My mother is seated on the floor, her brother Gunars is second from left.
The Sarkandaugava Bridge
The view as you cross the Sarkandaugava bridge
I walk down Aptieka iela, (Chemist Street) which is quite narrow but also very beautiful, lined with trees and both grand and modest buildings. My mother can’t remember the number of the house she lived in and so I take photos of any place that takes my eye. There are a few very impressive renovated buildings but I doubt that she lived there. It’s a long street and eventually curves down towards the river, stopping at Tvaika iela. About two thirds of the way down, I am struck by a big building behind a high fence that is set well back from the road. It is a medical institution of some sort and I am later told it was, and still is, Riga’s psychiatric hospital. (My relatives refer to it as the Traka Maja – the mad house.) I shudder to think about the fate of the patients during German occupation.
Tvaika iela is a major road and is very busy with traffic. I turn left into it with the intention of following it all the way back to the bridge, but after about 500 metres or so, I turn back. There are very few houses, only one other pedestrian in the distance, some industrial buildings on one side of the road and I feel a little uneasy. Over the other side of the river is a huge huge building that must have been a factory at one point in its life, but it is hard to determine what it is used for now, if anything. It has hundreds of small glass windows and must have been incredibly grand in it heyday. I take photos and then head back up Aptieka iela.
Before I head back to central Riga, I stop for lunch in a local workers’ café with good and inexpensive meals that are paid for by weight. The staff here greet me with the suspicion I have now become accustomed to, and while I’m eating I sense I am being observed by the other customers. When the girl from the kitchen comes out to clear the tables, she stares straight at me with an almost shocked looked on her face. I smile at her and she’s taken aback. It’s an odd feeling, to know that I am being watched by others – but perhaps I’m just being paranoid. I have a coffee and take the tram home.
* * *
My mother first went to school in Kandava at the age of seven, which is when all children start their formal education in Latvia, even today. In Kandava there was one class for all ages of children and my mother received no formal teaching as such. She had an exercise book in which she copied what the older children were doing and also did some embroidery work, but otherwise, she was allowed to do what she liked. It was only when she moved to Riga that my mother’s teaching became more structured. When the family moved to Sarkandaugava, she was sent to Kronvalda Ata 23 Pamatskola on the advice of a neighbour who said it was an excellent school. My mother loved it there and made friends with a student whose name was also Mirzda Berzins. This second Mirdza has an older sister who was quite wealthy and had a vineyard, a wine cellar and a car – things my mother would only have been able to dream about.
When I arrived it was being renovated; when I left the renovations were close to completion.
My mother tells me a story about Kronvald Ata school. She is about nine years old and has failed to do her homework or some other task and as a result is sent home to get her parents’ signature in her work book. Instead of doing as she is told, and possibly getting punished by her parents for her oversight, my mother decides to go and wait in Kronvald Park, which is adjacent to the school, until she thinks classes have finished for the day. She sits on a park bench for what she believes is an incredibly long time but after boredom sets in, heads home. Of course, her estimate of the time is way out and it is still quite early when she returns. When her mother asks her why she is not at school, my mother tells her that the teachers have declared a holiday – and my grandmother apparently believes this story. By chance, my mother’s grandmother is visiting at the time and my mother tricks her into signing the work book by covering the teacher’s comments with a piece of paper. The story is of a simple childhood prank, but it also reveals something about my mother, suggesting a certain sense of confidence, resourcefulness – and even defiance - that I don’t believe I have inherited. I don’t think I would have had the courage to come up with the lie about the school holiday – and then to say it with enough conviction to persuade my mother it was true.
When she reflects back on her interrupted education, which ended before she could finish high school, my mother says she was disappointed that her parents never showed any real interest in her studies or encouraged her to pursue a good education. She was a bright student and did well and believes she could have achieved more in life had she received some direction at home. While I can understand my mother's disappointment, I also suspect that my grandparents just didn't know how to give my mother the support she wishes she had been given. As a result of this lack, my mother - and also my father - constantly reminded me and my sisters that our most important duty was to study hard at school and that if we focussed on our education, the world would open its doors to us and we could achieve anything we desired.
Later, when she is living in Tvaika iela, my mother becomes very ill with pleurisy, which is then followed by rheumatic fever and an extended period of time in Riga’s Second Hospital in Pardaugava, on the other side of the river. The hospital’s website reveals that Dr Pauls Stradins was the key founder of this hospital and is considered Latvia’s most significant contributor to advances in medicine. As a result of her illness, my mother misses out on a year of schooling.