I was always an early riser. When I slept in a strange bed, I’d rise even earlier. So it was the case when I spent the weekend at my mother- and father-in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving.
Already familiar with the layout of the house, I walked into the kitchen to get myself a cup of coffee after retrieving the newspaper out front. Before I sat down, I had to clear a spot to open the paper. The kitchen table sat four, but it was stacked high with books, magazines, archeological stuff and other research. It was typical for the amount of collecting my in-laws did. The clutter/treasure was extreme.
Once I settled into my paper cave, I sipped my coffee and found a good read. I enjoyed the silence of the wee hours – until a faint rustling noise caught my attention. I raised my head, lowered the paper and parted a couple of stacks. Then, with bug eyes and the hair standing straight up on my neck, to say I was startled would be an understatement.
A tiny, frail woman, well into her 90s stared at me through the trench I made. Her eyes looked magnified behind her saucer-sized glasses. There was no looking away.
It was “Mamu.”
She had blended into the stacks so well, I never noticed her. She was up before me. Maybe she never went to sleep. Maybe she slept where she sat as she was prone to do.
I wanted to flee!
Before I could make a break for it, she spoke in Langish, alternating sentences between Latvian and English, “Good morning. Jums ir līdz agri līdzīgi man.” So, I heard, “Good morning ….man.”
Good enough. I returned the greeting of the day while I racked my brain for a reason to excuse myself. Unfortunately, my mental powers lay in the nearly full cup of coffee cooling before me.
“When I was a meitene Latvijā …”
I knew I was trapped.
Twenty minutes went by. I was confused. My attention span had met its limit 20 times over. I made occasional loud noises hoping to wake another house guest, preferably my wife so I could slip away.
Mamu’s crackly voice continued. Her head barely cleared the tabletop, blending into the stacks of who-knows-what lying everywhere.
Another 15 minutes dragged by before words I recognized like “jail, freed and fled the valsts,” – well okay; “jail, free and fled” – raised my eyebrows.
Then a strange thing happened. I was leaning in.
Not only that, I said, “Repeat that part again.” …“No, in English.”
TWO HOURS LATER, I was hanging on her every word, whether it was in English or Latvian. It was World War II. Mamu, her husband and four – now five – young daughters were roaming war-torn Europe, homeless. A wagon wheel broke, they missed a boat, it was bombed and sunk. They slept in a farmer’s field and woke to a glow of fire consuming the house they had been invited to sleep in. There was a train they missed, a bomb, and I didn’t need to translate the Latvian, I knew what happened next.
Someone walked by me and said, “Mornin’,” and turned on the TV, ending one of the best stories I had ever heard.
By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel