Photo courtesy of Victoria Olcott.
By the age of 19, my sister Victoria had seen the world with her mother Graciela Levi Castillo. She was particularly fond of Italy, and early in the summer of 1982, she debuted at the Ball des Rosenkavaliers in Vienna. Her mother was a world-class journalist and knew most if not all of Ecuador’s foreign legations from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro. Travel was not simply in her blood but in her work as well. In Victoria’s case, the fruit did not fall from the tree.
There was however, just one small complication in all that itinerary planning. Because of her mother’s antagonistic divorce from a certain New Yorker, Bernard Olcott, Graciela (not Victoria) was forbidden from landing at any US airport. Victoria herself was born in New York from an American father. However, she was spirited away to Guayaquil at the age of 14 months, and had never been back. When traveling with her Mom, they were obliged to hop over the US and avoid travel hubs like JFK, Miami, or LA.
Even though technically a gringo, she grew up as a local in her native South America. It must have been strange to have been an American – with a US passport – yet, due to no fault of her own, could not stop off in the land of her birth. She claims it wasn’t so – to her it was fun!!! Victoria is lots of kicks!
As related in last week’s post 19 YEARS, I was elated that I had played a key role in bringing our family, such as it was, together. However, I recognized that phone calls were the easy part. An actual reunion had to be a matter of some delicacy.
In their first conversation, Dad invited her to come visit him at his house in Weehawken, New Jersey. Instead of avoiding the United States as usual, she was now to fly right into the belly of the beast, landing at JFK. That was a violation of the rule to jump over America. What was “out” before was now “in.” Furthermore, there were sure to be some cultural differences. Family in South America is a hallowed matter of tradition and protocol. Dad had little use for either. He was not just a loose cannon but a veritable whirling dervish; he liked to reshuffle his deck of life priorities with little regard for customs. It could be more than confounding at times. Anyway, family just wasn’t his strong suit – the man was divorced 4 times already at this point!
As for me, I relished being connected with Victoria – we weren’t really “reconnected” because she was only an infant the last time I had seen her 19 years ago. Soon this far away voice was to be transformed into a real live person in front of me, my sister. I owed it to her, Dad, and myself to do whatever I could to smooth things over. I knew I had hard work cut out for me.
That fall, the plan for her trip to come north to meet her American family firmed up; she was to fly to Miami, switch planes, and fly to New York in February 1983. I thought it might be beneficial to meet her beforehand and do what I could to prepare her for Dad. Like downplay her expectations. On our next call I proposed that we meet up in Florida. My Mom was living in West Palm Beach at the time – would she care to fly up a few days earlier and meet me there? She jumped at the idea, and thus our secret plot to meet in the Sunshine State was born.
Without telling Dad, I flew down to West Palm Beach on People Express Airlines on Thursday of that weekend. Victoria flew to Miami and connected to a bus heading north. And we were reunited there at the Greyhound Bus Station at 205 South Tamarind Avenue; her exile had ended in my former one. She got off, glowing furiously, and jumped into my arms. It was perhaps the longest hug in my life.
I brought her back to my Mom’s apartment. We were both giddy to be together. The laughter and good vibes were palpable and I felt that the perfect moment had come to get on the phone and share the good news with Dad. First contact – all good.
Now I have written that Dad was somewhat unpredictable. Was he delighted when I called him with the good news? Exactly the opposite! “What the hell is everyone doing in Florida?” he bellowed. I imagine he was feeling left out and wasn’t in the mood to share our happiness. He rapidly became apoplectic and I simply wasn’t in the mood to be standing in the line of fire. I said to my Mom, “here, you married this guy once, can you deal with this?” and I handed her the phone.
I watched my Mom on the receiving end of his tirade, every now and then issuing a soothing, “now, Bern.” After 2 or 3 minutes, she put the phone down gently. He had hung up. “He was mad,” she said, eyebrow raised for emphasis.
Dad could really be a bonehead sometimes. This was exactly what I did NOT want to happen. Victoria was in tears. “Welcome to the Olcott family!” I announced to Victoria, looking for some levity. There wasn’t much, unfortunately.
Dad was so angry that he immediately called his ex-wife in Ecuador. It was the first time they had spoken in 19 years. Victoria tells me that Graciela was able to calm him down with the idea that Victoria had always wanted to go to Disney World. This is why she had stopped off early in Florida. She explained that all her friends had gone with their fathers to Orlando to meet Mickey Mouse. “Please Bern,” she said using her sweetest voice ever, the kind used to lullaby ferocious bears, “please, it would help fulfill a lifetime dream. You should fly down and take the three of them.” She had subtlety played the guilt card. Perfect. Dad protested that he was busy. But Graciela had subtly planted the solution in his head without him knowing it. Dad excused himself from the call by saying that he had an idea.
Never let it be said that Graciela was without charm and guile, because soon afterwards the phone rang again at my Mom’s. It was Dad! He had reshuffled his deck and now, good cards were on offer. He explained to me that all Victoria’s life, she had wanted to go to Disney and meet Mickey Mouse. Would I take her there? “Of course, I will,” I said on receipt of my assignment, glad that the hurricane had blown over. What’s more, he gave me his credit card for the expense!
And so above, you see Victoria and me as in delicto pirates taken at the photo booth next to the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World. We had a lot of lost time to make up, all the while riding attractions like the eponymous Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!
It was not all fun and games of course. Victoria had many questions about Dad’s disappearance from her life. In their telephone chats, he wasn’t able to give a satisfactory answer. Clearly it was his least favorite topic of conversation. I answered as best as I could. I had the feeling that my responses were never entirely sufficient either. On the other hand, Victoria revered her Mom who was sweet, inteligent and strong; “enough to be a complete lady,” as she put it to me today (as I wrote this).
As we flew up north at the end of the weekend, I held Victoria’s hand. We were mostly silent, in reverence for the solemn moment ahead. As we walked down the jetway at JFK Airport, Victoria turned to me and asked me to wait, would I let her walk ahead to Dad? I nodded my assent and watched her ahead of me find Dad in the crowd. She walked up to him, dropped her bag, and greeted her Father with a huge embrace. Dad looked at her and said “You look like a Lithuanian! You are prettier than in the pictures.” After giving them their time together, it was a tear-filled three way hug.
Olcott family reunited in 1983.