I think of her often, for thoughts are all I have—not a single memory. She died before I was the age of two.
From what little that I heard, there was little reason to view her in a good light, but now I can see something admirable about her. After all, this woman endured so much, and the odds seemed stacked against her. Incredibly, between the ages of eleven and sixteen—at least five times—this poor Lithuanian girl crossed the Atlantic in attempts to get into America. Twice, she was turned away. Some may not have had high regard for her, including her own son—my father—but I can see a heroic nature, a survivor, through and through. Just a toddler when she died, I missed out in knowing her. Throughout the years, I really had only gathered bits and pieces of information while trying to know better about her. It has been like constructing puzzle in which the pieces fit here and there, but the gaps are too big to cover.
This woman that I write about is my paternal grandmother. Out of all my grandparents, her story is the one that stands apart, an amazing, heart wrenching and most thought provoking portrait. Evoking emotions of anger, sadness and sympathy, I find it a rich tale of a poor woman.
This has been in the works for quite a while now—in my head, that is. I pictured what I wanted to say, the words playing out in my mind. What a story it is, too, a tremendous one of sorrow and struggle, of need for love and acceptance, of perseverance and strength of the human spirit. Yet things get complicated when they come from my mind to the page, as I try translating my vision down into words. Before long, like a snake, hesitation surely comes slithering through, as it quickly snuck its way within, fueling my fear, a fear of disapproval and rejection by two people who are now dead and have been for some time—my father and my grandmother.
And while writing, I imagine what my audience thinks—critics in my head abounding before I even finish. Well, I am the first to stand in line for that. It’s kind of scary relating such things. I am not sure I am doing the story any justice. I’m not sure I’ve captured the essence of it well.
And who would want to read this anyway? Is it too long and of no significance to anybody but myself? I have my doubts. Celebrities do this all the time, and people just eat that stuff up. I think we all just want to relate to what others have to say about themselves. But it does bare you—your thoughts, your secrets, your soul, —and it feels a bit unnerving, to say the least.
So, naturally, I still drag my feet. If she were here right in front of me right now, what would my grandmother think? Would she throw the papers in an old fashioned stove—in the fire—as she angrily did to my father’s flowers? I can only imagine my father as a child—in an impoverished scene that I only have sketchy knowledge of—with his young heart being crushed and shamed, his sign of affection and desire to please his mother, drastically rejected. In return for his small token of love, my father’s mother was furious that her boy spent a few coins on something perceived as useless, a waste of good money. Away like trash, they went. Like the flower story, would my father be ashamed and angry that I revealed some family history for others to read, stuff that he would rather have kept quiet?
This is why I am mentioning no names. Nothing is sugar coated—it is what it is—often not very pretty. Yet this is not intended as an exposé or a smudge on any family members. A slam on my father and grandmother is surely not my intent—far from it. Rather, it is my offering of affection. It is my little bouquet of flowers to a history that includes me as a part of it.
Like those flowers of long ago, I’ve so wanted to scrap this story in the garbage. Often seeming like a knotted mass of yarn, I have had to work and work to get a smooth flow. Like a sculptor, I wanted a fine piece of clay to emerge into form, but the chunks, lumps and bumps just frustrate me to no end.
It’s complicated to relate it all. It is revelation about my father’s origins which hold no real pride for him. There was much pain and shame associated with his mother’s mental illness, his distant father, his broken home and lack of a solid, safe family structure, his constant poverty and fight for survival—the list goes on and on As I unravel this tale, I continue to fight with the many tangles. As I try to find the face, I feel that my sculpted story is left wanting. So I continue to chip away.
Dishonoring? Embarrassing? I hope it this tale is not. I envision an admirable purpose instead of the pain and the shame, redeeming the pride that was lost. My father’s origins are mine, too, and they help me to know myself better, and my father—to build that better, more complete puzzle of my grandmother.
Much of what I heard was unflattering terms. From a young age, I knew she was mentally ill. But what did that mean anyway? Well, to my father she was crazy and nuts, not a good mother. No, she wasn’t mother of the year. Clearly, she had a temper and was known to instigate fights—with her husband, with one of her sisters. When my young father was physically disciplined it was by her, and it was probably quite harsh. If I didn’t like her, it was due to all that I heard. And when I had problems with my father, who had a bad temper, too, I probably felt that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree.
