Category Archives: Writing Roots
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.
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.
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.
On the other side of our house, was a very similar home to our own except the porch was made with yellow brick instead of red. Both houses had wood siding and large, old-fashioned windows that whistled in the wind. The backs of our houses were different because of my father’s renovations.
Nonetheless, the house seemed to rotate families in and out of it, both from the top floor and the bottom. I’m guessing the house was a rental which would explain the revolving inhabitants. For about a year (maybe longer, I don’t remember), one of those families had a daughter my age. We played together as best we could, but she was not allowed to come over to our house when my mother wasn’t home during the day(my elderly father was my caregiver until he died and he was not deemed safe). As a result, she and I invented a number of games that could be played across the fence from catch, to a form of volleyball, and so forth. It worked out fine.
One day, we got into a different kind of throwing game that escalated into a battle of wills: who could aim and throw a rock over the fence and hit the other person. The game wasn’t created in anger but out of a typical argument of “yes, I can” and “no, you can’t.”
I watched the rock sail over the fence and I had plenty of time to move out of the way, but part of the game was holding still: a type of “chicken.” To dodge, whether struck or not, would be losing, yielding, giving in. That was not my way.
And so the rock, about the size of a fist, struck me solidly in the head at my hairline. We looked at each other in shock. We would be in lots of trouble. We ran, sobbing. She to the other side of the yard under a tree and me to the house.
When my father saw me, his nursing instincts did not manifest. Instead, he became angry and incensed that a neighbor child would hurt me. Blood poured out of the wound, down my face and onto my clothes. He grabbed me by thehand and we marched next door to show the girl’s mother the damage done. Since my father couldn’t speak English and I was screaming bloody murder, I can’t imagine what the poor woman thought or understood of what happened. There we stood at her front door, my father raving in Latvian, me hiccuping and crying while at the other end of the house, I could see through to the back, my little friend was splayed across their screen door screaming, “I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to do it.”
The memory folds there. I’m pretty sure there was no hospital visit nor a doctor visit. Perhaps the girl’s mother did first aid. I don’t know. I had no lasting scars, except for the blood and tears that neither of us could explain to the adults in our lives.
She started smoking when she was just a kid. Her mother hated it, but then there wasn’t much Mama could do about it. Both Aunt Selma and Mama would sit most nights and go through a pack and a half at the kitchen table on their own. ‘Course, back then, cigarettes were cheap. Everything was cheap, but not cheap enough; never enough money to buy her something nice. She learned how to be clever with the old stuff. She had to make herself look on purpose. So she teased up the big hair and drew on the dark make-up and kept all her clothes nice and tight. That’s how she kept their eyes lookin’ at her and not at the clothes she wore. She kept them imaginin’ what was underneath.
She hit that puberty pretty early. What was she, twelve, maybe eleven? Well, Bobby Stillman didn’t care about that anyway. And neither did Uncle Ralph or Brewster or that army boy, what was his name? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. She got what she wanted too. She got her own bedroom up in the hot corner of the attic and she got all the cigarettes she wanted and she even got stuff she could trade in the neighborhood. And sometimes, those boys would take her to the movies if they could feel up her bizkit.
That summer was fine really, until she had to go to that damn school. She told her mama she didn’t need no school. She hadn’t gone to school in Sebreeze much, why bother? But it didn’t matter what she said or did, they made her go; sometimes she got stuck with the little fat foreign girl, but sometimes Brewster would give her a ride on his bike. Either way, when she got there, it was always the same, humiliating. For God’s sake, she was twice their age and twice as tall. Just because she couldn’t read didn’t mean she had to be with the little kids, did it? Did it? How many times did she ask them?
How much can a persona take? How many times did she sock the big boys in the face for mocking her? How many times did she sit out in the hallway by herself? How many times did she burn that teacher’s ears with her cussing? Burn. Yeah, well, that’s where the real power was in the end. She caught the power of fire and when she did, they left her alone. She singed a few boys; torched some books, and she charred a few bathroom wastebaskets.
In no time at all, she knew fire was her closest friend. She learned how to light a match from a matchbook with one hand. She could drip wax in just the right amount to get a candle to stand up next to the bed without leaving a mark. She could light brown wet leaves and make smoke scares. And she could burn a house down.
