat with me, the three of us, sat around her bed.

“Papa, can’t we get a doctor? Go to the pharmacy and get her something.”

“Herta, it is too late. She is dying. Her heart is not strong enough. We always knew. She knew. She warned me.” And he said no more.

Harry went to bed. I fell asleep in the chair, my head against the side of the bed. When I woke up, my father was still there. He did not go to the barber shop. Harry didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to school. We watched my mother die.

The silence was punctuated by her breaths which became slower and slower.

For three days we sat, sometimes sleeping, sometimes eating, but never far from her side. And then, I heard it and I saw it, her last breath, like a deep sigh, every last breath was released. She left her body in that sigh. She didn’t linger. She left.

My father rose. He pushed her eyelids down and then he washed his hands and face in the white bowl. He turned to me. I couldn’t look at him. I only looked at her.

“Wash her body after we leave. The bed clothes will be soiled. Dress her and comb her hair. I will go to her sister’s house and ask for a wagon to take her to the graveyard. I will ask her sister’s husband for a loan to pay for the gravedigger. Harry will go with me. Don’t wait. You must clean her before her body becomes stiff.”

And I was alone, at fifteen, with my dead mother’s body. I had never washed a dead body. I had never seen a dead person in my life. I cried. Hard. It wasn’t fair. None of it.

My aunt had promised to make me a new dress, a red dress, for my birthday. But now, there would be no red dress, only another black one. And every birthday after that would no longer be mine, but hers.

I washed my mother’s thin arms and legs. I washed her small breasts and sunken stomach. I rolled her from side to side to remove the sheet and thin blanket. There was a smell. I found two towels and put them under her. I pulled a dress up across her body. It was her better dress. Would she need underpants? For what? Should I put stockings on her? What would be the point? I covered her legs, up to her waist, with a blanket from my father’s bed. I pulled her hair back with side combs and tried to put back her wave. I folded her hands on top. Should I take off her wedding ring? I did. I put it on my own hand. Forever, I thought.

But, of course, it wasn’t forever. It was only one of the many things I would sell or trade, later on, during a war that we couldn’t imagine would happen again.

Two Weeks Later

That’s how long it seems to take for the repercussions. . . . or results.

I know that sounds strange but I began to notice this trend during the last couple of months I’ve been doing Weight Watchers. I’d come into the meeting expecting a big gain only to have a loss but then, after being very “good” (e.g. keeping to the point regiment), I’d have a gain. Then I saw it: I was on a two week delay. Those three glasses of wine show up on my body later. That crabcake reappears later.

And then, I started wondering about other body phenomenon like cold viruses and the like. Sure enough, if I would just tough it out for two weeks, the worst would be over.

Is this little time warp the same in my head? Does it take two weeks to birth an idea and put it in motion? Does it take fourteen days oNurturing-Creativityf rumination?

Where was I two weeks ago anyway. Let me think. That would have been June still. I have to turn back a calendar page even. I was traveling to Chicago that day for the library conference. It was my brother’s birthday; my son’s birthday. I had lunch with an old friend of 50 plus years. I took pictures all afternoon. And then I slept. Hard. Was a seed planted that day that I missed?

This is just one of the reasons why I need to pull out my journal again and capture the moment, the spark, the muse’s child breathing and tickling my neck. And then feed it with images and dreams and sound.

Two weeks later, I’m here and writing again.

Mary is Dying

MaryHow is that possible, really?

We were teenagers together. We talked into the night. We created songs together. We dreamed dreams. We loved being friends. We were the real deal.

Mary was forever: the rock of a small quartet of girls who navigated the sixties in a thrum of social upheaval. Mary, tall and seemingly powerful, resilient and self-confident, she was the magnet and in many ways, the de facto leader. She was the stable one. She had the traditional home life. She was smart and she was talented, a voice to die for, a smile that lit the hearts of her friends. But she was not the traditional beauty of that era. She was not blonde or petite or giggly. Mary would come into her real prime as a woman . . . and so she did.

Where Mary was the regal big girl, Becky was the slight, soft-spoken one. Becky seemed fragile but with a sincerity of heart that spoke kindness and love. Self-deprecating, she always spoke better of others than she did of herself. She had her own form of stability, but it was deeper. She was the the non-judgmental one; she was the one who accepted everyone around her at face value; she believed in the good of people, even the ones who hurt her and betrayed her. Also brilliant, Becky was our philosopher.

Jennie was our conscience in the face of change. We actually lost her to the times. It was 1968, the year MLK was assassinated and black power became a force to be reckoned with. She had to choose between the love of friends, that is, her white friends, and a future where she would have to make place as a black woman.  Blacks of that time were asserting their identity; it was important to be black, to be proud, to be strong in the face of prejudice. But we didn’t think it needed to affect our group, we loved freely, we were true friends. But for her, it was a moment of crisis. Her black friends had challenged her, had questioned her “blackness.” She,too, was brilliant, but even that aspect of herself had to be set aside for the sake of identity and the black Muslim culture. We lost her that spring, right before graduation: she moved on to another life without us.

And who was I in that day? A poor girl trying to escape her foreignness, her Latvian-ness, her unstable home life, her fears, her self-loathing. I wanted to be like anyone else, just not me.

Mary’s home had been a refuge. Her pastor father (Gordon) always seemed accepting and gentle. Even if he was protective and conservative, it never came across as anger or vindictiveness. He was steady. And kind. To me. Mary’s mother, Edith, was another rock. Clearly, Mary’s stature and security seemed rooted in the genes of her mother. Edith was a servant, a traditional mother, who made cookies and kept her kitchen clean and aromatic. She would sit at the kitchen table with us . . . with me . . . and listen. Her listening spoke of respect for us, despite our age and our inexperience. She was interested in our ideas. She grieved for my home life–and Becky’s. Years later, I would be comfortable enough to spend two weeks in their home, playing scrabble, and becoming one of their beloved “strays.” Gordon died in 2006. Edith, at 96, is in hospice now. She is not remembering, not every day at least, that her daughter is dying too. Will they pass together? I would not be surprised.

Mary is dying. How can that be? How do I embrace a truth of that magnitude and not somehow “do” something. Can’t I stop the inevitability? Can’t I pray the right prayer? Can’t I be the “Good Witch of the West” and wave my magic wand to stop this travesty of human loss?

My tears will not keep her here. Nor will my anger or indignation. Nor my pleas to the God of my faith.

How often have I really seen her since those teen days, those magical days when we bonded hearts in such a way that even a lifetime of loves and experiences and travels and change could not break our bond? Not so many visits, not really. We were so sure of our friendship that we didn’t really worry much about the time or the distance. Whenever we did connect, we just started right there. Whether we sat in a boat in the Magothy River or lounged in her parents’ cottage in Mayo, Maryland or got all dressed up and celebrated a family wedding or birthday, we believed in that undying friendship. We made it so.

Yet, Mary is dying.

She was the one who filled her life with adventures from Canada to Nepal to months on a sailboat; Mary was always seeking, seeking, seeking. She cast aside her traditional God understanding and tried on a few extremes but then eventually, found a way to unite them all within herself into a magnificent wholeness. She walked labyrinths and sat in sweat lodges; she sang hymns and tribal chants; she wandered the universe within and she learned about the voice of silence. She found love in Jim and their marriage challenged her as much, if not more, than her wilderness experiences. But, she remained the rock, even for him, and then for her two girls, Hilary and Ariana, as well. She learned with them and through them. She went back to school and picked up that formal credential to do something she had already been doing all her life: helping others be themselves.

Mary is dying.

Mary is living on. She will cross into a new kind of life and her greatest adventure of all time begins. She leaves a legacy of love. She leaves a plethora of friends who call her cherished. Her daughters will fill jugs with their tears and yet Mary will drink them, in gratitude for their trajectories launched. They will be all right. And even Jim, husband of three decades, will find her spirit near to under gird the sorrow days and nights. He will be all right too.

But will I? Will Becky? Would Jennie, if she knew, even after all this time? Mary was a presence that we counted on, maybe only once a year or even less, and yet, we knew the tether from 1964 remained unbroken . . . until now. Our grief will be different than the immediate family. We can pretend for longer that she’s still there. And so, I predict, there will be odd drifts of grief that will overwhelm us in the months to come. It will feel fresh and immediate. And memory will have to be enough but never will be. Until we meet again. There.

Mary is dying.

Mary is living on.

 

 

Hair Nets

When I was 7th and 8th grades, we had home economics as one of our classes. Literally, it was a room with several kitchen stations that included a stove, a refrigerator, and a sink, plus a kitchen table. We were divided into groups or teams, maybe four or five, I don’t remember. Along the edges, there were sewing machines because we learned to sew in there as well. I made a skirt and of course, an apron, which I had to use for the cooking portion of the year.

It could have been a great experience except for one small problem: this was the school where I was attending as an accelerated student, along with a class of others. But Home Ec was a shared experience (like gym) with the regular classes. And whether we deserved it as a group or not, we were despised by the other kids. It felt like the animosity between local teens and college kids in a small town.

Of course, I was already an easy mark for my own “smart” classmates so it didn’t take long for the regular class kids to figure out I was easy prey. Fortunately, our food dishes were judged as a group, so there was no food sabotage, so their favorite past time was tearing up my hair net or misplacing my apron. Anything to get me a poor grade.

Back then, hair nets were hideous, but trying to get a ripped one on my head was absurd. These hair nets were a whole different kind of net, very thin, supposedly invisible, and more like working with a spider web than anything else.

We never know what humiliating experience will stay with us. Whether it’s wearing a Ho-Jo’s (Howard Johnsons) turquoise waitress uniform or being stood up for a date or having a party and no one showing up, embarrassment is a powerful agent for the development of a character. In today’s world, an array of disgraces might bring a teen to suicide or worse, a mass killing in a movie theater or a school.

What is degrading to one person may not bother another. The little things, they mold a life. I can see it looking back. It’s something to include in a key character soon.

Walking Downtown

After my father died when I was nine, I assume my brother was my official caregiver. I call it an assumption since I don’t remember much of that first year without Papa. I still went to school and I had my own key to get into the house, but then my brother would come home from school eventually, and we would watch late afternoon television on our black and white Philco. (My mother kept that Philco until she was forced to leave her house by illness at age 89. You do the math.)

I remember the school days much better than I remember that first summer. I have no idea what I did all day. Did my brother work that summer? He was fifteen that June. I don’t remember. And unfortunately, my brother doesn’t seem to remember either.

The only thing that is crystal clear in my mind was our walking trips downtown.

My mother worked at an asphalt plant called Hetherington & Berner. She would take two buses to get there each morning and two buses at night and lucky for her, the return bus stopped right by our house on Park Avenue. In the summers, many of the employees would carpool downtown, about a 10 minute ride in order to do some shopping at the department stores. Back in those years, downtown shopping was still the norm.

Here was the routine, every couple of weeks (perhaps on her payday, I’m not sure), Mama would call us at home and tell us to meet her under the L.S. Ayres department store clock on the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets right at Noon. My brother and I would walk the distance, one and a half miles. My brother insisted that we could walk it in 30 minutes or less and although that may be a reasonable time for a teenager, it was a lot of double timing for my short legs.

But all the same, I was determined to keep up. I was determined to be like my brother. Unfortunately, about halfway there, my determination would flag and I would whine and cry and stomp for him walking strides ahead of me. I think this became a symbol for me, this constant effort to keep up with my brother, but all the same, a little behind.

L. S. Ayres Tea Room
Special Thanks to Dept. Store Museum

Under the clock, we would meet and hustle ourselves up to the 8th floor Tea Room. What a wonderful treat to dine in such luxury. And no matter how much I would eat, there always had to be enough room for Strawberry Pie. Or, on other days, we’d go downstairs to the Colonial Room and eat in the cafeteria.

I don’t really know how much time she had for lunch, but more than likely, it was an hour. And so our time in the tea room would be over before we knew it and my mother would need to meet her ride downstairs. And yet, despite the rush, we would stop on the way out at the candy counter and mother would buy us a couple of two-inch square blocks of milk chocolate to eat when we got home.

The walk home is not as vivid as the walk there. Or maybe we rode the bus, who knows? But to this day, pure milk chocolate and fresh strawberry pie are still my favorites. They are the emblems of the good life, the sweeter memories, the part that made the walk downtown worth it all.

