Category Archives: Literature

Ethel Street

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.

 

Oma and me on our way to Marsha’s birthday party.

 

Reading DH Lawrence in Grand Rapids, MI

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Education slot, speaks at the Grand Rapids, Michigan stop of his USA Thank You Tour last December. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

For years after my release, I couldn’t find the right words to describe what it was like to be a five-year-old war refugee from Latvia forced to spend her formative years in the most stifling city in the United States. I thought it would get easier after Gerald Ford, who grew up there, shared the Republican ticket with Richard Nixon and became President once Nixon resigned. I said, “Everyone’s exactly like him there.” But that didn’t work since people kept confusing him with Chevy Chase. Decades later, I insisted it was not by chance that GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin chose to kick off her book tour there. But that didn’t work either since people couldn’t believe such a person could exist and saw her as a Tina Fey impersonator.

Now I’m giving it another go, emboldened by the fact that a hometown gal—which I’m sure is what they still call women back there—is in a position of power as the Secretary of Education, no less. And because it’s the beginning of Banned Books Week. So help me here and imagine emerging me surrounded by a bevy of Betsys. And a bunch of books. And a family where no one even remotely resembles a Jerry or Betsy. And, while you’re doing that, allow me to backtrack a bit.

Viktors Jurģis, Middle Age
My father, Viktors Jurģis, at the time he revisited Lady Chatterley in Grand Rapids.

In 1928, when DH Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy and Alfred A. Knopf published a censored abridgement in the States, my father was an undergrad studying the likes of philosophy and theology at the University of Latvia.

In 1930, when Lawrence died and US Senator Bronson M Cutting proposed amending the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act to end US Customs censorship of imported books and Senator Reed Smoot opposed that, threatening to read obscene passages from Lady Chatterley and such on the Senate floor, my father was starting what he believed was the best job in the world, or at least Latvia: reading books by day–at the beach, if he chose–and screening films by night. If he had to ban one now and then, well, that was simply how it went in most civilized countries.

The first banned book my father placed in our basement bookcase and I found

In 1959, when my father was 52 and I was 15 and we lived in Grand Rapids, Grove Press published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley and the post office promptly confiscated copies. Owner Barney Rosset sued the New York City postmaster and won. And won again on federal appeal. My father then legally bought the book, probably for 50 cents, curious to see if he would still ban it as a more circumspect middle-aged man. I don’t recall his conclusion or whether he even cared to share it with me.

What I do remember is him stashing the controversial novel in a small bookcase, one of several unused pieces of furniture brought over from our previous house and stored in the basement. Soon, Lady Chatterley was joined by John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the remainder of the trio whose ban Rosset’s attorney Charles Rembar had managed to get overturned. Other tantalizing titles subsequently appeared, most notably Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, written by the notorious Marquis de Sade.

Our conservative, Christian-Reformed neighbors, I’m sure, would have been appalled had they known that a seemingly decent man was leaving smut out where a teenaged girl could find it, but—even at the time—his actions seemed reasonable to me. My father had always drawn a clear distinction between what one chooses to read and how one chooses to behave. And left no doubt about the latter.

Still, I approached the basement books hesitantly, not sure whether reading would be right or wrong. On the one hand, their location suggested that they weren’t fit for the coffee table; on the other, the fact that they weren’t under lock and key suggested that this merely meant caveat lector. In the end, the inherent demand characteristics of all books—Open! Read!—prevailed. And I had access to more than a dictionary to explain the titillating terms that I had overheard.

Naturally, I focused on the raunchiest parts first. But—ever the critic—it wasn’t long before I became distracted by elements of context and style. What modern girl wouldn’t roll her eyes while reading something similar to, say, the following from Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her.

And whilst the tone of Tropic of Cancer was far more modern, what girl who occasionally read Seventeen and Glamour, as well, would want her sex scenes served up with some seriously repulsive stuff?

“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs.

In 1964, I left conservative, Christian-Reformed Gand Rapids for The University of Michigan, which put me smack in the middle of a full-blown socio-political and sexual revolution. There, I read Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and other erotica, but that was immaterial. With the invasion of Vietnam underway and the Roe v. Wade ruling nine years in the future, the obscenities concerning me were those related to war and a woman’s right to control her own body. I wonder whether that wasn’t so with my father, as well. Salacious literature mattered less in light of the wholesale slaughter of civilians and annihilation of nations Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had undertaken,

Given that reasoning, I could expect that those who would like to restrict what today’s youth reads would also be focused on more pressing matters. After all, we are only one careless tweet away from nuclear war with North Korea. But, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, the current administration can “walk and chew gum” at the same time. And one never knows what will attract our president’s attention. So it’s not that hard to imagine a man who hardly ever reads suddenly coming out in support of the reinstatement of censorship. With Betsy DeVos standing at his side. After all, one previous education secretary of a similar mindset—Terrel Bell during Ronald Reagan’s administration—tried to ban “controversial” books that had come to be considered classics. Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five.

