For my entertainment, Michael would utter a few worlds of both Lithuanian and Russian. I would repeat and try to commit them to memory to dazzle my pals back in Florida whom, I was sure, had never heard any words of either. But it was impossible to remember. The only word I could grasp was the Russian word for pussycat — “koshechka.” He grinned widely at me when he said it.
After dinner and just before dessert, Michael would produce a fresh five dollar bill and present it to me, just as the Lord must have presented the tablets to Moses. And like Moses, I was transfixed by the vision of the prideful face looking down at me from the other side of the dining table. No one had ever glowed at me like that. All of a sudden, Dad would nudge me and ask, “what do you say?” He was a little annoyed as if I had no manners (or had forgotten them). Immediately, I would snap out of my reverie and say “thank you Grandfather.”
From there, I would watch some TV in the front room while the adults carried on. The TV in New York City was certainly better than in Orlando — seven channels versus only three! Unfortunately, the evening would sadly (and usually) devolve into a shouting match between my Dad and my Grandfather. All of a sudden, Dad would announce, “James, it’s time to go!” At least he didn’t call me Jimooks! Although not directed at me, it was nevertheless a bum’s rush out the door as Michael would pursue Dad out the front room, shouting at the top of his lungs. Dad, at the bottom of the stoop, would turn and shout back, arms raised.
Driving back in silence, it would take a while for me to ask him what happened. He never wanted to talk about it. Like anything else having to do with human beings on this planet, it was indignation at inbound insults, either real or imaginary.
My last visit with my Grandfather was a sleepover in 1972. Dad forewarned me that he was ailing from lung cancer (and had been a heavy smoker of unfiltered Pall Malls). The year before, I had sent him a kitschy “World’s Best Grandfather” statue that I found in an Orlando mall. I was delighted to find it displayed prominently on a shelf in the front room when I arrived. The next day was a Saturday and we watched Chiller Theater together on TV. It was an especially cheesy Godzilla movie and the guy in the rubber suit was wreaking havoc on the knee-high replica of Tokyo. I was laughing my ass off and Michael looked at me puzzled. “If I were a little boy and watching this,” he said in his curious Eastern European accent (which I heard no place else), “I would be scared.” I had to assure him that there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of, especially if Godzilla was at risk for tripping over his own webbed flipper-feet. And I have been able to do an excellent Eastern European accent ever since!
Michael passed away on August 30, 1972. My Dad told me while we were on our way to the beach in Southampton, Long Island (where he kept his sailboat). Left alone for a while, I went down on the sand by myself on that overcast day and quietly built a large sandcastle in his honor. The tides truly abided no permanence, then and now.
But I was still curious about family origins and I was having difficulty remembering the family name. Dad was useless in this regard. As the second generation from an immigrant family, and the first born here in the States, he had no interest in his immigrant origins. It was and still is a well-known phenomenon that children of such diaspora sought to assimilate themselves and lose the strange awkward ways of their parents. As for myself, I was seeking to de-assimilate myself from my sterile Conway Gardens motel-stye apartments in Orlando. So when Dad invited me to come along with him to Michael’s house in South Ozone Park to take whatever I wanted, I knew exactly what I was looking for – a key of some kind to the old world.
We arrived at his empty house in the late afternoon the next day. Like Indiana Jones looking for treasures, I went straight to Michael’s bedroom, a room darkened in afternoon shadows. I had never had any business entering this room before. It was simply furnished with a bed, a dresser, and maybe a chair or a floor lamp. The dresser was on my left and I noticed a large ornamental box resting on a doily. The box beckoned me right away.
I walked over and slowly lifted the lid. It was mostly empty except for a brightly colored paper in a rectangular shape. I reached inside to carefully retrieve it. It was an old letter postmarked from 1957 and I knew right away that this was the link I was looking for. A letter from Lithuania with a return address in the Varena region, south of the capital Vilnius! The family in the Old World! I secured my prize in a pocket and secreted it out with me, keeping it hidden from my Dad.
Years later, my roommate Peter at Tufts just so happened to be an American-born Lithuanian who could speak and write the language. With his help, the letter’s contents were revealed, the door was opened, and I stepped through.
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott