Struggling to turn American

I dreaded my mother’s visits to our school.

Normal American moms were a common sight at Pines Lake Elementary School. They came for teacher conferences and volunteered in classrooms back in the day when the majority of moms didn’t go to work.

Much as I loved Mama, around 4th or 5th grade I grew deeply embarrassed by her clothes, which positively screamed “I am an immigrant from someplace weird,  and not your normal American mom.”

That headscarf she wore, for example. She called it a babushka, the Russian word for grandmother.  It was a big square cotton scarf, folded in half diagonally, the ends tied under her chin, and the other corner resting  on her back.  You know, the Eastern European peasant look. Mama wore scarves outdoors most of the time, except in summer. I didn’t know anybody else at school whose mother wore a scarf like that.

The scarf wouldn’t have stuck out too much in Paterson, the nearby city where we lived until I was in first grade. Our old neighborhood was full of women who were recent immigrants. I remember seeing them hang  laundry and  converse over backyard fences in other languages, probably German, Dutch or Polish.  Our landlord, who lived upstairs from us, was Polish.  My mother fit in fairly well there, since she was fluent in German and knew some Polish, but my family moved to the suburbs for better schools and a bit of yard around the house.

Stumpy shoes with laces

In addition to the scarf, Mother always wore a dress or a dark skirt and a pullover, with  Hush Puppies shoes on her feet.  Usually she sewed the skirts herself. I never saw her in slacks until I was in college. Outside the house, she often wore stumpy leather shoes that laced up the front, with thick heels like the ones worn by nuns and old ladies.

Worse yet, she insisted that I wear similar stumpy shoes that laced up the front, only mine had a lower heel. She found them in some unimaginable shoe  store that seemed to specialize in ugly footwear. The shoes she picked out for me were, she said, of  good quality, good for my feet,  and would last a long time. (She was right about that last part, as I’ll explain.)

Normal American girls at school wore black patent maryjane shoes, penny loafers or something along those lines. Maybe kids somewhere in Estonia wore stumpy shoes that laced, but I attended school in Wayne, New Jersey, less than 20 miles from New York City, and I would almost rather have died than be seen wearing those shoes in public.

I was bullied and scapegoated at school, and knew for certain that wearing those shoes would make me even more of a target for mockery.  For the first time in my life, I objected to an order from my mother.

Wear them or else

The way my brother and I were raised, an Estonian kid didn’t ever argue back to parents or elders. Mother had no idea how much I suffered in school, nor did I dare tell her. She would have tied on her headscarf and marched to the school principal to complain, like she did when I was in third grade.  And later I would have felt repercussions from the other kids.

My mom’s response to my objections was “too bad” or whatever the equivalent Estonian phrase was.  She pointed out again that the shoes were expensive and of good  quality, so I had to wear them.

At this point, I felt I had little choice: wear the dratted shoes and be jeered at by classmates, or get sneaky. I got sneaky.

Every school morning in fifth grade I clomped out of the house in stumpy shoes, down the path through the woods to school. Once I was out of my mother’s sight, I put down the horrible big briefcase she forced me to carry, and took out a pair of tan canvas Kedettes, a slightly dressier version of Keds sneakers that she let me wear in the summer. I changed shoes in the woods every day, reversing the process  going home. It was not possible for me to petition for shoes like the other girls wore. We didn’t have the money, and that was that.

After a summer of blessed release from the obligation of wearing stumpy shoes, I started sixth grade, and somehow was allowed to acquire a pair of loafers. I wore them to school constantly. Mama complained that I never wore those nice, good quality stumpy shoes any more, even though they looked practically as good as new — as though they had never been worn!  I quietly said they were ugly and out of style. Unfortunately they still fit me, because I didn’t grow much.

Lime green stumpy shoes

Mom’s response was to buy a bottle of shoe dye in a particularly noxious shade of lime green, and paint the shoes to jazz them up. Now they looked more modern, and I could wear them in style, she said,  flourishing them in front of my horrified eyes.

Back I went to subtle resistance, smuggling loafers out of the house and switching shoes on the way to school. If life was tough in elementary school, it was nothing compared to the adolescent hormone hell of junior high school.

Around that time my mother started suffering intense back pain and headaches, thought to be arthritis. In consequence, she stopped supervising our before-school routine. Ever the opportunist, I ditched the Green Horrors in the closet, and wore my loafers every day.

I used to nurture a secret grudge against a pair of much-older second cousins, Inge and Olga,  who lived in a nearby town, because their mother gave me their hand-me-down clothes. Not only were the clothes at least eight years out of style, but some of them looked downright  awful to me. I particularly loathed a dark green plaid dress that  was too big for me and featured a small rhinestone poodle on a white collar. Then there were dirndl dresses.

How to look like a yodeling contestant

Dirndls, which are worn in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, have a white blouse with a wide neckline and puffy short sleeves, with a wideish black cummerbund sort of thing and a colorful skirt trimmed with rick-rack ribbon in contrasting colors. When I wore one, I looked like I was headed to a yodeling competition, definitely not like the Normal American Kid I yearned to be.  Those dirndls were meant for kids of average size, but I was small and skinny so they hung on me like flour sacks. Mother and Aunt Hilda thought I looked adorable in them, naturally.

Once Mother became ill, I was no longer forced to wear the poodle dress or the dratted dirndls.  I picked out a few things that seemed  less weird than the others, and made do with those. In 7th grade my classmates wore wraparound skirts, Madras plaid shirts, nylons and black t-strap shoes with pointy toes. In my hand-me-downs I still looked odd, but not quite as odd. Then  I inherited some clothes from my Estonian friend Kati, who was a year older. Her clothes weren’t out of date, to my vast relief.

To be fair, Mama wasn’t any happier among those normal American housewives than I was among their kids.  Most of the neighborhood women had high school diplomas or beauty school certificates, while she was one of the first women to study law at Estonia’s prestigious Tartu University before the war intervened.  Her father had a law degree from the same university, and her grandfather was a professor of theology there.  My mother was cultured, highly intelligent, and spoke four languages fluently. She was bored out of her mind in our community, longing to live in a city where she could visit the opera or ballet, and discourse with other educated people.

There were a couple of German neighbors she befriended gratefully, and she had Estonian friends who lived in other towns. However my father wouldn’t allow her to learn to drive, so the only times she got out of the house were for the weekly grocery trip on Saturdays, or accompanying us to Estonian school and church, rarely to visit friends.  Mama could have been one of the first female lawyers in Estonia, but she was stuck, carless, in suburbia. I’m sure this played a part in the deep depression she endured until  her death in 1975, when she was 54 and I was 23.

Trying to keep us Estonian

I understand now why she made me dress like an Estonian school kid, and why she forced me to bring the teacher a bouquet of flowers from the garden on the first day of school every year, like kids did in Estonia.  She wanted to keep me as Estonian as possible, in case Estonia regained its freedom from the Soviet Union and we could go home.  But my parents didn’t realize that the Estonia they left during the war no longer existed. Estonia changed with the times too.

Immigrant parents the world over want to teach their children their old ways, just in case they someday can go home. And like me, first-generation kids born in the new country get caught trying to balance between two worlds — their parents’ old world, and the contemporary world around them. It’s a struggle for everyone involved.  Especially if your family’s from a tiny country practically nobody ever heard of, and there aren’t other kids like you so you can stick together.

Women don’t drive cars – or do they?

The Old World-New World struggles in my family weren’t limited to clothes. I was never allowed to speak English at home until I went to college.  Worse, my father refused to let me learn to drive, because women weren’t supposed to drive cars. I got a boyfriend to teach me secretly and take me to get my license. Even though my father found out, there was nothing he could do about it after the fact. I’d become an expert at sneakiness with those ghastly green shoes.   Sneakiness to some, self-preservation to others.

I wasn’t supposed to go to college because there wasn’t enough money, and males went before females. I was supposed to live at home and work at some retail job while my younger brother went to college, only it didn’t work out that way. My  grades were good enough to earn me a full scholarship to Northeastern University, and a partial scholarship to American University. My father, however, wanted me to attend Paterson State Teachers College  (now called William Paterson University) because it was cheap, and because I could walk there from our house. This way he could save the cost of room and board, and avoid buying me a used car. Since my second cousins went there and became teachers, Paterson State was considered acceptable.

The application to Paterson State mysteriously disappeared into my school locker  and wasn’t unearthed until the application deadline had passed. Oops, I said innocently.

In addition to the scholarships, I was accepted at the new Livingston College  that was part of Rutgers University. My father grudgingly borrowed the money from my godfather, and I was free at last, free to try to become a normal American college student.

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