Spend early childhood in Latvia
Lilita Abrenietis, 70, spent her career helping and caring for patients at the Veteran's Hospital in Portland, because it was what she loved to do.
She has enjoyed helping paraplegic patients, and even patients who were unable to communicate, because she said, "If I could help them to be more comfortable, you could see in their eyes how grateful they were."
Lilita was born July 30, 1934, in Riga, Latvia, to parents Jana and Voldemars Abrenietis. Her father was a forester and her mother was a bookkeeper with artistic talents in acting, singing and playing the violin.
"I remember my mother singing all the time. Dad had a very nice voice, too, and I loved it when they sang together at home," Lilita said.
Her dad got a small house in the country as part of his job, and they had a few apple trees, some sheep, two pigs, a horse and a cow. As an only child, Lilita said she was very quiet and mostly played by herself, except for two boy cousins who adopted her as their "sister."
She first got the idea to be a nurse when she was only four. Her mother had two relatives who were doctors, and when they visited, the conversation always turned to health.
"I wanted to help people, and then I overheard their conversation and that's how I got the idea," she said, adding, "I had a big white teddy bear and when I played it was always the doctor, I was the nurse and my two dolls were the patients. I played for hours at that."
Another time, when she was 6, she remembers trying to heal a baby chick with a deformed leg by massaging its leg, and noted, "I think it improved."
When she was school age, Lilita's parents would take her the 2 1/2 miles to school by horse and buggy, or in the winter time by sleigh. She also walked a lot of the time in good weather.
She attended for three years, then during World War II their lives got turned upside down as German and Russian forces vied for control of Latvia.
In 1944, when she was 10, her family fled Latvia, along with 300,000 other refugees to escape an invading army of Russian Communists.
She remembers they were visiting her aunt in the capital city of Riga, Latvia, when German police came and told them they had to leave the country.
"It was 2 a.m., and we had to pack whatever we could carry and had to be on a ship by 6 a.m.," she recalled. "German soldiers were grabbing people off the streets and picked up my dad and wouldn't let him go back to his family until he told them he was a forester. Foresters are very respected over there, like a doctor, and they let him go," Lilita said.
The Abrenietis family all ended up on the same ship, but when they arrived in Germany, they were left to fend for themselves. Luckily, both her parents spoke some German and could ask for help.
"The German people were so kind to us, they let us stay in their barns on fresh clean straw and gave us something to eat. But we had to move night after night," she said.
For a while, they stayed in a barracks-style place with Lithuanians and Estonian refugees, then her dad was offered a job as a forester and they were able to get a small apartment in the city of Tribs.
They had a roof over their heads, but food was still scarce, even for the Germans. "We were nearly starving. Mom would go out in the fields and pick greens and boil them and that was our meal. I had a bloated tummy from being undernourished and my dad got yellow jaundice," Lilita said.
While he recovered, she said her mother filled in at his job in the woods, by directing big lumber trucks as they backed up to be loaded.
"Come Christmas, dad's boss brought a big sack of potatoes, which was a wonderful thing. I remember picking up a potato and eating it raw," she said.
When the war ended, they were sent to the UNRA Displaced Persons Camp, and lived in the American Zone. The camp was in Wurzburg, Germany, and they lived there for five years.
"People in the U.S. would send turkey and things to us for the holidays, but we didn't see a feather. The black market got it. We kids had to eat oatmeal three times a day and for many years I couldn't stand oatmeal. Later on we got soup," she said.
At first they had to share a room with four other people, but then they got a tiny little room of their own. Lilita continued her school studies and her mother was able to enroll in the Music Conservatory in Wurzburg, where she studied voice and the violin for four years.
In 1950, the refugees were given the choice of emigrating to the U.S., Australia, Canada, Sweden, Britain or other countries, and her father chose America. They had to have a sponsor, and through the Lutheran Church a couple in Hood River agreed to sponsor them.
For six months her father worked in the orchards, while her mother cleaned and cooked for the couple. Then the Abrenietis family moved to a small apartment in Portland. Her dad worked in mint fields in the Hubbard area and finally got a steady job as a janitor.
Now age 16, Lilita started learning English and attending the old Lincoln High School. An American-born girl who spoke German acted as her interpreter and explained the assignments. Her parents learned the new language along with her, and they all became American citizens together.
"I had my heart set on becoming a registered nurse, but the circumstances were to be otherwise," she said, noting she had to quit high school after a year to help pay their rent, and began packing cookies at the National Biscuit Company in 1952.
In Portland, there were several other Latvian families and they held youth gatherings and established a choir in which Lilita and her mother performed. Dressed in traditional costumes, the choir traveled to songfests in Seattle, Los Angeles and Ohio.
Her father was afraid he'd never find work again in his profession, but through a former employer, he landed a forestry job in 1956 with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Warm Springs. Her parents moved to the reservation and Lilita stayed in Portland.
While still working full-time, Lilita started attending night school and eventually earned a diploma from Washington High School in 1958, at age 24.
Determined to be a nurse, she started taking algebra classes, but struggled at first.
"My friend from Estonia was going to college and was very sharp in math, so I told her I'd type her term papers if she would help me with algebra," Lilita said, noting she passed the class.
She also took courses at Portland State University in English composition, psychology and philosophy, then began the licensed practical nurse (LPN) course at Portland Community College. For hands-on experience, she started working as a nurse's aide at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, and enjoyed taking care of the patients.
"I was a happy camper then, and thought 'This is my right call,'" she said.
When she earned her LPN certification, she applied at the Veteran's Hospital, because her father had encouraged her to work for the government, for stability.
Finally, on Jan. 25, 1965, her childhood dream was realized when she began a 30-year career of working as a nurse at the Veteran's Hospital.
She retired in 1994 and moved to Madras to help take care of her retired parents. Here, she became an active member of the Mountain View Hospital Auxiliary, and as the "juice lady" made weekly visits to visit with residents of Mountain View Living Center.
Now she helps with blood pressure clinics at the Jefferson County Senior Center, plans to volunteer at Art Adventure Gallery soon, enjoys reading biographies and James Herriot animal stories, listening to classical music, working in her yard, and the company of her dog "Fifi."
Her parents have passed away, but Lilita has made many friends and feels at home in Madras, especially at the senior center.
"I enjoy going there. The meals are wonderful and the people are kind. It's like a family," she said.