Tag Archives: Children

Private Parts

Me in my standoffish mode, sitting on a dock at Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, Michigan during the early Fifties. (Photo: my mother, Elsa Jurgis)

The most fun I ever had with my mother occurred after she came to live with me in Maryland following my father’s death. We often did silly stuff. Sometimes I made up songs or modified existing ones to suit the situation. (Neither of us could carry a tune, so it worked out well.) In my car, I would sing “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” each time she said something like, “Keep you mind on your driving, keep your hands on the wheel / Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead.” Once I got to “Kissin’ and a huggin’ with Fred,” I tickled her stomach. “Don’t touch my private parts,” she said. “What are your private parts?” I asked. “All my parts are private parts,” she said.

I recently related this anecdote to my niece, Mara Miske, who found me a few years ago through this site. Although we had never met and she was decades younger, our connection was immediate. And, much as we insisted that we were not real Latvians, both her parents and I were that by birth and it accounted for much of our natural rapport. And why it was harder to achieve with those who had negligible ties to our native land. The latter became abundantly clear while she was coaching me on how to approach the middle-aged man who likely was the baby that 21-year-old me gave up for adoption at birth and whom Mara had located  through DNA data posted on the My Heritage site. Being the more maternal of the two of us, she said, “Give him the warm-and-fuzzies he needs.” After which we laughed, knowing that most Latvians are simply not wired that way.

Not that Latvians are cold, although I have certainly heard that said. And read about a study–led by a researcher from Michigan State University, of all places–that ranks Latvia and other Baltic States near the bottom on  empathy. Rather, it seems to be hard to find the right word. One that gets the point across without being perjorative is”self-contained,” which is defined as “quiet and independent; not depending on or influenced by others.”  Another is “introverted.”  Some liked that one so much it became the basis of a long-running, award-winning campaign–#IAMINTROVERT–to promote Latvian literature. (Never mind that it was launched at the 2018 London Book Fair, where the market focus was on the Baltic states, including Latvia, and where the large crowds and absolute unavoidability of social interaction must have made it an introvert’s worst nightmare.)

While the campaign gently pokes fun at what could be considered a national trait, it also highlights some positive aspects. Namely, that there is a link between a preference for solitude and creativity.  In one article, Anete Konste, a humorist integral to the campaign’s success, notes that introversion is prevalent among authors, artists and architects as well as others working in creative fields. The  piece goes on to state that psychologists have suggested that creativity is an important part of  Latvian self-identity and, as such, a priority in the government’s educational and economic development plans. The European Commission has thus reported that Latvia has one of the highest shares of the creative labor market in the European Union.

How Latvians got that way, of course, is anyone’s guess. If pressed, I would say that it started with some particularly brutal forms of natural selection: the wars, occupations and displacements that have plagued the Baltic region throughout history. The introverts–or, as I prefer, the self-contained–kept their heads down and their emotions in check, trusting only themselves. Thus, while my maternal grandfather was murdered by a paramilitary mob during the Russian Revolution for defending his factory (see “The Face-of Extremism”), my maternal grandmother, pregnant with my uncle, quietly took my two-year-old mother back to Riga, sold sausages on the street until she turned herself into a successful business woman and–two world wars later–died in a hospital bed in America at age 90. A lesson my mother, who played her cards close to her chest, learned very well.

The trick is getting others to understand. Both the horrors that you have encountered and the damage they have done. My mother’s solution was to not even try. Her experience was so far removed from that of her American acquaintances that she let them believe what they wanted. Which, once she arrived here in Maryland, was that she was a cute old lady from somewhere they could not quite place. Every morning for years she–legally blind and crippled by arthritis–and her English Springer Spaniel walked the steep, winding loop that took her to her beloved Trolley Trail and back again. I feared for her safety, especially after the dog died, but refused to leave her staring at walls while I went to work in DC. Somehow, she always attracted a crowd. And, inevitably, someone would say, “You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” And my mother would say with a smile that only a few would see as anything but sweet, “Michigan!”

