Category Archives: Mother
Driving a Car
In today’s western culture, most people can’t even imagine not having a car, or at the least, most had a driver’s license, just in case. But for my family, in the fifties, such a luxury was unthinkable. We took the public bus everywhere we could, including school, since my brother and I both attended special programs outside our “districts.” School busses were unknown to our community at the time.
When my brother went to high school, he was offered the opportunity to take “driver’s education” as one of his regular classes. This paved the way for our family to have a driver at last (around 1962), for good or for ill. Somehow, my mother, not long widowed, bought a a 1951 Chevy for $50.00. It threw a rod within a year and then we got a 1954 Chevy which my mother decided she would learn to drive. Considering her size, about 4’11,’ she basically looked through the steering wheel.
It took about three years for my mother to successfully pass her driving tests. In the Latvian community, she became the driver for many of the older ladies. My brother and I felt anyone who was in the car with her was basically putting their lives at risk. Amazingly enough, she had few accidents. The one time she ran over a median, she wrote a letter to the editor about the poor placement of the median and cc’d the Mayor. The city paid for her damages.
My brother managed to have enough car accidents for all of us. I wouldn’t say he was reckless, but he was impetuous. His worst accident caused several broken bones including his jaw. He lost a lot of weight that year since they set it incorrectly and he had to have it re-broken and wired shut a second time. To this day, he drinks very few shakes or smoothies.
I was younger than most of my classmates and thereby, did not take driver’s ed. until my senior year in high school. This was the give-away to my age and many taunted me for only being sixteen. Nonetheless, I was anxious to get out from the passenger side of my mother’s car.
Mr. Dill was my driver’s instructor and he found my name completely unprounounceable. Generally, he avoided saying my name altogether, but one time, while I was driving and two sophomores were in the back seat waiting for their turns at the wheel, a squirrel ran across the road in front of me. Naturally, I braked. Mr. Dill went apoplectic, stretched his foot over to my side to gun the car and said, “Step on the gas, Imengurdie, step on the gas.” The next week was unbearable with a new nickname to mock me and a close call with squirrel murder.
The Black Cat
My mother loved animals. All animals. Both her back and front yards had become overgrown over the years as she was unable to maintain them. She was unconcerned and considered her yard her private “woods.” Wildflowers abounded along with perennials, bushes, trees and tree seedlings, and all manner of growing surprises. And critters.
She had chipmunks and squirrels and snakes and mice. And of course, one of her besties, the opossum who lived in the falling down shed. A great variety of birds frequented her special feeding station every day, many of them so familiar that they sat waiting for her every morning and evening.
For a season, she had a cat (trained to never chase the other critters) and even a dog. The cat, Adatinya, died at a ripe old age, literally collapsing at my mother’s feet. Mom considered it an honor. The dog became problematic early on; a stray who had adopted my mom, he wouldn’t stay in the yard. The neighbors complained and in the end, the dog catcher got him. Mom cried.
This is just backstory for the tale to come, to demonstrate her love for living things. That is, until the black cat took her over the edge.
It was a beautiful day, so Mom decided to sit out front, crack the storm door so Adatinya could come out and sit with her while Mom did her word search puzzles. Sure enough, Adatinya slipped out and lay at my mother’s feet until, out of nowhere, a black cat jumped out of the bushes and attacked Adatinya. Mom managed to block the cat from giving chase into the house. Her blood pressure skyrocketed, the black cat fled.
About 45 minutes later, Mom decided to try again. She cracked the storm door and Adatinya came out after a time. Mom immersed herself in the puzzles. But of course, the black cat attacked again. This time, the cat managed to follow Adatinya into the house, around and around they went. Mom used a broom to cast the demon out of her house. Her midday peace was ruined.
A few hours later, she tried again, cracked the storm door and all. The sun was close to setting, the birds were chirping. It was the golden hour.
How was it possible that the black cat would return? But it did and with a vengeance, once again slipping through my mother’s hands and giving hostile chase. My mother was apoplectic and determined to catch the devil.
After several trips around the house, Mom caught the cat. She held him (her?) down on the floor and began to strangle the life out of him. The cat’s bowels gave way. With only seconds to go, Mom cried out, dismayed.
Never had she hurt another creature. She let go. The cat was very still for several moments and then slowly stood and left her home on his own.
Mom wept. She called me to tell me all about it, in tears. The cat never came back again.
“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.
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.