Category Archives: Mother

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.

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.

Roaches

Although I had planned to write about some of the foods I enjoyed as a child, my reveries morphed into memories of our kitchen; and whenever I think about that old kitchen, I am creeped out about the roaches–again.

Even if I see only one roach today, in a restaurant or while visiting someone, a sick feeling rises up. I loathe them. There are not many living things that bring out the very worst in me, but roaches are the exception. I see them as having no redeeming value. And, as a I child, they made my life a living hell in the kitchen.

Here’s how it would happen. At night, in particular, when anyone would walk into the kitchen and pull the string for the top light, there was a massive scattering. Brown shiny wings and waving antennas running, jumping, leaping, and even flying for cover.

My mother refused to get bug spray, first of all, because of the cost, and secondly, she was some kind of 1950’s environmentalist. This was poison and if it could kill them, it could kill us. Instead, we were expected to manually squash them. (At any point in this story, if you would like to say or think, “ewwwww!,” feel free.) Sometimes, I would stand by the kitchen door and throw things into the kitchen in hopes that the scramble would be over before I turned on the light. Never.

I got so sick of it, I would avoid the kitchen at night whenever possible. Sometimes, I would let my mother lead the way, who cursed the bugs in German and squished them with her thumbs.

Eventually, and after much disgust and complaints, my mother fumigated professionally. She didn’t have much choice when the vermin began spreading into other areas of the house. When the tenants complained, she acquiesced. We actually fumigated twice. The second time after the alley house burned down and all of their roach tribes re-distributed to other homes on the block, including ours.

Years later, when I lived in Chicago with a friend for a few months, her apartment became infested. All the memories of my childhood flooded in and it was hard to be there, to sleep there, to walk into the kitchen. I finally had to to move when the cat bowl was filled, not with crunchy cat food, but with a teeming, squiggling, roach army. No. It was too much.

They say, and this is probably urban legend, when and if we ever have an atomic war, the roaches will survive. Just let that first bomb drop dead on my house. I can’t do it again.

Agnes Sofia Herta Elizabet Busch

Riga, circa 1900-1920

I asked my mother many times why she chose Herta as her primary name and I never believed her answer: she liked it best. With my own sensitivity to names, I thought she had chosen the least attractive, but in hindsight, I realize it was the German one of the set.

It’s hard for us to understand those cultural dynamics before and after the first World War. Although Latvian nationalism was high with their declaration of independence on November 17, 1917, there were still large numbers of Germans who remained in the country. They were very much the upper class with privileges, vestiges of nobility, estates, great wealth, and power.

My mother’s mother, Wilhemina, was one of four sisters who had grown up on a German Manor in Lithuania at a time when such nobility was breaking up and Russians were entering territories to make their claims to the lands and the peoples. The sisters left and headed for the New York City of their region: Riga. And it was here that Wilhemina stayed, married a Latvian barber, and bore a child. But her goal was that her daughter would have more than she had: a better education, a future, a chance to make something more of her life.

And so, in her mind, it was smarter to enroll her daughter in a German school, not a Latvian one, to embrace the power of the Baltic Germans and their influence and to meet “better” people.

As a result, my mother was raised in a dual culture, with one foot in Latvia and another in German history, traditions, and attitude. She was ambitious as a youngster and although they were poor as mice, living all together in one room, she, her younger brother Harry, her mother Wilhemina and her father, Paul. The men shared one bed and the women the other. She had only one dress and one pair of shoes and her black stockings were many times repaired. And yet, she went to the German school and she studied hard, even learning English and French because of her love for languages.

This was her life until she turned fifteen, when everything changed forever.

Rabbits, Ducks, Chickens & a Rooster

We didn’t live on a farm, remember? We lived within a mile of the Monument Circle of downtown Indianapolis. Nor did my mother grow up on a farm. There was absolutely no reason for her to believe that it made sense for us to have rabbits, ducks, chickens, and the nastiest, meanest, most belligerent rooster I have ever known or want to know.

Here’s how it all started.

My mother thought it was cute that the downtown stores would sell baby animals at Easter time. That’s right: tiny bunnies, ducklings, and chicks. So each year, my brother and I would be gifted one or more of these little critters. And they were wonderful: so sweet and cuddly. But they do grow up. The bunnies were first: the only reason I remember them is an album of black and white pictures with my father feeding them carrots by hand, a white one and a black one.

We actually had several rounds of chickens; some even laid eggs and my mom was thrilled to eat them. But the excitement of getting eggs was completely overwhelmed by the rooster who ruled the yard, the chickens, and ultimately, me. I don’t know how we ended up with a rooster. It must have been some kind of mistake in the chicks for Easter farm. Whatever it was, I hated that rooster. Whenever I had to go in the yard, he would chase me or if I didn’t see him and thought the coast was clear, he would jump out from behind the garage and scare me. He would peck at my legs and stare at me with his beady eye, left and then right. Eventually, the chickens died, but he lived on. One time I tried to run him down with my tricycle, but to no avail. I wish I could remember his exact passing, but it’s a dark spot in my memory. Did I repress my part in some dastardly deed? It’s possible. Certainly, he deserved it.

On the other hand, the year of the ducklings was another story. We all loved the ducks, even when they grew up. It was during this time (my mother had been a widow for awhile by then), that my mom did several upgrades to the house. In addition to switching our heat to gas (from wood), she also decided we didn’t need a bathtub and had a shower installed in its place. The bathtub was bequeathed to the ducks. That’s right. She had a friend dig a bathtub sized hole in our back yard so the ducks could have a pond. You can’t make this stuff up.

A couple of miles away from us the Central Canal weaved through the city. Along its shores were many domestic white ducks along with the migrating mallards (and a few mixed concoctions as well). We tried to convince my mother to take the ducks to the canal like everyone else did, but she would not let them go. Finally, there was only one left and she would not die. We named her Petunia. All right, I doubt there was a “we” in the naming of that duck. I did it.

Petunia didn’t seem to mind that she was the only duck on the block. She had her bathtub pond, she enjoyed being carried around by little kids, she quacked during church services next door, and she would eat just about anything out of my hand. I do remember her end, however, since I was the one who discovered her: drowned in the tub. All true.