Category Archives: Immigrants

Starting from Scratch

Me (fifth from the left) with (clockwise) my mother, my father, his sister, her husband and my grandmother at a Thanksgiving dinner in the first house my parents bought in Michigan(Photo: my cousin, Viktors Miške)

My father was 42, my mother was 34 and my maternal grandmother was 70 when they emigrated to the United States with 5-year-old me. Five years earlier, they left everything behind in war-torn Latvia other than what could be crammed into my father’s sports car. The little money that they accumulated as displaced persons in post-war Austria was spent since the States prohibited bringing in so much as a cent. My mother managed to buy bolts of fine fabric and take them to a tailor before we set sail from Bremerhaven. And sew some USD into the lining of my new coat. We arrived at the train station in Lowell, Michigan in 1949 with not much more than the spiffy clothes on our backs. With less, actually, since we were obligated to repay what it cost to get us there by working, for all practical purposes, as servants indentured to our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife.

Nevertheless, we soon had a new car that we owned outright and a spacious house with a mortgage that we had no problem paying and eventually owned outright, as well. All without seeming to scrimp. “Those damn immigrants,” the locals said, wondering how we could do it. (Technically, it was “darn” since the fine Christian Reformed folk of Grand Rapids, where we moved, never cursed.) In part, we did it by doing what has always been expected of any sort of immigrant. My father found a back-breaking job as a finisher in a furniture factory, and my mother took a position doing piecework—a compensation system designed to force people to work at break-neck speed—in a factory manufacturing brass fittings. Only after a devastating miscarriage did she teach herself accounting and get moved up to the office floor. Both spent most nights and weekends renovating our house, a duplex where we lived in one side and collected rent from the other. Which was possible because my capable grandmother assumed the day-to-day housekeeping and childrearing chores.

The other part, however, had nothing to do with being “good immigrants.” Immigrants can work incredibly hard and still not make it in America. What gave us the  edge, I have come to see, was that we, as well as our cohort, did not represent the sort of “huddled masses” that native-born Americans of that era assumed we were. Rather, we were what Ieva Zake more accurately described in American Latvians: Politics of a Refugee Community, “. . . a selective stratum of inter-war Latvian society—mainly upper and middle classes with a very high proportion of politicians, public figures and intellectuals among them.” We did not come to America for a better life. Apart from occupation by Nazi and Soviet armies and the constant threat of death or deportation, our lives were already plenty good. All we had to do was recreate them. This gave us a guiding image, something similar to what elite athletes hold in their heads: a vivid, multi-sensory re-experience of how it had been when everything was exactly right.

This stands in stark contrast to the vague imagery of the American Dream, which many now see as nothing more than a myth, anyway. While there are still those who continue to claim that anyone—even the poorest person—can rise to the middle class and beyond unless they are either lazy or stupid, research shows that most people are doomed to stay where they are. And that this is particularly true in that Land of Opportunity, the United States. According to a 2020 report on 82 countries by the World Economic Forum (click here to download), the US ranks 27th in social mobility. Which puts it a bit above the now-independent Latvia (31st) and slightly below the other Baltic states, Lithuania (26th) and Estonia (23rd). The top ten nations, in descending order, are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Luxembourg, with Canada coming in as14th. Not by accident, these are all places with strong social safety nets. It turns out that rugged individualism does not work so well for those who have never known much economic security and who could do with a little governmental help.

Long before learning of this, I was bothered by how many Latvian Americans refused to see that their experience was not comparable to that of millions of other underprivileged people. Registered as Republicans, they found fault with the Democrats’ War on Poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, as well as the associated Economic Opportunity Act. Even my father, who changed party affiliation  once he decided that voting with the rich made no sense whatsoever for a refugee relegated to manual labor. He could not understand why his hard-earned tax dollars should go to those no worse off than he once was, particularly since he had managed to get to where he was then with no assistance of any sort. Which meant—four years earlier—buying a single-family house in the best school district in town while keeping the duplex as rental property. And, by 1964, supporting a daughter—that would be me—who was in her junior year at the University of Michigan and was palling around with the aforementioned rich. So when an able-bodied Black lady with lots of kids and no prospect of employment—what, back then, was unkindly called a “welfare queen”—moved into our duplex, he made it his mission to “educate” her. Preaching a course of action that he deemed would get her off the dole, he horrified my mother, who feared that this would not end well. I was less worried, correctly predicting that it would lead to little more than some spirited banter.

My father never succeeded in converting “Queenie,” as she asked to be called, but the Democrats did impose some constraints. Less than a year after my father died, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Some two decades later, however, my father lost a little of his moral high ground. My cousin in England died, and his son sent me a short memoir that he had helped him write. A passage about my father (“Uncle Viktors”) made me furious at first—why focus on that, of all things?—but subsequently just made me shake my head and smile:

My father’s brother, Uncle Viktors, was rather bohemian by nature and my father financed his studies at university. Once Viktors had to appeal for funds from my father when he was in Paris and needed money to get home, which made my father rather angry. At other times Aunty Lidija bailed him out. I loved him dearly.

Meaning that Viktors—not unlike Queenie—once neither had any compunction about living on other people’s money nor any talent for managing his own. Add that to the well-known fact that he was generally unsuited for physical work despite his fine physique and whatever he learned growing up on a farm, and you had an urbanite who—not unlike Queenie—relied  heavily on cleverness and charm. But, unlike Queenie, he was nevertheless able to radically transform himself and do what it took to survive post-war poverty. And move up in America after starting from scratch. What separated them seemed inextricably tied to the sort of life that each had previously known.

These days, I see the same struggles where I live in Maryland. Some,  no doubt, will—ultimately—be fine. Refugees from the Middle East, for example, who often come from affluent areas. The Syrian family that started a restaurant and gallery down the hill from me. They were not only able to withstand the destruction of their homeland but also the repeated ravaging of their new business, first by successive 1000-year floods, then a 100-year pandemic. (See To Leave or to Stay.”) I am less sanguine about those who arrive here from the poorer parts of the world. Those I come into contact on a regular basis since, being old and disabled now, I need to have all that I use delivered. People like the personable Instacart shopper who surprised me somewhat by texting in French from Costco. After engaging him in a doorstep conversation, I learned he had come here six months ago from the French-speaking part of Cameroon, a country  that has simultaneously  received a massive influx of refugees from the Central African Republic and sent over 600,000 others to Nigeria alone. 

The same holds true for many residents here, whether immigrant or native-born. Clearly, requiring those who have never experienced “up” to somehow pull themselves up by their bootstraps is absurd. There are numerous countries where social mobility consistently occurs. Why is America so stubbornly unwilling to learn from them?

Note: for a look at what it took for my family to get to where they could have that car (see photo below) and that Thanksgiving dinner in their own house  (see photo above), read my short story “Home Furnishings.”


Me, posing with our brand-new Ford sedan. (Photo: my mother, Elza Jurģis)


President Johnson’s commencement address at the University of Michigan stadium on 22 May 1964, also called “The Great Society speech.”

My Many Names

Ibsen’s  controversial character “Nora,” first seen in the 1879 production of A Doll’s House, remains relevant today.  (Photo: Old Globe Theater)

There was a time when I had two birthdays, one in the winter and another in the summer. The winter one was a Latvian nameday, but that didn’t matter to me since it was celebrated the same way, with presents and a cake. The American kids that I met had never heard of such a thing. Nor had they heard of my name. Originally “Ilze,” it had been changed to “Ilse” by the time that my parents and I became naturalized citizens of the United States. I sort of liked it since it was a variant of “Elizabete,” which was my maternal grandmother’s name. And Oma more or less raised me since my mother worked a lot. What I didn’t like was that my mother was called “Elza,” which she changed to “Elsa.” Americans pronounced my name like her’s and assumed that we had the same name. What I liked even less was having my name pronounced “Elsie.” That belonged to the Borden Dairy Company’s mascot, and my classmates got a kick out of calling me “Elsie the Borden Cow.” Even though I wasn’t the least bit bovine.

Fortunately, my mortifying moniker was dropped well before I took my seat at the cool kids’ table. Still I never lost the feeling that meeting people for the first time involves unpleasantness. Particularly when my name is read, not heard. It doesn’t help that the first two letters–“Il”–look similar. So I try to cut those calling me “Ise” or “Lse” some slack. I even avoid correcting those who haven’t a clue how to pronounce a short “e” at the end of a word. After all, they consistently screw up “Porsche.” But I draw the line at people with no sign of a reading disorder turning dyslexic at the sight of my name. Surely they can see that I don’t resemble a tract of land surrounded by water, which is what “Isle” means. So when those types then ask how my name should be pronounced, I say, “Pretty much how it’s spelled.” And to those who then exclaim, “What an unusual name!” I respond, “Not really.” At last count, “Ilze” was the only given name of some 12,226 females in little Latvia alone. And there are the countless others called “Ilse” in the rest of Europe and beyond. As well as several rivers, an asteroid and a plant. But no islands, as far as I can tell.

