My mother nursed me and carried me to the road. She walked in one direction, then the other, taking in the damage from the previous night.
A woman on a bicycle stopped to tickle my stomach. It was bad enough she did that without my leave, but then she turned to my mother and said, “Thank God she is too young to understand.” Perhaps I was too young to play the piano or read Proust, but I was not too young to understand what went on around me. I understood before I came into the world, when my mother carried me inside of her. She gasped, and I had no air to breathe.
We were camped out at the summer home of one of my father’s friends. He had promised us passage out of Latvia if we could get from Valmiera to his place north of Liepāja, but when we arrived he was nowhere in sight. The doors were wide open, the radio still on, transmitting static. The Soviet Army was moving east to west, and we were about as far west as you could get, so we stayed.
Soft rain fell the following morning as my father drove his cherry-red sports car to the harbor to see about tickets. Storm clouds shadowed the parlor where we parked ourselves to await his return. “Might as well get comfortable,” he said when he eventually entered the room, drenched from the downpour that had begun on his way back. “We will not be going anywhere for another week.”
I liked the way his black hair gleamed in the lamplight. At first everyone had exclaimed I looked exactly like him, but when the dusky down on my head disappeared those same people insisted with comparable conviction I looked like my blonde mother. Only my mother’s mother—Oma—had anything sensible to say on the subject. “Babies often resemble their fathers at birth,” she told me. “To establish lineage and keep the brutes from snuffing out their own offspring, you see. How you look later is immaterial.” I tested her hypothesis by offering up cautious smiles, and my father responded by scrunching up his face in a way that made me laugh. Apparently I was past the point where he could take exception to my pale locks, and we would remain on good terms forever.
It was not so easy to tell with my mother. She seemed to like me well enough but took every opportunity to vanish from my view. Oma had suggested that after being crammed into the back of the car with me and my belongings for days on end she stretch out on her bed here and catch up on sleep, but she did not wish to do that. She spent two dreary days pacing, roaming from room to room. When the sun came out the afternoon of the third, she nursed me, turned me over to Oma, and took off toward the harbor by herself. Oma and I were none too happy about that. “Not much more than a month since she gave birth,” Oma said, as if I did not know that.
I consoled myself with the fact that it was simply not in my mother’s nature to stay put for long. When she was a little girl, she had fled from Oma’s flat in Rīga every chance she got. Ran down the five flights of stairs, into the pharmacy to the right, into the stationer’s to the left, into the Jewish bakery the next building over. Then back upstairs with a bit of matzo the proprietor gave her, leaving a trail of crumbs on Oma’s shining parquet floors. Oma would scold her and curse the Jew, for all the good that did.
“My daughter has restless feet,” Oma said, as if it were a disease.
“She will be back,” my father said, as he always did.
Oma changed her tune when my mother returned with a bag of meaty bones. Inspecting them she saw the butcher had failed to trim off the fat—the part our famished bodies craved most—to save for his best customers, his own family even. How my mother had managed to persuade him to leave it on for her Oma could not begin to imagine. “Good,” she said. “Now I can make soup.”
She looked around the unfamiliar kitchen to see what else she could use. Satisfied she had the cookware, cutlery, and seasoning she needed, she tied a stranger’s apron around her ample waist, selected a knife, and headed out the back door. My mother and I followed behind as she made her way to the kitchen garden in the fading October light.
She spotted onions among the weeds, their colorless tops flopped over, and pulled some out. She riffled overgrown carrot tops, muttering the roots would be woody. She selected the smaller ones and wiggled them back and forth until they succumbed to her will. She found an acceptable cabbage and hacked away until the head wobbled off the base.
When she returned she placed the bones and the seasoning into a pot of water, carried it to the stove, and lit the fire. She then washed the vegetables, brought them to the table, and eased herself down on a chair.
She was scraping carrots when she froze. My mother was sitting next to her, holding me on her lap; she flinched and tightened her grip. We all listened in silence to the faint but unmistakable hum of aircraft heading for the harbor until my father joined us. “No point being heroes,” he said, motioning us toward the pantry. But all he did was light a cigarette, then sit down on the chair next to me and inhale the stinging smoke. “You can make yourself mad jumping at every sound,” Oma said, turning her attention back to the carrots.
