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.
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.”
Initially, they arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, their journey from Bremenhaven, Germany, paid for by the good Reverend Carter and his Methodist Church. The voyage took at least two weeks and they rode on the deck of the ship the entire way, sometimes getting chairs, sometimes not. I believe it was February.
The ship landed in New York’s Ellis Island, and after all of their documents were reviewed, they were shuttled to Grand Central Station where they waited many hours for the train that would take them to Charlotte. Only my mother spoke any English at all.
As part of the agreement they had to sign in Europe, the sponsoring family had to find work for my father. The work provided was a railroad yard where he was the only white man, besides the foreman. This was not an issue for Karlis except that he was not allowed to partner with a negro. While they carried railroad ties in pairs (rightly so) he had to carry them alone. Within days, he hurt his back. My mother, incensed at the injustice of him working alone, was confronted by her first real taste of racism. (From that day forth, she championed all “underdog” causes.)
Shortly after quitting that job, my parents moved us again; this time, to Indianapolis, Indiana where a small but thriving Latvian community had sprung up. It was here that my father worked until his late sixties, along with my mother, as a janitor.
In Latvija, my father had been the chief of police in his home town of Gulbene. He was a long way from home.
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.
But it’s true, when I was a little girl, milk was delivered to our front door. The glass bottles, quart-sized, were filled with pasteurized milk, which meant a layer of cream was at the top of each one. We would put out the empty bottles in the morning in a “metal milk box” and the milkman would come by and make the exchange.
Since I was a latch key kid, it would be my job to pick up the milk after school and carry it to the kitchen and put it away.
I was a bit of a lazy thing. Aren’t all kids, just a little? And the last thing I wanted to do was make two trips. I was instructed to make two trips. I was encouraged to make two trips, but I still did anything I could to avoid it. That meant, at nine years old, I was carrying four quarts of milk in glass containers and whatever else my mother might have ordered from the dairy.
One day, when I was schlepping as fast as I could with an armful of milk, I just couldn’t hang on any longer. The bottles were slick and cold and heavy. What to do?
Idea: toss them on something soft!
And so, on my way to the kitchen, and yes, it may seem odd, but my mother’s bedroom was the old kitchen/dining room, so her twin bed was on the way, and that’s where I dropped four quarts of milk. Every last one of those bottles broke and milk was everywhere.
I was punished severely for that stupidity, a pounding I would never forget.
So, what did I learn? Don’t toss more than one thing on the bed at a time. And no, I did not learn to make two trips.
We always had boarders in our old house. Only two still have names that stick in my memory. One was Charlie and the other, Mr. Ferris. But there were many more that came and went; but those two must have been there the longest.
Charlie was a sweet old codger. I remember him with gray/black hair and rough calloused hands, missing teeth, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth or fingers at all times. I’m pretty sure he rolled his own. He laughed a lot and he would talk to me as we sat on the front porch watching the rain or people pass by. His most distinguishing feature was his left ring finger. Somehow, as a result of an accident, a sloppy repair of his hand bent his finger permanently down into his palm. I remember watching his hand whenever he did anything, the oddness of it.
As a child, I thought of our house as big, but really, it wasn’t; the rooms were good-sized and square with high ceiling, but we only lived on the main floor in three rooms until my father began renovations, adding a kitchen and back porch. There was a fourth room, the “front” room, like a parlor, but that was rented to Charlie. Upstairs, there were three rooms, each with a sink but no toilet. Everyone, boarders and family alike, shared a single bathroom on the main floor. Back then, the bathroom had a tub (no shower), a toilet (precariously placed facing the hallway door), and a small sink. There was a storage area under the stairs we accessed through the bathroom and where my mother stored her wringer washer.
While my father was alive, he handled the boarders, collected rents, and made repairs as needed. Most of this was accomplished with his minimal English and lots of gesturing. My mother saved the log book he kept of the rents. I may still have that too, in a box in the basement. Like her, unable to throw it away.
The other boarder, Mr. Ferris, outlasted them all. He had the largest upstairs room and although my mother let the other boarders go, one after the other, she never had the heart to ask Mr. Ferris to leave. He was a Mr. Magoo lookalike and had a mysterious accent always wore a tie. He was amiable but in a limited way. He never sat outside with the rest of the men and even when he was the only boarder left, he stayed to his room most of the time. He gave me the creeps.
Was there any negative impact on my life from these renters? Oh, there were occasional embarrassments when I would forget to latch the hallway bathroom door, the same door the men used, but other than that, their existence remains a general blur. As an adult, I know they were essential to our family’s ability to pay off the mortgage, which was all of $7,000, and yet, a small fortune for my parents. But did it matter to me personally? Was it dangerous? Was I damaged?
It simply was the way it was. Just like everything else. We were poor and I didn’t really get it. I didn’t know until I got into my middle grades when I began to see how other kids lived. But until then, I was blissfully content, dirty bare feet and stubbed toes, hanging out on the porch with the guys.
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.