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.
I know there were other places before we moved into the old two story house at 1009 Park Avenue in Indianapolis. We have pictures of a basement apartment where my parents were janitors and one or two pictures of a rented house on College Avenue. But the only house that holds any memories for me at all, is the one at 10th and Park.
Actually, our house was the second building on Park because a solid brick church with three wide steps up to the front door and side basement steps down to the “deaf” dominated the corner lot. This church, from the front to both sides and around the back, held tremendous opportunities for play and mischief. Most churches back then were not air conditioned and this one was no different. And so, each summer, their stained glass windows would be opened to the fresh air along with the noisy children who frolicked next door, particularly on Sunday evenings.
There was a cherry tree between our house and the church sanctuary windows. And although this tree offered lovely shade for those within, it also provided us with an array of small missiles, from ripe to over-ripe sour cherries to handfuls of cherry pits. There was also a metal fence that played beautiful music when a stick was scraped across its sides.
Speaking of music, this particular congregation was one of the Church of Christ denominations that repudiated instrumental music in a worship setting. At that time, it seemed like the weirdest thing ever and we would help them along with our own toy instruments, home made drums, and operatic voices.
We were brats. But that church got back at us in the end.
I was nearly in high school and I hated living downtown, a constant source of embarrassment when I asked for rides home and mothers systematically locked the car doors when they reached my neighborhood. The church, however, wanted to grow and they managed to buy out the entire half block in order to build a large new building and parking lot. That is, except for our house. My mother would not sell.
They kept up the pressure for several years (I’m sure they were praying intently for God to soften my mother’s heart, which is a truly audacious leap of faith); and only after my brother and I joined ranks with the church in hopes of moving North where our friends lived, my mother caved in with one proviso: the church would promise to not cut down the cherry tree or the Maple tree that graced our front yard (a tree that provided the most luscious display of colors every fall).
They agreed; we bought a small bungalow some 5 miles away (actually they bought it and we made an “even exchange”) and we moved to our first wall to wall carpeting, washing machine, fenced in yard, grass, and oil heat (the Park Avenue house was heated with wood until the last three years before we moved).
Now, as I Google my old address, I am reminded again and again how those folks never did intend to keep those trees or the promise they made. To this day, the parking lot is a waste land that surrounds a functional church building at 10th & Park. When my mother saw the flattened land for the first time, she wept, and never returned there again. Somehow, this loss is a sorrow for me and a stumbling block to my memories.
You ought to be a writer.
I heard this a lot from my mother. Isn’t that the person who usually starts the ball rolling? Of course, in third grade, writing didn’t sound like much fun at all.
“I don’t want to be a writer; I want to be a teacher.”
After all, it was teachers who helped my world hang together. It was teachers who were there day after day. And it was teachers, in the end, who got me reading. I discovered I could read at home and not be at home at all. I could be somewhere else.
By fifth grade, I had exhausted the children’s department and moved upstairs. The Indianapolis Public Library was one of those grand old buildings with Doric columns and marble floors that rang when I walked on them, even if I tiptoed. I would wander both adult floors, running my hands across the books and occasionally, I would even press my entire body against them, hoping the words would enter my body by osmosis. Then I discovered the plays.
The library had an entire section of pamphlet plays, mostly published by Samuel French, Inc. and the Dramatists Play Service. Colorful and easy to read, I entered the world of theater through those plays, watching the characters move around the stage in my mind. I could be any character; I could be every character. Best of all, I was in control.
As a result, my first writing success was a play I wrote about pen pals and Jack LaLanne. I believe it was called “Sincerely Yours, Katie.” (All of my characters had easy American sounding names, something I had long coveted after a grueling first grade where my endless name of eight letters seemed to extend from one edge of my desk to the other: Irmgarde.) I produced the play along with two of my friends and we performed it at school. I insisted everyone memorize their lines, wear costumes, and use real props. This wasn’t pretend, this was real. Oh yeah!
“I don’t want to be a writer; I want to be an actress.”