A Home for an Exile’s Heart

An excerpt from my novel about a widowed.Latvian refugee who finds refuge in Seattle. But where is there a home for her heart?

Chapter One

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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A Few Good Words, 2

Why did the chicken skedaddle? It was scaddled of the dog.

Roosters have been known to chase people and make them vamoose right out of here.

Absquatulate: I love this word. I first read it in a book by Diana Gabaldon. The word means to run away. It’s a facetious US coinage. No kidding! How could a word like absquatulate be anything but facetious? It dates back to the early Nineteenth Century. The speculation is that it’s meant to be the opposite of the word, “squat,’ which, of course, means to stay. It was first used in an English play to describe a character who was a blustery American. 

Skedaddle: also means to run away. It dates to 1860 and is supposedly Civil War military slang. No one can trace the word’s origins to any language, such as Greek or Latin. It might have evolved from the word, scaddle, which means scared. Makes sense that someone who was scared would skedaddle. 

Vamoose: This one’s easy, it’s derived from the Spanish word vamos or “let’s go,” which in turn originates from the Latin word, vadamus, which also means, “let’s go.” From vadere. “to go, to walk, to go hastily.”

If this guy decides to chase you, you’d better absquatulate, skedaddle, and vamoose.

Why Installments?

Born Stateless

This is a revised version of an essay I posted in November of 2020. It’s not just sad, but horrible that not only have things not changed in that time, they’ve gotten worse. Putin, a Stalin-wanna-be has brutally invaded Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians have fled, thousands have stayed to fight for their country, and too many have died. My heart aches for them. I read the headline, watch video clips and cry. I hope the refugees can all go home soon and none of their children are born stateless.

A Photo Essay

Refugees have been on my mind lately, even though the refugee crisis on the southern USA border has been pushed out of the headlines by the pandemic and the presidential election. I’ve also been reading about refugees and their desperate plight in books by Erich Maria Remarque,  Flotsam and The Night in Lisbon.

Flotsam is defined as the debris from the wreckage of a ship or its cargo. It’s also defined as people or things that have been rejected and are regarded as worthless.

Isn’t that perfect? We were human flotsam from the World War II wreckage of Europe. At best refugees were regarded by natives of the countries they fled to as “unwanted guests,” at worst as “the scum of Europe.” How sad that so little has changed.

I’ve also been thinking about refugees because for the past two years I’ve been writing a novel about a Latvian refugee, Līvija Galiņa, and her family, who after years as flotsam in Europe have finally found a safe haven in Seattle, Washington, USA. There, one snowy evening, Līvija is nearly run down by an out-of-control car, which has skidded on an ice street and jumped the curb. Her life is saved by a dashing former fighter pilot, Cameron Quinn. Writing my novel has been an all-consuming, delightful, frustrating, agonizing journey–hours of writing, followed by more hours of re-writing, editing, and more editing, doing my best to make my story captivating and readable. Hoping readers will find my characters as engaging as I do.

Here are a few photos of my family’s time in the Hochfeld Displaced Persons camp in Augsburg, Germany.

This is what Latvians were running from

This cattle car is not loading Jewish people to send them to concentration camps. This cattle car is loading Latvians to take them to Siberia. Thousands were deported. Most of them never returned. They died of starvation or overwork in forced labor camps. Or because it was so cold that even vodka freezes during a Siberian winter.

The man in the middle is my mother’s brother.

Nikolaijs lost his leg in WW II. He and his friends are posing outside a hospital. My uncle was in the Augsburg DP camp with us. He, my other uncle–my father’s brother, Alfons, my parents, and I all lived together. I think we had two rooms. A separate room for my folks and me and another for the unmarried uncles.

The maternity hospital in Augsburg, Germany where I was born.
Me, in my grand carriage. I was born in Augsburg.
My folks and I in a park in Augsburg.
Mr. Ohaks, my uncle Nikolaijs, and yours truly.

I have no idea how this picture got taken or why Mr. Ohaks is in it. He was the “elder,” the supervisor, I guess, of the DP camp building where we lived. He was no relation to us. Perhaps he was my uncle’s friend, or as the elder, maybe he was everyone’s friend. I have no idea where that ball came from. It could have been in a CARE package from America.

My other uncle, my dad’s younger brother, Alfons, and his special friend.

My uncle never talked about her. I never knew her name. I only know about her from what my mother told me. The girlfriend had a husband who had stayed in Latvia. I don’t know how they got separated. Was he a soldier who’d been reported killed in action? While in Germany she learned that her husband was still alive. She went back to him, leaving my uncle devastated. In her absence, her husband had married someone else. The girlfriend was not allowed to leave Latvia again. Alfons never married. I based events in my novel on real-life incidents.

This is my uncle, Alfons, leaving for Bremerhaven, Germany to get on the boat that would take him to America. The promised land. He’s wearing a tag on his coat as if he were a parcel in the mail. All refugees wore them as they departed Germany.
My mother, her brother, Nikolaijs, and me on a street in Augsburg.

The uncles left one by one as they found sponsors in the USA. I’m upset because Nikolaijs was my favorite uncle. I believe the buildings on the right are the ones where we all lived. Many refugees did not have such elegant accommodations. Some had to live in root cellars.

The photo for my laissez-passer

A laissez-passer is “a diplomatic travel document issued by the United Nations” to stateless people. Refugee who’ve lost their homelands.

The USNS General A.W. Greely.

The Greely was the navy transport ship that brought my family and other refugees to New York.

I remember very little about the trip. I was only three and a half. My mother and I had an upper bunk in a cabin with other women and children. My father was in a different cabin with other men. Everyone but me was seasick.

On the Greely was the first time I remember seeing a Black man. He was a steward and very nice. He gave me an orange. Oranges were such a rare commodity that in the camps they were Christmas gifts.

The nice steward also brought me a dish of red Jell-o. It was the first time I’d ever seen such a thing. I called it kustelīgais (wiggly)

Playing dress-up with a borrowed doll carriage.

Our first stop in the USA was Pennsylvania where my parents worked on the corn farm that belonged to our sponsors to repay them for bringing us to America. We also lived in Delaware for a while.

After a year of working for their sponsors, refugees were free to go wherever they wished. My folks hated the heat and humidity of East Coast summers. Alfons had completed his tenure working on his sponsors’ farm in South Dakota and moved to Tacoma, Washington where he had friends. He wrote to my father saying how nice it was in western Washington and urged us to come to live here. I may be prejudiced but I think he couldn’t have picked a better place.

A safe haven in Tacoma, Washington. Refugee kids at a Children’s Christmas party. I’m the one front and center, bow and all.

(More installments of Latvia Under the Soviets will follow)

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Latvia Under the Soviets, 2

To Riga via the Scenic Route

Back in the bad old days, there were no direct flights to Rīga from anywhere in the USA. I was fortunate to have a local Latvian travel agent who took care of the hairy details. My tour group flew from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, across the pole to Denmark. From Copenhagen, we flew to Helsinki where we spent the night. Because I was on this trip alone, my travel agent paired me with a Latvian woman from Connecticut, who was traveling with her mother and sister. Two to a room. Laima would be my roommate throughout the trip. She was a lovely person, we hit it off right away.

The next morning a Finnish ship took us across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia. Passport control was quite different from what I remember upon entering the States after a trip to London a few years earlier. In those pre-terrorism days USA border control was easy, a glance at your passport, a smile, and “welcome home!” In Estonia, I had a brief freak-out because I couldn’t immediately find my passport. I guess I was nervous because I knew that no matter what title they sported, customs men were actually KGB agents. Mirrors hung above each customs station so the agent could see people’s back. The man scrutinized my passport and my face for such a long time, it seemed that he was trying to memorize my face so he could paint my portrait later.

