A Halloween story
October 23, 2006
I started first grade at the little red schoolhouse on Cass Street in Greenville, Mich., on Oct. 31, 1949. My parents and I had arrived in the United States on Oct. 9, and for the first month we lived with our sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Rasmussen. They were of “Danish extraction,” as were most of the people in Greenville. This was somehow very reassuring to my parents, for Denmark was at least geographically close to Latvia, and this gave them reason to hope that life in a small Danish-American town might approximate life they had known before the war in Latvia.
So our first impressions of Greenville were auspicious, for the Rasmussens’ house on Washington Street reminded my parents of the stone houses (mostly 17th century roadside inns) in Latvia. Although my parents didn’t know it, the Rasmussens’ house was the only one in Greenville that was built out of stone, but for the month that we lived there, it was enough to make my parents feel just a little bit at home.
For me, it was different. I had no memory of Latvia, or of the house in which I had been born. I had spent the first six years of my life in refugee camps, so I had never seen a living room with real couches and chairs, nor a fireplace, a separate dining room, a bathroom with a tub, sink, and toilet, much less a bedroom with a four poster bed covered with fluffy blankets and quilts. I was also amazed by all the mirrors and wood floors polished to a sheen that made them seem almost dangerous to walk on. Nor had I ever seen a refrigerator, a washing machine, or any automobile other than an army Jeep.
The Rasmussens owned a big black car with grey plushy seats (a Cadillac sedan – but I didn’t know anything about cars then). I had ridden in their car only once – the night they picked us up at the train station in Grand Rapids and brought us to their house in Greenville. It was the most magical experience of my life, more magical even than listening to Mother read fairy tales or getting a new dress for my birthday. The privacy, the invisibility were such that I suddenly realized what it must have been like for Cinderella to ride in her coach.
By the end of our first three weeks in America, I knew enough of the English language to understand that when kids said “hi” that did not mean they were jeering at me, nor that they were going to follow up by pelting me with stones. I no longer had to stick out my tongue in order to defend myself against attack or possible humiliation.
On Oct. 31 I walked the two short blocks from the Rasmussens to the four room schoolhouse. I had dressed carefully in my best and only pleated navy blue skirt with matching narrow suspenders and my red blouse. As usual, I wore long black cotton stockings which were held up by a garter belt. Mother had braided my hair, weaving in satiny red ribbons and tying the ends firmly in modest bows.
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I knew school was serious business, for I had already attended first grade at the refugee camp for a month before we came to America. But instead of children sitting quietly at their desks as I expected, I was stunned by a room in chaos. No one seemed to be at his desk, and no one was dressed like a student. Some of the children apparently thought they were animals – black cats and tigers. Some of the girls wore long party dresses with crowns on their heads; others looked like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. A number of boys wore fringed long brown pants and shirts and carried knives on their belts. Others had guns strapped around their waists and wore wide-brimmed hats that looked too big for their heads. Almost everybody wore a little mask that covered their upper face and nose. What confounded me more than anything was how everyone stared at me – as if I were the one who was out of place, as if I didn’t know how to dress!
Thank goodness we weren’t the only Latvians in town. Our friends and fellow refugees, Ruta and her mother, had arrived 10 days after us. On Oct. 31 as their sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs, left to attend a party, they cautioned Ruta and her mother (gesturing to convey their meaning) to lock the doors, turn off all the lights and go down into the basement until they returned. Feeling as if they were on high alert, they did so. From their basement window, however, they peeked out, terrified to see witches and other strangely robed figures carrying mysterious bags as they roamed up and down the street, their body language and their loud voices somehow menacing.
A few days later, when we all had a chance to compare experiences, everyone agreed there was a great deal the world didn’t know about what went on in the real America.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.