. . .
“Stop it,” I said, but no one heard me.
My mother had insisted on installing parquet floors immediately after moving into the drab Worden Street duplex, bought so we could live in one side while paying the mortgage with money made from the other. My father had agreed to her impractical project to preserve the peace. So there they were, banging nails into boards every moment they were free of their factory jobs. Once they had finished the rental side, they started on ours, making it clear to everyone within earshot we’d never return to that apartment on Ethel Street I loved so much.
My mother’s mother—Omama—and I were evicted from room after room. Oma’s chair, cut oak with curved legs finishing as lion’s feet, followed wherever she went. She sat on its gold-hued upholstery like a banished queen, her mouth turned down at the indignity of it all. I, her dutiful subject, lugged my low stool to wherever she was. Every morning I sat on its carmine-colored cushion as she scraped a precise part down my bowed head and plaited my blonde hair into two pathetic pigtails. That made me look like a refugee, which in fact I was. Or, as Americans at the start of the Fifties liked to put it, a DP—a Displaced Person. That term didn’t disturb me as much as it did my family because that’s how I felt: displaced first from Latvia, then from Austria and now from Ethel Street.
When Oma was through with me, she remained to read the death notices posted in Laiks—Time, the Latvian newspaper published in the States. She never mentioned Ethel Street, but I knew she missed it too. There she’d donned that black wool coat with the Karakul collar and called on the shopkeepers situated around the busy Wealthy Street intersection, then slipped into the alley to pick through perfectly good products and produce they’d discarded there; here she never came across anything more diverting than housewives in curlers.
My new surroundings afforded me more, but since seven-year-olds with overprotective parents can only go so far, that wasn’t much. In one direction I was allowed to walk to school alone. I could stop at the small drugstore if I had money, but since I almost never had any I almost never did. I could stop at the house where my new best friend and her twin brother lived, but since everyone there was preoccupied with pressing matters, I found I could only stay so long.
“I have to practice violin now,” my friend said, steering me to the door.
“We’re going to the ball game this afternoon,” she added.
“And I have Brownies tonight,” she threw in for free.
There was nothing at all in the other direction.
After the floors were finished, my father helped our tenant, a fraternity brother from Latvia, move in. Both then returned to distribute what little we had among our seven large rooms. I expected my father—tall, dark and handsome—to do the heavy lifting, but the tenant—short, slight and balding—held up his end surprisingly well. Together they lugged large rectangular objects up the steep, narrow staircase at the rear of the house, our sole access to the second floor.
That staircase bore no resemblance to the one in my new best friend’s house. While hers welcomed us warmly from the front hall with, “Come upstairs to play,” ours sternly advised, “Better go away.” Whenever I ascended anyway—always alone, since I never dared invite her over—I was filled with shame. Everything inanimate on the upper floor communicated comparable mortification. The mirror in my parent’s bedroom darkened to obscure the splotches spoiling its silver backing. The bed clung to its starched white sheets in an attempt to hide its sagging black springs, which supported a meager graystriped mattress. I couldn’t comprehend how my father could be content to lie there, reading cheap paperbacks, clad only in an undershirt, boxer shorts and that blue-striped robe with the useless sash that revealed his well-built body.
I held out hope only because I could count. There were three bedrooms, all told. Since my parents had claimed the front one overlooking the tree-lined street and Oma had settled into the back one with the garden view, the center one facing the wall of the house across our driveway was by all rights mine. Despite the constant accumulation of storage cartons, I spent a portion of each day considering how best to lay out this room. That is until my mother informed me my cot would remain by her bedside for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not a baby,” I said.
“Then stop acting like one,” she said.
“Even babies don’t sleep with their parents in America,” I said.
“You are not an American,” she said.
When we lay in bed, none of that mattered much. I slid my hand up her nightgown sleeve, squeezing soft skin as she drifted into disturbing dreams.
The kitchen was outfitted next. My father and the tenant carried in a brand new chrome and Formica dinette set and stood it in stark contrast to the dingy refrigerator and stained stove already there. The shiny seats and tabletop had a lovely pearl-grey cracked-ice design, which waged war with the tasteless brown-on-turquoise cattail-covered melamine dish set we’d received for free after opening an account at the Monroe Avenue office of the Michigan National Bank.
Having survived the Russian Revolution and two World Wars Oma wasn’t about to be done in by dinnerware. She placed those offending plates on that pleasing tabletop, plopped kotletes—fried beef patties—on each and added pan gravy and mashed potatoes for further camouflage. My father contributed to the cause by reproducing spectacular Alpine scenery, then guiding my fork up the meaty foothills to the mashed potato mountains and down into the gravy lakes.
My mother imposed her will, as well. Saturday mornings she dragged the washer from its hiding place, wheeled it to the sink, secured it with several hoses and an electrical cord and fed it everything we’d worn over the past week. Although it agitated its belly so hard the cutlery clattered, she managed to appease it by passing our apparel through its steely mangle. Sunday nights she commandeered the colossal sink—so deep it could drown a small child—to scrub my scalp. She then dragged a brush made of the bristles of some poor boar through wet tresses and dried them by the open door of an ignited oven.
Such struggles were never necessary in my new best friend’s kitchen. The mornings I stopped by there on my way to school, I observed her mother fold waxed paper around tuna fish sandwiches, celery sticks and chocolate chip cookies with the ease of what I later learned was an origami artist. Popping in on my way home I watched her deftly serve up Rice Krispies treats, still warm from the oven, without blinking an eye at the slanting rays of sun streaming in past the ruffles of the perfectly ironed curtains framing her spotless windows.
Our living room was the last to be appointed. My parents predictably placed a davenport and easy chair, both covered in this tufted green fabric with cutout curlicues that pressed patterns into the backs of bare legs, at right angles to each other, then relocated Oma’s chair to the opposite side. They positioned an insubstantial coffee table in the middle and an innocuous bookcase in a corner.
“The room needs a focal point,” my mother said.
“How about a television?” I asked.
“Television is bad for children,” she said.
Weeks later my parents unveiled their own solution: a large reproduced painting. They took to regarding what was depicted there—a wind-blown conifer situated on a cliff overlooking a vast expanse of calm water—with teary eyes.
“This could be Latvia’s lovely Baltic Coast,” they said.
“Too bad the label on the back says it’s Big Sur,” I said.
Our only source of entertainment, therefore, remained the ancient cathedral-style wooden radio, imported from Ethel Street and quarantined in my parents’ room.
The dining room remained empty, and all the front room offered was a simple mahogany-stained desk where bills and correspondence with friends and relatives piled up. Some came from behind the Iron Curtain, so heavily redacted Oma and my parents cursed. Some disappeared into the soft-sided suitcase my mother used as a filing cabinet. “If the house catches fire, I grab the handle and run,” she said, expecting that to make sense to those of us who still had some.
With nothing for me inside I headed outdoors whenever possible. That spring, summer and fall I skulked behind the high walls of the front porch, conducting surveillance on people who later peered at us from behind their drapes. That winter I played among white sheets and long johns hung in the back porch, frozen into shapes as silly as my mother’s belief that ice evaporates, my young self being unaware of the endothermic phase transition called “sublimation.”
When spring arrived, my mother hired muscular men to tear down both the back and front porches on both sides and replace them with concrete slabs. To soften the desolate slabs in the front she had them add black wrought-iron openwork columns. She never requested any railings be installed, so you could easily plunge through spindly bushes around the base, roll down a steep bit of lawn and land on the sidewalk below. Our already strange flat-roofed, gray-on-black sandpaper-walled duplex now resembled nothing in the entire universe.
