When mother told me that in Latvia it had been commonplace for everyone to go swimming in the nude, I was shocked. What kind of pagans were these Latvians? I was also embarrassed. This was something I would never tell my American friends!
My shock was lessened somewhat, but not a lot, when mother explained that women swam at a separate beach from the men. I imagined my grandparents and great aunts without clothes and hit my face. Not only did everyone swim in the nude, but they lay or sat in sweat lodges (pritis) and flayed each other gently, or not so gently, with birch branches. To my adolescent ears, all this suggested utter depravity. Roman orgies seemed tame in comparison.
I remembered the last summer we spent in refugee camps. I was 6, and a group of us - family and friends - had walked several miles to a nearby lake to swim. I have no memory of what anybody wore swimming, but I do remember that men and women sat on the grass in their underwear and sunbathed. To be seen in underwear in the privacy of one's home, however, was another thing entirely. It was not permitted, not even for children.
Latvians were so formal that children and parents said hello and goodbye with a handshake, not with hugs, much less kisses. Latvians were so formal they dressed up if they went out in public, period.
I remember our first year in the United States. Nobody had a car, so we walked everywhere. Once, in typical fashion, the men in suits, white shirts and fedoras, the women in dresses and heels, and my 9-year-old friend, Ruta and I, age 6, in our best dresses, good shoes and white anklets, all trooped down Highway 91, keeping to the dusty, gravel edged shoulder, to visit yet another Latvian family who lived on a farm three miles north of town.
Once there, everyone sat or sprawled on blankets spread out on the grass between the apple trees and ate, drank and had a good time. The women unhooked their garter belts and pulled down their nylon stockings to catch a few rays of sun.
At the beach, Mother wore a two-piece or a slinky thin one-piece while Father was nonchalant in his European bikini. Yet both were embarrassed by American couples sunning themselves in positions of closeness that seemed scandalously intimate.
For a Latvian girl, allowing herself to be touched by a boy - no matter how innocent the touch - was slutty behavior. Giggling, if a boy was near, was equally damning. Giggling at night in the presence of a boy was asking for trouble, and giggling while being touched was tantamount to - well, you can guess.
Should a girl be wanton enough to allow tickling, she had better have a marriage license in her purse.
Swimming in the presence of a boy meant just that: swimming laps. There could be no standing idly in the water, chatting. (Certainly no giggling, no high-pitched sounds.) Nor could there be any romping or splashing.
To this day, every Latvian who was there 25 years ago remembers how humiliating it was for Ruta's mother, my parents, and my aunt and uncle to witness Ruta's daughter, Lisa, held in the arms of her high school boyfriend as he swirled her through the water in big concentric circles while Lisa squealed with delight.
I remember that scene myself, thinking, "Oh, oh. Ruta is going to be reprimanded for allowing it," and feeling grateful that my son was only 3 and permitted to jump and frolic (but not splash anyone).
Proper behavior was scrutinized and judged just as much out of the water as in. Once, when my friend Ruta was in college, my parents dropped by for a visit. The house was full of guests and seating was scarce. Ruta found herself perched on the arm of the chair in which her boyfriend was sitting, and remembers well my father's comment, "I thought I had entered a brothel when I saw that scene."
By the time I was in graduate school in the late '60s, my high school brother was wearing hippie beads and playing pool. He was testimony to the fact that even Latvians were not impervious to the times. Nor was I, although I maintained the proper Latvian exterior until I married at 25.
Then, for the first time, I dared wear a pair of jeans, low cut and bell bottomed, as well as no bra beneath my T-shirt, only to overhear Ruta's mother say to someone, "I don't understand it - Ursula used to be such a decent girl."
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.