Issue NO. 2 • ARE WE THERE YET?
I wrote this piece for the Brink because one of the things I want to do after graduation is travel. I’m very excited to, and I want to go to Latvia and explore my family’s history, but I feel some guilt for wanting to go there because of my mother’s feeling towards the country. In this piece, I try to explore this conflict.
The first time my grandma tried bubblegum she swallowed it. The American soldier that freed her and her sisters from their Displaced Persons camp in Germany, laughed as they all ate- not chewed- the fluorescent pink gum that he gave them. Having tried the Latvian candy that my great uncles always bring to Christmas, I know that must've been the sweetest thing that had ever touched my grandma’s tongue as a child. A spark of color in a world of gray and ash.
She doesn’t like to talk about the actual Holocaust to my brother, cousins, and I. When shes does bring it up, she talks about the bubblegum and how that soldier was the first black person she had ever seen. When my mother talks about it, she’ll share the stories my grandma had slipped to her as a child. My mom said it was to put her own complaints and issues into perspective. You can’t whine to your mom because when she was your age a Nazi plane dove down to shoot at her for target practice as she was walking to her family’s barn. It makes a fight with your best friend seem miniscule. Makes all of your problems seem insignificant, almost laughable.
My cousin’s girlfriend, a girl whose quiet nature drives my aunt up a wall, studied abroad in Florence last spring. When he visited her they decided to stay a few nights in Riga, the capital of Latvia. My grandma was proud, her own children have never visited, let alone expressed any substantial interest to. My mom and her sister may even be citizens. Their late father, my Pa John, would mention acquiring their citizenship for them after the Berlin Wall came down. However, neither of them has ever checked to see if he left even more uncompleted things behind before he passed too early.
My cousin would send me pictures, awkward selfies in front of tall spiral buildings, the captions in Latvian. I would shove my phone under my mom’s nose, asking her to translate the words, which just looked to me like my cousin scrambled his fingers across his keyboard and clicked send. She would recoil as if it were a bad smell, and claim she wouldn’t know enough Latvian to translate. After pleading and annoying her, she would glance at the phone for a second, say he spelled a few words wrong, or that his grammar was off, and then would produce a perfect translation. All within two seconds, with little to no effort.
I’ve seen my mom perform this trick many times growing up. Whether its her and my grandma following a family in IKEA, trying to figure out if they are speaking Latvian or not, or my mom whispering to her cousin at a funeral, their tongues rolling in ways that the language that WE share never does.
In middle school I asked my mom why she never taught my brother and I Latvian. It was like she was withholding a secret code that we haven't earned the right to unlock yet. When my dad would hear these conversations, he’d butt in reminding us we were also Irish and Italian (but Boston Irish/Italian heritage is boring, and I’d rather eat one hundred Latvian candies than be boring). She said it was because she barely knew it anymore. She was fluent as a child, but then her kindergarten teacher told my grandparents that she sometimes had trouble not slipping into Latvian in class. My grandparents panicked, flashing back to when they first came to America, a melting pot that burns each ingredient as it’s added. For years, they only spoke English at home.
I see her first language spark on her tongue though. Whether it’s at an Easter dinner, singing a church hymn at a funeral, or when she is reading an old to-do lists from the 80s, forgotten in a kitchen junk drawer in our summer cottage in New Hampshire. It seems so personal, like she is the only person left who speaks this sacred and secret language.
I didn’t even know my mother’s real name until middle school. To be fair I practically did know it, but still, I felt the injustice in my bones. On her driver’s license, she is Anna M. Hughes. Pronounced by everyone Ann-a. It is actually Anna, as in Ah-nah. I gave her a lot of crap for that one. Even more recently, she told me she didn’t fully erase her maiden name. She added it as a second middle name. This time I wasn’t upset. In fact, I felt a sense of relief that confused me for why I felt it, but I did all the same.
It's no secret I want to go to Latvia. Finally see the country that I cheer for in every Olympic event that they make it to. See the bitter candies in actual stores, instead of the ceramic sunflower bowl my cousin made in her sixth grade art class. Apparently there is a house in my mom and aunt’s name there, but they don't collect rent from whoever lives there now.
My mom always comments when I plan my imaginary trip, not unkindly, but truthfully in the way mothers can.
“Wouldn't you rather go to Italy?”
Well, yeah I would. I want to go to Italy, Paris, Greece, and Japan. Also, Scotland, and when I think about it more, I have a cousin I could visit in Belgium as well. Even so, I still can’t help but feel like I have to go to Latvia. There could be nothing for me to find there except my grandma’s approval for going, of course. I can’t help but wonder, do I owe something to this country? It gave me my family, my history, and technically my life, and I only know a petty change handful of words in its language. It feels almost like a betrayal to not claim it as a part of me.
This year my mom finally told me the truth. Resentment, not a kind colored in anger but sadness, carried her words from her mouth. Her parents never saw America as their home. Not the country, state, or town they lived in. Not the tiny three bedroom house my mom grew up in. It was her home, and her sister’s without a doubt. That’s where their family was. My mom thinks it was never enough for them. They always longed for a home that was as foreign to my mom as it is to me. I don’t think she’ll ever go because then she’ll have to confront a piece of her parents that she was in constant rivalry with her whole life.
People always try to fix their parents mistakes with their own children. I think my mom made sure my brother and I had her completely. We never had to compete for her against her home. I think her plan worked. My brother studied political science, learning about how OUR government system works. I’m getting my degree in English, the only language my mother comfortably claims.