They said nobody died in that old house and in some ways, that was true, except Uncle Ralph, he had passed out so he got burned pretty bad; little Jo-Jo was the one who smelled the smoke and woke up the whole damn house. Kind of a shame. So Jasmine just sat on Kenny’s porch next door and watched it burn. They never knew it was her; they never even considered it. No one never did. It was time for another one, soon. Yeah, her cigarette fingers itched.
Back in those days (do I have to say the year?), the Indianapolis school system handled bright students differently than they do now. Instead of creating enrichment classes or small sets of honor students in the same school, kids took an IQ test and were interviewed at the end of third grade to determine if they could handle “special classes” in a school usually outside their district.
The kids who qualified for these schools were driven to them by their parents (like a private school) or, in the case of families like mine whose parents worked or didn’t own a car (my mother didn’t learn to drive until I was in high school), we took a public bus everywhere.
Usually, it was the teachers in the smaller elementary schools who recommended students for these programs. In my brother’s case, he passed with flying colors and was transferred from our small, low-income School #10 to School #1 in the wealthier northeast corner of the city. He went from one success to another, whether it was science or math or music. Needless to say, it was my mother’s intention that I would follow in my brother’s shoes.
However, there were a few complications. First of all, since my birthday was in October, I was a “mid-termer.” This practice has been discontinued as well in which children who have not reached five must wait and begin kindergarten in January. No problem until my second grade teacher figured I was bright enough to skip part of second grade and bumped me up to third. And then my third grade teacher thought I was bright enough to skip part of third which meant I had to take my IQ test and competitive interview when I had just turned eight.
I didn’t pass. In fact, the interviewer said outright that I wasn’t ready. My mother was furious. She insisted I be enrolled in the program. I will never forget that conversation which ended with the man saying, “Fine. But, you must understand, your daughter will be at the bottom of the class.” Great.
On the contrary, it’s not great being at the bottom of a class of geniuses whose IQ’s probably ranged from 174-225. Did it kill me? No. Did it make me work hard? Yes. Did I fit in? No. Did I envy smart people? You betcha. In fact, smart is still one of the sexiest things a guy can bring to the table.
There weren’t a lot of kids my age on our block, but I worked with what I had. When I played with them, we usually created soap operas: domestic life, school life, doctor’s office. We would have long planning sessions about the set up: where we were, who was who, what should we wear, what props did we need, and what was going on. This was the best part of “let’s pretend.” Anything was possible in the planning. But once we started, I forbade the use of saying, “let’s pretend.”
My little friends never understood it. Everything would be fine; we’d be doing a breakfast scene for instance, and suddenly my friend would say, “let’s pretend we have a dog and he wants to come in.” I’d snap, “just do it, you don’t have to say what you’re going to do.” And on and on it would go. Every few seconds, the others would add to the game by saying, “let’s pretend.” It infuriated me and stopped being fun; I’d call it quits for the day.
When I played my brother’s version of “let’s pretend,” they all revolved around Davy Crockett, Rifleman, and Lone Ranger (to name a few). I was pretty much relegated to the character who died, was captured, or jailed: the Indian, the bank robber, the black hat. That got old too.
In the end, I think I enjoyed my private play the best. Did I mention that I was a child control-freak?
I didn’t have a lot of toys but I made full use of what we did have. When I played alone, I was no longer interested in domestic scenes at all. There were no baby dolls. I had a couple of adult type dolls (before the days of Barbie), and I would dress them up in costumes and create sweeping tales of fantasy, war, and tragedy: sometimes as the damsel in distress, sometimes the heroine.
Perhaps my oddest form of pretend play was with marbles. Whereas most children use marbles to play shooting games, which I did on occasion with my less important orbs, I had one set of special marbles who each had names, and with them, I would create intricate worlds and stories. Usually, I laid out these scenes of complex paths, villages, and countries on my parents’ double bed. These stories were about challenge, survival, and conquest. To this day, I’m not sure how I was able to imbue marbles with so many feelings and personalities, but I did. Casts of thousands.