Category Archives: Memory

Specific memories from my past.

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.

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.

Almost Latvian

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.”