When I was 7, we had lived in the United States for a year, and in many ways I felt at ease. No longer was English a foreign language, and I loved school. But at home, in the apartment above Kresge's dimestore, I turned back into a Latvian. My parents socialized only with the few other Latvians in town, and I didn't have any close American friends. In fact, my mother was largely my world.
She had been exclusively mine from the time Father was conscripted into the Army when I was 1 until he returned from prisoner-of-war camp when I was 4.
Since his return, we had become a close threesome, and now in America, my father took me with him to car dealerships, slaughterhouses and movies. He cut my fingernails every Saturday while I sat on his lap, and I loved his attentions, but I always wanted Mother whenever I felt distressed.
I was often distressed now, bothered by mysterious heart-pricks and sudden stomach aches or unstoppable hiccoughs. Whenever I went to bed, I wanted Mother to hold my hand and promise me that she would never die. Often I was afraid of falling asleep for fear I would never wake up. No matter what it was, Mother's cool, dry hand and her reassuring voice always calmed me.
One November morning, Father, instead of Mother, came to my bed, waking me with: "Time to get up, sweetie."
I was still sleepy, but I was immediately irritated because he was not Mother. "Where is Mama?" I asked, wondering why she hadn't wakened me as usual.
"I had to take her to the hospital -"
"Without me?" I interrupted.
"You were sound asleep. We didn't want to wake you."
Had they left me behind? I could hardly believe it. I always went everywhere they went, and I was always included. I could not believe Mother hadn't wanted me to go along, but Father said Mother had told him to braid my hair and get me ready for school.
For me, the morning routine was ruined. Father had not fanned out the slices of orange on my plate, and he had spread too much butter on my pumpernickel toast. Now he was braiding my hair, but his touch was all wrong - it was somehow too light, too airy. He wasn't pulling my hair tight enough, and I imagined my braids might come undone by the time I ran out for recess.
What bothered me most, though I could hardly express it in words, was the fear that my mother might be gone forever. The apartment already felt empty without her, and I felt empty, too, as if I had been suddenly hollowed out. I didn't think I could bear it if she were gone.
Father tried to be reassuring. He said she wasn't sick, but had gone to the hospital to have the baby. What baby? Nobody had talked about a baby, and I didn't see what going to the hospital had to do with babies anyway. I knew I had been born at home, as all Latvian children were.
But Father didn't seem at all alarmed; he said I could go see Mother and the baby at the hospital when I came home from school, but I would have to look through the window because children under 12 weren't allowed inside. Mother, he said, would be waiting for me.
That November day we had the first snowfall of the year. Oh, there must have been at least 2 feet of it! It lay so deep over the town, muffling all sound except for my own breathing and the occasional snuffle of my nose, which had started to run a bit.
As I walked to the hospital after school, the snow cascaded into my boots and was cold against my ankles. Soon my socks were soggy, and I felt them slipping down at the heels into my shoes. Nevertheless, I was joyful because my mother was waiting for me.
Father had told me which window was hers, so I waded through the snow the wind had piled up deep against the south wall, stood on my tiptoes, and peered inside.
Sure enough, there was Mother sitting up in bed smiling, waving, and pointing to a little bundle beside her. Then, quickly unwrapping it, she lifted up what looked like a limp doll. This, I thought in amazement, is what a baby actually looks like. And more importantly, Mother was all right! Without thought or understanding, I suddenly threw myself into the snow, flung out my arms and legs, and made an angel.
My baby brother seemed that day no more real or significant than a doll. But soon enough he became the object of my dreams and hallucinations.
My relief that afternoon, however, at not losing Mother was so immense I felt my heart expand, and the urge to run at top speed overwhelmed me.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.