I emulated my mother until I was17 or so. Then, while having a hard time writing a paper on “The Waste Land,” I downed most of a bottle of vodka, lost consciousness in a pool of vomit and was taken by ambulance to an emergency room in the dark during a blinding snowstorm. (See“Winter Wonderland.”) Perhaps binge drinking–so common in Latvian social circles when I was growing up–is as instrumental as solitude in turning introverts into creatives. All I know is that after the ranting and raving I did alone in my second-story room while falling-down drunk, I found my own voice. And, decades later, after I retired and my mother died, the time to devote to writing essays and stories and novels and, eventually, the development of this site. I truly believed that if I could find the right words to string together, the world would come to understand me. Even my long-lost son would, once I gave him his family history. (See “Why I Write.”)

Whether my communication style made me better understood than my mother is up for debate. Particularly when it comes to inferring my feelings. Take the case of the  man who might be my son. (The qualification only means that a definitive maternity test conducted by a certified medical laboratory has yet to be done.) Before Mara could school me on warm-and-fuzzies, I had inundated the poor guy with data designed to quickly fill the gap left by my decades-long absence. Posts and pages from this site, published and unpublished works and material that I generated just for him. How was that to be taken? How would you know without being told that the poem about loneliness and the sea written by the the cartoon character of an introverted Latvian below started as an attempt to write a love letter?

NOTE: To read more about my own self-contained writing style, see “A Formal Feeling Comes.” And for more on one of my minor contributions to Latvian literature, see “A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small.”

 

The #IAMINTROVERT campaign team at the 2018 London Book Fair.
One of a series of cartoons created by writer Anete Konste and artist Reinis Pētersons.

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.

 

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)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Welcome to America

Five-year-old me photographed for emigration to the United States.

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible or I would not be allowed to emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know exactly how I felt about that. Or so I was told, at least. I have no actual memory of anything from my first five years, when I was a little displaced person from war-torn Latvia.

Similarly, I have no memory of the turbulent transatlantic crossing in a converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane, where almost everyone but my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. Or of refusing to be labeled like luggage at Ellis Island, where I not only tore off my tag and drew a picture of a girl on the back but also snatched those identifying other refugee kids. Or of the 730-mile train ride to Michigan. Or of my mother bursting into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings. Or of the meager meal of canned tomato soup and Saltine crackers that our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife, served us before putting my mother to work. Meaning that she was to hand-wash the dirty laundry accumulated since their washing machine had broken down, except that my mother—a clever lady shaking from exhaustion—diagnosed the problem as a short and fixed it with wire strippers and electrical tape and then only had to repeatedly load and unload the machine and carry everything out to the yard to dry. Or of the cramped, unheated space above the garage that they deemed suitable quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child, during a chilly fall and the following freezing winter. Or of my urbane father being tasked to single-handedly turn their fallow fields into a functioning horse farm. Or of him walking 26 miles in deep snow to Grand Rapids, the closest large town, to secure a factory job. Or of us moving to a nice flat on Ethel Street.

The first thing that I do remember is staring at a large Coca-Cola clock on the cloakroom wall at Sigsbee Elementary School, where I sat for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that no one would come to take me home from kindergarten. Before you conclude that this was the same sort of separation anxiety seen in American kids starting school, let me remind you that Europe had been decimated by World War II and dealing with the devastating aftermath. As a result, my father and mother and maternal grandmother had been the only source of stability that I had ever known. The thought that I had been left to fend for myself was unbearable. Which is why I am appalled when Americans refer to the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who cross the Mexican border to seek asylumtheir right under both US and international law—as sending them to “essentially summer camps” or “basically boarding schools.”

As you might expect from the way that my family and I were welcomed to the United States, I was not nearly as shocked as many of my progressive American friends were by the way that a recently empowered segment of our society views foreigners who have been forced to flee their native land. That was always there, if not always so openly expressed. But back then, at least, no one kept me from my family. Despite my worst fears, someone eventually took me back to Ethel Street. Still, the memory of sitting alone in that cloakroom with that ticking clock stays with me to this day. I wonder what traumatic memories and subconscious changes will stay with the 2500 some kids recently separated and sent to shelters in at least 16 states. Some are only a few months old. Hundreds have been apart from their parents for several weeks. And there is no good system for reuniting them, so who knows how many will ever see Mom or Dad.

 

A border patrol agent takes a youngster into custody in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where at least three facilities are holding “tender age” migrants. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Children are held in a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas. (Source: US Customs and Border Protection/Reuters)