In today’s western culture, most people can’t even imagine not having a car, or at the least, most had a driver’s license, just in case. But for my family, in the fifties, such a luxury was unthinkable. We took the public bus everywhere we could, including school, since my brother and I both attended special programs outside our “districts.” School busses were unknown to our community at the time.
When my brother went to high school, he was offered the opportunity to take “driver’s education” as one of his regular classes. This paved the way for our family to have a driver at last (around 1962), for good or for ill. Somehow, my mother, not long widowed, bought a a 1951 Chevy for $50.00. It threw a rod within a year and then we got a 1954 Chevy which my mother decided she would learn to drive. Considering her size, about 4’11,’ she basically looked through the steering wheel.
It took about three years for my mother to successfully pass her driving tests. In the Latvian community, she became the driver for many of the older ladies. My brother and I felt anyone who was in the car with her was basically putting their lives at risk. Amazingly enough, she had few accidents. The one time she ran over a median, she wrote a letter to the editor about the poor placement of the median and cc’d the Mayor. The city paid for her damages.
My brother managed to have enough car accidents for all of us. I wouldn’t say he was reckless, but he was impetuous. His worst accident caused several broken bones including his jaw. He lost a lot of weight that year since they set it incorrectly and he had to have it re-broken and wired shut a second time. To this day, he drinks very few shakes or smoothies.
I was younger than most of my classmates and thereby, did not take driver’s ed. until my senior year in high school. This was the give-away to my age and many taunted me for only being sixteen. Nonetheless, I was anxious to get out from the passenger side of my mother’s car.
Mr. Dill was my driver’s instructor and he found my name completely unprounounceable. Generally, he avoided saying my name altogether, but one time, while I was driving and two sophomores were in the back seat waiting for their turns at the wheel, a squirrel ran across the road in front of me. Naturally, I braked. Mr. Dill went apoplectic, stretched his foot over to my side to gun the car and said, “Step on the gas, Imengurdie, step on the gas.” The next week was unbearable with a new nickname to mock me and a close call with squirrel murder.
“No use crying over spilled milk!” is a well worn proverb and most likely, evolved from Europe where fairy lore was much beloved (fairies love milk). But, apparently, my Latvian mother was not a strong adherent.
To be fair, she is a product of the great depression that affected Europe nearly as much as the U.S. She knew what it meant to be poor and hungry. And then there was the Second World War when food was rationed and, unless a generous farmer lived nearby, milk and butter were rare.
That’s the back story to the physical realities that caused a brutal slapping across my head and face for trying to carry too many glass quarts of milk from the milk box into the house and to the kitchen (Note: Our portion of the house was like an odd railroad apartment: big room was family room, medium sized room was master bedroom, and kitchen. My brother and I shared an small room off the big room. We shared the bathroom with three upstairs “tenants.”) Anyway . . . to avoid dropping the quarts on the floor, I dropped them instead on my mother’s bed, thinking it was soft and would absorb the jolt. I didn’t consider the bottled striking one another. What a mess.
I was ten.
There is a deeper message here. The yelling and hitting obviously made a deep impression since that incident was over fifty years ago and I remember it vividly. But I also learned that my mother was deeply triggered by loss and waste.
As an immigrant after WW2, in 1951, she and my elderly father (25 years her senior), and my 5-year old brother [I was still in the womb], suffered many losses to come to this country. Identifying as Latvians after the war, they were shuttled from one displaced persons’ camp to another. With each truck ride, something more was left behind. No room, no room.
Before the war, in the late 30’s, my mother worked as a nanny for a wealthy German ship baron with a great fleet of merchant ships. As repatriation began in the 30’s to return to “Mother Germany,” this shipmaster decided to move his entire operation to Germany. Did Herta want to go with the family? They promised to take care of her. Besides, she spoke both fluent German and Latvian and some decent English to boot. She was a vibrant 20-something and it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. Or, so it seemed.
How could she have known what the war and the Third Reich would bring to her small bubble of a life? How could she have known that she would lose her only brother to the war, never see her father again or her stepmother, and within ten years, have nothing but a single trunk of clothes, pictures, books and memorabilia. And a guitar that was left at Grand Central Station: no room, no room.
In this country, during the 50’s, she and my father did the best they could. He spoke no English. They were janitors mostly and lived off the generosity of others. Eventually, my mother got a full-time office job as a clerk (a job she held for 30 years). They bought an old house near downtown Indianapolis and rented three rooms upstairs to make ends meet.
Then my father died at age 72. Once again, the loss overwhelmed her.
I believe, now, the anxiety and fear of raising two children alone in this strange new land, with very little income, no car (or driver’s license), and no ready understanding of how this country worked, took a great toll on her psyche.
Yes. On the day I broke those bottles of milk, they also broke my mother.
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.
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.
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.