Only after we heard distant explosions and the superfluous sirens that followed did she remove the pot from the fire, extinguish the flame, and shoo us to the root cellar under the pantry.
I began to blubber in the underground gloom. My father started to sing a song to soothe me but stopped after a few bars. “Muļķis,” he said to himself. “Idiot. You sing a silly song about a rooster running down the road in the morning while Bolshevik bastards bomb the harbor under cover of night.” When he started up again he supplied his own words:
Why you crying, why you crying, my little girl
Why you crying, why you crying, my little girl
In the darkness of the night
In the darkness of the night?
I listened, transfixed. When my father finished and I began to fuss again, my mother did not take her turn. She always told people she could not sing, but I knew anyone who is alive can sing. I opened my mouth and let out a howl to prove the point, surprised by the startling effect it had on my audience.
My father set me aside. I wondered if I had offended him with what could be construed as competition but soon saw it was only because he remembered he had left his cigarette case back in the kitchen. “I need a smoke,” he said and bounded up the stairs. “I need to see about the soup,” Oma said and huffed her way up behind him, carrying potatoes found in the cellar in a fold in the apron.
My mother would not budge. The all-clear had not sounded, and who knew what could still happen? I did not mind keeping her company. My head was covered with a lacy cap she had crocheted, and the rest of me was wrapped in a fleecy blanket. I liked bobbing up and down as she strode around, stamping out the fat spiders that scurried past. But all she had on was the tired blue gabardine dress she had worn into town, and the cold finally got the better of her. She mounted the stairs, and I had no choice but to accompany her.
The stock was simmering when we surfaced in the kitchen, filling the air with a savory steam that fogged the windows. It was so cozy there my mother made me a nest in a wooden storage bin. She draped a large towel across the top to protect me from splinters, pushed it down with a pillow that would serve as a mattress, and lowered me in to see if I fit. Seeing I did, she arranged my blanket around me so I would not squawk. She was good at finding uncommon uses for ordinary things.
Oma chopped the peeled carrots, streaky from sitting out in the open so long, and peeled and chopped the onions. She then turned her attention to the cabbage and potatoes. When she was finished, she cleaned the knife, the cutting board, and the table. She had run a posh seaside pension near Rīga, so she was picky about things like that. When we first arrived here, she had been quick to point out evidence of the hasty departure my father’s friend had made.
“Before we left I washed the dishes and straightened up,” she said.
“And what a waste of time that was,” my father responded with a snort. “Who cares what those filthy marauders find when they break down the doors?”
“Do not laugh,” she said. “Had you had led a tidier life, you would not find yourself in the position you are in today.”
She meant his having to spirit an old woman, an unweaned infant, and a reluctantly wed wife out of a war zone. It was the closest she ever came to saying what she thought of the careless act that had brought me into existence at such an inopportune time and necessitated such a questionable marriage. Mostly she bit her tongue, appreciating the precariousness of her situation.
The steamy kitchen closed in on my mother. She grabbed a shawl for herself, bundled me up in my blanket, and carried me outside. The night was cold and clear, with barely a sliver of moon.
There were just the two of us, so she spoke from her heart. Much of it meant little to me, particularly when she began to brood about imponderables. But then she said something so thoughtless I had to backtrack a bit. What I remembered her saying went more or less like this:
I always seek the dark because it makes me invisible but become scared by the vast starry sky. Earth is but a speck in the Universe. An aberrant planet could smash it to bits. Were that to happen, would everything in existence collapse?
My father understood science and could have answered my question, but he died before I was two. How could he have been so cruel as to leave me so totally alone in such an unfathomable world?
I was astounded. What about me? Your mother and husband? We are still here. Can you not see that?
My father wandered out and scanned the cloudless sky. “A fine night to bomb the hell out of a small, defenseless country, do you not think?” he asked, failing to bring the slightest smile to my mother’s lips.
The sirens blared on cue, and all he could do after that was push my mother and me inside. Oma secured the soup, and we headed for the cellar again as planes screamed overhead.
The cellar did not seem so safe the second time around. Though we were a ways from anything important, something exploded nearby. The rafters shook, the windows rattled. We heard glass break outside. We breathed the musty scent of damp earth detaching from walls. My mother’s chin trembled. My father tried to put an arm around her, but she pushed it away. “They are getting careless,” Oma said. “That is what happens when you quash the best with every regime.” Then she told the story she always trotted out at times like these:
My first husband was an engineer who traveled the world. He, together with my daughter, my unborn son, and me, happened to be in Harkova running a chemical factory just as the October Revolution—which actually occurred in November by our calendar—was about to begin.
He tried to explain to the idiots who seized the plant the Revolution could never succeed without critical facilities, experienced managers, skilled workers. But they just dragged him out to the courtyard and shot him dead.
Look how little has changed. Those bird-brained Bolsheviks thought the educated, the landed classes, were the enemies of the people, and that is just what those stupid Soviets say today.
The assault continued without respite. I slept, knowing there was nothing I could do. I sensed my mother’s body becoming numb under my immobile form and signaled I was waking up. My mother handed me to Oma and limped off to stretch her legs. I was sorry she could do little more than walk circles in the tight confines. My father had his cigarettes with him this time and lit up during lulls, briefly brightening our dim hiding place.
Oma stewed about not having bread to go with the soup. “How is it he can find all the cigarettes he needs in town but cannot get his hands on a simple loaf of bread?” she said under her breath. “If I could get around on my own, I would have brought back a basketful.” She was still fuming when the all-clear sounded and we mounted the stairs.
My mother took me to the room where we slept to change me. She was out of diapers, so she used one of the damask dinner napkins Oma had packed for this purpose. She wanted to put her feet up for a moment, but as soon as she lay down and pulled the dusty coat she had worn to town over us, she fell asleep.
She had a nightmare, as usual. I slept through most of it, catching only the tail end. It was mainly a mess, as they tended to be. What I managed to piece together looked like this to me:
Farmers and those without gas for their vehicles arrived in horse-drawn contraptions. They tied the horses to posts and boarded ships. The horses tried to break free, rearing and neighing and foaming at the mouth. They had no water, no feed. Some effected an escape and ran crazed through the streets, trampling the dazed people who stood in their way.
Then the shelling, the fires began.
My father drove up in his cherry-red sports car. He tried to pull my mother in, but she fought him off. She shouted she had lost me, lost her mother.
As she turned from my father, a man who looked like her maternal grandfather emerged from the crowd. The same full beard and bushy eyebrows. He slipped on the blood-slicked cobblestones and was slowly, slowly falling, trying to protect something held in his arms. A dollhouse, the one he had built for her.
But it could hardly be him my mother, suddenly lucid, remembered. Her grandfather had died in his bed of influenza.
The old man hit the pavement with his hairy chin, and the dollhouse splintered beneath him on the street. The street that now looked as though it were paved with gravestones.
I tried staring at the ceiling but could not help shrieking, following the man and his house down in frightening freefall. I clenched my jaw while my face turned a lurid red, unwilling to stop until someone acknowledged my misery. Oma finally came to get me. “For shame,” she said. “Can you not give people a moment’s peace?” She hauled me back to the kitchen and stuck me in the bin.
Oma removed the bones from the pot. The second attack had given them time to cool down, and the meat pulled off easily. She morseled out what she could and dropped it back into the liquid, then added the onions and carrots. She washed her hands and lit the stove, and soon the broth bubbled again. After a while she added the cabbage and potatoes. This would have been the time she made meatballs, but she had neither enough meat to grind nor any eggs or bread to bind the bits together.
My mother was still sleeping. I was content, having kicked away the blanket, to ride my invisible bicycle, my round legs rhythmically treading air.
There was nothing useful for Oma to do, so she sat down at the table and watched my father compose a letter. Tilting her head, she could see he was writing to friends in Berlin, informing them he had received confirmation our names were on the roster of a ship due to arrive the day after tomorrow and he expected to see them soon. That explained what he had been doing out this morning but not why he had not bothered to give her the good news.
“And how will your friends get this with all of Europe in ruins?” she asked. “And if they do, how likely is it they will be waiting for us? They will be gone, just like your friend here.”
“You have something better to suggest, I suppose?” he asked as his ink-stained hand scraped out another letter to another friend.
When Oma left to relieve herself, my father shut the kitchen door securely behind her. He looked at me as though he were begging my pardon, then directed a tirade against the chair still warm from her recent presence:
You arrogant old woman. It is only because I had the decency to marry your hopelessly naïve daughter any of you have any chance of survival.
It was my doing we left when we did. It was my doing we made it past guards and sentries. It was my doing we made it through rutted back roads, past burning peat bogs lighting our way at night, machine guns spraying the sheltering woods during the day . . .
He banged open one cupboard door after another, searching for a liquor bottle he might have overlooked in his previous pass the other day. “I should have known you would not leave any booze behind,” he said.
While my father redirected his anger to his long-departed friend, I stayed with the subject of my father’s role in our escape. He had been sent to Valmiera to work in the bureaucracy the Germans had seized, my mother assigned to be his assistant. None of us could leave when it became clear we should. I needed to get used to life outside the womb, and my mother had to heal from the horrific injury I had inflicted on her. By the time the two of us were in any condition to travel, it was late September. The German Army was withdrawing and the Red Army advancing, burning down most of the town in the process.
My father got us out with a joke here and a bribe there and that fancy red car, and that was clearly no mean feat. But why couldn’t he understand what was obvious to me? It was my doing we are here now. It will be my doing if we manage to leave Latvia. It is children who keep adults going when all seems lost.
Sirens wailed, and I went blank. My father grabbed me on his way down.
The planes did not return after the third attack. While I dozed in the bin, Oma went to her suitcase and returned with three massive silver spoons that had her monogram engraved on their paddle-shaped handles. She found three large bowls in the cupboard, tisking when she saw chips around the edges. She set a single candle in the middle of the table and lit it. She gave the soup a final stir and extinguished the fire beneath.
She sat down for a moment and prayed for her son. My uncle, my mother’s baby brother, someone I had never even seen. I was suddenly alert as unnerving memories intruded on Oma’s mind. This is what I heard her think:
My son was still in my stomach when the Russians sent bullets through his father’s skull. Now he is God knows where, fighting with the German occupation force. What choice did the dear boy have?
Look how the previous Soviet occupation ended. Baigais gads, The Horrible Year. More than fifteen thousand ordinary citizens of such a small nation arrested and deported to remote regions of Russia in boxcars built for livestock. Babies and toddlers dying of cold and hunger before reaching their destination. Those not stuffed into the trains brutally executed in Rīga and elsewhere by the retreating Red Army.
The poor farmer who supplied my pension so faithfully was found with his arms and legs broken, his tongue severed, his intestines pulled out through his mouth, Cheka style. And for what?
“Cūkas,” Oma said. “Pigs. They are all pigs.” She knew her son would be hungry; she wanted to take him some soup.
My parents sat in the parlor, listening to the radio. A shortwave band broadcasting music by Bruno and the Swinging Tigers, transmitting propaganda to the Brits and the Americans. A recording of the 1930s Broadway hit “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” an announcement they would play “Winston Churchill’s latest tear-jerker,” then new words to the same tune:
Yes the Germans are driving me crazy
I thought I had brains
But they shot down my planes . . .
“You could have done better than that,” my mother said, finally laughing.
My father had indeed written political verse, but not in support of them. Every night before leaving his office he composed doggerel mocking the German interlopers there and pinned it to his lampshade; every morning it was gone. His friends feared for his life but recited each posting from memory when superiors were out of earshot. My father seemed unconcerned, saying no one would arrest him for a few foolish words. Others were in far greater danger.
He remembered his friend the rabbi who had taught him to read Hebrew when he studied theology at Latvijas Universitāte. He wondered what had become of him, not knowing he might have come close to the answer this morning. On his drive back from the harbor he had taken a hidden road—one of the few not clogged with refugees—and stopped to try to walk off his despair. Shrouded by the fog that rolled in from the Baltic, the dunes he climbed were the same ones where fellow Lutherans had recently slaughtered, then buried Jews.
When Oma called us to the table, we saw bowls of soup glorious beyond belief. Golden pools of fat floated on a rib-sticking broth, which was thickened by the particles of diced potatoes—overcooked from all our trips to the cellar—that had crumbled into the stock. The candle flickered festively. “See the bits of carrot peeking out from under the cabbage,” my mother said. When she grasped the heavy spoon and brought it up for a taste, she bit into a piece of meat. It fell apart instantly, but there was no mistaking it for anything else.
I blew bubbles, certain I would eat a soup like that someday. That it would have real meatballs, frikadeles my father would call krokadīles—“crocodiles”—and teach me to bob up and down in their vegetable swamp. And that it would be accompanied by sourdough rye bread—saldskābmaize—that would bruise my mouth with its hard crust and remind me to be grateful. And that a slice of klinģeris would be subsequently presented, for it would surely be my birthday and I would be celebrated with that special sweet.
I resolved to motivate my mother to drink more water and eat more food so her milk would flow until that could happen. To encourage my father to drive his car boldly up the gangway and into the ship that awaited us so we could make our way to the place where everything good could happen.
A full belly made my mother unusually communicative. She shared a story none of us had ever heard:
Shortly before I gave birth, I walked to a gypsy camp on the outskirts of town to settle the question of whether my child was a boy or a girl.
My husband had assumed from my bulging stomach it was a boy and had taken to calling it “Maks.” I was not so sure and had another name in mind I kept to myself.
The gypsy told me my child was beyond doubt a girl. On my way out another question occurred to me, and it seemed a waste to come all that way without addressing it.
“Will I travel?” I asked, having always wanted to see the world. “Beyond your wildest dreams,” she replied.
We laughed without understanding how far fate would take us. “Very interesting,” my father said. “It happens I knew someone else who chanced to visit that same exact site.” Not to be outdone, he told this story:
A lovely young lady I dated as a student eventually married a wealthy old man. Soon after the ceremony she went to that same gypsy to ask what her future would hold.
She entered the foreboding tent and placed her soft white hand into the gypsy’s dark rough ones. She trembled in anticipation as the gypsy traced the delicate lines of her palm.
“Prepare yourself to be a widow,” the gypsy said. “Your husband will die a gruesome death before the year is done.”
The young lady searched the gypsy's face as she felt the ground under her chair give way. When she regained consciousness, she had one final question.
"Will I be acquitted?" she asked.
We laughed at our gullibility as my father shrugged, satisfied with the effect. “Every good story deserves a bad joke,” he said.
“We should stop trying to fathom the future and decide what must be done today,” Oma said, reminding us it was already past midnight. But I could tell by the look in her eyes she too once had prospects worth considering. When no one made a move, she allowed herself the luxury of retrieving a treasured memory she saw no need to share with anyone there but me:
When I worked at the Ministry of Defense in Rīga, I belonged to an amateur theater group. During a rehearsal of Blaumanis’ Nāves ēnā—In Death’s Shadow—all I could do was watch: no female roles, just fourteen fishermen trapped on an ice floe.
My eyes fell on the Swedish engineer cast as the young innocent who chose to warn others rather than saving himself. We moved toward each other and away from the terrible topic we staged, never to part until death played its role for real.
Oma pushed back her chair, saying it was time to get some sleep. I was disappointed. This was my favorite time of day, and—for once—everyone else was awake and not annoyed by my carryings on.
My mother placed my protesting body on the bed and did little more than kick off her shoes and slip out of her dress before lying down beside me. My father slid in on the other side in his underwear. Lying between the high protective walls they formed, I still could not sleep.
I heard Oma wash dishes and sweep floors. Pause to rest her aching knees. Pad down the hall to the bathroom across from me. Unwrap the glycerin soap she had brought with her. I caught a whiff of heliotrope, the toilet water she always wore. She emerged and paused by my door, distracted, fingering the fine lace that adorned her gown. “How horrible to imagine them swarming our streets again.” I assumed she referred to the vulgar wives of the Russian officers who had previously arrived in their rusty tanks. Women who bought bed jackets at the best store in town and wore them to restaurants, bought negligees there as well and donned them to attend the opera.
Bedsprings creaked as she collapsed in the adjoining room.
I woke with a start when Oma cried out. I was yet to study the angina pectoris that plagued her. To learn that not just bad things can tear at the heart. That even a beautiful soup can do that as it redirects blood to the gut. All I knew was she was scared and alone in the ghastly hours before the dawn.
I tried to pull a blanket over my head, but it would not budge. I tried to hide in my mother’s breasts, but she moved away. I begged my father to sing a song, but all I heard was air moving in and out of his gaping mouth. I resorted to whimpering, hoping Oma would not hear. After I was sure she had fallen into a deep sleep, I let out a wail my mother had to acknowledge.
She threw on her coat and carried me out to the kitchen, still fragrant from all that soup making. She nursed me and shuffled to and fro in someone else’s oversized slippers, clutching me tight to her chest.
After a while she told me a story about a house. At first I thought she meant the dollhouse her grandfather had built, but it was a different kind of dollhouse. Then she mentioned a playhouse, and I thought she meant the one she and her brother had built from bundles of worthless rubles brought back from Harkova, but it was a different kind of playhouse. My mother never chose a straight road to her destination; people always had to guess where she was going. Once I sorted it out, her story went like this:
Once Oma had returned to Rīga after her husband’s death, she asked her widowed father, a carpenter, to build her a pushcart. She pulled together money for ingredients, loaded up the cart, and inveigled him to help her wheel it to the city center. There she sold fresh hot sausages to grateful passersby chilled by Arctic blasts that swept through the city that winter.
She barely made enough money to feed us, but every day she returned with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks. Everything would have been fine had she not met a conniving hypochondriac.
The hypochondriac owned a pension he claimed he was too sick to manage. A stately structure in a gated community in Vecāķi, where intellectuals, political figures and entrepreneurs from the world over spent their summers. By day they sunned themselves on the fine sand beach—sand, they say, as fine as any found in the Sahara; by night they indulged themselves in culinary, aesthetic, and God knows what other pleasures.
She was familiar with those types. When she was only eighteen, she had traveled to St. Petersburg to serve as governess to the children of the tsar’s minister of transportation. She summered in their opulent residence on the Black Sea and learned things her parents could never have taught her.
The hypochondriac offered her the pension in exchange for her hand in marriage. She accepted, knowing there was no love between them, knowing he despised children—especially me. She made the pension a huge success but at considerable cost. I cannot begin to tell you what that man did to my brother and me. I will not tell you what he did to Oma. Sometimes he made me watch.
Summers I found refuge in the woods behind the pension, the dunes along the shore; winters—back in Rīga, when I was older—I sought distraction sneaking into the nearby opera house and the playhouses. In between the excesses of Aida—a real elephant on stage—and Carmen—real bulls and horses—I found myself at a modest production of A Doll’s House.
The heroine, Nora, was a less savvy version of Oma. Her husband called her his doll, his songbird, his squirrel. But the squirrel had been squirreling away money. When she realized she was living a lie, she confronted him and said she was leaving.
Nora’s husband reminded her that—before all else—she was a wife and a mother. She told him she no longer believed that. That—before all else—she was a human being just as much as he was, or—at the very least—she would try to become one.
“That is why I wanted to name you Nora,” my mother said, passion in her voice, tears in her eyes. “I love you, little girl, and want you to be free.”
On one hand, I had to admit I had underestimated my mother, that we all had. We had already forgotten that were it not for her, Oma would not have had bones for soup and we would have gone to bed hungry. I should be proud of her, proud of what she wanted me to become. On the other hand, she hadn’t named me Nora. She hadn’t said a single word.
My father somehow was supposed to have known what she wanted and somehow made it happen. But he had no paranormal powers I could detect. He named me as best he could when I emerged a female, not the male he had expected. The registrar needed to enter something, and my father gave him the name of a beautiful baby girl born to a friend a few weeks before. Nothing against the friend’s child, but who would want to be named for an infant? What could that possibly say about me?
I decided I should not entirely trust what went on in my mother’s tangled mind, the other thoughts she had hidden there, the dark distortions.
Was the hypochondriac really so horrid or was his primary sin not being her dead father? Perhaps he was not even a hypochondriac. After all, Oma was a widow twice over. He might have even cared about her, just not in the way she wanted. After all, she had been wrong about her grandfather, thinking he hated her because he had said she made him crazy with all her running around every time he tried to work. But all the while he had been building her a dollhouse with what love he had left over after all that had happened to him.
I slipped into sleep still mulling over my mother’s story. Even if what she told me was true, what was so bad about being my father’s wife and my mother? What was so bad about being anyone’s wife and mother when everything was caving in on us, when all we could rely on was each other?
I woke to sunlight playing on my face and the sound of Oma preparing for another day. The precise clank of a pot placed on a burner, the brisk thud of cupboard doors opened and shut. That was the way it should be. My mother reached for me with a smile. My body stiffened, and I turned from her touch.