“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.
My brother always made fun of me because it took me a lot longer to learn or do something than him. In particular, it took me forever to learn how to ride a bike. The whole process was incredibly daunting and the potential for harm seemed impending. And in truth, I did have some accidents.
Part of the problem was my learning field: the street. I was very aware that everyone in the neighborhood watched my slow progress, my fears, and my pathetic attempts to balance my body. Of course, I did learn and basically, my brother tricked me, as he ran behind me as though he was holding on when in reality I was riding alone. It worked.
But I would never say I was a comfortable bicyclist. Since my first bike was a little big for me, I hated stopping and experiencing that strong lean to the left or right to put my foot down. I tried to find a curb, but of course, that wasn’t always possible. So, the best thing was to keep going whenever possible.
The best part of learning how to ride a bike was the freedom it gave me to go places. Without a family car, both my brother and I were house-bound except for distances we could walk or the “kindness of strangers” to give us rides.
The most frequent trip I made was to visit my friend Gunta (and my brother, to visit her older brother, Karl). Her family and several other Latvian families had moved into this area, about a mile and half north of us. The homes were small but affordable at the time plus they were closer to the original Latvian Center (an old house on Central Avenue). It was all part of building community.
Unfortunately, this area was also in transition to poverty and began experiencing “white flight” in the fifties and early sixties (from both the blacks as well as the “foreigners.” The Latvians buckled down to stay, but the neighborhood changed all the same. Where our own neighborhood remained stubbornly “redneck” closer to downtown, this neighborhood became known as a black enclave.
For me and my brother, the last five blocks might include taunts, rock throwing, and chases. We were seen as interlopers and trespassers. One of the worst incidents happened when someone threw a bike fender into my brother’s front wheel and he went flying forward off the bike. He could have been killed. But still, we never told. We could not afford to lose our independence which trumped fear.
In actuality, I’m about 3/4 Latvian and only 1/4 German, but, culturally, it was enough to cause a problem in the emigrated Latvian societies of the fifties, sixties and throughout the Cold War.
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.
My father, Karlis, was born in April, 1887. That’s right. When I was born, Papa was already 63. He, my mother, and brother arrived in the United States in early 1951.
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.