An excerpt from my novel about a widowed.Latvian refugee who finds refuge in Seattle. But where is there a home for her heart?
Seattle. November 28, 1952
Snow everywhere—the ground, the sky, the air. Evening light cast a bluish tint over the city. Swirling flakes turned trees lining the street into blurred silhouettes. Snow clung to the tops of branches, the leaves of ornamental shrubs, and the concrete retaining wall which supported the embankment from which large houses loomed.
Līvija Galiņa walked home from work in a soporific state. She hadn’t slept well the night before. Shrieking sirens had startled her awake. For a few moments, she’d sat bolt upright in bed, her heart pounding, straining to hear the drone of approaching bombers. Silence reigned. She looked around, saw her mother, a dark mound in the next bed. Across the room, her daughter slept in her little bed. Only then did Līvija realize she was safe in Seattle. The same dream had haunted her for nearly a decade. Like a hangover, it always lingered all day the next day.
An icy gust of wind pelted tiny flakes into her face and blew away the tattered remnants of the nightmare. A poor night’s sleep hadn’t kept Līvija from going to work on this day after Thanksgiving. To save bus fare, she trudged the two miles home through half-frozen slush; it crackled under her feet. Seattle’s rain had taken its time changing to snow. At home in Latvia snow would have fallen weeks ago. Latvia—her beautiful, lost homeland. Stolen by Communists. Would she ever see it again? It didn’t seem likely. Moscow was not about to let go of its captive nations.
When she wasn’t as tired as tonight, Līvija still marveled at being in America, even though she had lived here nearly a year. America, land of dreams, freedom, and opportunity. Even though she’d lived here nearly a year, at times she still felt like a stranger.
She shared a big house here on lovely Capitol Hill with her mother, daughter, and six other Latvian refugees–her friends and relatives. Nevertheless, there were times when she experienced excruciating loneliness. How could that be when she was surrounded by so many people? Her own people. Did she still miss her husband, Hugo, who’d been killed in action while fighting in the war eight years earlier? She hardly remembered what he looked like. Showing their seven-year-old daughter, Dzintra, photographs of her father was the only thing that kept his memory alive. How sad that Hugo’s only child would never know him. He’d died months before their little girl was born.
It was useless thinking about any of that. For the sake of her daughter, Līvija must think of the future.
Cold air stung Livija’s cheeks. Her wool scarf was tied behind her neck; the ends tucked into her up-turned coat collar to keep snow from falling down the back of her neck. She carried her handbag over her arm. Thick mittens, knit for her by her mother, in an intricate ancient design on the long cuffs, kept her hands warm.
In Latvia, snow didn’t worry her, not just because she was accustomed to it, but because the country was mostly flat. Here there were steep hills everywhere. Last January she’d been on a bus going downtown when it skidded on an icy hillside street and slid through an intersection. Fortunately, no cars came out of the side road and the driver stopped the bus safely. Līvija’s stomach didn’t unknot for hours afterward.
She put thoughts of Latvia out of her mind. Thinking of her stolen country and the life she lived there until the second invasion by Russia’s Red Army forced those who were able to flee to safety in the West, made her heartsick.
After years drifting through Europe, like a piece of flotsam on the tides of history, this land of hope is my home. I will always be grateful that America took me in. She is not my land of birth. She is my adoptive mother.
How long would it take for her to stop feeling like an alien? People unintentionally reminded her of her foreignness by commenting on her accent. To avoid offense, they complimented her on how well she spoke their language. When she was in school she’d studied English as an elective language. It made sense, although she’d never expected to wind up in America. English could open a new world to her. She loved English literature, wanted to read it in its native tongue. Her parents had tried to dissuade her, to convince her to study another of the European languages they felt would be more useful. Līvija was glad she’d stuck to her guns. English would eventually allow her to leave behind her current life as a cleaning woman.
Lost in thought, Līvija failed to pay attention to her surroundings. A fog of exhaustion blurred her senses. She had walked this street many times since early in the year; she knew it by heart.
Today, she’d started work at eight in the morning cleaning up Mrs. Gray’s house after the previous day’s feast for sixteen guests. Līvija vacuumed carpets and mopped linoleum floors. She washed dishes, shined silverware, and polished crystal. She laundered damask tablecloths and napkins, ran them through the wringer, and lugged the laundry to the basement where she hung it to dry. Her last chore of the day had been to iron linens.
At noon she paused in her cleaning to make lunch for Mrs. Gray. Līvija didn’t have to cook; there were plenty of leftovers from the day before.
While Līvija did all those chores, Mrs. Gray sat at her husband’s desk in the den, drank coffee, wrote Christmas letters, and signed a stack of cards and addressed envelopes. Mr. Gray was a successful businessman; the couple had many friends, family members, and business associates. After lunch, Mrs. Gray took a nap. Līvija ate the sandwich she’d brought from home. Then she scrubbed sinks, toilets, and the claw-foot tub–quiet work that wouldn’t disturb her employer’s rest.
Līvija had done all of these tasks at Mrs. Gray’s house the day before yesterday in preparation for the holiday dinner. The Grays’ house had been spotless when Līvija finished work. This morning when she arrived, it looked like a band of slovenly adolescents had thrown a party. Wine glasses left on the floor by chairs, on window sills, and on the piano. Overflowing ashtrays scattered around the room. Crumpled paper cocktail napkins everywhere. Vomit in the wastebasket in the laundry room.
Was it only yesterday Līvija and her family had celebrated their first Thanksgiving in America? It was their second harvest celebration. They’d had their traditional Latvian autumn festival in October. There was much to be thankful for. Two days of giving thanks seemed appropriate. Her housemate, Mr. Timma’s company, gave free turkeys to their employees every year. All the housemates contributed to the rest of the feast. Four capable women worked together, with Dzintra helping, made for a cheerful cooking bee Thanksgiving morning.
Absent-mindedly Līvija hummed, “Oh, Christmas Tree.” She sang in the Latvian choir. Tomorrow would be an equally busy day. The perfectionist choir director insisted on yet another rehearsal, even though it was a holiday weekend and the Christmas concert was nearly a month away. There’d be no Saturday morning Latvian school for the children, but they’d have their own rehearsal of the nativity play and the songs they’d sing at the Children’s Christmas celebration in less than ten days. Dzintra sang in the children’s choirs and was one of the angels in the nativity scene; she’d wear the angel costume Līvija’s mother, Zenta, had sewed for her adored granddaughter.
A harsh whir and crunch of tires skidding on ice startled Līvija. A thud.
Something struck her back. As she went down, she threw out her hands to break her fall but sprawled onto the snowy sidewalk anyway. A heavy body landed on top of her, knocking the air out of her lungs. She gasped.
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