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.

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Facing loss, preserving life

Naomi, Sage, and Chaussette by the stream at her house, early summer 2013

Naomi, Sage, and Chaussette by the stream at her house, early summer 2013

Having an infected tooth pulled is bad enough, but promptly fighting a round of pneumonia is another thing, especially when one is 93 years old. The pneumonia battle is almost an annual thing for my grandma Naomi by now, and she’s always had an almost supernatural ability to heal. This time, though, it’s different; even when or if she recovers, her failing eyesight has combined with her failing health to guarantee an end to her independent living, and her spirits are low as a result. When my son and I visited her on Tuesday, she was as pale as the sheets, a breathing mask over her face, looking OLD–a surprisingly new development for someone her age. I had my camera but didn’t dare–or want–to take a picture. Instead, I want to remember her as she was just weeks ago, so I’m going to post these pictures from the beginning of the summer. I’m using pictures of her with my son, Sage; she spent 30 years working with Head Start children as a Foster Grandparent, and while her love of children is always apparent, it’s especially evident when he’s around. No matter what happens in the next few days, this is how I want to remember her.

Naomi and her great-grandson on a swing at her house

Naomi and her great-grandson on a swing at her house

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Naomi’s Independence Day

Naomi on the cusp of independence

Naomi on the cusp of independence

Naomi and her brothers had always been close, but when their mother’s death left them rattling around their ramshackle house, underemployed and always scrabbling for money, they realized that destiny called them elsewhere. Her brothers went their separate ways—Jimmy to join the Navy, Paul to join the Army, and John to work as welder.

That left Naomi, barely twenty, to consider the decidedly limited options for a single young woman facing the Great Depression. Unable to find work either in her hometown of Sewarren, New Jersey, or its neighboring municipalities, she had no choice but to move in with her much-older married sister Marian in Philadelphia.

Naomi and her brothers sold virtually all of their possessions, divided the money, and walked out to meet their destinies. Unfortunately, Naomi’s was looking bleak. Her brother-in-law, Bob Farley, made no pretense of welcoming her into their home. He informed her repeatedly that “You can’t stay here forever” and reinforced his distaste for her in countless petty ways. Marian, submissive to the husband she was sworn to honor and obey, witnessed her sister’s humiliation silently.

The situation was clearly unsustainable, but the breaking point came—appropriately enough—on Independence Day. The family—Bob, Marian, their daughters, and Naomi—had piled into their car to attend an outdoor celebration at a distant park. The grounds were teeming with people, and the massive crowd was obliged to share a few reeking privies if nature called too loudly to be ignored.

When it called Naomi, she reluctantly made her way toward the wretched facilities. But when she opened the door and was bombarded by a mass of flies, she knew nature was just going to have to wait.

Bladder bursting, she endured until the family was back on the road, then politely asked to make a pit stop at a gas station en route. Bob was overwhelmed with rage at her impudence. “Why didn’t you go at the park?” he demanded. “You had your chance already. You’ll just have to wait until we get home.”

Naomi made it—barely. Even though she was finally relieved physically, her mind was stinging with indignation. Her humiliation was furthered when Marian crept into her room and whispered that Naomi had better not go with the family to the fireworks show that night—an event she’d been looking forward to—because Bob was still too angry to tolerate her presence.

The family piled back into their car and drove off to see the fireworks, leaving Naomi to fume alone. After a sleepless night, she left the house early in the morning, determined to find work. Even though she’d been trying to get a job since her arrival, her high school diploma wasn’t even enough to get her a place as a department store salesgirl. Each failure earned her more criticism from Bob, more confirmation in his bitter soul that she had come to mooch off his family.

This particular morning began no differently than the others—inquiry after inquiry, refusal after refusal. But Naomi knew she couldn’t go back to Bob’s house. She’d had the foresight to grab her diploma, but all her other worldly possessions were still back there.

No matter. She used part of the $100 she’d gotten as her share of the family’s legacy to buy a new dress, a suitcase, and a bus ticket to New York. She left without returning to get her clothes or say goodbye. It was Naomi’s Independence Day.

She arrived in New York with almost nothing, not even a toothbrush. Even so, she was determined to never go back to the scene of her humiliation. She checked into the Edison Hotel (at the going rate of $2/night) and emerged the next morning intent on finding a job.

She did, although her first several jobs were less than satisfying. She scooped ice cream for “skyscraper” cones—a backbreaking task in the days before soft-serve; she lived and worked in a bakery for a time; she become a file clerk; she worked in a drugstore with a lunch counter.

It was at this last place that she began the romance-that-almost-was; it was later, working as a secretary for a doctor, that she made her choice and became the doctor’s wife.

But that’s another story.

The New Jersey Belle

This isn't QUITE the skirt Grandma described, but it was the closest I could find--and the model's attitude is a good reflection of hers!

This isn’t QUITE the skirt Grandma described, but it was the closest I could find–and the model’s attitude is a good reflection of hers!

14-year-old Naomi swept through the hallway of her school with the grace and confidence of a princess. Her errand was mundane, but her skirt was definitely not. The patterned Gone With the Wind-inspired skirt swished satisfyingly as she glided into the classrooms and handed attendance lists to the doubtless admiring teachers.

