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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When it was finished, the hut had one tiny window and a smaller than average wooden door, a slanted roof that was anchored in two places, the garage wall at the back and the trunk of the tall white sycamore that littered our yard each season with a variety of cast-offs like crackling bark, huge leaves and woody balls that broke apart into seeds. Inside, there were two built-in benches for seating or sleeping, lots of old pillows, and a table at the back for snacks. I believe it had electricity at some point, a primitive work light of some kind, but that could be my own fabrication. In general, I thought of the hut as dark and mysterious and sometimes a little scarey.
At some point, my brother lost interest in the secrecy of the hut and for a few years, it was my own haven, a little house I could sweep and pretty up with a curtain on the window, a vase of small flowers, and a few pictures on the walls. I would sit in there alone, write in my diary, and daydream about the boys I wish I could have, those brilliant boys of my middle school years.
I have some blacked-out time from the hut years that is somewhat disturbing. But what I can I do? I remember some hanky-panky with my brother’s friend, Eddie, who wanted to “show me his” if I “showed him mine.” But, did I? That transaction doesn’t seem like it would be very interesting to a teenaged boy, but who knows? Besides, these are unclear memories, are they worth sorting out? Do I want to remember? And if I did remember something unpleasant, what would change?
In the hut’s heydays, my brother and his pals spent hours working on their hobbies: cars and models mostly, but really, their big projects were the scrapbooks of naked (or nearly naked) women. Oh, they were pretty clever with their creations, the first ten pages were filled with trendy car pictures but then, voila, on the next page, a centerfold from Playboy was meticulously cut out and pasted in. How risque could Playboy of the late 50’s have been? Surely innuendo and allusion played the greater role of raising the boys’ libidos. Many years later, I asked my brother about these times of secrets and sexy pictures; he looked at me like I was nuts. No way, he said. Not him. Didn’t it happen? Did I make all that up? Apparently, those were not memories he had chosen to keep.
What happens to such lost incidents? If the players themselves have forgotten them; where are they? Do they still exist somewhere? Supposedly, as we grow older, the memories of our childhood come back more vividly. I wonder, will these “lost” memories return as well?
Were there other secrets of the hut? Was it a dark and sinister place or was it just an innocent shelter where children could be masters of their destiny for an afternoon? I’ll never know for sure.