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.
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.
We didn’t live on a farm, remember? We lived within a mile of the Monument Circle of downtown Indianapolis. Nor did my mother grow up on a farm. There was absolutely no reason for her to believe that it made sense for us to have rabbits, ducks, chickens, and the nastiest, meanest, most belligerent rooster I have ever known or want to know.
Here’s how it all started.
My mother thought it was cute that the downtown stores would sell baby animals at Easter time. That’s right: tiny bunnies, ducklings, and chicks. So each year, my brother and I would be gifted one or more of these little critters. And they were wonderful: so sweet and cuddly. But they do grow up. The bunnies were first: the only reason I remember them is an album of black and white pictures with my father feeding them carrots by hand, a white one and a black one.
We actually had several rounds of chickens; some even laid eggs and my mom was thrilled to eat them. But the excitement of getting eggs was completely overwhelmed by the rooster who ruled the yard, the chickens, and ultimately, me. I don’t know how we ended up with a rooster. It must have been some kind of mistake in the chicks for Easter farm. Whatever it was, I hated that rooster. Whenever I had to go in the yard, he would chase me or if I didn’t see him and thought the coast was clear, he would jump out from behind the garage and scare me. He would peck at my legs and stare at me with his beady eye, left and then right. Eventually, the chickens died, but he lived on. One time I tried to run him down with my tricycle, but to no avail. I wish I could remember his exact passing, but it’s a dark spot in my memory. Did I repress my part in some dastardly deed? It’s possible. Certainly, he deserved it.
On the other hand, the year of the ducklings was another story. We all loved the ducks, even when they grew up. It was during this time (my mother had been a widow for awhile by then), that my mom did several upgrades to the house. In addition to switching our heat to gas (from wood), she also decided we didn’t need a bathtub and had a shower installed in its place. The bathtub was bequeathed to the ducks. That’s right. She had a friend dig a bathtub sized hole in our back yard so the ducks could have a pond. You can’t make this stuff up.
A couple of miles away from us the Central Canal weaved through the city. Along its shores were many domestic white ducks along with the migrating mallards (and a few mixed concoctions as well). We tried to convince my mother to take the ducks to the canal like everyone else did, but she would not let them go. Finally, there was only one left and she would not die. We named her Petunia. All right, I doubt there was a “we” in the naming of that duck. I did it.
Petunia didn’t seem to mind that she was the only duck on the block. She had her bathtub pond, she enjoyed being carried around by little kids, she quacked during church services next door, and she would eat just about anything out of my hand. I do remember her end, however, since I was the one who discovered her: drowned in the tub. All true.
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.