Naomi had grown up in poverty, but this skirt—given to her by her older brother John during the height of the Gone With the Wind craze—was worthy of a true belle. She loved it so much that she procured a matching blouse. It didn’t matter that she was a New Jersey belle rather than a Southern one. The skirt twirled majestically each time she turned, a sensation so gratifying that she wore her elegant outfit almost every day for a year.

It didn’t matter that Scarlett O’Hara was rich, Southern, older, and fictional; when Naomi wore her Gone With the Wind skirt, she and Scarlett could have been twins.

Of Bait and Banks

10-year-old Naomi on the dock that hosted her bait business

10-year-old Naomi on the dock that hosted her bait business

A growing awareness of mortality, the first-time sense that she’s OLD, and most of all, the failing eyesight that banishes her from the books she loves: All of these weights are combining to sink my 93-year-old grandmother’s spirits. She was home alone most of the day yesterday, her solitude only interrupted by a visit from my son, husband, and me, and she had plenty of time to brood about the contrast between her current loneliness and the festive family get-togethers of past Independence Days.

I desperately wished there was something I could do, but lacking the power to restore eyesight, I came up short. The one idea I had that seemed to cheer her up at least somewhat was my proposal to resume our “Naomi’s Story” project; I’ve taken notes on her answers to all the “Grandma, Tell Me Your Memories” questions, but I confess I’ve let the project lapse lately.

The thought of sharing her story seemed to brighten her mood, though, so I’m determined to pursue the project. Here goes…

My grandmother, Naomi Kimball, grew up with many siblings but little money. Her family often struggled to get enough to eat, and many were the days when they relied on moldy lunchmeat and wormy flour for sustenance. What she did have, though, was a set of 40 Harvard Classics that, unlike much of the furniture, her mother never burned for heat.

She also had access to the ocean—an inlet of which was literally across the street from her childhood home—a minnow trap, and a keen entrepreneurial spirit.

She used the latter three assets to form a bait business; she and her younger brother Jimmy sold quarts of minnows for a quarter each. What avid fisherman could resist the combination of fresh, cheap minnows and Jimmy’s winsome little face? Even some wealthy patrons of the neighboring yacht club, who hardly needed to skimp on bait spending, became customers of the little Kimballs’ fledgling enterprise.

Though the business was necessarily seasonal and never made them rich, it did allow Naomi and Jimmy to have some rare money of their very own. Jimmy, prodigal little thing that he was, promptly spent his share. Naomi, however, was prudent. Although she allowed herself the occasional luxury—a bunch of grapes or a 25 cent Bobbsey Twins book—the bulk of her earnings went into her own personal bank. Not a real bank, of course; this was the Depression era, and real banks were hardly the most reliable storehouses for hard-earned income. She needed to find a place that was safe and secret, a place where her bills could remain securely hidden. And she found it.

Literature plays an important role in our lives: It instructs, inspires, and connects. It dissolves the barriers between person and person, past and present, real and unreal. It changes lives. It also makes a handy place to store your money.

Naomi stored her money between the pages of one of the Harvard Classics, but not just ANY random book. Which one did she choose?

The Wealth of Nations by economist Adam Smith.

I think he would have approved.

Naomi and the Girl Scouts

10 year old Naomi by the dockI’d been meaning to post more about my grandmother Naomi’s childhood and family, but the last few weeks have been so chaotic (my dog Peri died, I went through some intense mourning, and I got a new puppy–the details are in my Moments of Unexpected Beauty blog if anyone’s interested) that this project has been unwittingly suspended. I don’t have time to do an extended post right now, but I want to share a story Naomi told me when I told her about the Girl Scout article I was writing for the local paper. She said she’d been a Girl Scout leader when she, her husband, and her two children lived in New York. She’d planned an overnight camping trip for her girls, but when she was about to leave, her husband laid a profound guilt trip on her for leaving him alone with the children.

“You can’t go! Robert has a cold!” he’d protested.

“You’re a doctor–YOU take care of it!” my grandmother had replied, and she went.

I love this story–it shows a lot about her independent, tenacious personality, and I was really pleased to pick up this tidbit about her adult life since I’d been mostly focusing on her childhood.

I’m also posting a picture of ten-year-old Naomi standing by the dock near her childhood home. It’s not directly relevant to this post, but I like it and want to get it out there. I hope you don’t mind!

The twins as toddlers

Toddler Naomi and RuthI went to my grandma’s house on Friday to go through pictures. It always amazes me how just when I think I’ve seen them all, she produces new ones. She let me bring copies of three new ones home. I don’t have much text to go with them; I’d been hoping to write about Naomi’s older sister Marian next, but things have been pretty rough lately, so I haven’t done much with Naomi’s Story recently. (Details are on my other blog, Moments of Unexpected Beauty, if anyone’s interested.) I would like to post my favorite photo, though: It shows Naomi and her twin sister Ruth as toddlers. The picture is sweet and warm; I love the way Naomi leans on her sister and Ruth looks at her almost protectively. It’s heartbreaking to think about what will happen to Ruth in six or seven years, but at that moment, they were just two little girls eating graham crackers and bonded by their love.