Author Archives: Irm Brown
“No use crying over spilled milk!” is a well worn proverb and most likely, evolved from Europe where fairy lore was much beloved (fairies love milk). But, apparently, my Latvian mother was not a strong adherent.
To be fair, she is a product of the great depression that affected Europe nearly as much as the U.S. She knew what it meant to be poor and hungry. And then there was the Second World War when food was rationed and, unless a generous farmer lived nearby, milk and butter were rare.
That’s the back story to the physical realities that caused a brutal slapping across my head and face for trying to carry too many glass quarts of milk from the milk box into the house and to the kitchen (Note: Our portion of the house was like an odd railroad apartment: big room was family room, medium sized room was master bedroom, and kitchen. My brother and I shared an small room off the big room. We shared the bathroom with three upstairs “tenants.”) Anyway . . . to avoid dropping the quarts on the floor, I dropped them instead on my mother’s bed, thinking it was soft and would absorb the jolt. I didn’t consider the bottled striking one another. What a mess.
I was ten.
There is a deeper message here. The yelling and hitting obviously made a deep impression since that incident was over fifty years ago and I remember it vividly. But I also learned that my mother was deeply triggered by loss and waste.
As an immigrant after WW2, in 1951, she and my elderly father (25 years her senior), and my 5-year old brother [I was still in the womb], suffered many losses to come to this country. Identifying as Latvians after the war, they were shuttled from one displaced persons’ camp to another. With each truck ride, something more was left behind. No room, no room.
Before the war, in the late 30’s, my mother worked as a nanny for a wealthy German ship baron with a great fleet of merchant ships. As repatriation began in the 30’s to return to “Mother Germany,” this shipmaster decided to move his entire operation to Germany. Did Herta want to go with the family? They promised to take care of her. Besides, she spoke both fluent German and Latvian and some decent English to boot. She was a vibrant 20-something and it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. Or, so it seemed.
How could she have known what the war and the Third Reich would bring to her small bubble of a life? How could she have known that she would lose her only brother to the war, never see her father again or her stepmother, and within ten years, have nothing but a single trunk of clothes, pictures, books and memorabilia. And a guitar that was left at Grand Central Station: no room, no room.
In this country, during the 50’s, she and my father did the best they could. He spoke no English. They were janitors mostly and lived off the generosity of others. Eventually, my mother got a full-time office job as a clerk (a job she held for 30 years). They bought an old house near downtown Indianapolis and rented three rooms upstairs to make ends meet.
Then my father died at age 72. Once again, the loss overwhelmed her.
I believe, now, the anxiety and fear of raising two children alone in this strange new land, with very little income, no car (or driver’s license), and no ready understanding of how this country worked, took a great toll on her psyche.
Yes. On the day I broke those bottles of milk, they also broke my mother.
My daughter, Lily, is working on updating her Russian paperwork. She came to this country at 15 by adoption and at 25, ten years after her arrival, she was not enthusiastic about renewing her citizenship. But times have changed and she is more than ready, despite Covid, despite the hassles and costs, she is determined to codify her heritage. I am proud of her.
But it does make me wonder about my own identity. Not exactly a first generation immigrant, but the daughter of immigrants who arrived in this country from Latvia, via Germany, in February of 1951. Eight months later, I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a fairly tight community of Latvians in Indianapolis at the time, and my father’s connections brought us there from North Carolina where our “sponsors” were. The racism there sent my parents fleeing North.
And yet, when my father died in 1963, my mother was one of the “early” widows in that community. She was not 100% Latvian, but half German, half Latvian. It was another mark against her. A widow with German ancestry. Most Latvian hated the Germans for all those years of occupation. They hated the Russians equally.
My mother lost her entree into the community through my father and slowly, bit by bit, we were ostracized as a family. But truth be told, my mother believed assimilation into America was a better choice anyway. And so we did. Less and less Latvian was spoken at home and American ways were adopted. We still attended Latvian events, but we didn’t have the money to buy the authentic “costumes” or belong to the right organizations. We wore the red, white and blue.
And so it was, that I and my older brother were not quite Latvian, certainly not German, but not quite American either. We walked a thin line between them all. When my mother was growing up in Riga, her German mother had convinced her that all things German were the way to go. And so, in the second World War, she “repatrioted” to Germany along with her employer for whom she was a nanny.
But it was her facile use of languages, (Latvian, German, and English) that earned her opportunities for emigration to the United States, despite her elderly husband (25 years her senior) and a 5 year old child.
All of this is to say, that my daughter’s journey makes me wonder if I have lost something precious. Despite my mother’s German mother, Herta was born and raised in Latvia and so was my father. I am a Latvian-American. I can still speak the language, but not well. When my late husband, Mike, and I adopted two children, we adopted them from Lativa. It was an emotional visit for me.
Does it matter now? I’m not sure. At one point, I had to make a choice. When we adopted our boys in 1996, I had to choose whether to continue to speak Latvian to them. It was not a task I was up to. And so, they have grown up American. While my half-sister, Inta, who lived in Estonia was still alive, I was reminded of my Latvian history each time we connected. But even she, after 50 years in Tallinn, became more Estonian than Latvian. Her child, Juri, and grandchildren know little Latvian, despite it’s proximity. We connect today in English, if at all.
There are families who maintained their rich Latvian heritage in the States. And to this day, they still speak Latvian in the home and whenever possible, congregate in the summer at Garezers (Michigan), or in community centers in their cities. My beloved cousin, Gaida, and her children, from Boston, maintained and sustained their heritage. When I am with her adult daughter, it is a type of embarrassment and sorrow that I am a weak speaker of my parents’ tongue. She is gracious to me, nonetheless.
Who am I? I am an American born woman to immigrants from Latvia, a small country on the Baltic. For many years, my parents’ country was under USSR control and for this reason, most Latvians are fiercely anti-Russian. I can’t blame them. And yet, my American husband and I adopted a teenager from St. Petersburg. We broke the norm. My half-sister was appalled.
Who am I? I love America because it gave my family every chance possible. My brother and I both attended college and I went on to two Master’s Degrees. Only in America. I have a sensitivity to the foreigner and respect people of different origins. I revel in people who speak more than one language.
I am an American. But my family needed a “sponsor” to reach these shores. They needed a helping hand. They were not the normal immigrants. My father was “too old.” And yet, my mother succeeded in breaking through all those barriers. I am the daughter of a fighter who would not accept “no” as an answer to her plight. I am the daughter of a man who spoke no English. I am the daughter who learned English on the street.
So, there was a turning point. I married an American and one of our primary connections was our faith. He did not speak Latvian, and really, why should he? In order to engage fully in a Latvian community (in Baltimore), we would have to give as much time to that connection as we gave to our local church. I chose my faith over my heritage. Did I do the right thing? Who’s to say?
My daughter, who has been here fifteen years, has chosen her heritage. She is fully engaged with the language and the culture, and I admire her for her fortitude. My boys, who were much younger (4 and 5) when they came to this country, did not have the same freedom of choice. They no longer speak Latvian. It’s a kind of sorrow, a kind of loss.
Now, my husband is gone (deceased in 2014) and really, there is nothing keeping me from re-engaging with my heritage? Will I do it? I doubt it. I respect my Latvian friends from my childhood, but it was not my way. I am a hybrid.
Here’s a phrase I abhor.
What in the world would someone be thinking? Can this phrase actually “soften” the blow of what comes next? I don’t think so.
Love has lost its power in today’s culture. Between “loving” certain foods and loving a piece of clothing or loving a movie, the use of the expression of loving a person has become quite lame. The last thing we need is to chip away at the full meaning of love in a relationship. Life together is already difficult.
Love should not have qualifiers. The whole point of love is the way it encompasses non-judgmentalism, acceptance, endurance, forgiveness, and patience.
I actually had someone say, “I love you, but I don’t like that outfit on you.” I would assume the person wouldn’t like my outfit whether they loved me or not.
Oh I suppose the phrase could be used in combination with another feeling. For instance, “I love you, but you make me angry.” Does adding “I love you” make it less searing
to be angry? Does the person on the receiving end of your anger need to hear the proviso? Besides, the only person who “makes” you angry is you. Anger is a response. Love is an active verb.
Instead, because I love you, I can tell you the truth.
My two point five grandson lives with me; that means my adult daughter also lives with me (a typical millennial situation: limited funds etc.). I am retired. Almost every morning and evening, Leo and I have the routine of walking the dog, a 10-year old, one-eyed Boston Terrier who acts like the energizer bunny. Last night, the walk was heavily interrupted with stops and I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I complained to my daughter about the slow going. She said I was exaggerating.
This morning, I counted the stops. That’s right, 36 stops to get around a block and a half, whether it was for Rocky or Leo, it was a trial in patience and discovery.
Why do we stop? Naturally, for Rocky, it’s marking the way, sniffing the previous four-legged travelers, and ultimately finding the perfect spot to dump. Unfortunately, he seems to have a bad stomach today and there were stops to chew on grass as well.
