Pieces of Lydia
Copyright 2021 by Ladona LaPorte
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
return for her situation. In summary, Lydia’s perseverance
amidst atrocities so great and unjust is nothing short of
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
didn’t realize, or just didn’t care, that this harsh
routine inflicted pain. All that mattered was her obsession to
constantly stay clean.”
middle-aged woman recalls this ambush of a cleansing ritual from her
early childhood. Sadly, this is the only memory of Lydia she can
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 alone—a
self-sufficient, lovelorn woman until the end.
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?
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?
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?
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
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.
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
creatively has been energizing for Ladona, and she is eager to develop
her craft further to encompass multiple genres. Lydia, the focus-character
is the paternal grandmother of the author's children. Unfortunately,
the relatives never met, which increased the importance to tell her
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher