In the mid-1950s, Michele Rousseau was a beautiful, elegant girl working at Wally Findlay Galleries on East 57th Street. She was barely 20 when she was dragged out yet again one night to the Stork Club on East 53rd Street by her extroverted mother. There she met a handsome man in a uniform and her life would be changed forever as she would soon become wife no. 2.
I know more about Michele than any other wife for one simple reason. She was my Mom.
Like my Dad’s family, she was part of a family of immigrants. On both sides, my grandparents were foreign-born and had deep ties to the Old World. But on just about every other social, economic, or cultural basis, there the similarities ended. Whereas my Grandfather Mikas Arlauskas made the arduous sea voyage literally in steerage class in 1914 from Europe to New York, my Grandmother Marguerite Alain did the trip in first class in the other direction some ten years later to be married off to her fiancé Paul Rousseau in Paris.
All four grandparents are pictured above – Mr. and Mrs. Arlauskas in Queens, New York and Mr. and Mrs. Rousseau in Biarritz, France. From each pair, I knew the ones on the left: Michael and Marguerite.
My first contact with the Old World was not from my Grandfather Michael – I wrote about the letter I found in his room earlier – but with My Grandmother Marguerite, or Margo for short, although I never called her that. Walking into my Grand-mère’s apartment in Manhattan as a child was like stepping into the Old World – hers was the one I grew up with, the familiar Old World – so familiar that I just thought of it as “old,” as I had to backfill the part about “World” later. Mikas represented the mysterious, hidden Old World, the one where I had to dig and excavate to find the treasures.
That old world was very much in display when entering her apartment 2D at 60 Sutton Place South. There was no way to miss it. The door opened and you left the internationalist modern architecture of 1960s New York City behind. Inside, beckoning, was a scene from an episode of a TV show like Twilight Zone or Dark Shadows where the character stepped into a parallel universe. Opera music, faint at first, would suddenly tumble out of a hidden speaker during a crescendo. A panoply of little reflections sprayed the carpet underneath and the gilded walls around as generated by the Baccarat chandelier above. To the right was a French couch (a “divan” as she called it), in front of which was a low round marble table supported by three whimsical dauphins. To the left, a delicate empire style vitrine chock full of fine china cups and saucers in magnificent cobalt blue. After the divan, the pedestrian bedroom door frame had been ripped out and replaced by a fanciful molded plaster arch entrée detailed with scallops and leaves.
The only time I saw similar appointments and furnishings was whenever I visited her sisters in Quebec City. This must have run in the family.
On the contrary, Michael’s modest house in South Ozone Park revealed no outward clues of the forgotten and repressed Old World. It was not pridefully out for display there. The only remnant was hidden and I found it (the letter) in my very last visit to his house. In the second generation household of my Uncle and my Dad, Lithuania was “passé” and the link back to it tenuous. But once I asked or showed interest to my Grandfather Michael, I could see the rays of sunshine. He obviously wasn’t used to questions about his homeland or past.
But Margo paraded it front and center; the full dog and pony show. She was a hustle-and-bustle of energy, often found in front of her ancient black iron sewing machine, putting the finishing touches on her couture masterpieces. I followed her around the apartment constantly, never taking my eyes off of her. She always riveted my attention. It probably had to do with watching her cook a “coq au vin” one night on her ancient 1940s gas fired range (very different from the electric range my Mom had back in Orlando). Industriously, she chopped all the ingredients with a cigarette in her mouth, browned the fowl in her heavy iron casserole dish (imported from Paris), and then torched the sizzling concoction in a brandy-infused flambé. Flames two feet high in her kitchen and she flinched not an inch. She laughed and her 8 year old grandson whom she called “lover,” enchantedly giggled along with her. The show was always “on” with her.
So at a young age, I was introduced to the Old World – in this case France. My Grandmother with no prompting would regale me with early stories of her marriage to Paul Rousseau, how she married him in Paris, and then went off to a honeymoon in Biarritz. Early on in her sojourn in Paris, she had stepped out to buy some groceries. Eyeing a cheese with interest at the fromagerie, she sweetly asked for a “quarter-pound.” France was already metric in the 1920s and the merciless fromager busted on her relentlessly for asking for an obsolete unit of measure (“livres”) — in worse, a Quebecois accent! Horrors!! You could get your ass kicked for less of an affront in a rambunctious Parisian market. (Always order 100 grams!!!) I listened avidly to her stories and she was a great raconteuse. The family back in Quebec had been a large one – she had 5 older sisters and 1 older brother. Her sister Minou had even privately published a family history entitled “Un Siècle de Vie Famiale au Canada” which has served as an inspiration for this blog.
This book is full of stories about my Mom’s family, perhaps a bit too much through rose-colored lenses. Not like here, right?
So I was spoon-fed the family history on my mother’s side but I had to dig on my father’s. It should be readily apparent that this was due to the very different social and economic status between the two families. My mother’s family had had an excellent run from the fin de siècle onwards. Whereas the Olcott brothers couldn’t sell air conditioners in Texas, my Grand-mère’s Dad, P.A. Alain had made a very comfortable life for himself, his wife Ernestine Trudel, and his 9 children selling custom fur coats in his salon on the rue de l’eglise in downtown Quebec City. I am very sure there was a very good use for them in January.
It struck me that if my Mom’s family had had such rich stories and traditions, the same must be true for my father’s family, also from a far-away European country. By the time I reached out to Michael’s niece in Lithuania in 1983, I had been to the third world. I didn’t care if the toilet paper was rougher in such places — the rewards of traveling, seeing, feeling for myself more than compensated. And if I had kinsman there, so much the better. And so I went to Lithuania (and France and Quebec, too!). All three will be covered in future posts. And a shout-out to my readers in Vilnius, Quebec City and Paris! Thank you! Merci!! Ačiū!!!
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott