Before I cover the apparently sudden demise of my father’s mother Patricia in Queens, NY, on August 22, 1943, let me backtrack a bit and take a look at her origins. At least the little that is known. So I go in search of… my paternal grandparents!
For that, my story today starts off on one beautiful bright Saturday morning in May 1985. I was in a rental car rolling through verdant countryside. The birds were chirping, the sun was streaming, and my Al Green cassette tape was cranking through the sound system; Al crooning “Love and Happiness.” It was a happenin’ morning!
Yet this was not your normal stretch of New Jersey Turnpike, say between Elizabeth and Rahway. Nor was I in a 1984 Buick LeSabre. This road trip was distinctive for many reasons!
Well for one thing, the player’s fast forward was broken so when I got to the end of the last song on side 1, I had to eject the tape, stick my finger into one sprocket, and twirl the tape around my finger until I got to the end of side 1 (which was the beginning of side 2).
But that was just a nit. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was rockin’ a recent vintage Volga sedan like the one pictured below.
Switch out I-95, and sub-in the fact that I was rolling southbound on the A4, a rural two lane highway in Soviet occupied Lithuania.
I was on the hunt for my family in a backwater of Europe, the Baltics!
And I wasn’t exactly in an Avis rental car. You see, when you rented cars in the USSR, it came complete with a driver and a spy, er, I mean “guide.”
And for another, you didn’t just fly into Vilnius airport on Spirit Airlines and mosey on over to the Avis car rental desk before heading to the beach. (Although Lithuania has great beaches!)
No Sir, you jumped through a number of hoops to sit in the back seat of that Volga sedan. First off, you had to apply for a visa to enter (and then exit) the USSR. Oh yes, they did collect a bit of information about you – every country you have been to in the last 10 years. And, did you have relatives in the USSR? Their addresses please. It made me feel a little creepy. The USSR was not to be trifled with. Yet, my relatives in Lithuania were more than pleased to vouch for me, their long lost American cousin.
The flight required a transfer through Moscow. Saw the sites. Visited Tolstoy’s house. Experienced the deep suffering of the Russian soul.
And then flew on to Vilnius. Sitting while facing the rear in a Tupolev jet, like I was on a train.
I did have some extra juice to apply to this venture. It just so happened that in my capacity as Vice President of Olcott International at the time, I happened to have had a business relationship with the USSR Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It wasn’t particularly deep – we simply had a few clients, large industrial enterprises that went through the bother of registering patents in the USSR. The Chamber was simply the “official” government organ dedicated to corresponding with patent agents and annuity payers, like Olcott International.
A Soviet era patent certificate.
So I got a business visa to Moscow for five days and then made advance arrangements to join an Intourist group for 11 following days to include the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia, and then finish off with 3 days in Leningrad. I was going to meet long lost family in a faraway land. As an invited guest, no less!
For my Saturday in Vilnius, I was asked to attend a luncheon at Eugenija’s house in Varena so I inquired with my travel agency about how to get there. The solution was simple – just rent a car, and it comes with a driver and guide! What could be easier?
So that morning as planned, “Olga” the guide and “Boris” the driver met me in the lobby of the Lietuva Hotel and after a brief round of pleasantries, we jumped into a recent model Volga sedan and off we were into the countryside! It was kind of like a premium version of Enterprise Rent-A-Car!
Varena is about 75 minutes away southwest from the capital. Located in the Dzūkija region of Lithuania, this is the ancestral home of my father’s family. It’s known for being a poor region in a country of very modest wealth. The soil there is light and sandy, severely limiting agricultural potential. Unlike other parts of Lithuania with rich meadows and cow pastures that resemble France, the land is heavy with dense pine forests. In the clearings here and there, small villages and towns can be found. At least the forest yields up all kinds of wild mushrooms which have been picked by Lithuanian women for centuries to supplement whatever crops they can eke out of the ground.
In my conversations with Eugenija later that day and during my entire stay, I learned that my father’s father was one of 5 children born to Tomas Arlauskas.
On the other hand, I knew nothing about my father’s mother, other than her name was Patricia. Years later, when I received Edward’s personnel file from the US Naval Academy and from the US Navy, the only reference to her maiden name was the suspiciously clipped “Regas.”
For decades, I had no further information about her. Without a real last name for her, no clues could be found about her or her origins while back in the old country.
I stared out the window into the green countryside, pondering the landscape of my forbearers. Boris was driving with a lead foot. I smirked to myself, dudes drive the same the world over. Maybe he really dug my Al Green tape.
A wailing noise could be heard in the distance, slowly getting louder. Funny, I thought to myself, that sure sounds like a siren behind me. I turned around and sure enough, I saw a cop car behind us, popcorn popper in full delicto. Boris must have been doing at least 120 km/hour on a highway where the speed limit was set to 90. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse. Especially in the USSR. This was going to be interesting, I thought to myself.
Next week: The traffic stop and more from Lithuania!
My picture of a side street in the Old Town, Vilnius.