Bike Freedom

My brother always made fun of me because it took me a lot longer to learn or do something than him. In particular, it took me forever to learn how to ride a bike. The whole process was incredibly daunting and the potential for harm seemed impending. And in truth, I did have some accidents.

Part of the problem was my learning field: the street. I was very aware that everyone in the neighborhood watched my slow progress, my fears, and my pathetic attempts to balance my body. Of course, I did learn and basically, my brother tricked me, as he ran behind me as though he was holding on when in reality I was riding alone. It worked.

But I would never say I was a comfortable bicyclist. Since my first bike was a little big for me, I hated stopping and experiencing that strong lean to the left or right to put my foot down. I tried to find a curb, but of course, that wasn’t always possible. So, the best thing was to keep going whenever possible.

The best part of learning how to ride a bike was the freedom it gave me to go places. Without a family car, both my brother and I were house-bound except for distances we could walk or the “kindness of strangers” to give us rides.

The most frequent trip I made was to visit my friend Gunta (and my brother, to visit her older brother, Karl). Her family and several other Latvian families had moved into this area, about a mile and half north of us. The homes were small but affordable at the time plus they were closer to the original Latvian Center (an old house on Central Avenue). It was all part of building community.

Unfortunately, this area was also in transition to poverty and began experiencing “white flight” in the fifties and early sixties (from both the blacks as well as the “foreigners.” The Latvians buckled down to stay, but the neighborhood changed all the same. Where our own neighborhood remained stubbornly “redneck” closer to downtown, this neighborhood became known as a black enclave.

For me and my brother, the last five blocks might include taunts, rock throwing, and chases. We were seen as interlopers and trespassers. One of the worst incidents happened when someone threw a bike fender into my brother’s front wheel and he went flying forward off the bike. He could have been killed. But still, we never told. We could not afford to lose our independence which trumped fear.

Basements and Birthdays

The basement of our old house went through a major metamorphosis in the years we lived there. When my father was still alive (up through my ninth year), it remained a dark and dingy place, a man’s domain where he stored tools and supplies haphazardly where coal was delivered through a chute and where he carried shovels of coal from the bin to the furnace every day. It was back breaking work for a man in his late sixties.

I never liked going down there. Not only was it dark, but the stairs were uneven, the stone walls wept, and there was always a dank and earthy smell. Occasionally, stray cats would find their way into the cellar for warmth and safety in the winter but they would also do battle. The screeching through the grates was terrifying.

After my father died, my mother managed to replace the coal furnace with gas. I don’t really have any distinct memories of the transformation of the space from coal storage and to a type of livable space out of it. She laid layers of carpet down and covered the walls with large pieces of fabric. If my mother would have been a hippie, the place would have made more sense. The only thing missing was a hooka.

For furniture, she moved twin beds down and added lots of cushions to create an L-shaped sofa. My brother found a large wooden cable spool for a table and she moved the television down and propped the old Phillips on bookshelf. In the winter, we had to run an electric heater and still cover up with blankets. Every Sunday we watched Walt Disney presents the Wonderful World of Disney and the Ed Sullivan show.

I only have two other distinct memories from that basement “family room.” One was the afternoon I almost choked to death on a piece of ice because I loved to chew ice.

The second memory sounds cliche, but it’s all true. In the Fall of the second half of my 5th grade, I invited the kids from my new school to my house for a birthday party, my 10th birthday. I was so excited. We cleaned up the house and planned to do most of the party downstairs in the basement cave. My mother made a birthday cake and punch which she laid out on a colorful cloth on the spool table. But of course, we all know what happened: no one came. Not one.

It’s hard to believe, but an anxiety still comes over me, to this day, of having an event or party and no one showing up.

People discount childhood losses but I believe they do paint indelible marks on the heart. Rejection is a painful lesson and demands full resilience. My mother fought my pain that day with anger and her favorite refrain, “They’re just jealous.” I never could figure out what those kids might have been jealous of, our poor house? our hippie cellar? our foreign-accented mother?

The adult me assumes that the whole party must have been something I concocted and although I asked the kids at school, my mother didn’t know the protocols of contacting the parents. But the kid me still remembers that interminable waiting, waiting, waiting.

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