A daughter recalls her alcoholic father’s ragged oaths, then the gentle, intelligent voice of letters he penned from the other side of the world.
My father told me once, out of the blue, that he had been a cook for the Germans during the occupation. Because he’d left it at that, for years I thought he had willfully joined the Nazis. The fact that his first name was Adolfas—the Lithuanian version of Adolph—added to the evidence compiling in my head. I lived ashamed of his secret past, fearful of the day when proof of his atrocities would come to light, his photograph plastered across the front page of The Chicago Tribune. I didn’t realize that my father hated his name, would correct his American employers when they called him Adolph: “It’s Aaah-dolfas,” he’d drawl.
Years later I learned about forced labor, from my mother, of course, and realized what had happened to my father.
“They made you cook, didn’t they?” I asked.
Although my father had cooked for the Nazis, at home he couldn’t scramble an egg. He asked where we kept the spoons. He would summon my mother to get the horseradish when he was sitting next to the refrigerator. He claimed not to know how to use an iron. One of my first childhood tasks was to iron his handkerchiefs, dozens of them. They had to be starched and perfectly pressed and folded carefully into neat little squares. A singed corner or poorly creased edge provoked a string of Lithuanian obscenities.
My father cursed missing tie-clips and plastic bags that wouldn’t open and cheaply manufactured staplers. Sudo vaikas, he’d call the tie-clip or the plastic bag or the stapler. Child of shit. Occasionally he ventured into English language profanities; son mubba bitch was his favorite. The tenant late with the rent was a son mubba bitch, as was the editor who’d omitted my father’s name from the Encyclopedia of Lithuanian Writers in Exile. And my sister, when she used up all the film in his camera, was definitely a son mubba bitch.
My mother, except for the occasional JezuzMaria strung together to express disgust, rarely swore. She talked a lot, however. I know that in Regensburg she’d had a premonition of when the bombs would fall; she stayed inside that day. On the journey to the United States she’d boasted to the U.S. navy men about her glamorous destination: “I’m going to Brooklyn!” she exclaimed, throwing back her hair. I know that she had wanted to be an architect, that she resented her mother’s meddling in her private life.
The only time my father talked about his family was in relation to his father’s drinking. His father would beat him with a thick black belt, making him kiss the leather strap before each whack.
“This was the way things were done in Dusetos,” my father would say, without rancor.
My father never hit me with a thick black belt; he rarely touched me. My sister more often bore the brunt of my father’s temper. Whereas I was quiet, internalizing everything around me, Rita was quick to anger, impulsive, temperamental. By the time she was fifteen years old she was two inches taller than my fifty-five year old father and almost as heavy. An unflushed toilet, an overdue library book would send my father into a rage. Sudo vaikas, my father would yell. Fuck you, my sister would answer. Fuck you. Like two springs suddenly uncoiled, they would flail about for a minute, hands in the air, then, almost as if by accident, converge upon each other, pushing and yelling.
She moved out of the house at eighteen, an unheard of age in our Lithuanian community. She married at nineteen.
I once told a Lithuanian friend from the neighborhood about my father’s temper, his behavior towards my sister. She shrugged: “They were all like that.”
My father took pride in my accomplishments—my good grades, the leads in high school plays, my perfect Lithuanian enunciation—a pride coupled with almost complete ignorance of who I was as a person. He didn’t know I loved Bob Dylan and J.R.R.Tolkien. He didn’t know I thought my feet were too big and that I was scared of heights and that I desperately wanted a boyfriend.
There were times we connected, briefly, tenuously. He took ballroom dancing classes with my mother, who was a good dancer, who loved to dance. I was his partner once or twice when my mother couldn’t make it. He struggled with simple waltzes, shifting his weight from one foot to another, hopping back and forth like Yul Brynner in the “Shall We Dance?” sequence from the King and I. In me he had a partner of almost equal gracelessness. I couldn’t follow my father’s lead, afraid I’d step on his toes. He was reluctant to take charge. The only dance we could manage was the polka.
When I was failing Driver’s Ed in high school, my father would take me driving on Sunday mornings, early Sunday mornings, 6 o’clock Sunday mornings. He said this was the best time. “No cars on road,” he’d explain. We took Cermak Road down to the Oak Brook shopping center, where we drove around and around the empty parking lot. Then we drove home. After a few Sundays I grew tired of this. I was seventeen and all of my boyfriends had cars. I did not want to get up at 5 a.m. to go driving with my father. More than that, though, I was afraid that he would start yelling at me, would criticize my attempts at parallel parking, would call me sudo vaikas.
Then there was the time I was twenty and reciting poetry at one of the Friday literature evenings in the basement café of the Lithuanian Center. I loved one poem above the others, written by Justinas Marcinkevicius in the secret language of poets living under the occupation. During the refrain—you wood of cradle, wood of coffin —the words stuck in my throat. I had to stop. I looked out at the audience and saw that my father, too, was crying. My mother came up to me after the reading. She picked a hair off of my black woolen dress. She told me that the Mackus was read just a little too quickly. Everything else was fine. My anger at her—for whom did I do these readings if not for her—was leavened by the tenderness I felt at that moment for my father.
When I was eight years old my father stopped drinking. The incident that had propelled this life-changing event was a car accident. We were coming home from a Lithuanian event in Marquette Park (Chicago) when ice on the Cicero Avenue overpass caused the wheels of my father’s light blue Falcon to lock and skid. The car swerved into and over a concrete railing. We hung suspended between life and death, my mother yelling, my sister wailing, me reciting a perfect Act of Contrition as the nuns had instructed us to do in cases like this, my father slumped over the steering wheel, drunk and stunned and scared and remorseful.
Along with my father’s newfound sobriety came a long-repressed burst of creativity. Perhaps the stories he told at A.A. meetings inspired him to begin to write again. Several evenings a week and on Saturday mornings he’d sit in front of an old silvery Smith-Corona, getting words down on paper, a phrase, a sentence at a time, until a page would fill up and then another page. After a few days, or a week, or a month, a story would emerge, about a fish he caught in Lake Zarasai or a prank he played on his best friend in the Displaced Persons camp in Salzburg.
A small Lithuanian press in Chicago published his collection, titled The Unfinished Symphony. A leading critic for Draugas headlined his review: “A Dozen Good Stories.”
A reporter from the The Cicero Life came to interview us. “One family’s story: immigrants caught between two cultures,” the headline read.
“I am famous because I have a famous family,” my mother is quoted in the story.
In the accompanying photograph my mother’s head is bowed. She seems to have gotten smaller. My father is turned away from the camera. I am also in profile, sullen and dramatic. The only one smiling is my sister, as if there is something very amusing about this whole business, the family so unnaturally posed around a piece of pagan sculpture—a tall wooden folk madonna I had received for a sixteenth birthday present. The photographer had wanted us grouped around the family piano, sheet music in hand, ready for a sing-along. “We never gather around the piano,” my sister informed him curtly. “We never sing together.”
When I was in graduate school my father wanted me to translate a story from The Unfinished Symphony. He wanted to send it to the New Yorker. I had been writing for a few years, getting used to rejection, letters from the editors of literary magazines that said the same thing over and over again on crudely xeroxed slips of paper. A few were hand-written, offering suggestions or encouragement. I saved these like pretty colored stones found on the beach among big ugly brown ones, placing them in a little metal box. One was from the New Yorker.
I told my father I couldn’t translate his story. There were problems of translation I was unequipped to handle: metaphors, prepositional phrases, the adverbial frequentative past.
When I was in my late 20’s and working overseas in Saudi Arabia, living with my then husband, a Lithuanian-Canadian by way of England, my father began to write me long and frequent letters, perfectly typed—so different from my mother’s almost unreadable scrawl—composed in flawless, literary Lithuanian.
Today, Memorial Day, the rain is coming down and the radiators are heating up and I am writing you this letter, well, not knowing what to write. We miss you very much, Daivute…. Maybe Memorial Day isn’t the very best time to talk about the living, but we always think of you, in hours of both joy and sorrow. Of course, we don’t have very many really sorrowful hours, unless your mother and I have a fight, although at our age sadness seems to come unexpectedly, like a wind from who knows what direction. There are daily joys, though. Not having to work any longer, for one. It seems one can live quite happily without work.
Reading these letters, I was taken aback by their personal nature, by my father’s sense of intimacy. He never spoke this way in real life: “We miss you very much.” He never used the diminutive of my name, “Daivute,” in everyday conversation.
I’ve taken a break here and, after four days, am trying to write again. As you know, it’s not always easy to express one’s thoughts…. I’m thinking that I will write and tell you that today is very cold. Last night the temperature hovered below zero. The windows have frozen over, and it’s good to be inside, sitting in a warm room, listening to music and thinking about summer, listening to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony with its cuckoo’s call, daydreaming about childhood, when my brother and I–the brother killed in Vorkut–would, in the darkness of snowy evening, sneak off to the public forest to steal a Christmas tree. We would chop it down and, in the night, drag it home on a sled. Our ears would redden from the cold. Shaking off the snow, we would haul the tree into our house and light the only candle we had, the “grabnycia,” used when someone died. Oh, what Christmas joy, and without ornaments or wreaths or cookies!
