Pieces of Lydia

Ladona LaPorte

© Copyright 2021 by Ladona LaPorte

Pieces of Lydia is a story about a Latvian woman living in the WWII era. A future detoured by the atrocities of war, this is a story about one woman's struggles and coping mechanisms.

 She was the recipient of a centuries-old biblical name derived from Greek origin. The name, Lydia, means “kind” or “kindred spirt.” She was Russian-born, sophisticated, and well-educated, as her father was a successful businessman living in Latvia who could afford University for his daughter. She entered the prime of her life just a few years before the onset of World War II, when dreams were still imaginable and seemingly within reach.

Faded over time and framed with ragged edges, the ancient black-and-white snapshots reveal that she was: small in stature (five foot three inches at best); willowy frame; erect posture; her stance clad in conservative dress. Absent of pattern or even the slightest frill, her wardrobe showcased a matronly look. And yet, meticulously pressed.

Each photo in the small collection revealed straight skirt lines, fitted bodices, stiff collars, and tailored sleeves ending with finely finished cuffs. Though void of flare, the ensembles flaunted the masterful precision of a skilled seamstress.

Her facial features were sharp; her expression serious—fueling a coldness from behind a stare that bore absolute abhorrence towards receptivity. Depicted in all the images, this consistent look was framed by dark hair, shortly cropped and neatly tucked. Sometimes, a simple cap rest upon her crown. Other times, heavy, black-rimmed glasses accentuated that piercing stoical stare. All times, her imagery articulated an immense sternness.

But these images reflected the 1960s era. By this time, America had been home for more than 15 years. What truths would we know of this woman before the war razed Eastern Europe, robbing so many of so much? How different might a person be if one’s fate were not also one’s foe?

For Lydia, some obvious pieces can be aligned to offer insight into her story during the early 1940s. Her laborious achievements in an academic science few women had the opportunity to pursue was suddenly obliterated. There would be no lucrative career in economics, not ever. Credentials, status, wealth, merits of all form render meaningless when trapped behind barriers of a Displaced Persons Camp—especially when the dictated language is not your own.

Lydia was isolated from her father, sister and other family that disappeared. Her plight further laden with the responsibilities of raising a young son in a harsh, deplorable place. The boy’s father confiscated in the name of WAR. But where? For which side did he fight? Was he alive? Would he return?

Though the reluctant soldier and Lydia were divorced, he remained an involved father, tending to his toddler son, and monetarily supporting them all. With no notice, the responsible man vanished, along with the family’s only financial means. Not the kind of motherhood Lydia had envisioned for herself.

These facts are known, but there lies so much more that remains a mystery. Though Lydia’s data is fragmented, when arranged around historical accountings of the time and setting, a comprehensive composite of a complex woman unfolds. She is driven, focused, clever; and proud-less when necessary--if it rendered a “better” return for her situation. In summary, Lydia’s perseverance amidst atrocities so great and unjust is nothing short of extraordinary.

She was always scrubbing my face with a hot washrag. Several times a day. It would hurt. I’d be playing on the floor, and she would come up from behind and vigorously scrub till my cheeks and nose were raw. Hands too. I remember being snatched around the waist and hoisted to the kitchen basin, feet kicking in protest. The soap felt gritty, the water scorched, and steam billowed from the faucet. She either didn’t realize, or just didn’t care, that this harsh routine inflicted pain. All that mattered was her obsession to constantly stay clean.”

The middle-aged woman recalls this ambush of a cleansing ritual from her early childhood. Sadly, this is the only memory of Lydia she can unlock.

Senior family members became estranged for reasons untold to the younger generation. The youth were merely told that a fallout occurred and to ask no further, to which they obeyed out of respect. Now, hushed by their mortalities, those seniors can never speak their parts—be it regretful or defensively. And sadly, certain clarity is deprived the curious; leaving speculation to be the only recourse. To those left to ponder the circumstances, it can only be assumed that whatever IT was, it was irreconcilable.

Supposedly, she was a tyrant; abusive towards her son; he was the oldest. She doted on the girls, but evidently was very strict with him—hitting, yelling, and demeaning him over the slightest things.

She showed up at the chapel dressed all in black on my wedding day—from head to toe. Hat, shoes, handbag, coat, the whole ensemble was strictly black—no splash of color anywhere. Now, I know etiquette is lenient these days. Perhaps her dress would be acceptable by today’s standards. But back then, for social events, black was worn in protest or mourning. And never at a wedding. It was a huge insult. I was mortified. Imagine if your future husband’s mother came to your wedding dressed as if it were a sorrowful day. Even the pastor looked stunned and made a few snide comments. He asked if we were truly serious about being married or simply “funning-around” with this important undertaking. I suppose the fact that we were marrying on April Fool’s Day did not help the matter (he didn’t seem amused). But beyond being embarrassed, I was deeply hurt. Without saying a word, she let me know precisely how she felt about me marrying her son.


