How Christmas in Latvia saved the day

By Christmas 1958 my parents had lived in the United States for nine years. They had passed the citizenship test earlier that year, in April, and because I was less than 16 years old, I was granted citizenship along with them – which miffed me. I had wanted to take the test myself. My brother, born in Greenville, Mich., in 1950 was a “real” American, although Latvian was still his first language since we always spoke Latvian at home.

My parents were sensitive to how they were perceived. They didn’t want to be viewed as “dumb immigrants” because they spoke a grammatically flawed English or an English that was heavily accented. Mother came from a multi-lingual family and while the Eastern Front of WWII raged across Latvia, she’d started graduate studies in English and Greek. Those studies and my parents’ life as they had known it was gone forever with that war and its aftermath.

Once in America, the only job my father (the man who loved crisp white shirts and well made suits) was equipped for was manual labor. His English was “crippled” (as he put it), and he had to make do. My mother’s English was good, though accented. It became even better after we bought a television and they both listened to Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley. They also loved Meet the Press, Washington Week in Review and Jack Parr. They sat glued to presidential debates and conventions eager to hear politicians speak “good English.”

For the first nine years, however, my mother cleaned a dentist’s office, several doctors’ offices, and helped father clean the Congregational Church. She also ironed for two American ladies and cleaned house for another. She never talked about these jobs to me, only about her privileged life in Latvia. She was torn – grateful to be alive in America, yet ashamed she had no identity other than as someone who cleaned for others.

In 1957 when I was in seventh grade, my parents were asked to speak to the school counselor about my academic progress. At some point the counselor discovered my mother had been a physical education teacher in Latvia. Greenville was looking for just such a teacher and the counselor encouraged her to apply for the job. The idea of teaching was like holding out a cup of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert. But she was leery. What if the students made fun of her English? The counselor told her to give a talk on “Christmas in Latvia” to all of the elementary school children in Greenville to see how she’d do.

So, she described how everyone put up a spruce tree (because the branches grow in the shape of a cross) on Christmas Eve day and no sooner. The tree was decorated with candles, baked gingerbread men, little apples, and candy. She said everyone went to church that evening and afterwards had a dinner of spareribs, roasted potatoes, sauerkraut, piragi, and fruit compote. Santa, skinny and wearing humble, old, grey clothes (because he’s really God in disguise) might visit and the children had to recite a poem or play the piano or violin to “earn” a present.

My mother would have also described the snow, the ride in the horse-drawn sleigh over the 12 inch thick ice-covered lake, the fox and shearling rugs on their laps, and the stars in the sky.

Mother got the job. Fifty-six years later, her students still remember her.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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