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Spilled Milk

I hate giving away my age so often by telling the kinds of stories about my childhood that reveal something that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been seen by one and (maybe) even two generations.

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.

The Shack

My mother called it the shack. It stood at the corner of the alley facing 10th street next to the green duplex. If that house would have been in Appalachia, it would have seemed more appropriate, or if it was on a farm somewhere, you could have called it the “old house” grandpa built. Instead, it was one of our neighbors. No one knew what really held it together.

I was forbidden to go inside the shack under any circumstances. My parents considered the family suspicious, dirty, and probably dangerous.

In the summertime, the shack was downright entertaining. All kinds of people would pull up to the house from hot rods to trucks to motorcycles. It was a loud house. People were screaming at each other all the time but it was never clear if it was out of anger or normal conversation. It was a drinker’s house and a smoker’s house. It was a laughing house.

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who lived there. It was something like Brenda or Sue or maybe it was a combination like Brenda Sue. And in her own way, she became my friend. And of course, I had to go inside. It was an adventure, another world: men in undershirts sat around the tiny black and white television, grandmas and daughters sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking iced tea from Ball jars, toddlers walked around in dirty underwear and heavy diapers, while younger guys with slick greasy hair drank milk from cartons as they stood by the open refrigerator door or picked at a guitar on the stairs. There was always music playing, day and night, on the radio.

Brenda Sue was worldly to me. She wore make-up and she teased her hair and she wore curlers at night. She smoked cigarettes, used a lot of swear words, and listened to country music. She probably wasn’t more than three or four years older than I was, but she acted much more so. Brenda Sue soon became my source of information for all the dirty stuff and bad words I would ever need to know.

I don’t remember who ratted me out for hanging out at Brenda Sue’s. It might have been my brother or Gladys or maybe my mother just figured it out. I’ll never know.

The shack finally burned down. It was a miracle no one was hurt. Like putting a match to a very dry, dead pine tree, the house blazed and was gone in what seemed like minutes; then nothing was left but black timbers, a brick chimney, fluttering papers, and roaches. Every house on the block got a share of the shack’s roaches.

Later, as young adults, my brother and I would reminisce about the rednecks and white trash from our old neighborhood. We would tell stories of the fights and the brick throwing and the filthy graffiti. But there was another part of me that also remembered the people, the ordinary people, who had made a life in a ramshackle little house on 10th street.

What’s in a Name?

Being born of foreign parents, for the longest time, I had no idea I would have a problem with my name. Latvian was spoken in my home exclusively since my father, already sixty-three at my birth, never learned English. Both my brother and I gathered up English off the street.

My family called me Irmite (3 syllables, short “i’s”) or Irmi which are diminutives for Irmgarde. Before hitting the neighborhood and other American environments, I didn’t know how foreign-sounding and difficult my name would be for people. I didn’t know kids wouldn’t be able to say it or that I would need a short explanation or “pronunciation” lesson every time I met someone new. (This is true even today.)

Of course, I’m not the only kid in the world who has suffered the slings and arrows of a difficult moniker. We should probably create an online club, perhaps a 12-step program to accept our need for a “higher power” to deal with it. I have always marveled at modern parents who strap children with oddball spellings and sounds. What are they thinking?

Anyway, by the time I reached middle school, most of my schoolmates and neighbors had settled into calling me Irm, pronounced Erm, along with all of its rhyming sequences. It was not until college or maybe even later that I decided to insist people try saying the more Germanic “i” which is shorter and closer to the “e” in ear than anything else. I’ll never forget one woman who discarded my correction and said, “my mouth can’t make that sound.” Nice.

As I entered adulthood and lived away from childhood friends and family, I began looking for new names. I would give myself a new name and a new identity. But, it’s an odd thing to “rename” oneself. Secretly, I had hoped for some little catchy nickname that would catch on with the crowd. Never happened. Never. No cute little “cricket” or “bubbles” or “Bam-bam.”

Two of my erstwhile attempts at renaming myself were Zoe (the playwright years) and Shiloh (the cocktail waitress years), neither of which fit me particularly or stuck. I even tried initials, my middle name (Inese – 3 syllables, short vowels), and different spellings. Nada.

Today, nothing much has changed in the name department. I have changed my last name by marriage twice, but I have made peace with my first name and given up all other aliases. It’s a rough peace, but acceptance all the same. I discovered my name means “guardian of a small enclosure” and so I imagine myself as a shield for those beloved few who have stayed close over the years: my deep friends, my family, and my inner self, who will always be Irmite. It’s enough. It will do.