A child awakens to the adult realities of the world
December 5, 2006
The first newspaper headline I recall reading, at age 7, had to do with the number of people killed on Michigan highways over the previous weekend. Until I read those words in the newspaper, I had been oblivious to the everyday risks of riding in a car.
Every time I had sat beside Mother in the front seat of our Studebaker, with Mother in the middle and I mindlessly and happily gazing out at the familiar scenery along M-57, my chin resting on the meager window ledge, my breath fogging up the glass, all I’d thought about was the miracle that we even had a car.
Only a year earlier, we had been refugees, displaced persons, and now here we were in America eating as many eggs, apples and Lake Michigan whitefish as we wanted, and riding in our very own car. My parents were careful drivers, Father never “taking risks,” as Mother put it, but we had experienced close calls nevertheless.
There had been the car we had almost run into in the dusky, uncertain twilight because the other driver had failed to turn on his headlights, and another time, when the car in front of us that we thought had been going the same direction as us had turned out to be coming straight at us. Mother and I had both screamed in Latvian, “Mashina! Mashina!” though Father was already braking and swerving toward the right, partly off the shoulder, as the driver of the oncoming car finally realized what was happening and veered in the opposite direction.
At the time, the terror those incidents induced had seemed more like the scary thrill I had experienced on my first Ferris wheel ride when the ground fell away and the “chair” I sat in swung dangerously back and forth, creating the sensation that if I dared shift my weight or took a breath, I would capsize and fall to my death.
The newspaper article pulled me out of myself; it seemed to say we are alive one minute and dead the next. I couldn’t leave this thought alone. It hovered behind my back as if it were my own shadow. It dogged me, for it was attached always to my heels. Nor could I forget about those who had died, either. I mourned them as if they were me.
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Besides the Greenville paper, my parents also read the Latvian newspaper Laiks (Time), but it didn’t seem like a real newspaper to me because all the stories were about Latvian life in exile and international politics. All Latvians, I thought, were fixated on Stalin and the hope that once he was dead or gone, Latvia would again be free so we could go back home again. I was fixated on him myself, and prayed sincerely every night that someone would either poison him or stab him with that sickle he liked so much. But already I could not imagine going back to Latvia.
We had no photographs of the brick house I had been born in, no photos of the lake Mother had swam across daily, no photos of Father’s little sailboat. Every time Mother told me another Latvia story, I pictured the streets and houses of Greenville. I complained and fretted that I could not picture a place I had never seen.
Some days, when the air smelled of our last Easter in the refugee camp, I found myself wishing I could return once more to the old tenement buildings, to the dirt yard where my cousins and I had played with sticks. But I didn’t want to leave our apartment, our alley, the Gibson movie theater or the drugstore where Father would give me a dime to buy a Sealtest double-dip vanilla ice cream cone.
By 1952, when we had lived in America for three years, I was in my own mind a very grown-up third-grader, far more interested in playing cowboys and Indians, reading forbidden comic books, and riding my bike than I was in the increasingly unreal, yet comforting world of my parents’ Latvia.
It was at this time that I read an article in the Greenville Daily News that convinced me all was lost. Adlai Stevenson had been quoted as saying that in the not-too-distant future, we would be drinking bottled water, which would cost us more than a bottle of Coca Cola. I read the sentence again and again. My stomach felt hollow, the way it felt when I had to see a doctor.
There was more. We would be forced to drink bottled water because we were polluting our lakes and rivers. All too easily I pictured Baldwin Lake and Flat River. I could not imagine a catastrophe greater than anything I had ever experienced, greater than refugee camps, greater than World War II, greater even than Communism.
I ran to Mother, thrusting the newspaper in her face and feeling like the Cassandra in Greek mythology as I announced, “The world is going to die, Mamit.”
To be continued …
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.