A Landlady and So Much More

Naomi wearing the nightgown Lucy made for her

Naomi wearing the nightgown Lucy made for her

Naomi was alone in her house. Children grown and gone, husband dead, there was no point in staying in her Milwaukee home any longer. But she’d forged a new life before with nothing but $100 and a bus ticket; she could and would do the same thing again.

Naomi’s first step was to find a new place to live. She found an ad in the newspaper that seemed to suit her needs: A local family was seeking a lodger. Perfect.

She responded to the ad, thinking only of finding an economical lodging and a fresh start. It wasn’t until Lucy Jirgens—sweetly smiling, brightly dressed—opened the door and welcomed Naomi in her strong Latvian accent that Naomi realized she’d found much more than a room. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship.

Naomi liked Lucy right away, and the feeling was clearly mutual. Lucy quickly accepted Naomi into her home, and Naomi was soon as much a part of the family as Lucy’s husband and two sons.
The Jirgens family, immigrants from Latvia, had been displaced by German soldiers during WWII; although not Jewish, they’d had their home and possessions confiscated. They were, however, handsomely compensated by the chastened German government after the war. They used their reparations payment to emigrate to the U.S., where the industrious Lucy purchased property and rented out rooms to college students.

The cheerful, flamboyant Lucy was a hard worker—she had to be, to clean up after the college students as she did—but not much of a housekeeper. Her kitchen walls were frequently painted white by flour (thanks to bread-baking day) or green from pea soup (thanks to ill-fated encounters with the pressure cooker). Undaunted, Lucy continued her culinary endeavors, which were as much about thrift as they were about taste. She would visit the local produce market at the end of the week, purchase all the food that had been marked down due to imminent spoilage, and produce some surprisingly palatable soups from it. Her heavy Latvian bread was tasty too, and well worth the mess its baking generated; crowds would flock to her stand when she sold it at local Folk Festivals.

Ever-frugal herself, Lucy patiently bailed out her trouble-making, Hell’s Angels-member son Martin time after time; fortunately, the other son, Andre, was seldom in need of similar maternal intervention. Naomi and Lucy once boarded a Greyhound for a road trip to Texas, stopping for visits with each son along the way. The pair spent much of the journey huddled in their seat, covered by a blanket, pressed together for warmth and talking the miles away. The trip did as much to enhance the bond between the two women as it did to enhance Lucy’s bond with her sons.

Lucy proved her friendship in countless ways, and Naomi still has the proof of at least two. Once, when Naomi was bitterly disappointed because she was too sick to attend a Folk Festival, Lucy went and brought her back a green ceramic pitcher, much to Naomi’s delight. Lucy also painstakingly stitched a brightly patterned nightgown for her boarder-turned-alter ego.

All was well until one fateful day when Lucy leaned over to pick up a runaway roll at the Wonderbread bakery where she worked; a nearby machine caught her long hair and ripped her scalp off. She survived, but her scalp remained horribly disfigured and her hair never grew back. She didn’t stop to lament, though. Lacking hair, she simply wore wigs. She sued the bakery because of its unsafe machinery; she wanted to improve safety conditions for her co-workers as much as she wanted compensation for her suffering and medical expenses. The bakery balked and took the case to trial, hoping to wear her down with legal fees. It changed its tune, however, when—at the instruction of her lawyer—she stood up in court and took off her wig, showing the room the full extent of her injuries. Naomi recollects that the audience’s collective gasp was audible. The bakery promptly settled with her for $250,000.

Lucy did use her settlement to fulfill two of her travel dreams. One was a return to her hometown of Riga in Latvia. The other was a trip to Australia, where she’d longed to hear an opera in the Sydney Opera House. (She was an avid opera-goer; she and Naomi frequently attended performances at the Milwaukee opera.) Even so, she generally maintained her frugal ways, even returning to work at the Wonderbread bakery after ensuring that the machinery had been fitted out with improved safety features.

War, displacement, severe injury: none of these could slow Lucy down or diminish her zest for life. Unfortunately, even her courage and vivacity were no match for ovarian cancer. She fought it as long as she could; toward the end, she had to be fed through a tube placed directly into her stomach. It was her black-sheep son Martin, the member of the Hell’s Angels, the child she’d bailed out so many times, who nursed her tenderly as she lay dying.

Eventually, she succumbed, and her coffin was decked with the lavender flowers she loved. Even so, Lucy continued, in Naomi’s words, to be “loyal and wonderful and comforting” as long as she lived. Although she’s gone now, her memory is alive and well, and Naomi still wears Lucy’s flamboyantly colored nightgown when she’s in need of some of that comfort.