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Another Dying Long Ago

The core of this story my mother told me. But the details are mine.

Boris Feldblyum Collection; Riga 1928

Boris Feldblyum Collection; Riga 1928

May, 1928.

I was sitting at the kitchen table working on my English homework. English was my favorite subject. It was late and I guess the light at the table was bothering my mother who wasn’t feeling well and trying to sleep. It was just one large room, our apartment. There was a coal stove for cooking and heating and sink for washing up, but only cold water from the tap. We had a settee and a soft chair where my father would sit to listen to the radio. There were two beds: my mother and I slept in one and my father and brother slept in the other.

My mother called out to me, “Herta, come to bed. Come and lie beside me. Herta.”

“In a minute. I will. Just let me finish this. In a minute, I promise.”

I didn’t realize that those would be the clearest words I would hear from her again. By the next day, she was struggling to breathe. Her slow labored breaths made such a terrible sound. She didn’t get out of bed again. And I sat with her then.

After he came home from school, I told my brother to try and find a doctor, anyone to come and help her. He didn’t know who to ask. He knocked on a few doors but no one was home. My father was at the barber shop working. He worked long hours, often ten hours a day, at only ten cents a hair cut.

I tried to get her to drink some tea. But it only made her start coughing when I tried to raise her head. Her eyes wept when she looked at me. She couldn’t speak. She tried, but only a few words I couldn’t understand. Maybe my name or Harry’s or my father. Once, I thought she called for one of her sisters. I wasn’t sure. And so I sat there because I didn’t know what else to do.

Finally, my father came home. He told me to make him something to eat and then he stood by her bed. I couldn’t hear what he said to her, but I could tell she was listening. He held her hand. He pushed hair back from her face.

I don’t remember what I made. Maybe it was potatoes. We didn’t have much. My father and Harry ate at the table. I couldn’t eat. I sat. And then they sat with me, the three of us, sat around her bed.

“Papa, can’t we get a doctor? Go to the pharmacy and get her something.”

“Herta, it is too late. She is dying. Her heart is not strong enough. We always knew. She knew. She warned me.” And he said no more.

Harry went to bed. I fell asleep in the chair, my head against the side of the bed. When I woke up, my father was still there. He did not go to the barber shop. Harry didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to school. We watched my mother die.

The silence was punctuated by her breaths which became slower and slower.

For three days we sat, sometimes sleeping, sometimes eating, but never far from her side. And then, I heard it and I saw it, her last breath, like a deep sigh, every last breath was released. She left her body in that sigh. She didn’t linger. She left.

My father rose. He pushed her eyelids down and then he washed his hands and face in the white bowl. He turned to me. I couldn’t look at him. I only looked at her.

“Wash her body after we leave. The bed clothes will be soiled. Dress her and comb her hair. I will go to her sister’s house and ask for a wagon to take her to the graveyard. I will ask her sister’s husband for a loan to pay for the gravedigger. Harry will go with me. Don’t wait. You must clean her before her body becomes stiff.”

And I was alone, at fifteen, with my dead mother’s body. I had never washed a dead body. I had never seen a dead person in my life. I cried. Hard. It wasn’t fair. None of it.

My aunt had promised to make me a new dress, a red dress, for my birthday. But now, there would be no red dress, only another black one. And every birthday after that would no longer be mine, but hers.

I washed my mother’s thin arms and legs. I washed her small breasts and sunken stomach. I rolled her from side to side to remove the sheet and thin blanket. There was a smell. I found two towels and put them under her. I pulled a dress up across her body. It was her better dress. Would she need underpants? For what? Should I put stockings on her? What would be the point? I covered her legs, up to her waist, with a blanket from my father’s bed. I pulled her hair back with side combs and tried to put back her wave. I folded her hands on top. Should I take off her wedding ring? I did. I put it on my own hand. Forever, I thought.

But, of course, it wasn’t forever. It was only one of the many things I would sell or trade, later on, during a war that we couldn’t imagine would happen again.

Walking Downtown

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.

L. S. Ayres Tea Room
Special Thanks to Dept. Store Museum

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.

Basements and Birthdays

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.

Almost Latvian

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.