A woman in our group was wearing an olive-drab jumpsuit with epaulets. Maybe the military appearance of her outfit was why she was pulled aside for further questioning. We were all concerned about her. Would they arrest her? Strip search her? Send her back? After a while, she returned to our group no worse for her experience. I didn’t talk to her later, so I’m not sure what the deal was. Maybe she was simply picked at random and her choice of clothes had nothing to do with it.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, one of the three Baltic States.

Did we have a bus tour of Tallinn? I think we did, but that’s a detail that’s fuzzy in my mind. I know that we had lunch there. After our meal, we climbed onto a bus bound for Rīga–a four hour trip of almost two hundred miles. Our party needed three buses, two for passengers and one for our luggage. The driver “graciously” stopped at the border between Estonia and Latvia, so people could stretch their legs, use the facilities, similar to ones at any US freeway rest stop, and take photos of each other in front of the sign that announced in huge letters, LATVIJA. 

Funny, for some reason, my Minolta camera started behaving erratically while I was on that trip. I have one decent picture. I’m sure the KGB customs officials had nothing to do with it. Right? At least my Polaroid worked and I could leave photos with my relatives.

After the photo session, back on the bus. A woman from Intourist (a USSR tour operator) collected our passports. Foreigners are such children. Can’t even keep their documents safe. We would get them back when we were on our way home.

We were two hours late getting to our hotel. By then it was midnight. At that hour I was so rum-dum from two days of travel and jet lag that I’m not sure what day it was. My mother had written to our relatives to let them know when I’d be arriving. I hoped that after such a long wait, no doubt having no idea when to expect me, and getting hungry and tired my relatives had given up and gone home, even the ones who lived in the city should not be out that late, waiting and wondering. The road distance from Limbaži, my uncle’s home to Rīga is 55 miles, 90 km. It would make sense for him to go home and come back the next day.

St. Peter’s Church, Riga Palace, Dom Cathedral

A crowd of people was waiting for us al;l under the porte-cochere. When the bus rolled to a stop, I stood up, eager to get off. But I had to wait for the aisle to clear. I heard someone knocking on the window next to where I’d been sitting. I ignored the knocking. It couldn’t be for me. Laima, who’d been sitting next to me, poked me and pointed to the window. A smiling, gray-haired woman was waving at me. I had no idea who she was, but I waved back.

When I stepped off the bus, there was my uncle, my mother’s younger brother. Andrejs was skinny and taller than most people, easy to recognize from photos. I’m not sure which of my relatives were in the crowd. Andrejs’ son, Reinis was there. They had brought along Pavils Zicāns, one of my mother’s many cousins because he’d visited his sister in Seattle a few years before and would be able to identify me. It wasn’t necessary. The gray-haired woman was another of my mother’s cousins, Irēne. She’d recognized me right away, through the bus’s window. She said I looked exactly like my mother in her youth. One of my father’s nephews, Guntis Pedecis, was also there. I still have no idea who all had come to welcome me.

It’s a Latvian custom to welcome visitors with flowers. By the time I’d greeted everyone, I had an armload of flowers, so many bouquets that the hotel maids had to get extra vases for them. I think there were a total of four vases, all crammed full.

My uncle Andrejs and I agree to meet the next day in the park across the street.

Thus ended my first day behind the Iron Curtain.

(Next: The Blue Monstrosity)

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Why Installments?

This photo expresses how I feel about writing. Not necessarily my actual work station.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m writing, “Latvia Under the Soviets” in installments.  It’s a long narrative. I don’t enjoy reading lengthy material on a computer screen or other electronic device. I figure other people might feel the same way. Sitting at my work station is hard on the buns (aka, bum) and other parts of the anatomy. Organizing my thoughts, writing, editing, and editing again, finding photos for my posts, and editing them is all time-consuming. I don’t want to give my blog a lick and a promise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love writing, whether it’s blog essays, short stories, poems, or novels. It’s wonderful. There’s nothing like it. I want to give you the best reading experience I possibly can.

Please be patient. More posts will follow soon. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at some of my other posts.