Choosing a research career made me more apprehensive. Somehow, I kept coming across data that showed that strange names put people at a disadvantage. As far back as 1948, a Harvard study found that men with unusual names were likely to flunk out or display signs of neurosis. Subsequent studies showed that names could affect nearly every aspect of life. While some conclusions had to be withdrawn due to methodological flaws, findings on name-signalling—what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere and socioeconomic status—remained robust. Even when siblings with different names but of the same background were used. Moreover, changing names was found to have beneficial effects. Stockholm University economists, for instance, found that re-named immigrants made an average of 26 per cent more in wages than those who kept their original names. I wondered why I’d only assumed my husband’s Scottish surname when we married and retained it when we divorced when I could’ve easily changed my given name on either occasion.

What stopped me, I suppose, was how my family might react. But even after my grandmother and father died and my mother came to live with me in Maryland and told me that she, too, had never liked her name, I did nothing. Even after I’d started writing and, at least, could have picked a pen name. The basic reason was that no other name felt right. I knew that since I’d systematically considered every imaginable possibility. I had lots of time during my daily commute to and from Washington, DC, where I worked as a NASA and Defense Department consultant. It was 80-some miles and included three of the worst bottlenecks in the nation, I went from “A” to “Z” for several days, dismissing most. “Anna” wouldn’t work since it was reserved for my nascent novel, Anna Noon”“Zelda” was as weird as “Ilze” and too closely associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s schizophrenic wife. In the end, only one name remained: “Claire,” a Latin word meaning “clear” in the French feminine form. It described how I saw myself at the time, which was open and transparent. And brought me back to the Sixties, when I devoured New Wave films such as Claire’s Knee.

While I never did anything with “Claire,” the process reminded me how much effort it takes to name a child. And how little was expended on me. I don’t know what I expected since neither my conception nor my parents’ marriage was planned. And my father, at least, assumed that I’d be a boy based on the size of Mom’s baby bump. He’d even started to call me Maks,” meaning “Max,” Which had a rakish ring I liked when learning about it later. But after seeing me ex utero, my father knew that he had to find a female name for the registry. And fast. Fortunately, a friend—a fraternity brother and drinking buddy, no doubt—had recently named his newborn. So, why not call me “Ilze,” as well? I know that we were in the middle of World War II. That the Soviet Army was advancing. That Valmiera, the city where my parents were sent to work and where, by chance, I was born, was about to be burned to the ground. Still, it might’ve been nice if someone had done more than merely name me after some random baby.

It took 60-some years for me to learn that someone had given my name some thought. Shortly after her 90th birthday, my mother casually mentioned that she never intended to name me “Ilze.” That, even in the womb, she’d called me “Nora.” After the iconoclastic character in Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist play A Doll’s House. Only she’d never said a word to my father. At first, I was furious. Then, I allowed that she, like others living amid political turmoil, had made a habit of keeping her cards close to her chest. Still, I couldn’t help feeling unduly cheated. Having a familiar, pronounceable name like “Nora” would have made life in the States much easier. More than that, it would’ve made me more secure in my identify, even my place in the world. Instead of feeling that I was a disappointment to my family because I struggled against societal constraints every step of the way, I could’ve felt that this was what I was meant to do. I might have even seen my mother’s disinterest in teaching me what I needed to know to be a wife and mother as something more than mere neglect. Of course, I kept these thoughts to myself. Instead, I imagined how my mother might’ve shared her hopes and dreams with me as a one-month-old infant in my first short story, “Making Soup.”

It took a contentious presidential campaign to convince me that I never needed some name change to empower me. In writing my essay “No Big Deal” about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I referenced some remarkable women on both sides of my family whose accomplishments dated as far back as the Nineteenth Century. And my native land, which installed the first female president back in 1999. As to the careless way that I was given my name, a big brown beard celebrating both her birthday and her nameday in January took care of that. She just happened to live in a nature preserve in Līgatne, Latvia, which is less than 12 miles from Cēsis, where my father grew up on the family farm. And my father—in fact, most family members that I knew—used the diminutive “Ilzīte” unless I did something to deserve the severe-sounding “Ilze.” And “Ilzīte” just happened to be the bear’s name, and it so perfectly conveyed how lovable bears could be that I almost cried. Then cried for real when I remembered that all of my immediate family members were gone, and no one had called me “Ilzīte” since my cousin in England died five years ago. 

Celebrating a birthday, then a nameday. (Source: Līgatne Nature Trails)

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Body Language

Twisted Sister’s Jay Jay French and Dee Snider performing at the 2014 See-Rock Festival in Unterpremstätten, Austria. (Photo: Alfred Nitsch)

Six months ago, I nearly died. My gallbladder succumbed to necrosis, gangrene spread through the surrounding area and I slipped into sepsis. No one—least of all me—understood what occurred until it was almost too late. You see, my body failed to use the accepted communication mode: intense localized pain. So even with a substantially elevated white cell count and the inability to keep down so much as a mango sliver, then even an ice chip, it seemed to suggest that I was merely run down and would be fine once I simplified my schedule.

So even after the telling ultrasound results came in and my physician booked me a spiffy private room in the surgical ward of the local Hopkins hospital’s new pavilion, it refused to act like someone sick. And I unquestioningly did the same.  I not only drove myself there but also stopped for gas because I was concerned about fuel-line freeze. Even enjoyed the bemused look on the clerk’s face when I said, “I have a reservation” and he, after extensive checking, said, “Well, so you do.” Which I only came to fully appreciate after learning that admissions to that ward mainly originate in the ER or elsewhere in the hospital.

The seriousness of my situation started to sink in during the subsequent days, when I was kept on IV fluids, nutrients and antibiotics—nothing by mouth—and simultaneously subjected to endless invasive tests, all of which was required before my body was deemed fit for surgery. Which, in contrast, occurred with surprising suddenness on a Sunday afternoon. And resulted not only in the two tiny holes that a laparoscopic cholecystectomy required but also in a gruesome gash across most of my midriff. “This is the worst case that I have ever seen,” my surprisingly personable surgeon said as I smiled sweetly.

Which, this time, was incongruent, since my body had started to voice real distress the previous day. At first, it only emitted a series of nearly inaudible whimpers as I lay shivering in the dark recovery room. That soon turned into uncontrollable sobbing when no one came to so much as lay a comforting hand on my shoulder. But once I woke in my own nice room, where I had taken a seasoned day nurse’s advice to pre-operatively tune my TV to the channel that not only played “classical” music but also showed soothing nature scenes cleverly synchronized with the time of day, I assumed that the worst was over. My caring, competent night nurse certainly gave that impression, enquiring only about whether my body had yet managed to pass gas.

As soon as my vital signs were stable, I was transferred to a remote nursing and rehabilitation center that was touted as top-rated. By a rough ride along dark roads—commercial medical transport vehicles resemble WWII field ambulances—that my body did not like in the least. But preferred to the unceremonious welcome it received, which featured the medical equivalent of a prison strip search, where every inch of my skin, every orifice was rigorously examined. Not for my benefit, I learned from the laconic explanation, but to protect the facility from future liability. It took forever since each bruise—and there were lots from all those anticoagulant injections—was carefully measured with a concentric-ring template of questionable cleanliness.

Still, I sought signs of humanity in the scowling male nurse who had just handled my sore body as though it were merely a slab of meat.

“Where are you from,” I asked.

“Africa,” he said.

“Africa is a huge continent,” I said. “Where in Africa?”

Nigeria,” he said.

“Americans usually do not bother to ask,” he added.

I wanted to tell him that I, too, was foreign-born. That, as a former war refugee, I maybe knew more about what he had experienced than most native-born Americans. But my body desperately wanted to be left alone. So I switched to insouciance, texting my primary physician, “Help! I am trapped in a chintz nightmare,” referring the prevalence of floral-patterned materials wherever I tried to rest my troubled eyes.

That only worked until morning. Once I had a chance to systematically survey my surroundings, both my body and I shrank back. You see, nothing there resembled the microcosm that I had previously admired in hospitals, where people of many races, nationalities and religions worked together in seeming harmony. Here, everyone charged with the care of the patients’ bodies—from physicians to nurses to nurse’s aides—had some degree of dark skin. And most had strong foreign accents, as well. The resulting fear—after failing to find other explanations—was that management had cynically selected only recent immigrants. Not for their qualifications but because they—as my DP parents once had—would work for the lowest allowable wages.

Strangely, we withdrew even more from the patients, predominantly white and proficient in English. While some staff, at least, seemed to sense the precariousness of their situation, most of the patients appeared blithely indifferent to theirs. Take my my roommate—please. A frail old lady with signs of dementia, she donned her perfectly pressed khakis and pretty hot-pink cable-knit sweater, applied her makeup and had her hair and nails done at the in-house salon. The fact that she had to sleep with a bed alarm activated to keep her from wandering at night seemed to cause her little concern. Each time she stirred even slightly, the damned thing woke only me. All I could do was press the buzzer and wait for my aide. And she was never in a hurry.