I was filled, on the one hand, with a sense that I had misread my father. I had never fully understood him, had never taken the time to ask, to listen. On the other hand, I felt the old familiar rage welling up inside, rising slowly to the surface.
Today we got your letter, which your mother, as always, read with tears in her eyes, frequently reminding me of my insensitivity to my children. In reality, she doesn’t think that way, but I have to admit she is more sensitive than I am, and, like all mothers, more sensitive than fathers, who don’t have the bond of childbirth to tie them to their children.
My father’s belief that women are naturally closer to their children was expressed often enough that I had brought it up in therapy years before as an excuse for his distance. My therapist talked about the many loving fathers he knew, and the many distant indifferent mothers.
I wrote back to my father about life in Saudi Arabia. In broken Lithuanian I told him how the diminishing light at dusk made me think of the famous line from “Prufrock” about the evening “spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized upon a table”; how students at the university loved to touch my “golden” hair; how lonely I often felt. It was perhaps the first and last time I communicated with him so eagerly and honestly, with little hesitation and no regrets.
When my father was diagnosed with stomach cancer at 67, I took a leave of absence from my teaching job in Saudi Arabia and a corresponding separation from my husband to help nurse my father. I wiped the dribble from his chin and tried to feed him chicken broth and crackers. Little things gave him pleasure—watching a fishing show on television, listening to a favorite piece of music, a Shubert symphony or a string quartet by Brahms.
A few weeks before he died, the Lithuanian daily Draugas published an essay of my father’s in its Saturday cultural supplement. Titled “Father,” the work begins with a long and detailed physical description of my father’s father—my grandfather—who died before I was born:
I see him in the parish hall, his small head tilted forwards, listening to the words of the speaker as if gazing out at distant birches, or at the black stripe of forest in the horizon swaying in the summer wind above the blossoming fields of wheat, a mist of pollen rising out of that billowing boundless breadth. Solitary, shadowy, mute. It’s as if somebody else was sitting there in the third row–an apparition in a black suit. Shrunken, exhausted. That’s the way he might have appeared just after the First World War, back from German captivity…. I can almost see him: his narrow little tie, a spattered coat that once fit a much heavier man, trousers with hollowed knees, trousers that never saw an iron. He sat colorless, without emotion, the hair on the top of his head like the quills on a porcupine, his small head raised in order to better hear and remember the words of the speaker concerning the significance of Lithuanian Independence Day.
I was surprised by the number of people who packed the Petkus Funeral Home—extra chairs had to be provided for the service; some people had to stand in the back. Delegates from various Lithuanian organizations talked about my father. I watched the representative of the Frontininkai as he tripped over the microphone wire going up to give yet another speech. His elegant white-haired wife, sitting in the front row, scowled.
I cried neither at the service, nor at the burial. St. Casimir’s Cemetery, which I had always thought so beautiful, with its stone angels and graceful metal crosses and tombstones dating back to when the letter “w” existed in Lithuanian, looked like someone’s gaudy, over-sized back yard. I fiddled with the thick faux-leather belt of the black polyester dress I had bought that week and looked around at the faces of relatives I hadn’t seen in years, wondering if they noticed that I had gained weight. As the priest intoned the final prayer and the Lithuanian anthem was sung and the coffin was lowered into the parched August ground, all I could think of was how badly I wanted a drink.
Several weeks later, I took out the essay my father had written about his own father, published in Draugas just a few months back. I carefully unfolded the newspaper and looked at the photograph of my father in his thick dark glasses and tweed jacket, looking like an academic. As I sat on the bed with only a dim night lamp for light, my father’s life disclosed itself through the letters on the page. I hadn’t known that his father had been sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Vorkut for owning a gun, that his wife and youngest son had been deported to another region. I hadn’t known that his father died of pneumonia brought on by starvation and cold. I hadn’t even known that the location of my grandfather’s grave remains a mystery, the bones intact in ground perpetually frozen, unmarked by a cross or stone.
The greatest revelation had to do not with hardships and political events, but with the affection that my father shows his father, a tenderness that suffuses the work, a longing free of anger or resentment, an attachment that, if one looks closely and reads between the lines, almost resembles love:
I would see him, sitting in the parish hall, the third row. I know neither how he made his way in nor how he snuck out. Perhaps like a dream, without the slightest shuffling of shoes. Like a wingless black bird, like an extended shadow in the light of the stars. He was my father.
I cried for my father and his unfinished dreams. I cried for all of the words he had never spoken, for all the questions I had never asked.
Reprinted with permission from White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life, by Daiva Markelis, published by the University of Chicago Press.
© 2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Photo of Daiva Markelis and her father, Adolfas, provided by the author.
Photo of bridge by Phillip C/Flickr