My Adopted Land

Me (left) and my American friends in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Michigan (1949 – 1972)

Our introduction to America at our sponsor’s farm in in Lowell was a rude awakening. When winter arrived, we could not remain. My father walked 26 miles in the snow to secure a factory job in Grand Rapids. That marked the start of perhaps the happiest period of my life. We rented the first floor of a nice old house on a tree-lined street near a busy intersection that had shops and a movie theater. I attended school, where I learned English in kindergarten and reached the top of my class in reading by first grade. I had a supportive teacher and good friends. My mother did not have such pleasant memories, since she had to perform piecework in a metals factory.

Because my parents wanted to re-establish the economic security and lifestyle that they had enjoyed in Latvia, they bought a duplex and used the rent from one side to pay the mortgage. Perhaps this was one move too many in my young life. I became moody, and my petulance persisted through another relocation to a single-family house in one of the better neighborhoods of the city. After suffering a demoralizing miscarriage while we were at the duplex, my mother learned accounting and moved to the offices above the factory floor.

I left for Ann Arbor in 1962 to attend The University of Michigan. In contrast to conservative Grand Rapids (and the conservative Latvians there), Ann Arbor was “The Hotbed of Liberalism,” serving as a primary site of the campus protests of the Sixties and full of people much more like me. There, I gave birth to my son, gave him up for adoption and married my former husband, an electron microscopist from Scotland, who then obtained a PhD in physiology at Michigan.

Massachusetts (1972 – 1987)

I spent a short amount of time on two separated occasions living in Cambridge while still a Michigan resident, then moved to Boston on a permanent basis in 1972. My then-husband had a post-doctoral position at Harvard Medical School, and it was my intent to take time off to find a new direction for my life. We moved into our apartment in Back Bay just in time for the Energy Crisis. There were all of two gas stations in the area, and the lines were endless. With that and the parking problems, our beat-up Bug was eventually sold.

Boston, I fear, spoiled me for other cities. The grassy Commonwealth Avenue mall was just down my front stairs, and both the Public Garden and the Common were mere blocks away.  As was the Theater District, and the BSO was just a few stops on The T. (In my lexicon, “BSO” does not stand for “Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.”) The Fanueil Hall Marketplace, completed by James Rouse in 1978, seemed designed just for me. (Not so much his 1980 Harborplace in Baltimore, which only makes me nostalgic.) And my State House representative was none other than Barney Frank, surely one of the most intelligent, interesting legislators America has ever elected.

I entered a PhD program in behavioral pharmacology at Boston University, where I spent far too much time trying to decided whether I wanted to spend my life doing basic research (and other things). Eventually, I separated from my husband, dropped out of graduate school with only a Master’s, obtained a divorce and started doing applied research at the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, specializing in countermeasures to what we now call “WMD.” Instead of trying to make laboratory rats drink alcohol, which they were not wont to do, you could find me, say, in a live-fire zone at Fort Sill in a helmet and 100-degree heat.

Along the way, I also lived in Bay Village as well as Brookline and Newton. I was, however, amazed when I completed a USARIEM security clearance form and saw that, to date, I had lived at 32 separate addresses on two continents. And I had still not settled down.

Alabama (1987 – 1990)

I relocated to Alabama in 1987, thereby transitioning from the public to the private sector of Defense Department support. Since I had to help start a new field office dedicated to bringing automated systems to critical operations conducted under adverse or demanding conditions for an Ohio company, I learned a lot about business. And was still able to participate in the sort of research that can only be conducted by the military. Such as studying how atropine affects Fort Rucker pilots up in the air, performing helicopter maneuvers.

I also learned that, in some places, “LA” means “Lower Alabama,” that living in that LA meant you could buy a beautiful open-architecture house situated on the edge of a golf course in a nice town, Dothan, for practically nothing. And that when everything comes crashing down around you because your company did not anticipate the recession that occurred in the early 1990s, you would be stranded in the middle of nowhere and have to find a way out all on your own.

Maryland (1990 – present)

I moved to Maryland in 1990 because, as Willie Sutton said, “That’s where the [defense] money is.” I had arranged a job with a small business that was acquired by a “Beltway bandit,” Computer Sciences Corporation, not long after I arrived. When my office was eliminated, I went to work for another of the same sort, Science Applications International Corporation. Then the Raytheon Company. I soon learned that you were only as good as your last contract and that, even then, your group could be bought and sold, so even that did not predict with any reliably whether your next paycheck was assured.

Because about all I did was work, I bought an 1830s millworker’s house in Ellicott City that sat right on the Patapsco River and was surrounded by trees so that I could feel like I was on vacation when I was at home. I selected EC because it was equidistant to sites where I had business. Subsequent job changes, however, ensured that all I did was work and drive. An office in, say, Reston, required a daily 120-mile round trip on highly congested roads. Getting to work in downtown DC was not much better. By then, I had transitioned from mainly Defense Department contracts to NASA ones, consulting on major Goddard Space Flight Center and Headquarters projects.

My remaining ties to Michigan were severed when my widowed mother sold her house there in 1996 and moved to Maryland to live with me. Surprisingly, I found that she had turned into a delightful person while I was not looking (which had been since adolescence), simultaneously charming and sharp-witted. Since my father’s death, I had been taking more of an interest in both family and writing than I ever had in previous decades. A month after her death, I started writing my first serious story, which was about her last five days.

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ILSE MUNRO

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