Erika – Female Formed

Life-Changing Advice

“Bad advice will blind you, good advice will instruct you, excellent advice will enlighten you, and transcendent advice will elevate you.”
—Matshona Dhliwayo

Influences upon character or behavior are often predictable. Sometimes, they’re unexpected. For most of us, the power of influence comes from a conglomeration of media, literature, friends and family. Importantly, sometimes it’s the right person at the right time saying the right words that delivers the greatest impact.

My living arrangement with JJ lasted around a year but didn’t have the weight of the future in it. After not much discussion and full agreement, I bade him good-bye with fondness and appreciation for our shared experience. I packed up my Ford Fairlane 500, my cat, and a young woman from Revka’s commune who was looking for an adventure and headed toward the Northwest.

After a very long day of driving with an unhappy cat who didn’t find the litter box placement behind the driver’s seat quite to his specifications, plus trying to carry on a conversation with a girl I didn’t know and who, unfortunately, was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Revka in terms of intellectual capacity, we finally arrived back in Seattle. I dropped the girl off in the middle of the night at what I assumed was the Northwest version of a commune. Before I found an apartment and job, I bunked at my mother and stepfather’s house for a few weeks. There, Erika was waiting with her opinions.

Erika was my mother’s Latvian cleaning lady, but that hardly describes who she was in my life, and, I believe, my mother’s. Once a week, for eight hours every Friday, Erika, who was, as my stepfather used to say, a “sturdy” woman, would knock on the front door, enter the house with a gruff yet professional greeting and begin her chores. She had an open, Slavic face, with large, sea glass blue eyes. Her white/blond hair was always beautifully coiffed, and she usually wore skirts with tights, so the final effect was an interesting combination of practicality and an aspiration for glamour. She worked all morning; dusting, scouring bathrooms, scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees, then taking a full hour for lunch, always sharing the kitchen table with my mother. The afternoon was for lighter duties like ironing and vacuuming. Friday after Friday after Friday for at least ten years, Erika would arrive promptly at eight a.m. and leave at five p.m. As far as I know, she never missed a week. My mother also had her hair done on Fridays, but never during lunch, because that was when she, and I, as often as possible, would be the recipient of the delight that was Erika.

In those days, both my mother and I smoked cigarettes. Erika did not, but she tolerated the smelly and messy byproduct as we sat around my mother’s kitchen table and chatted. But before we got out the ashtray, we spent most of the lunch hour listening to Erika. My mother would make the three of us grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate cokes, and we’d talk. The conversation was largely filled with Erika’s recounting her life in Latvia, her husband Arnie’s many faults and her children’s countless, wayward choices. There wasn’t an opinion Erika had that spent any time inside her mind before she would declare, loudly, and with certainty, her final edict on any number of subjects. Politics, clothing selection, the right size of diamonds (she was fascinated by diamonds), television shows – didn’t matter; Erika had the final say.

And she should have, because she was brilliant, witty in an old-world way, and very astute about people’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure she’d found the hidden vodka bottles and glasses that I had located for years in my mother and stepfather’s home, and understood, as did I, the price my mother paid for living with an alcoholic. But on that subject, Erika never said a word.

She and my mother were very fond of one another, and Erika brought an earthiness to that home that none of the women in my parent’s social group could have offered, even if they’d wanted. My mother had grown up poor but was now very comfortable. Erika grew up during the war years in Latvia and had started a new life with Arnie, and her perspective brought the most authentic conversations into that kitchen I ever heard.

Once I found an apartment and a job working nights, I, for several years after my return from California, would arrive on Friday mornings with a full load of dirty laundry, a fresh pack of cigarettes, and gleeful anticipation of lunch with Erika. She not only enlivened my mother’s socially oppressed life, (there was only one star of the show in that household, and it was not my mother), but Erika also grounded me. I was flailing, understanding that waitressing wasn’t a long-term career option, but not knowing what I wanted to do. At this point, after my mother had informed me that my three choices were teacher, secretary or nurse, I, puppet that I was, was trying to select just one. Erika had no patience for my indecision. And she had less patience for the holdover dress code I had adopted after spending time with Revka and being exposed to the more relaxed garb of the San Francisco area. I was what one friend called a ‘pseudo hippie’; I tried to dress the part, feeling edgy, yet glamorous, without doing all the drugs. To me, going bra-less, wearing my long hair in braids with a hairband encircling my forehead and accenting torn jeans with a tie-dyed t-shirt made me look absolutely fabulous, timeless, and impressive.

My mother had her opinion about my looks. She always had – but somehow, it was Erika’s pronouncements, and one in particular, that shifted my outlook about my appearance. I had been trying to set up interviews with graduate schools, something that was barely within my reach, and pictured the impression I’d make with the interviewers; a hip, ready to learn-future-leader-of-tomorrow-in-a laid-back-sort-of-way. Erika, ever astute, somehow intuited my plan. She took what I could only describe as a meaty fist and banged it on the table several times. She then hissed/yelled “Romney, if you don’t take those goddamn jeans off, put on a bra and a skirt and some nylons, you’ll never get anywhere.” She then proceeded to delineate what a hapless offering I really was.

Because she was Erika, and not my mother, and particularly because I knew Erika loved me in her way, I listened. If my mother had said the same thing, without the pounding on the table, I would have rejected the opinion, staying firm in my grandiose perception of my hip persona. But it was Erika. I listened. I, in a moment, grew up in one small quadrant. It was like I had been poised for graduation but hadn’t completed the last course because it was just a little too hard. Ultimately, we all have to finish that last course, and if we’re lucky, there’s an Erika to push us through.

I swallowed the picture of the hipster from California, retrieved some nylons from the back of my mother’s drawer, pulled my long hair back into a demure ponytail, and interviewed at three universities. The fact that I didn’t get into my top choice was due to my lackluster academic skills, not my visual presentation. Often, in the years following my adjustment in my appearance, when I would prepare for a job interview, I’d think about how Erika would advise me to dress. That framing device was always very effective, except for the time I put a Tampax in my front jacket pocket to transfer into my purse before leaving the house but forgot. The noticeable white cylinder sat upright and evident throughout the interview. I didn’t get that job, and I certainly never told Erika.

Next: Fran, Grownup Habits

New to the series?

Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”

Art by Lisa Jensen.

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