The manner in which we distanced ourselves initially differed.  My body made the first move, appalled that showers were limited to twice a week at night. It harangued the day nurse, and he gave in, getting me daily morning showers by re-classifying them as “occupational therapy,” much to the chagrin of the aide. Then, it categorically refused to dress, opting to pull two fresh hospital gowns—one laced in the front covered by another laced in the back, which served as a robe—over my clean anatomy. And rather than dealing with the discomfort of rolling a wheelchair out to the dining room, it opted to take meals by its bed. Even though they all consequently arrived cold.

Then, it became more emphatic. It took the dry omelette and greasy sausage, along with the limp toast and reconstituted juice that it had reluctantly ingested and spewed it out in an impressive spray. After surveying the effect with pride, it focused on my other end, with even more dramatic results. Thus, in contrast to what had occurred prior to my hospitalization, there was no question that the correct communication mode was used. My body screamed,”I am seriously ill.” My nice new roommate, who had no need of bed alarms, understood. She asked to be moved out immediately, which promptly occurred. But still the staff did not take me seriously. “It’s just your antibiotic,” my day nurse said. Until 18 hours later, when I offered the night nurse a clear choice: “Either you contact the on-call doctor now or I call 911.”

That caught management’s attention. By the time that the Director of Nursing arrived the next day, I had compiled a long list of complaints dating back to my arrival. Which was supported the following day by the fact that a widespread gastroenteritis outbreak was underway. Suddenly, there were hushed staff meetings and aides disinfecting everything with the same efficacy that, no doubt, led to the problem in the first place. And the facility was closed to new admissions. So I never got another roommate. But all of that came too late to placate either my body or me. With the help of an aluminum contraption—I could not bring myself to call it a “walker”—we engaged in an undertaking to essentially turn me into an aging Twisted Sister. Soon, I was stomping around singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” albeit sotto voce.

To enhance the effect, it refused to style the hair that was assiduously washed and blow-dried each day, allowing the ill-considered asymmetrical cut that I had been growing out to form a crazed gray frame for my face. And shed the facility-provided slipper-socks that went so well with the facility-provided knee-length gowns for the ankle-length black leather boots that I had previously kept in the closet. At last, I had a gut-level feel for why certain musicians looked the way that they did. This cut-up gut was fed up with what those who sought refuge in the States had to stomach to survive. And how it would only get worse once forced to contend with a health care system—and a society, for that matter—that sought to segregated its seniors. Some form of external expression was required. And the uglier, the better.

The backdrop proved to be perfect. In moderate Maryland, ice-storms of rare ferocity raged. (The February of my confinement was the Baltimore area’s second coldest on record. ) Seen through the facility’s wall-to-wall windows and juxtaposed with the stifling heat inside, it had an appropriately apocalyptic feel. Which was supported by incessant TV and social media updates. Images of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh being burned to death in a cage, American hostage Kayla Mueller being confirmed dead and hundreds of Assyrian hostages being seized, all at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, assaulted our senses. I could see how much of this might be combined, with me as the star, in a stunning music video.

Alas, those in my audience capable of appreciating this vision were few in number. One was an Albanian immigrant who had become a physician when opportunities to pursue her career in public health had been closed to her here. She honestly addressed my concerns. And not only confirmed that I, and subsequently others, had been sickened by the facility but was also able to intelligently discuss the barbaric oppression that both our native lands had experienced at the hands of the former Soviet Union, which now, in a different form, was playing out in the Middle East and rapidly expanding its reach.

“ISIL is as much a threat to civilization as Stalin once was,” I said.

“There was one good thing about communism, though,” she said.

“It removed religion as a valid excuse for committing atrocities.”

(While religion was banned under all communist rule,  Albania, which is Islamic and Christian, is now—by constitution—a secular country.)

With such limited success, the only option was to take my body and leave. Which was not as easy as you might think. We had to perform all sorts of stunts to prove we could carry out the “activities of daily living.” (We could not, but the staff was easy enough to fool.) Once home with the aluminum contraption, my body learned to negotiate treacherous sidewalks and stairs, then drive me where I needed to be. To more doctor’s appointments than you could imagine—those tests had revealed new, unrelated problems—and to physical therapy, from which I transitioned to Gentle Yoga for Tranquility, which, at least, is doing my body some good. The rest of me, alas, lags far behind. This piece, for example, is the first thing that I have written in six months.

Note: I do not ascribe to Cartesian dualism, knowing enough neuroscience to find fault with basic tenets.  However, I must admit that at times like this the phenomenology is such that the body seems to have a mind of its own.