Leo, on the other hand, had a much broader variety of reasons to halt progress: pick up sticks; find large rocks and try to lift them; find small rocks and toss them; find extra long grass and yank it; visit neighbor’s urban chickens (meet human owners who reveal the chicken names: Batman, Chickie, and PacMan; jump over one-inch breaks in sidewalk, wait at street and/or alley crosswalks; walk six times back and forth on yellow street barrier leftover from the 4th of July parade (hello, public works?); watch a squirrel climb a tree; examine black rubber thingy on the sidewalk; watch a cat that watches us; venture up other people’s sidewalks; review letters on a political yard sign; sit in the dew-laden grass just because he can; stand under a crape myrtle waiting for “Bibi” to shake the flowers and water droplets onto his head; look for the dog Skipper who lives in the little white house (not available apparently today); stand and then jump off a water/sewer contraption in someone’s yard (daily); walk the bottom step of a duplex and consider making a big jump (not yet); climb over wooden beams that line a driveway; watch Rocky poop; visit second yard that has 4 chickens; throw magnolia tree leaves into a puddle; and watch the garbage guys pick up our trash.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world. What will tomorrow bring?
Zambia, like many African countries, is a collection of dichotomies. Life and death happens around everyone in quick succession. For many years, particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, people were dying faster than they were living. AIDS struck like a thief in the night, taking both adults and children.
I have been reading a wonderful memoir called Warrior Princess by Princess Kasune Zulu, who grew up in Zambia but now lives in Chicago. She has been a great force in providing help to her people here through a variety of organizations and networking. But as a child and young adult, she was surrounded by the specter of death and dying.
In the short time I have been here, several relatives of teachers and staff have died. Traditionally, the relatives do not change their clothes or bathe until the body is laid to rest, sometimes days later. The “funeral” encompasses all of these days. Also, many travel far distances to attend the final day of this funeral. As a kindness and in the spirit of many small businesses, the Village supports many of these funeral days for staff by providing food and transportation and often, even the burial plot and stone.
At the same time, there have also been several births, most recently a young son to a teacher. Births are not an easy thing here. There are no medications of any kind, the women must bring to the hospital their own blankets, plastic sheeting for the afterbirth, a bucket, large bottle of bleach, and food. The women are discouraged from crying out in pain and therefore, endure much pain in silence, tears flowing freely. Children often go without names for some many days: after all, the child could die.
Today was a different kind of funeral or memorial service, primarily a white one. Kathleen and Benedict (my hosts), were asked to officiate the service for the 95 year old mother of a family friend. It was held outside on the beautiful grounds of Ibis Gardens (a conference center/resort across the road from the Village). The teens who sing on the worship team at the Village of Hope church were invited to participate in the service. There was an odd mash up of people, the Ibis owner and his extended family, the staff, and a few of us from the Village. After the gentle service, lunch was served to all, made in lovely Ibis fashion with traditional foods as well as simple fare. One relative had a rescued monkey whose mother was killed for food, another friend’s pre-teen daughter climbed the tree, many ate their meals on the grass, and still others clustered in small social circles for conversation. Most dressed nicely but casually, and generally sandals were the norm, no matter the age of the person.
There are other examples of life and death. Pets are generally around for service (cats are mousers and dogs are watch-animals). The cats live as they can and eat what they forage. They have kittens: some live and some die. It’s survival of the strong. Chickens roam free and often become a meal. It’s rural and it’s Africa. And that’s just how it is. Life is a challenge. Death is pushed away as long as possible. But there is a toll to be paid.
Despite all of my best intentions to continue writing about my Zambia adventure, the impact of the Restore Church team arriving at the Village and School of Hope, to help with the library. What a crazy mad time this was. And so full of love and God’s grace.
And best of all, most of them were young enough to find the work and the heat no barrier to getting things done. They emptied a good portion of the Container that arrived within days of their own landing and the guys put up all the shelving (with no instruction book), and the women either worked on the books (entering them into an Excel Accession list, cleaning, or hauling the boxes to and fro) as well as the nurses helping out at the Clinic and another did at least six presentations of her puppet/music/bible story performance. What a hit with the kids!!! And of course, there was the worship as three of them lead or participate on our church worship teams. And the wonder of this was that the U.S. team worked hand in hand with the Village Teens who make up their local worship team.
Here they are:
Maranda, Amy, Tara, Irm, Kate, Allie, Emily, Stella, Tiffanie, and Shelley
Gordon, Chad, Nate, and Larry
A team is only as strong as its weakest link : there weren’t any. There were sweaty days and days of rain and mud. There were meals together every morning, noon, and evening. There was special time set aside for one or two team members to visit of the children’s cottages each evening. There an evening debrief and prayer every evening. There was music and laughter and there were tears.
