When I was a child, I thought all families were like my own. That is, I thought everyone talked about everything the way my parents and I did: Every morning at the breakfast table, we took turns telling our dreams of the night before; at night we examined each other's ears for wax and concluded that using a hairpin was not a good idea for me, but OK for my parents. (We had not yet discovered Q-tips - as immigrants there was much about American life we didn't know!) We read to each other, played the piano, and talked about whether we had enough money to buy smoked eel when company came. I was witness to my parents' lives and often felt I knew what they were thinking better than they did themselves, for we had no secrets. And no one ever raised his voice.
The first time I heard anyone yell must have been when I was 8. It was my second summer in America, and I was spending a week at my uncle's house on Elm Street in Grand Rapids, Mich. My aunt ("married-in," as we say in Latvian) and was an excitable woman, who usually screamed in alarm whenever there was a knock on the door or whenever she felt compelled to dispute a point, which seemed to be always. In fact, she and my uncle yelled as a matter of course. At first I was alarmed and wanted to cower and hide, as if I were a dog with my tail between my legs, but since my cousins Dzintra and Mara did not turn a hair, I found myself giggling. Those were nervous giggles. I was confused by anger that seemed groundless to me. Why would my aunt yell at my uncle because he was hungry and dinner wasn't ready yet? Why would my uncle yell at my aunt because he didn't want her to yell at him?
When I told my parents about the yelling, they said anger was a useless emotion, that it solved nothing, that it was impolite to display. On rare occasions, my mother might criticize my father for buying too expensive a bottle of vodka (if we were expecting company), and I would cringe and feel great unease, for the tone of her voice seemed to edge toward something that frightened me.
Latvians, it seemed, rarely expressed extremes of emotion. Nobody really believed in happiness, so there wasn't much need to express it, for if one did, nothing good was sure to follow, anyway. Anger, one could say, did not even exist except in highly exceptional cases (as with my aunt and uncle).
Americans, in contrast, seemed to display a cauldron of emotions, and most amazing to me, seemed actually proud of the fact they did! Anger was generally referred to as "having a temper," a solid virtue from what I could tell. In the movies, the hero always liked the girl who had "spunk," which meant that she would mouth off (my mother's view of it) and "flounce off" (my mother's take on it) in disgust or anger, to which the hero would say in a worshipful way, "That girl has a temper." I concluded that having a temper was a sexy thing for a girl, and wished I were more American.
If a guy was Irish, his temper was not only taken for granted, but greatly envied. How many times did I hear people saying, "Everybody wants to be Irish"? Nobody ever said anything about wishing to be Latvian!
In movies, and on television, angry people slammed doors in each other's faces and that, too, seemed a perfectly normal thing to do. I tried it once, and my mother quickly knocked very politely on my angrily closed door and said in her normal, quiet way, "Would you please open the door again, Ursula, and close it the right way?" I felt deflated and didn't bother to ever slam a door again.
It was also very American to display temper by throwing things - a glass of water in someone's face, a chair across the room, a book - whatever was handy. It was very dramatic, I thought, and suggested an independent spirit, a refusal to be controlled by anything or anyone. I assumed that all explorers, cowboys, and adventurers (all of whom I greatly admired) learned early the value of throwing objects.
This, of course, was never a possibility for a Latvian. When my brother was a toddler and raised his hand to throw a Lincoln log, my mother quickly grabbed his wrist and said through her teeth, "No throwing."
Although I would be ashamed to tell my aunt or any Latvian this, my late husband, Dave, and I did have an angry discussion about how to use the word "why" that caused me to lose my temper (perhaps the first and only time in my life) to such a degree that I picked up the dining room chair in a fury and threw it down hard on the floor. Dave was stunned, and I felt rather proud of myself - very American in fact.
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Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College, and has raised her son, for good or bad, the Latvian way.