Years passed merely existing in an overcrowded, deplorable camp. But it should not take much longer. He will arrive soon and take them away—away from the filth and sickness. Struggling to maintain patience, Lydia clung to the joyous prospects of a new life with the German soldier who fathered her twins—a boy and a girl, now 18 months in age. Such relief could not come soon enough. The dreary, stench-ridden prison had taken its toll on all forced to dwell there. It was not long before all remnants of ambition and optimism were ridden from the community. And for so many young girls, youth and innocence stolen. But Lydia stayed positive. She held on to a desperate belief that the overseer who fancied her upon first arriving at the dismal camp would uphold his promise and come for them. Yes. As soon as he got settled at his new post, he would come for them.

Each day seemed an exact replica of the one before. Lydia trudged over muddy paths to a stark warehouse where her work assignment consisted of long hours sewing uniforms and other garments for the troops. The children sat on the floor next to her machine space. The eldest son was put in charge of his sibling twins (he was still very much a youngster himself). The stressful workday wore on at an excruciating pace.

Once outside the confines of the warehouse, Lydia would squint into the darkness eagerly searching for her soldier. Hoping. The days accumulated into a year, then more beyond that. He never came.

The hoarse barking sounded worse at night. Such a frightening sound bellowing from such a frail, tiny body. It had been going on for days and was progressively getting worse. Neighboring occupants of the tenement turned restless; they were even more boisterous with their complaints on this particular night. No one could sleep from all the disruption. So tightly packed were the tenants, there was little privacy, no escape; everyone was on edge. People shouted at Lydia from all directions. “Not again!” The boy went into another croup spasm, coughing so violently, he struggled for breath. “SHHHH! JUST SHUT-UP!” she screamed, while sobbing over her infant son who was burning with fever.

The boy twin had always been sickly; the girl, blessed with heartiness. There was never medicine available to aid anyone’s ailments, least of all, the boy’s. Each episode intensified in severity, and took longer for him to recover. In the end, the environment proved too harsh for the little one, and only his twin sister reached their third birthday.

Another season passed. Lydia is again with child, stuck behind the metal barricade of that wretched Displaced Persons Camp. Soon an infant girl is born. There is no paternal knowledge to convey. Not even a rumor of this third father. Who was he? Was he a commanding officer? A camp occupant? A warehouse superintendent? Was he Latvian, German, Russian? A lover? A passerby? Was the conception consensual?

Fortunately, this new baby girl would bear no memory of the camp. After years of searching, a distant relative successfully located the lost family members and paid their passage to Denmark, for he was a prominent physician in Copenhagen and had the means to do so. Shortly thereafter, an American sponsorship was obtained, and Lydia, along with her now three children, immigrated to upstate New York.

Eventually, the family moved to a tiny, modest apartment house in Southeast Washington, DC. The children shared the one bedroom. Their mother transformed the front living space to serve multiple purposes, including her bed chamber. Lydia spent the rest of her days living in that sparsely-furnished apartment—a sewing machine stationed by the center window. For more than 40 years, she stayed mostly alonea self-sufficient, lovelorn woman until the end.


Lydia endured a poignant life, one fraught with extreme hardships, unfathomable to most. Though lacking detail, the few pieces of her existence expose a woman of fortitude, determined to survive and escape her conditions. Some judge her as being immoral, obviously a seductress, what with having children out of wedlock and all. Was she? Or is it more likely that sexuality was the only tool Lydia had at her disposal—either used in hopes to better her circumstance, or, to avoid being subjected to a threatening one?

The perceived gesture of insensitivity hurt the bride’s feelings when Lydia dressed in black for the wedding. Was the gesture intentional? Was Lydia aware of the statement she was making? After all, black is the color choice for formal attire and, she was attending a special occasion. What are wedding customs in her motherland? Regardless, is she expected to know such things having become an American citizen?

What did marriage represent to Lydia? Disappointment? Betrayal? Toil and financial hardship? It is impossible to actually know her sentiments on the matter, but indeed she had been deprived of romance throughout her prime. Since this ceremony only included four attendees—bride, groom, pastor, and Lydia, perhaps the bride overthought Lydia’s intent. Did she mean to articulate insult through her dress?

Sadly, Lydia remained distant from her son over the course of years, yet warmly engaged with her daughters. How was it that Lydia exhibited those motherly tendencies towards the girls, but not towards her son? Did her past heartaches with men factor into this behavior? Did she feel compelled to protect the girls, as a nurturing kindred spirit would do?

Undoubtedly, Lydia’s esteem suffered greatly. Chipped pieces of self left scattered. She died decades ago at the age of 89. Alone. Her history could only be astonishing, and yet, only three meager artifacts account for her existence at all—a death certificate, this obscure memoir fraught with added wonder, and one woman’s solitary recollection of having her face scrubbed by the forceful hands of the woman for which she is a namesake.

Ladona LaPorte lives in Annapolis, Maryland. She is surrounded by beautiful landscapes that inspire her to write. A technical and proposal writer by trade, Ladona recently joined a writing group in her community. This group authors stories collaboratively based off themes provided by a facilitator.  Writing creatively has been energizing for Ladona, and she is eager to develop her craft further to encompass multiple genres.  Lydia, the focus-character in Pieces of Lydia, is the paternal grandmother of the author's children. Unfortunately, the relatives never met, which increased the importance to tell her story. 

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