And many said they would return to serve again. From the 600 plus children at the school and the 89 kids in the village (just in the time they were here, 6 children were accepted into the village – the prison kids, the ones who were born in prison and were looking at being raised in the prison if arrangements hadn’t been made to bring the toddlers to the Village), there was touch and pictures and games and dancing and worship (two nights of which were completely initiated and led by the kids themselves). Power of God present. And then there was the last Sunday morning: after service, several of the kids were still fired up in song and just turned back around and re-entered the building to sing and dance some more. It was joy unleashed. I’ve never experienced such an outpouring from kids aged 9 – 18.
Working selflessly in a foreign country is a unique experience. There are always some hardships, like the spiders that wear sneakers and hang out on the walls, or the funny shuffling sounds of critters under your bed, the mattress that feels like a hippo slept in it first, and the challenges of off and on electricity and massive downpours (during the rainy season). But there are also sunsets to die for and fresh air and the sounds of children laughing and calling you Auntie and Uncle. There is music and voices that we rarely hear in the West and a blur of languages, both Nyanja and Bemba with British English in between. It’s a cacophony of sound, sights, colors, faces, and nature. It’s a circus. It’s a bumper car ride with the dirt roads and puddles.
Come and see for yourself.
In Zambia, all schools opened their doors on Monday, January 22nd, whether private or government schools. Although the cholera scare has lessened, there are still buckets with spigots and bleachy water everywhere. The kids get it. There is less hand shaking than usual.
The upper school (grades 8-12) start a 7:00 am. The primary grades and preschool start at eight. The upper school had a longish orientation from 7 – 9:30 or so to review the rules and expectations and other necessary explanations to changes in the setup. There is a school building about halfway done which puts at least 2 classes outdoors. (One small blessing from no rain.)
There is a phenomenon apparently with many 3rd world countries and Zambia is no different, that “equality” and “fairness to all” are important guides. In some ways, this doesn’t play out fairly at all, but the basic idea is that in times of severe need, all share in what is available. Whenever possible, an effort is made to level the playing field. (Of course, that is not to say that there is corruption and some people are getting way more than what is “fair,” but usually they don’t flaunt it.) Anyway, at the school, this is reflected in some pretty rigid uniform requirements: upper school is white shirts with blue pants or skirts (below the knee), black ties (for both boys and girls), black shoes, and white socks for the girls and black socks for the boys. For the lower school, it’s red shirts and blue shorts or skirts or pants, white socks for girls, black socks for boys and black shoes. For both sides, no ornamentation of any kind and no additional hairpieces for the girls that fall below the shoulder – nothing that would fall in a student’s face. The boys must have what we might call a military cut or buzz. No extra colors in the hair and no fancy designs.
I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed with trying to recognize the 80 +/- kids at the Village, but picking them out of an array of 600 was too much. Thankfully, they seemed extra friendly, but rarely did a name attach to a face. But the main point is that many of these children have far less than the kids at the Village. The uniforms are a source of pride for many, particularly if they are new. The School of Hope provides uniforms to grades PK to 4th grade for free, it’s part of the ministry, but they also have a team of ladies who sew the red shirts and blue pants/skirts for the kids up through 7th grade.
Despite the soaring temps into the 80’s, with no air conditioning or fans in the rooms, business goes on as usual. This is their norm and to my amazement, some of the kids also wore sweaters. An addition to the uniform for the colder months in June-August.
Kathleen, my host and friend, spent most of the first day seeing parent after parent, either to explain the necessity for their child to repeat a grade, or how sorry she is that there is not enough of a scholarship fund for their son/daughter/grandchild/niece/nephew/cousin, or simply to explain that the classes were full and better luck next year or the Village is full or the children are too young or too old and on and on and on it went all day. But my sister/friend is a woman of great patience and compassion. They do what they can to help. Her assistant, Mary, was also handling problems throughout the day. Both women had long waiting lines outside their meager offices.
But the kids were like kids on the first day of school, a little hesitant and unsure if it was their first time at the school, the older kids, cocky, and a sense of excitement everywhere, particularly during recess.
One teacher reminded me, for her and for many of the teachers at the school, it’s a calling to be there. They are there to spread the message of hope. On the first day, the results of the 12th grade exam were announced (an exam that takes about a month to complete at the end of the school year and determines whether the student can go on to college). College is the dream for many and both Hope School and the Village want to give each child that can, the opportunity to go on. They didn’t all pass, but the ones who did were ecstatic. They were one step closer to leaving the cycle that had dominated most of their lives. Hope is their rain.