Walking with Papa

Hard to know, really, what is a true memory and what is based on an old photograph. I hate that. I hate the fact that my childhood memories are such a blur. I know the reason, I didn’t review them. Somewhere along the line, I must have decided that the memories weren’t valuable. Too late now.

There are a few stand out memories of my father nonetheless. I can remember walking the neighborhood streets with him. Back then, it didn’t really matter where we were going; I liked walking with him. He always wore a hat, a fedora, and carried a cane. I’m not sure he actually needed that cane; I thought he looked distinguished. He always held my hand, although it was rough with calluses, it was a very large hand, a carpenter’s hand, and it completely encircled my own. I felt safe. That is, except for the times I had to stand outside the store and wait. I was never allowed inside that store with the lower half of its windows and door painted jet black. I couldn’t see inside, I couldn’t see if Papa was coming. It was some years later before I realized our walks had a specific destination: the local liquor store.

My father was a drunk, an alcoholic. These are words I learned later in life. Back then, it was a walk and a smell. I have a few cursory images of him arguing with my mother and on a few occasions, he would be unwieldy and unsteady, and my mother would do her best to get him to bed. Considering that he was probably 6 foot and she was only 4’11”, this was no small feat. The worst memory for me is seeing my father passed out in a chair, half naked. It was my first glimpse of a man’s private area and it was frightening. How old could I have been?

Other flashes are of card games with men friends, feeding one of our critters (no, that’s a lie memory, we have a picture of him doing that), reading the Latvian newspaper, and smoking. He smoked everything from pipes to cigarettes; did he smoke cigars? I don’t remember.

The strongest memory of all is the last one I have of him alive. We were visiting him in the hospital, my mother and I (was my brother there?). According to my mother, he had been there a month and although there were days when he was doing very well and was up and about, on this day, he was under an oxygen tent (old school). I was too short to see him from the side of the bed because of the tent, so the nurse pulled out the side table and I stood at the up left corner, near his head. He swiveled his head and looked at me, really looked at me. I cried. He wept. But what did he say? What did he say? What did he say?

A few days later, my brother woke me up to get ready for school. He stood at the foot of my bed, shook my feet and told me to wake up.

“Papa is dead.”

“That’s not funny, Zig.”

“I’m not trying to be funny. Papa died last night. Mami went to the hospital. We have to go to school. get up.”

He was only fourteen. I was nine. And we went to school that day, without a father.

This is one exchange that has already found a home in my fiction, in Swan Children, when the mother dies and the oldest must tell his sister that the mother died. “That’s not funny.”

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.

Agnes Sofia Herta Elizabet Busch

Riga, circa 1900-1920

I asked my mother many times why she chose Herta as her primary name and I never believed her answer: she liked it best. With my own sensitivity to names, I thought she had chosen the least attractive, but in hindsight, I realize it was the German one of the set.

It’s hard for us to understand those cultural dynamics before and after the first World War. Although Latvian nationalism was high with their declaration of independence on November 17, 1917, there were still large numbers of Germans who remained in the country. They were very much the upper class with privileges, vestiges of nobility, estates, great wealth, and power.

My mother’s mother, Wilhemina, was one of four sisters who had grown up on a German Manor in Lithuania at a time when such nobility was breaking up and Russians were entering territories to make their claims to the lands and the peoples. The sisters left and headed for the New York City of their region: Riga. And it was here that Wilhemina stayed, married a Latvian barber, and bore a child. But her goal was that her daughter would have more than she had: a better education, a future, a chance to make something more of her life.

And so, in her mind, it was smarter to enroll her daughter in a German school, not a Latvian one, to embrace the power of the Baltic Germans and their influence and to meet “better” people.

As a result, my mother was raised in a dual culture, with one foot in Latvia and another in German history, traditions, and attitude. She was ambitious as a youngster and although they were poor as mice, living all together in one room, she, her younger brother Harry, her mother Wilhemina and her father, Paul. The men shared one bed and the women the other. She had only one dress and one pair of shoes and her black stockings were many times repaired. And yet, she went to the German school and she studied hard, even learning English and French because of her love for languages.

This was her life until she turned fifteen, when everything changed forever.