Me (center) at Ethel Street in Grand Rapids, MI, surrounded by my father (left), his sister (right) and her husband and son (rear). And some lilacs.
Ethel Street was a quiet street with tall trees, spaceous houses and shiny sedans parked along both curbs. It was actually an avenue, but we never call it that. It started at Wealthy Street, on the edge of a thriving business district, and opened to an alley where trucks rumble in and out. It ended some nine blocks south at Pontiac Drive, where the regular grid of Grand Rapids dissolved into the sort of sinuous streets I would learn to associate with abundance and ease.
I was not much more than five years old, then six going on seven. It was the start of the Fifties. My father and mother and her mother—Oma, as we called her—were with me. One of my father’s sisters and her husband and teenaged son were often there, too. We were Displaced Persons—DPs, as people called us—relocated from Latvia.
We lived in a west-facing wooden house of nondescript color that sometimes looked like sunset. It was separated from the sidewalk by a small patch of lawn. Unruly spirea branches pushed clusters of tiny white flowers through the rails of the front porch. A multi-car garage took up most of the rear area, and the space from there to the back porch was primarily paved. Whatever yard was situated to the south was obscured by a colossal row of lilacs spreading purplish scent.
I loved the lilacs, but also the snow. My mother sent my father and me outside with shovels. We laughed as we cleared a gray path to the street. Waging war on something so wonderfully white and sparkly seemed silly to us. Once we stopped to make a snowman.
We rented the entire first floor; someone I seldom saw lived on the floor above us. He must have used the exterior stairs by the alley.
Ethel Street was not the first place we stayed in the States. That was an unheated space above a garage in Lowell. It belonged to our sponsor, a Lutheran minister with a considerable congregation in Grand Rapids. He wanted my father to turn fallow fields into a functioning horse farm and my mother to scrub toilets in exchange for saving us from being shipped to São Paulo to work on some sort of farm there.
Unfortunately, he foolishly pinned his hopes on my father, who was not sufficiently farsighted to study agriculture. Instead, he selected a theology and philosophy curriculum at the University of Latvia in the capital city of Riga, where there were horses but, sadly, no farms.
My father, therefore, slogged 26 miles on foot through thick snow to reach Grand Rapids. He found a job as a finisher in a furniture factory on Godfrey Avenue and a warm place for us across town on Ethel Street. My mother then found a position doing piecework in a factory producing brass fittings, just down the street from my father.
My mother and father took the bus to Godfrey Avenue. Otherwise, they stayed close to Ethel Street. Everything we needed was there.
Saturday mornings we walked across the alley to where a bakery—what could be better?—was situated. My parents bought loaves of bread, which where never quite as crusty as we wanted, then asked the clerk to add cream horns or éclairs. The ones that were sure to shoot powdered sugar up my nose or streak chocolate on my cheeks.
Sometimes I set out with only my mother, turning right on Wealthy. We entered the dark recesses of Doepping’s Dry Goods, where she hurried me past bolts of deep blue dotted Swiss and ice-cream-colored organdies to bins where strips of white cotton eyelet were stored. Which she stitched to the bottom of a white cotton dress strewn with strawberries to keep me covered as my legs lengthened.
Other times I set out with just my father, particularly when Oma was out of insulin. We ended up in the back of Peterson’s Drugs, where revolving racks brimed with paperback books. I laughed at the logos on the spines: kangaroos, penguins, and roosters. Then pulled a serious face to help him select weekend reading. I later learned the lurid covers concealed works by writers such as Somerset Maugham.
From Peterson’s, I was well on my way to the center of the world. Three streets came together to form a wide-open intersection that required someone on each side holding my hand before I considered stepping off the curb. Norwood Avenue ran into Wealthy as Lake Drive sliced through on a slant. Our first bank was there, and Eberhard’s Super Market—the most modern in town—stood just beyond.
Turning left from Ethel to Wealthy, there was a posh dress shop. We never went inside but liked looking at the mannequins through the plate-glass windows and dreaming of the day we could. When my mother needed a new gown for function my father’s exiled fraternity arranged, we took a bus to the Salvation Army store on Sheldon Boulevard and returned with something she managed to transform.
Further west was the Wealthy Theater. The first time my parents bought tickets, someone misunderstood. The futuristic fantasy we expected was way too realistic for me. Mounting cabin pressure forced blood from the spaceman’s eyes, cracked open his skull and smashed his ship to smithereens. The next time, we saw Cinderella. I liked it so much my parents bought me the pop-up picture book.
While I usually ventured out from Ethel Street accompanied by my parents, there were a few places where it was only Oma and me.
One was the alley. My parents always shopped at Eberhard’s on a strict schedule, organized around the days that they got paid. Oma and I, on the other hand, made our way to the rear of Pastoor’s Food Market whenever we pleased. We rummaged around in the wooden crates ready to be hauled away, making obligatory statements about wasteful Americans. Then lugged home cabbages—perfectly good once we pulled off the outer leaves—or even some lovely tangerines.
Another was school and several associated sites. All we had to do was turn left on Ethel and right on Sigsbee, then walk a few blocks and there was Sigsbee Park Elementary School. My first few days as both a new kindergartener and a foreigner who spoke no English were predictably scary. Particularly the one when everyone left and no one seemed to remember to pick me up. But then I made some friends and learned what to say and somehow became much braver.
My friend Marsha’s house was located on Sigsbee Street between home and school. Her mother was an accomplished housewife and always ready to welcome me with special treats. Oma helped me buy and wrap a present to take there for my first American birthday party. She washed and braided my hair, buttoned my claret-colored silk dress and bundled me up so I would not catch cold. Wearing her elegant black coat with the karakul collar, she walked me both ways.
I added another stop once I reached first grade. Mrs. Engleman, my silver-haired teacher, invited me to her house after school. Since she lived right on Ethel Street, just a block or so past Sigsbee, I was permitted to visit her. I loved her sunroom, which was full of hanging plants, crystal figurines and cages of canaries. She encouraged me to always excel, and I became the star of her weekly spelling bees.
Then my parents brought home a brand-new Ford sedan, and everything changed. Summers, it took us to see sailboats on Reeds Lake, monkeys and snakes at the John Ball Park Zoo and picnickers in Johson Park. Winters, it took us to see Christmas displays in Herpolsheimer’s and Wurzburg’s windows. And my aunt’s house whenever we wanted. It also took my parents to a duplex on Worden Street. In a part of town I had never been with a school I had never seen. And bought it without bothering to ask me whether I wanted to move.
Which was when I knew that I was doomed to remain a displaced person all my life. I had been displaced from Latvia, Austria and Germany. And finally, I was displaced from my beloved Ethel Street.
Three states and thirty some streets later, I bought a historic millworker’s house on Oella Avenue. Some years after that, my widowed mother moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me there. With her came boxes of diverse documents, which I tried to organize as I found time. Some were pieces of the past that only a mother might want to keep. One was a letter from Mrs. Engleman:
Ilse is a well-developed little girl and shows much happiness in being in school. She has developed a great deal in the first grade.
Ilse displays much enjoyment in her ability to read. She reads with expression and understands what she is reading. Ilse does all her work well and puts forth her efforts to please you.
Ilse is loved by all the children. She wants everyone to be thoughtful of others. This has been taught her through love and respect for her Grandmother.
I have loved Ilse, as she is so appreciative of all we do in school. She shows much originality and artistic ability and is very careful and neat in doing her work.
Ilse will be promoted to second grade. She has been an excellent little girl and I shall miss her not being in my room.
I left my second-floor study and went down to the kitchen, where my mother—then ninety—was stirring a large pot of frikadeļu soup.
“Of all the places that I’ve lived,” I said, “Ethel Street was the one where I felt truly happy. Perhaps it was the only place.”
“Ethel Street?” she said. “That was where that horrid man upstairs let that poor dog of his howl day and night. I was never happier than the day we moved away from there for good.”
NOTE: I posted my last piece over a year ago, a few weeks before the start of the pandemic state of emergency in Maryland (30 March 2020). It was not so much that I nothing left to say as it was that too much was swirling around in my brain. And this piece, moreover, is merely an abridged version of something I wrote for a workshop at The Writer’s Center decades ago. We were asked to model our writing on a short story we liked. I chose James Joyce’s “Araby,” particularly for the beginning and the end. While his was fiction, mine was fact. Though I was always aware, as I wrote in “Fact or Fiction?,” that the distinction between the two is blurry at best.