Author Archives: Irmgarde Brown
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.
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.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.
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.
In actuality, I’m about 3/4 Latvian and only 1/4 German, but, culturally, it was enough to cause a problem in the emigrated Latvian societies of the fifties, sixties and throughout the Cold War.
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.
Walking with Papa
Hard to know, really, what is a true memory and what is based on an old photograph. I hate that. I hate the fact that my childhood memories are such a blur. I know the reason, I didn’t review them. Somewhere along the line, I must have decided that the memories weren’t valuable. Too late now.
There are a few stand out memories of my father nonetheless. I can remember walking the neighborhood streets with him. Back then, it didn’t really matter where we were going; I liked walking with him. He always wore a hat, a fedora, and carried a cane. I’m not sure he actually needed that cane; I thought he looked distinguished. He always held my hand, although it was rough with calluses, it was a very large hand, a carpenter’s hand, and it completely encircled my own. I felt safe. That is, except for the times I had to stand outside the store and wait. I was never allowed inside that store with the lower half of its windows and door painted jet black. I couldn’t see inside, I couldn’t see if Papa was coming. It was some years later before I realized our walks had a specific destination: the local liquor store.
My father was a drunk, an alcoholic. These are words I learned later in life. Back then, it was a walk and a smell. I have a few cursory images of him arguing with my mother and on a few occasions, he would be unwieldy and unsteady, and my mother would do her best to get him to bed. Considering that he was probably 6 foot and she was only 4’11”, this was no small feat. The worst memory for me is seeing my father passed out in a chair, half naked. It was my first glimpse of a man’s private area and it was frightening. How old could I have been?
Other flashes are of card games with men friends, feeding one of our critters (no, that’s a lie memory, we have a picture of him doing that), reading the Latvian newspaper, and smoking. He smoked everything from pipes to cigarettes; did he smoke cigars? I don’t remember.
The strongest memory of all is the last one I have of him alive. We were visiting him in the hospital, my mother and I (was my brother there?). According to my mother, he had been there a month and although there were days when he was doing very well and was up and about, on this day, he was under an oxygen tent (old school). I was too short to see him from the side of the bed because of the tent, so the nurse pulled out the side table and I stood at the up left corner, near his head. He swiveled his head and looked at me, really looked at me. I cried. He wept. But what did he say? What did he say? What did he say?
A few days later, my brother woke me up to get ready for school. He stood at the foot of my bed, shook my feet and told me to wake up.
“Papa is dead.”
“That’s not funny, Zig.”
“I’m not trying to be funny. Papa died last night. Mami went to the hospital. We have to go to school. get up.”
He was only fourteen. I was nine. And we went to school that day, without a father.
This is one exchange that has already found a home in my fiction, in Swan Children, when the mother dies and the oldest must tell his sister that the mother died. “That’s not funny.”