So, even though—or perhaps precisely because—I am deeply concerned about the current geopolitical crisis, I must speak out during Banned Books Week. Because I believe that we would be far better off if we had people in positions of power who were well-read men capable of rationally reconsidering previous positions and literate women who had been allowed to grow up thinking for themselves.

Grove Books owner Barney Rosset in 1967. (Source: The New Yorker)

Note: Parts of this piece first appeared in “Lady Chatterley, My Father and Me,” posted in 2012 while I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review. It also suggests various ways to celebrate Banned Books Week.

Reconsidering Sentiment

My father and I build a snowman on the front lawn of the Ethel Street house that always occupied a soft spot in my heart. (Photo: Elsa Jurgis)

When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, my father liked to tell a tale about two men and an ass. Maybe it came from the Bible. Maybe it was Latvian folklore. Maybe he made it up. He was known to do that sort of thing, saying he was folk as much as anyone else. At any rate, no matter what combination the men came up with—one riding, one walking; both riding; both walking—someone always came along to criticize it. “Why own an ass if one of you has to walk?” And so on.

When I recall that tale these days, it is often in the context of my writing. You see, my stories have been criticized for eliciting too little emotion. And I suspect that if I ever wrote anything eliciting too much emotion, I would be criticized for that, too. But I always conclude that I would rather be accused of being too cold than of being too sentimental, so I do not put myself in a position to experience the latter, completely forgetting the point of my father’s story.

But even following my own logic, that makes little sense. If my response to one form of criticism (see “A Formal Feeling Comes”) is that shutting down is what people do in many of the situations—often involving war and displacement—that I portray, then I should be willing to respond to the other form, as well. Because there clearly are cases where such stressors have exactly the opposite effect. Which means that I need to risk telling stories that evoke strong sentiment. Even stories that could be considered to be sentimental.

One such story could come from the time when we were exiled in the Alps and my father had found work at a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, he was not suited for much more than a desk job, so he fell the equivalent of several stories and, luckily, landed on a ledge. Once he recovered, he looked for other work, but there was none to be found in post-war Austria. Since my mother was still employed, the decision was made that he should study law at the University of Innsbruck instead. So he packed pen and paper into one of his few remaining possessions—a fine leather briefcase—and took a train.

During this time, I was a toddler who was rapidly outgrowing her only shoes. Since there were none to be had in our area, my mother traced my feet and sent the outlines off to my father’s nephew, who had fled to England as a teenager. By the time that my new shoes arrived, they no longer fit. So my father took his briefcase to a cobbler and had him make a pair from the leather. Much the way—less the reciprocity—that the husband and wife in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” gave up prized possessions to give each other Christmas gifts.

The closest that I ever came to writing anything along those lines was “Ethel Street,” which was about the first place in the States my family lived after leaving our sponsor. While I always recall it with great fondness, I could not get as far as the first (and only) draft until two things occurred:  (1) I read James Joyce’s story “Araby,” which starts with the description of a quiet street and ends with the destruction of an idealized vision, and (2) I mentioned to my mother, then 90 years old, that the Ethel Street house was where I was the happiest and she responded with considerable amazement, saying, “That was the terrible place where the man upstairs beat his dog.”

Which gave me something cynical—and publishable—rather than sentimental. Perhaps even something perceptive about how the same experience can be so different for a child and an adult. Just not the story that I had wanted to write. Or that my father would have enjoyed, because he came from a generation that thought O. Henry was a wonderful writer. Of course, he thought the same of Anton Chekhov. Who is said to have said—I cannot find the original source—something like, “If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.” Which brings me back to that tale of the two men and the ass.

Note: My father died nearly two decades ago, but I still celebrate his birthday, which is today. Sadly, this December 17 is also the day that the cousin who sent me the shoes is being buried. One day I will succeed in writing stories with the sort of sentiment that both would have enjoyed.

From Playing with Food to Playing with Words

“Crocodile” soup, frequently featured in my fiction, is first mentioned in “Making Soup,” published in TriQuarterly. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

“Making Soup” is the first story that I ever wrote and serves as the starting point for a collection that I currently call Cold and Hungry and Far From HomeIt is about, well, making soup. It is also about being bombed. And because there is not much that can be done until the shelling stops and the soup is ready, it is about telling stories, as well. The narrator is a one-month-old infant who imagines that one day she will not only be able to eat a soup similar to what her grandmother has prepared but also will be taught by her father to play with both that soup and the word that describes it. The link between the two becomes part of her narrative, which she passes on to her sole offspring in “The Disposable Woman,” set in her final years:

“In this case,” I said in an aside to my son, “the term ‘crocodile’ doesn’t refer to species belonging to the order Crocodilia, which includes true crocodiles and alligators as well as caimans and gharials. Rather I use it as my late father did when he taught my evolving self to play not only with food but also with words. He took the Latvian—not the Latin—‘krokadīle’ and substituted it for ‘frikadele,’ meaning ‘meatball,’ as we used Oma’s massive silver spoons to smack those suckers down in their soupy swamp.”

The teaching is based on what my father, a sometime writer, did and the playing is what I continue to do, now that I am also a writer. As I complete more stories for the collection and add to my novel, Anna Noon, it becomes increasingly apparent that playing with words has become an integral part of every aspect of my writing: content, style and process. And that food remains a constant source of inspiration.

My content comes from the circumstances of my life as well as the individuals that I have encountered. Many had a way with words and were not above employing the most predictable forms of word playpuns, double entendres, clever rhetorical excursions and the like. To portray these people accurately, I had to use some instances in each story. (The fact that I enjoyed doing this, of course, was quite beside the point.) An example is the following passage from “That Dress,” which—on the surface—is about the many ways that a refugee wedding in the American Midwest can go wrong. There, my narrator, now about 13  years old, provides the setup for a pun:

. . . Oma retaliated by expressing her sour mood through her cooking.

You see even under the best of circumstances Latvians liked their sustenance so acidic it could curdle your blood. Besides my beloved saldskabmaize there was rūgušpiens (buttermilk), skābais krējums (sour cream), etiķis (vinegar), skabputra (sour porridge), skābi kāposti (sauerkraut), skābenes zupa (sorrel soup), marinētas siļķes (marinated herring) and more. Fortunately no one ever forced food on me, so I rarely refused anything other than buttermilk, which tended to make me gag, and sauerkraut, which I wouldn’t touch on principle.

So when Oma upped her game by an order of magnitude, plopping a slice of aknas pastēte (liver pâté) on my plate and ensuring it was simply swimming in etiķis, I merely made a face and dove right in.

“Keep that vinegar well away from your ears,” my father said. “It can cause pickled hearing.”

Content came to influence style. Since I was already using words in ways that call attention to themselves, it was only natural to add elements such as metafiction that increased the “fictionality” of my fiction and intentionally undermined the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. At that point, play acquired a serious purpose. It served to remind the reader that I was not silly enough to think that I could adequately depict reality; the best that I could do was to tell a good tale. This seemed to be the most honest approach and aligned me with similar proponents, those frequently found producing postmodern literature and contributing to postmodern philosophy.

Style, in turn, affected process. I found that letting myself to play with words in the broadest sense made it possible for me to come up with anything from an unexpected sentence to a better idea of what the trajectory of a plotline should be or what an entire story should be about. In “Salt,” where my narrator, now a 21-year-old college student, decides to run away to New York after failing to obtain an illegal abortion in Ann Arbor, I allow her to participate in the process. It starts with a surly motel desk clerk refusing to look for the salt that she needs for a tasteless chicken dinner that she has had delivered:

I return to my room surprisingly upset. It’s his responsibility to help me. And salt is so essential. Sodium ions are needed for tissue perfusion and cellular metabolism and fluid balance and cardiovascular function. Sodium and chloride ions for nerve transmission and mechanical movement. Chloride ions for digestion and pathogen destruction. Strong saline solutions can even cause death and induce abortions. I know this precisely because I am a College Kid. Which might not get me any further in a Major Metropolitan Area that it did at the front desk. Something I suppose I should consider before making such a serious move.

I continually try to improve my process. My latest attempt, which again starts with food, is shown in the upcoming piece “From Food to Fiction.” There I consider what accomplished cooks can tell me about selecting the best basic ingredients, adding the most suitable seasonings, employing the best preparation techniques and devising the most captivating presentations so that I can extrapolate to the short stories and novel chapters that I still need to write. Where words fail me, there is a luscious slide show for both your and my edification.

Note: The above photo was taken for the Baltimore Kitchen Project at the behest of Rafael Alvarez, who is not only famous for culinary accomplishments but also for The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street scripts, inter alia. For more of my writing on food and fiction, see “Better Late Than Never,” my contribution to the “What You Eat” series posted on the website of the Little Patuxent Review, where I was the online editor.