As I’ve said before, I’m taking a little break over the Christmas holidays. Rejoice/Bemoan as you will. In my absence, I’m running a few guest posts from Latvians – none of whom are called Jānis, oddly enough.
The first post is from a girl called Victoria, who’s been living in the good old US of A for the last twenty years or so. She sent me her post yesterday and I was honestly blown away by it, so I’m just going to stop faffing about and hand the floor over to her.
Christmas is one of those times of year when people start recalling memories – memories of family and Christmases past; memories of little things that they’d forgotten all year that now suddenly seem to pop up in their minds. It’s no different for me. Every year at this time I begin to remember my childhood and all of the Christmases that I have experienced in my 26 years.
However, unlike most of the people I know, my memories are spread out over two different continents- the past 20 years in the US, and the earliest ones in Latvia. As I get older, some of them seem to dim, but every once in a while, something will remind me of those first 6 years of my life when I was a little Latvian girl. I remember helping my grandmother make homemade gingerbread cookies in our tiny kitchen. She would let me cut out the shapes from the dough, and when we were done and she had put them in the oven, the warm, slightly spicy scent of gingerbread would flood our small apartment and make our mouths water.
I remember the fir tree that she would decorate with beautiful glass ornaments, and candles that would cast a soft magical glow on the walls of the room. I remember the sound of children laughing down in the playground below our window as they frolicked in the glistening white snow and caught snowflakes on their tongues. That’s something we don’t have here in the town I now live in: snow. I miss the crunch of it under my feet, the smell of it in the air, the way it covers everything in a thick white blanket that sparkles under the street lamps and turns the landscape into a winter wonderland.
For the last few years, my Christmases have been spent in shorts because it was too warm to even consider things like sweaters and hot chocolate. I think my fondest memory, however, is how my grandparents would leave a tin can of my favorite little caramel candies in the hallway, and I would sneak a candy out of it every day thinking they didn’t notice because they never said anything. Now that I have a 6-year-old daughter of my own, I realize that they most definitely noticed, but still let me get away with it because they loved seeing me enjoying such simple pleasures.
I never got any expensive gifts. My favorite was a doll my grandparents bought for me that I named “Lelle” (Latvian for doll). My grandmother was an amazing seamstress and she made an entire wardrobe for Lelle, down to little mittens and a snow hat. I was thrilled with the gift – my only one that year. Now, whenever I see a child crying or complaining to their parents that they ONLY received 7 or 8 gifts, I feel a type of disgust mingled with sympathy for someone who doesn’t understand that children in other countries are grateful for much less. I understand, and I’m so thankful to my grandparents for teaching me as a child to be thankful for those little things.
I was born in Jelgava, Latvia, during a time when the country was beginning its journey to what would soon be their independence from the USSR. I was raised to understand and speak both Latvian and Russian, mainly because my grandfather was Russian and my grandmother was a Latvian schoolteacher. My parents had divorced when I was just a baby, so I have no recollections of my father.
My mom and I moved in with her parents and, since I was their only grandchild, they raised me as the center of their world. My mother still jokes to this day that if there was any little bit of extra money in the house, she knew better than to ask for it because my grandmother would definitely spend it on me first. But I never knew any of this back then; the only thing I knew for certain was that my grandparents loved me with all of their hearts, and with them, I was content.
The life I led there for those 6 years was idyllic in so many ways. Summers spent swimming in the nearby river, eating berries and ice cream, and taking the train to visit my cousin in Kruspils. In the fall, I would go to the daycare next to our apartments where I learned the basics of reading and writing. Then I would come home and play with my best friends in the playground until my grandmother would call me up for dinner… and boy, could she cook!
Everything from classic borsch, kotletes with potatoes, and pelmeni, to delicious fried fish that my grandfather would catch in the river. And her cakes were absolutely heavenly! I have tried to replicate them for my family and friends here in America, but I can never make them as delicious and creamy as hers. After dinner I would snuggle up to my grandfather as he watched his nightly television shows. I was his “ribachka”- his little fish. And he was my hero. My mother was never around much, so I was raised by my Babushka and Dyedushka, and most of my memories are of them.
Around the time I turned 5, things started to change. Latvia gained its independence, the communist government began to collapse around us, and religion was introduced. My mother began attending a local church and became a missionary for them. One of the first places they sent her to was Ukraine, and that is where she met an American missionary who changed our lives completely. Within a few short months, she announced their engagement to my stunned grandparents. Not only was she marrying him, she was also leaving with him whenever he planned to go back to the US. And she was taking me.
I don’t remember my grandparents’ reaction, but I’ve been told they were understandably upset and worried, and they initially refused to allow her to take me away. But she did, and to America I went. I remember feeling excited about going on a trip, but I was never told it would be one I wouldn’t return from. I don’t know if my mother lied to me or led me to believe that I would return, but I do know that when I said goodbye to my grandparents, I had no understanding of how permanent that goodbye would be.
When we arrived in the US, I remember wondering how any place could be so BIG and BRIGHT! There was noise and color everywhere… and trash. I was confused by things such as cereal and hot dogs (did people really kill their pets and eat them hot?!?!?) I was amazed at how many toys were given to me; more Barbies were sitting on my dresser when I arrived at our new house than all my friends had combined!
And the HEAT! My new stepfather was from a city in the southern part of the US, and the average temperature was hotter than the hottest day in Latvia. Everything was so strange, and to make things worse, I hardly knew a word of English. I immediately started taking English lessons, so that by the time I started school that fall, I was proficient enough to begin with my age group.
I picked up a talent for drawing, and developed my life-long love for reading. There was greater access to books here than in Latvia, and I couldn’t get enough of them. I loved school, and throughout my entire childhood I remained at the top of my class. I was eager to please, not only my teachers but also my friends and family. I grew to like my new home, and the thought of returning to my old one didn’t cross my mind too much during those first few years in America.
My mom had 3 more children: a brother and two sisters that I grew up with and I am still extremely close to to this day. I switched schools a few times, made new friends, and soon, people almost forgot that I wasn’t American. I would talk to my grandparents on the phone a few times a month, and every Christmas or birthday I would receive a package from them in the mail. The life I’d led before was starting to fade in my memory.
Then, when I was 10, my mother and I went back to Latvia for a short visit. I remember getting off the plane in Riga, and seeing my grandparents’ faces, and for the first time in a long time, all of those memories I thought I’d forgotten came back like a tidal wave. We spent 2 weeks there, and when it was time to go back, I begged my mother to let me stay. I felt more at home there than I had ever thought I felt in America, and I couldn’t bear to be torn away again.
Of course, staying wasn’t an option for my mom, so back to the US we went. This time, it was different though. This time, I realized what I was leaving behind, and after I came back to America, things were never the same. I began to study Latvian and Russian history, culture, food, and music. I started writing my old friends from my childhood and begging to know about everything that was happening in my hometown. I cried myself to sleep many nights while holding a toy I had brought back with me.
My mother had changed too. I’m not sure if it was the trip or something else, but she and my stepfather grew distant over the next few years. At school I was still smart and attentive, but I made sure that everyone knew I was Latvian, not American, and even my nickname amongst my friends was “Latvia”.
By the time we visited Latvia again, 10 years had passed since I first left. I was 16; old enough to drive, almost old enough to have a boyfriend, and old enough to know that when I graduated from school, I wanted to move back home to Latvia. My plan was to go to college there and get a teaching degree so I could be an English professor. I loved traveling and history, and the idea of living in Europe where so much history is just a few train rides away was thrilling. But my parents had different plans for me.
I couldn’t afford to go back without their financial help, which they weren’t willing to give. Instead, they enrolled me in a local university at which I took classes 5 days a week while working full-time so that I could pay off my student loans. My mother had, by this time, divorced my stepfather, yet she remained here in America. Still, I was determined to find a way to go back to the country that had such a strong pull on my heart.
I felt like it was in my blood, that ties greater than any physical force were connecting me to my homeland, and if I didn’t go back soon, my lonely heart would break. But alas, my heart wasn’t going to be lonely for long, and for reasons I would never have expected. During my first semester of college I met a young man who changed my life – in the best way possible.
He was brilliant, funny, thoughtful, poetic, and damn good-looking, and we fell in love. He knew about my past, and about my dreams of one day returning to Latvia, and he supported them. And then, less than a year later, I became pregnant. Here in the US, where the divorce rate is over 50%, having a child that young and getting married is a very scary situation. We decided not to follow the “rules”, and instead of immediately getting married, we moved in together and began working on building a stable home for our child to be born into.
He came from a very strong family, I came from a broken home, and we both knew it would take a lot of compromise and effort to make our relationship work. And it did. I never thought I could be happier than the day I saw my grandparents’ faces, but the moment I first laid eyes on my daughter’s face was the happiest moment of my life. A few years later her father and I finally married, and we are now in the process of moving to a different state and starting a new life in a new home of our own.
Being a wife and a mother has now become what I live for every day, yet in my daughter’s face I see small reflections of myself as a child. I have told her all about her great-grandparents in Latvia, and she even has the chance to speak with them over a webcam a few times every month. She’s too young to understand exactly how I came to America and why, but she knows where I came from and that she is half-Latvian.
And during moments when a fond memory of my childhood comes to me, I try to sit down with her and share it – to keep it alive. I would love to take her there one day, and I still dream of returning as soon as we can save up money for the plane tickets, but until then my memories will suffice. I believe that if I can make her feel as happy and loved as I did with my grandparents during those early years in Jelgava, I will have succeeded, and I can finally be at peace.
Thank you so much Victoria for sharing your amazing story. I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I did.
Happy Christmas everyone! (Time for me to get back to the ham…)