A mother induces love for a missing father

By Ursula Carlson

We have a photograph of me at age 1 wearing a pair of satin, quilted-bib overalls. If I didn't know it was me, I would think the child was a boy-for I have no hair. Well, I do have a little, but it looks like a brush cut. Only my hand looks feminine. I'm holding it up as if in mild protest, my fingers slightly bent. The expression on my face looks both startled and unhappy, my mouth a little open as if in dismay. Mother always told me I looked this way because the photo had been taken at the time Father was conscripted by the German army and I was distressed at his departure.

Of course I have no memory of either my feelings at that time nor of Father. In fact, I actually met Father for the first time when I was 4. In the years in between, Mother and I - together with her three sisters, my two cousins and our grandmother and grandfather - were refugees moving from one displaced persons' camp to another through Poland, East Germany and finally to a camp in Bavaria.

During this time, Mother had done everything she could do to make Father real to me. She must have shown me the few photos she had rescued from the fire bombs back in Latvia shortly before we fled: two formal wedding photographs, Father's family's portrait and a couple of snapshots of Father fishing with what appears to be a circular wire net. These photographs Mother kept in some secret place, for I never got to see them unless I was sick. Then, to quell my restlessness, Mother would lay them in my lap and tell me stories about how Father had grown up on a farm, how he'd had a pet pig that followed him wherever he went, how he'd been so blond all the kids called him "whitehead," which he despised. But I knew nothing of farms or pigs, only of masses of people stuffed together in Quonset huts, lying on the floors with blankets rolled up tight between one person and another. These stories about Father were no more real to me than "Grimm's Fairy Tales," which Mother read to me.

From those fairy tales, as well as others, I formed a peculiar notion about fathers: kindhearted and hardworking, they were often widowed, and just as often foolishly remarried to women who plotted to get rid of their husbands' children. The tale I loved most was Hansel and Gretel because Gretel not only saved her brother and herself from the witch's oven, but once they returned to their father, he had the wisdom to tell his treacherous wife to leave, and he and his children lived happily ever after.

Where could I have picked up this idea of father/child devotion but from my mother, who fostered it relentlessly for three years? Mother saw to it that I identified with Father by being quick to point out that I had his long legs and arms. She told me how much I had loved being with him, for I had sat happily on his lap while he sang two songs to me: "Put Vejini, Dzen Laivinu" (Blow winds, push the boat), which was a folk song; and another one that he had made up about "little Ursula goes shopping for a dress in Riga, unable to choose between the green, yellow or red one." Father, she said, loved dressing well, and the song suggested that he wanted me to dress well, too.

During these years, Mother wrote Father letters to "the front" - wherever that was - and she always asked me to "say" something to him as well. Typically, it was something like "Ursula wants her Papi to know that she is a good girl." Then Mother would seal the envelope and we would walk to the post office, where Mother gave me the letter so I could push it through the narrow slot in the wall. It always seemed to me that Father was somehow on the other side of the wall, watching and waiting to catch our letter. And it was at those moments that he seemed most real to me.

My own first memory of Father is the day he came "home." We had been moved into a room in a tenement building, and it had been months and months since Father's last letter. But I was unaware of this. Nor did I know that Mother feared he had been "lost" in the war. I did know that other fathers were returning home, and so every day I waited for mine.

By this time, I had absorbed so completely the idea of my father that when I heard a man's footsteps on the stairs outside our apartment's door, I ran screaming to my mother, "It's him, Mami! Papi's home!" Mother was disbelieving, but I turned out to be right. As Mother would tell the story later, it seemed to her that I had been prescient or psychic, that Father and I had some kind of mystical bond for me to have recognized the sound of his footsteps. It was a wonderful story that Mother liked telling over and over to me as well as others. And that story, too, cemented the love that Mother had been promoting between Father and me from the moment I was born.

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.


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