Unaware she’d not only destroyed my last refuge and but also turned me into a cosmic laughingstock, my mother placidly planted lilies of the valley and violets under a boxwood hedge high enough to ensure we’d never encounter the neighbors to the left. She also waged war on dandelions and, after coaxing grass to grow with a new sprinkler, viciously mowed it down with another recently acquired contraption. For good measure she scandalized the neighbors to the right by stripping down to the type of shorts and halters never seen in their Calvinistic circle and baking in the sun every Sunday they sweltered in church.
Just when things were about as bad as they could get, a commotion arose in the front hall. More muscular men moved a massive upright piano into the front room. Apart from yellowing ivory keys and tarnished brass pedals it was entirely black, decorated only with a web of fine lines traced in cracking lacquer. For days I steered clear of that detestable thing. Then my father trapped me as I sat on its adjustable stool for the few seconds it took to secure a loose shoelace.
“Just why do you think we bought this?” he asked, knowing full well my music teacher at school had written saying it was time I took private lessons.
“I don’t know,” I said, knowing full well the squandered money would’ve been better spent on a trip to Paris, a party dress or a nice cat.
When I touched the keyboard, the unstable surface of Middle C slid to the floor, something I didn’t take to be a good sign. Gluing the ivory back onto that key and the many others that couldn’t stand up to my unpracticed pounding my mother ensured—through Oma, who now spied for her—I tormented that poor percussion instrument at least one hour a day. So I practiced meaningless scales and made heretofore-unheard music, our house being deficient in phonographs.
Once a week my father drove me across town in our blue Ford sedan so I could be mortified by the soft-spoken lady who sat next to me at one of the two grand pianos in the well-appointed music room of her stately home. “You play with such expression,” she said, about the only supportive statement she could make to someone such as me, who never seemed to get the notes quite right.
Stuck in this strange Worden Street house it was only a matter of time before I got into some serious trouble. There was really no point to my being there, so everything competed equally for attention. I saw something, it gave me an idea and I felt compelled to act on it. Before I was finished, another notion nudged me, then another. They chased each other around and rudely dragged me along.
I was nearly nine when my mother relented and moved me into the center bedroom. Alas, it was far too late. My deep-seated sense of dislocation wouldn’t dissipate, and I soon saw to it everything there was rearranged to match my mindset. My hard-won dresser and closet were turned inside out, the contents cached in corners and under the bed. My mother stood aghast at the sight.
“Do you know how long how it took me to iron your clothes?” she asked, waving a strawberry-strewn cotton frock uncomfortably close to my face.
“Yes,” I said, knowing nothing about her starting well after I fell asleep.
“Do you know how hard I work at that metals factory?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, knowing nothing of the brutal piecework she performed at breakneck speed under hazardous conditions for the pittance she was paid.
“Do you know how raw my hands are?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, knowing nothing about the caustic properties of bases, pertinent to appreciating the lime mixture she’d used to plaster our pantry.
Shortly after I ransacked my room, I turned to trespassing. The first occurrence took place the first time I was released from adult custody on my own recognizance, something my parents would never have allowed had they not had to take an old lady presenting with angina pectoris to the hospital.
As soon I heard the Ford’s doors slam shut, I ran up to Oma’s room and acted as though it was mine. The Band-Aid tins she used to organize buttons were out in the open. In no time the contents of the one enclosing the large dark ones was mixed with that of the one enclosing the small dark ones, which was mixed with that of the one enclosing the large light ones, which was mixed with that of the one enclosing the small light ones, all scattered around on her bed.
Next I attacked the closet, standing on a chair to reach presents she’d received but never removed from gift boxes. Soon sheaves of tissue paper lay among sheets of wrapping paper she’d fastidiously flattened and rolls of ribbon she’d carefully coiled, all underfoot as I alighted to rip clothes from hangers. I held the black georgette and lace gown she reserved for special occasions up against my unformed figure. It made a mockery of my imagined maturity, so I tossed it onto the pink seersucker housecoat with the price tag still attached.
My parents returned after what seemed like seconds, having admitted and then callously left poor Oma in the hands of strangers. My father rushed up to see if I was all right, but my well-being become immaterial upon his arrival.
“How could you do this?” he asked, looking around Oma’s room.
“I don’t know,” I said, thinking actually it had been quite easy.
“Do you not understand Oma is old and sick?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking most days she seemed remarkably spry.
Had I resembled my new best friend, I would’ve vowed never again to do something so despicable. But since I was nothing like her, I pondered a problem instead. Oma’s dresser drawers were locked, and a key wasn’t hidden anywhere apparent. From the perspective distance affords, I came to see I didn’t need a key after all. Just a thin, rigid blade to separate bolts from their strike plates.
After Oma was discharged and work claimed both parents, my behavior was conspicuously considerate. Helping Oma locate implements to fry smelts—those disturbingly diminutive Michigan fish caught in the spring and eaten in their crunchy entirety—I nabbed a knife. Alone again in her room I learned what pleasure comes from overpowering resistance and penetrating private places.
The upper drawers revealed priceless objects Oma’s peripatetic first husband had brought back to Latvia. A necklace of Italian glass shaped into pale pink trumpet flowers and translucent green leaves, another consisting of multiple strands of orange Chinese coral. Gemstone rings, some with empty settings, the missing stones sparkling in the bottom of a silk drawstring bag. A heavy link bracelet of rose gold. Yellow gold watches, some with fobs for wearing around the neck, others for carrying in the pocket. A shattered tortoise shell jewelry box. A hand-carved ivory Buddha, darkened to caramel with age.
I tabled opening the lower drawers, returning everything to its proper place before Oma could call me down for dinner. That was when I learned the knife, so useful in bringing bolts down, was entirely useless in bringing them back up again. Sweaty with the fear of being found out I set the table without being asked and promised myself I’d never again do something so stupid. But I returned repeatedly and, finding everything secured, repeatedly resorted to force. Oma never said a word to me or to anyone else, as far as I could tell.
Having succeeded at breaking and entering I turned to theft. Taking anything from Oma was out of the question, so my parents became my marks. Initially larceny was the last thing on my mind; I simply wanted to listen to music not of my own making. I climbed onto my parents’ bed to reach the radio, then jumped down beside the mirror. Seeing myself sway to the “The Tennessee Waltz” inspired me to open the closet where my mother stored her evening gowns.
I managed to extract a rustling navy taffeta number with a corsage of clunking ceramic cherries. As I arranged it on the bed I recalled the Saturday she had selected it from the rows of refurbished clothes at the Salvation Army Store. And the following Friday, when she had penciled her brows, pressed her lips together to keep the red paint from smearing and donned it to attend one of the balls my father’s fraternity held at Latviešu Biedrība. She had looked entirely as glamorous as the Ava Gardners and Jane Russells in my paper doll collection.
The musicians in the cathedral struck the opening chord of “Cold, Cold Heart” just as I struck silver in a pocket of the dress. Curious to see what else I could locate, I returned to the closet and slid my hand into a satiny slit of her scratchy wool suit. After extracting nickel and copper, I snuck downstairs and headed for the drugstore across from school. There I bought a large bag of Circus Peanuts, those oversized, pale-orange, marshmallow-based candies the mother of my true best friend always offered me during my Ethel Street days.
After I’d devoured all of them, I rooted around for money to buy more. That’s when I became a voyeur. I came upon the book with the yellowed pages and crumbling binding beneath some slips in my mother’s underwear drawer. I couldn’t see why she’d store something so skuzzy there until I took a look at the illustrations. There in disgusting detail were the protruding parts my father sometimes forgot to cover, the swollen insides of my mother’s stomach and—worst of all—a small head emerging from a space between her splayed legs.