But in spite of all the remarks, I grew to have great sympathy for my grandmother. It makes me wonder how mistreated she was as a child. My father deemed her as neglectful, not in tune to her children’s needs. It is obvious to me that she was in lack, herself.
So what was she really like? I very much wanted to understand her, to be able to relate with her. I don’t know—perhaps, it is because I root for the underdog. Often, I felt like one, too. And Lithuania is the perfect underdog, under the thumb of Russian rule until much recently. Perhaps, it was because my dad’s dislike for where he came from made me all that more interested to discover what his roots were all about.
History often repeats itself—what has shaped my father had a strong influence on me. Like my father, I grew angry and bitter from the upbringing I had. Getting a similar brunt of problematic parenting made for a tough go of things. I could have easy said, “Who gives a ****?” I could have been thoroughly disgusted about my dad’s old baggage that I had to handle—all the wreckage of rage and shame that became dumped into the next generation. I evolved from a more sensitive, inquisitive child to one who battled between the feelings of hate and love, painfully clawing my way out of the emotional garbage and with the terrible stench of it.
Thankfully, the war is over. I am enjoying the peace.
With insight, I grew to understand my father, to accept what he was—capable of good and bad. I can relate quite well in that sense, for I made plenty of mistakes that I wish that I could do differently, ones that hurt others as well as me. I could not deny that, in my dad, there was a wounded man who could not really figure that out—not until he was much older. I saw a man who was remorseful, and humbled by his costly mistakes. I was able to heal from some of my wounds with that forgiving perspective, though it was not easy and did not come overnight.
Unlike my dad, I’m surely a talker and I ask questions, perhaps my father’s worst nightmare in that sense——he had to have at least one child who always wanted to know things about him and who he came from. That means both sides of my family. Perhaps, I was born that way, with a tremendous sense of wonder. Curiosity always got me, and I am much too hungry to remain clueless about my more secretive father.
Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. It involves risk which can lead to a boatload of hurt. Where do we come from? What were your parents like? What were your grandparents like? When where they born? When did they die? Do you have any pictures? Can you go any further than them? Sometimes, the answers aren’t what you want to hear.
It’s nice to belong to something, to somebody. It isn’t always possible or realistic to relate to one’s family, I wanted to belong. Not just to my mom’s side did I want to identify—I wanted to fully belong—to both sides.
My mom and dad both had common backgrounds, both coming from poverty and chaos. The fallout from my mother’s unstable father created a similar unease within her childhood home. Yet her family actually seemed like it existed. I knew all of my mother’s seven younger sisters and five younger brothers, as well as all nineteen cousins. We used to visit mom’s parents in Detroit fairly often. My best knowledge of life in this unfamiliar, yet close by, city—my native city—arose through this connection. I heard stories of grandmother’s German immigrant parents and learned of my grandfather’s Polish and Prussian roots, part of his family’s rise from poverty to wealth—to poverty once more.
Born in the latter part of the nineteenth century, my father’s parents were much older than my mom’s. Impoverished Lithuanian immigrants, my dad’s parents surely wanted to be Americans. My grandmother really had to fight to even be on American soil, and my grandfather sought out citizenship and became naturalized. I have likely seen them both, but had no relationship at all. I heard that my dad’s mom came over our house for Thanksgiving dinner—a rare visit—and she died not long after.
My grandfather died the following year, when I was closer to three. Possibly having a primitive, early memory of this man, I am told my dad had him over the house once. I have a vague recollection of sneaking into the living room, when I was supposed to be in bed, and got a smack on my behind from my dad, crying in protest as I walked past an older man starring at me. But I’ll never know for sure if that is even a real memory.
Since my grandfather was a supporter of the Communist party—a big taboo in those days with the McCarthy era and the Cold War—my dad was mortified and afraid to mention it. I doubt I’ll ever know much about this grandfather. My father found only one photo of him in his wallet while trying to claim belongings from his flat after the man died. My father eventually gave it to me, and I was shocked by one of the most bizarre photos I ever had seen. In it, my dad’s father was photographed with a woman that my father cannot identify, but the likeness between her and me is so uncanny. I look more like this woman than I do my own mother, but I cannot say if she is even related. My dad knew almost nothing about his father’s family except that he came from a big one back in Lithuania.
Family must have been like foreign word to my father. I can see why. Since boyhood, my dad lived apart from his dad, and they became more strangers than father and son. My dad even admitted that he hardly understood his own father because of his thick, Lithuanian accent. My dad’s background still remains more like shadows in the dim light. I don’t clearly remember my father’s older brother— out of the two that he had—because I only saw him three or four times. Since my father cut ties with his younger brother, I hadn’t laid eyes on him. Not even a picture was available. When my estranged uncle called on the phone to try to talk to my dad, I would speak to him, instead. One to be sympathetic, I never got why my dad wouldn’t bother with his brother, though the call usually involved asking for money. I was pretty much told that he was a no-good ***, plenty to keep me fairly leery of him. His first wife kicked my uncle out. Most of his six sons—just as unknown as their father was to me—wanted nothing to do with him. No doubt, the guy was an odd and deeply tormented man, yet we both wanted to meet one day. If I remember one thing he said, that was it, and I agreed. This did seem unlikely, for I didn’t want to stir up the hornet’s nest, not creating more friction than there was.
Years later, that wish came true. One day my dad did get a picture of his brother from the older brother. Much later on—several months after my dad died—I was able to meet this troubled man when he was dying in the hospital and had tubes down his throat. unable to speak to me any more.
My mom was my source in finding out about my grandmother, but she knew little. She admits she didn’t know what to say to her mother-in-law, being young and not very savvy when it came to making conversation. What she remembered about my grandmother was that she was very quiet and often stared out from the position of an obscure woman in a room full of people. My mom thought her “spooky”. My mom recalls that my dad said that she smoked down her cigarettes the nub, burning and blackening the tips of her fingers. She even might have started a small fire in her sister’s waste basket with a burning cigarette.
There is one thing that sticks out that my mother recalls that is sweet. What my grandmother asked my mother shows her humanity: “Do you love my son? “ It shows a woman who has genuine feelings, has desires, and caring. I could see the love that she had for my father when I heard that she brought his boots to school in bad weather, and he was embarrassed by the look of her—rolled down socks and an old fur coat. I doubt, though, he ever heard the words of “I love you”, as my father did not say these things to his children.
Near the end of his life, when my father was getting dementia, I knew the time was short for us to talk and now was the moment to ask questions. “I know so little about your childhood”, I told him. He said there was nothing worth mentioning, and when I probed him a bit, he told me, “We were the lowest of the low”. It saddens me that the pain was still very much there.
What my parents couldn’t or didn’t tell me, I learned from a few other relatives. I called up my dad’s cousin—who lives in Las Vegas—with plenty of apprehension, never having met her, and not knowing if she’d want to talk with me. Slowly, I sensed her grow from suspicious of my intent to warming up to me a bit. She said she liked my father, but “he could have been nicer to his mother”. This cousin told me that he avoided her a lot, and she felt my grandmother was aware. My dad’s younger brother did, too, I am told. My mom related to me that once when my grandmother would knock on their door back in their flat in Detroit, in their early years of marriage, my dad told her not answer the door to prevent her visit.
If it wasn’t for this cousin’s mother, my grandmother’s sister, as well as two of her daughters, the poor woman would have been quite lonely—though I’m sure loneliness defined her. I am glad they took an extra interest in my grandmother. They would take her out for coffee or have her over. This sister “felt sorry for her”, the Las Vegas cousin told me. I’m glad, but she “felt sorry for her? I hope it was more than that.
Considering all what she went through, I am wondering what went through my grandmother’s head. Did this woman ever feel loved? If she did, it must have been like a glass of water in a desert.
Another of my dad’s cousins, from another sister of my grandmother’s, helped me out. Her family stories filled in some gaps, but what she couldn’t tell me records did. The records seemed to prove the stories correct, as some family stories can be more fiction than fact.
I did my own research, as well as get records from others, and finally hired a genealogist. I verified that my grandmother was born in 1892 in a village in Lithuania, not ever knowing the exact date. Loss began early in her life, as her father died of small pox when she was four months old. He was twenty six, and he wasn’t even married a year. Records show this bit of oral history to be almost spot-on. My parents made a single visit to my grandmother’s youngest sister, and this great aunt told me that my grandmother lost her father at six months old. My dad never knew his real grandfather died, thinking his youngest aunt had a different father. He was surprised to find out that his mother was the one set apart from the others.
So my great grandmother was left a widow with a baby to care for all on her own. This would have been bad for both, so this gr
Grandmother, may you feel the warmth of God's embrace now, and hope you can know that I care and you DO matter.