Berthe Morisot, French Impressionist, 1841 -1895 (Almost every day I write longhand in my journal. It’s what I do.)

Latvia Under the Soviets

Part One: To Visit or Not to Visit?

A nationwide Song Festival was coming up in Riga. They’ve been held every five years since 1873. Song Festivals are older than the Latvian Republic. I wanted to go. I’d been to Song Festivals up and down the West Coast of the United States, but I’d never been to Latvia. This would be one of the most memorable events of my life. A Song Festival on its native soil. A first time ever chance to meet relatives, who’d stayed in Latvia. Mind-blowing.

Although my visit to Latvia during the waning years of the Soviet Union happened decades ago, my memories are still vivid.

I’d been wanting to go to Latvia for a long time, but I had to wait until my father passed away. He loathed communism and for very good reasons, feared the Soviets. He might not have wept in fear for me, the way the father of one Latvian acquaintance had when she told him she wanted to go to Soviet Latvia, but my father would no doubt have been very upset, possibly even angry. That was something I wanted to avoid.

My father and I, a long time ago.

I would have liked my mother to go with me for the company and to reunite with relatives she had not seen in more than forty years. The youngest of her three brothers was still alive and living with his family in my grandparents’ house. My mother still had cousins living in Latvia. In those days there were specific regions where tourists were allowed to visit, the capital, Rīga, seaside resort towns, and a few other places of historical or cultural interest. My mother’s hometown, Limbaži, was not in a tourist zone, so we assumed visiting there would be impossible. Another reason she didn’t want to go was that she wanted to remember Latvia as it was during her youth. She did not want to see what war and the Soviets might have done to her beloved homeland.

My mother and I in the garden of the first home my parents owned in the US.

Like my father would have been, my mother was afraid for me, too, but she did not try to talk me out of going, although we did talk about the advisability of such a trip. There was good reason for such anxiety. As the child of former Latvian citizens, I was considered a Soviet citizen, even though I was not born there. We all had that distinction, even though all of us had acquired United States citizenship many years before. Once a Soviet citizen, always a Soviet citizen. And your kids, too. Another reason to fret was that there had been recent stories in the media about an American citizen, with roots in the USSR, who had visited the country of his heritage and not been allowed to return to the US. I reasoned that in the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (a movement to reform the communist party) the Iron Curtain had lifted a little. I believed that an uninterrupted flow of tourist dollars to the USSR would be more important than keeping one traveler. Besides, I wasn’t going alone, I would be traveling with a large group of Latvians from my area, who were also heading for the Song Festival. Latvians from all over the world would be converging on Rīga.

It was well-known in our community that our passports would be confiscated for “safe-keeping” until we were ready to go home. We were also advised not to bring our driver’s licenses. There was no way I was going to enter the USSR without some sort of proof that I live in the United States. I took my driver’s license, just in case.

No surprise that people like to steal these.

More than just a passport and visa were needed to travel to Latvia. I need to fill out a form requesting permission to visit. I had to include information as to whom I would be visiting, where they lived, and why I wanted to visit. I needed an invitation. It felt as if I were fingering one of my relatives as a sacrificial lamb. Having contact with someone in the Free World was not good for a Soviet citizen’s health. I finally decided on one of my father’s relatives. I no longer remember which one. Once all that was done, all I required was a plane ticket, tickets to the Festival, and a hotel reservations. Although I had numerous relatives who had let me know I’d be welcome to stay in their homes, it was not allowed. There’s no profit in allowing travelers to stay in private homes.

My mother drove me to the airport and I was on my way. Destination: Rīga.

House of the Order of Blackheads, Old Town, Riga.

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Celebrating Latvia’s Centennial

Memories of Latvia’s centennial from my friend, Sandy Wilkolak, in Ohio. She’s very active in the Latvian community, which is one of the largest in the USA.

“Today is Latvian Independence Day…Here are a couple of memories of our 100th Year Anniversary celebration in 2018 in Cleveland.