Grotesque though the graphics were, my response felt familiar. I had experienced it when the teenaged girl across the street teased me by moving her fingers around under her sporty shorts. And learned to reproduce it by pumping myself higher and higher on the playground swings. Even the nagging sense this was wrong wasn’t new. Oma made sure she established that after catching me playing horsie with the tenant’s son instead of preparing for the spring recital.
“If you keep riding him,” she said, “one day he will want to ride you.”
“So what?” I said but knew she was referring to something significant.
Still the radio insisted it was simply great fun. The sensuous strains of “I Get Ideas” made me glow, the driving beat of “Jezebel” gave me tingles. All that bothered me was that belly swelling following the horsie riding. Next morning I was headed for a closer look at the book when Oma brusquely barred the way.
My pale mother, home shortly after she’d left for work, pushed past me to clamber up the stairs with Oma’s assistance. My somber father, still clad in work clothes, had returned as well but stayed downstairs to make telephone calls. The affable Latvian doctor we only saw when I needed penicillin shots in my posterior soon came and went with barely a nod to me. I retreated to the kitchen table, wondering whether anyone would remember I needed to be fed.
When Oma returned, she headed straight for that enormous sink. There she painstakingly rinsed something that resembled a shriveled red potato. Setting it aside she opened a cupboard door and stood on a stepstool to reach one of those Ball jars we used to preserve produce. She situated the spud inside the clear glass container, secured the medal lid and held out the tuber to me.
“Would you like to see your baby brother?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, staring at the sibling soundly asleep inside.
Through a side window I watched Oma bury the embryo beneath the tall boxwood hedge. She loosened a clump of spent lilies of the valley, laid the translucent casket in the resulting depression, replanted the perennials and stomped the soil. After rinsing the dirt from her hands, she labored upstairs. She returned right away with a tangle of bloody sheets, which she scrubbed in the sink and hung on the back porch to be whipped around by wind. When at last she made me a bowl of the detested oatmeal my mother made me eat most weekday mornings, I consumed every morsel without comment or complaint.
After my mother recovered, she took swipes at everyone in sight. At me when I wasn’t hiding in my room. At my father when he wasn’t off doing her bidding. And — inexplicably — at Oma wherever she went. Yet I too turned from Oma for some reason. When we were home alone, we stayed in separate rooms. I spent most of my time with my father, as far from my mother as we could manage.
That summer he cut grass and trimmed that horrible hedge while I swept up cuttings and clippings behind him. That autumn we raked crackling leaves into neat piles at the curb, set them afire and savored the pungent smoke. That winter we shoveled sparkling snow and heaped it high along paths we’d cleared. And the week before Christmas we drove to a local lot to buy a tree. After he’d strung all the colored lights we had, I hung more delicate ornaments and added tinsel, straightening each strand to transmit as much radiance as possible.
He tried to teach me chess but was too distracted to provide consistent instruction, and I was too inattentive to apply the little he managed to convey.
“Do not lead with your queen,” he said.
“Right,” I said, trying something else.
“Do not give away your pawns,” he said.
“Right,” I said, my mind numb to any other move.
Maybe because no one wanted to converse, my parents capitulated and purchased a TV. Apart from The Mickey Mouse Club, which competed with piano practice, I watched whatever my family watched. Sundays it was The Ed Sullivan Show, followed by Father Knows Best. The latter always gave my father a good laugh but sometimes made me strangely sad. I knew real parents who engaged in pleasant banter, who called daughters “Princess.” Daughters with brothers who weren’t buried under hedges. My new best friend had a family like that.
Some say time heals all wounds; I say furniture sometimes works better. By my eleventh birthday my mother had taught herself accounting and been moved from the filthy factory floor to the orderly offices above. Soon thereafter my parents resumed furnishing our house. One Friday I nearly forgot I wasn’t living on Ethel Street. My father walked in with a wide grin to say, “I just purchased the dining room suite from the mansion the Governor— the Governor—is vacating.”
Soon our dining room boasted a solid mahogany table, complete with beveled edges and sculptured base my father—a “rubber” in a factory where fine furniture was fabricated—polished to a luxuriant sheen. And high-backed chairs wide enough to accommodate the most corpulent State House fat cats, covered in burgundy velvet with backrests adorned with jewel-toned silk embroidery, the corners topped with swirling mahogany cutouts, the seats edged with swinging gold silk fringe. And a first-class sideboard inlaid with spectacular burl wood.
Saturday three of us headed downtown in the Ford, dressed in our Sunday best. We walked straight from the garage to Herkner Jewelers on Monroe Street, bypassing more mundane stores such as Wurzburg’s and Herpolshimer’s. While I inspected the contents of glass-enclosed mahogany display cases, shimmering under French chandeliers, my parents purchased a sterling silver coffee service. As paperwork whizzed by on the overhead trolley, a whispered conference led to the conclusion we should end our spending spree at Rogers Discount Department Store, all the way out on 28th Street. There we secured the silverware and silver-rimmed white bone china my mother insisted we needed.
Once we had the prerequisites to entertain properly, our house became more open. Except to Americans, of course. Soon the telephone rang, and we vacuumed floors and dusted furniture and polished silver, and my parents ran out to buy the Russian vodka and French liqueurs and caviar and sprats and Latvian sourdough bread and French pastries, and Oma and my mother made herring and potato rassols, and I cut radishes into elaborate florets for garnish and shaved sweet butter into bite-sized pieces resembling sea shells and overdressed people from across town and across the world came to visit, bearing boxes of chocolates and elaborate bouquets of long, stiff gladiolas.
“How lovely everything looks,” they said to my mother.
“How tall you are getting,” they said to me.
“How about a highball?” my father said to them.
Eventually all the guests gathered around the governor’s table. They ate and drank and sang and laughed about how they’d barely escaped with their lives all those years ago. It wasn’t exactly Ethel Street, but it wasn’t half bad.
On Thanksgiving fourteen of us gathered around a golden 21-pound turkey with all the trimmings flanked by sterling silver candelabra with tall white candles. My beaming father sat at the head of the table, the sideboard with the gleaming coffee service behind him. My flushed mother perched to his right so she could scoot into the kitchen at a moment’s notice. I sat next to her, with Oma across from me. One of my father’s sisters—the only one living in the States—sat to his left, her husband beside her, her son—now an engineering student at the University of Michigan—roaming around with his camera. A few of my father’s fraternity brothers, their wives and a daughter filled the remaining chairs.
Surrounded by his compatriots my father suddenly seemed less the refugee “rubber” who relaxed by reading pulp fiction in a sagging bed and more the promising young professional who once snagged what he deemed the best job in the world: reading recently published novels by day—at the beach, if he liked—and screening first-run films by night for Latvia’s Literary Board.
Emboldened by him I piped up to request a turkey leg.
“Now that is the problem,” my uncle said. “Everyone wants one, but there are only two.
“A scientist at Michigan State has started breeding six-legged birds for this very reason,” my father said, decisively loosening a bone from a joint.
“But are they any good?” my uncle asked.
“Now that is the question,” my father replied. “To date the learned man has failed to run sufficiently fast to be able to conduct the required tests.”
Everyone laughed, even my mother. Having successfully orchestrated her first American celebration she seemed less the feckless foreigner who danced to everyone’s tune and more the lithe young lady who once turned heads at society socials in the gated community on the Baltic Sea where she spent her summers.
Only Oma and I seemed essentially the same. We both noticed no one had closed the kitchen door, leaving that hateful sink in plain sight. A flash from my cousin’s camera forced us to avert our eyes. Mine landed on the reproduced painting of white, pink and burgundy peonies situated above the sideboard. My mother had bought it right after the governor’s furniture arrived. She was hammering in the hook when Oma said, “Peonies like to be left alone. They punish anyone who moves them, refusing to flower for years.”