It was a most memorable evening. We had a live band for dancing…Our folk dancers performed..Food was prepared by a Latvian chef..I enjoyed decorating the stage and the tables which included M&M’s with Latvija 100 printed on them..🇱🇻💯 Dievs Svētī Latvīju. God Bless Latvia…💕

Latvia’s flag and a bouquet in the flag’s colors at the Latvian Center in Cleveland.
Table decor with favors.
The famous centennial M & Ms with the Latvian spelling: Latvija. How sweet it is!
Round dance. Some people have authentic folk dress.
Dancing is an important part of Latvian culture. Like our songs, it helps sustain us no matter what the circumstances.

Thanks, Sandy, for letting me use your photos and words.

War and cruel fate may have scattered us all over the world, but wherever we are, we will celebrate Latvia’s Independence Day, even if we have to do it virtually.

Latvia’s Two Independence Days

The first one is on November 18th. 

Although Latvians have lived on the shores of the Baltic Sea for millennia they have enjoyed independence for only a few decades. For centuries the country was ruled by Poland, Sweden, Germany, and the Russian Empire.

Latvia is a small country of about 25, 00 square miles, with a population of fewer than two million. It shares borders with Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, and Russia. Across the Baltic Sea, to the west, lies Sweden. Despite foreign occupation, Latvians have been fierce in maintaining their cultural identity, language, and traditions. 

November 18th is Latvia’s original Independence Day. Taking advantage of post World War I chaos and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the People’s Council of Latvia proclaimed the country’s independence. Two years of war for freedom followed. The Russians weren’t about to let go of this small part of their vast empire.

Freedom didn’t last long. In 1940 the Soviet Union invaded Latvia and occupied it until the German army drove them out in 1941. After three years the Red Army invaded again. Latvia was forcibly annexed to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and didn’t regain its freedom until forty-five years later.

Second Independence Day is on August 22.

The Baltic States, which include Estonia, Latvian, and Lithuania shared the same fate: invasion, occupation, loss of independence, battles for freedom. All three countries declared their renewed independence in 1989. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (a political movement to reform the Communist party) led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Latvia declared its independence once again. Fifty-three years of freedom out of a total of more than two thousand years of history. Other countries in the area still suffer from Russian aggression and occupations.

Latvia’s history is much more complicated than I’m able to describe in this short essay. If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out this Wikipedia article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latvia

The Freedom Monument in Riga has been in place since 1935. Brazen as they were, the Soviets never removed this monument. If they had, revolution might have broken out sooner.

Take Heed

Why people ignore warnings, I’ll never understand. 

There’s a road in my town that leads to a seawall and a picnic area. The seawall’s a great place to walk; it has wonderful views of Puget Sound, the Narrows Bridges, and the peninsula on the other side of the Sound. A railroad track crosses that road. When the warning bell clangs and the barrier starts going down, a few people run in order to get across before the train arrives. I stand and wait. I’ve crossed the tracks safely many times. Once though, I slipped on on a metal plates set in the roadway and fell. Thank goodness no train was coming. More than one person has been run down by a train while crossing the tracks.

People have drowned in their cars because they ignored signs saying that there’s water on the road. They drove across anyway, not realizing how deep the water was. How many drivers are killed each year because they run stoplights or drink and drive? Warnings aren’t just about protecting ourselves. They’re also about protecting other, many of whom can’t protect themselves, such as little kids getting off school buses who might heedlessly dash across the street.

No one puts up “danger” signs or issues warnings for the fun of it. Or because they want to oppress anyone.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980 news of an impending eruption was everywhere on radio, on television and in newspapers. That wasn’t warning enough for some people. Nor was the fact that the side of the mountain had been bulging, and getting bigger, for weeks. Fifty-seven people died in that blast. 

Being cautious doesn’t mean never having any adventures, A mountain climber I once knew died peacefully in his bed when he was in his late eighties. One reason he lived such a long life is that he paid attention to warnings of avalanches and bad weather.

Not only do people ignore warnings, some don’t even like to hear them. “Forewarned is forearmed” is not for them.

In the 1940s, in Latvia, the country of his birth, my father was a postmaster. When the Soviets invaded the country in 1941, a friend warned my father that he was on a list of people, such as government officials, who were to be deported. My father hid out in the forest for two weeks, until it was safe to return. If he hadn’t heeded his friend’s warning, if my father had put his fingers in his ears and gone, “La-la-la, can’t hear you!” He would have been sent to Siberia where thousands of deportees from Latvia, and other nations in the path of Soviet aggression, died in forced labor camps.

My parents were newlyweds when the Soviets, who had been driven out of Latvia by the German army, were returning. A German soldier came to their apartment while my folks were having breakfast and told them of this second invasion and advised them to get out or live under a totalitarian reign of terror. My parents listened, packaged up essential belongings, and fled. They escaped because of the forewarning and because they acted immediately. Other Latvians waited too long and were turned back by the Soviets.

I am grateful that my parents knew when to take heed, otherwise I would not be here.

This is an anti-war postcard by a Russian artist. Vasily Vasilyevich VereshchaginBut the mound of skulls could also represent victims of Soviet terror, victims of the Holocaust, victims of plagues of various kinds.

A Few Good Words: Lexicon

A synonym for dictionary. A person’s vocabulary or language. A branch of knowledge.

Looks a lot like my big, fat dictionary,

Words are fun. I’ve always enjoyed playing with them and adding them to my vocabulary, often without even giving them a second thought. I collect them through reading. In the old days of paper and ink dictionaries, I’d be looking up a word and get distracted by another word and another, on and on, until I’d forget the one I was originally looking for. Or the definition of the word I was looking for included one I didn’t know, so I’d have to look that one up, too. That was part of the delight of dictionaries.

There are times I’d read dictionaries just because it’s interesting.

We used to have more than half a dozen dictionaries at home. A couple of English dictionaries, hardback and paperback. Latvian dictionaries come in two volumes, English/Latvian and Latvian/English. For school, I had an English/Spanish dictionary. Because my parents knew German and Russian, we had English/German and English/Russian dictionaries in our collection of lexicons.

Online dictionaries are great. I use them all the time, even though I have a fat, heavy real dictionary and intend to keep it forever. If for some reason the internet disappears, I want to be able to look up words.

My favorite dictionary is Merriam-Webster. Their online version has handy tips on how to use a particular word, examples of it in sentences, information on when a word was first known to have been used, its origins, and how it may have changed over the years. Among the other features, M-W also has vocabulary quizzes, trending words, and podcasts. It’s also helpful that you don’t have to know the exact spelling of a word in order to look it up. Get an approximation and Merriam-Webster will give you a list of possible correct spellings and links to the definition.

 Useful as an online dictionary is, you have to know the word in order to look it up. You’ll be shown words with similar meanings, synonyms, and antonyms, but there’s little opportunity to stumble across new ones. Merriam-Webster also has a thesaurus. If you cant’ think of the word hubbub, you can look up “din” and there’s hubbub in the list of synonyms.

Some words just stick in my mind. I’m not sure why some do and many others don’t. Maybe it’s their sound or the context in which I learned them. Ages later, I still remember the word hylozoism (a doctrine held especially by early Greek philosophers that all matter has life) from my Asian Philosophy class.

From a mystery novel, I learned the word crepuscular–an ugly sounding word for a pretty time of day–twilight. It seems more like one of the plagues visited on the Biblical character, Job.

Susurrus is a lovely, onomatopoeic word (a word that sounds like what it defines) Susurrus means, a “whispering or rustling sound.”

One word that sticks in my mind is flivver. Probably because of its fun sound. It means a cheap car, that’s most likely in bad condition. Its first recorded use was in 1910 and might have been used to describe Henry Ford’s, Model T.

There are many more words I’d love to share and will do so in future posts. 

The very definition of “flivver.” The word came to me because of a dream.