LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 48, No.2 - Summer 2002
Editors of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2002 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
BIRUTË PUTRIUS SEROTA
October in Los Angeles is the month of sulfur and ash. All summer long the sun had baked the hillsides until the grasses and brush turned brown—tinder waiting for a match or a lit cigarette. Irene Matas drove down a section of the San Diego Freeway, which had recently been scorched by fire, on her way home after picking her son up from the El Salvadorian baby-sitter. In October, it wasn't unusual to turn on the news and see dry hills burning. Irene stopped at the supermarket and then came home to find the light blinking on her answering machine. It was her brother Iggy in Chicago. He said their mother had had another stroke. It was really bad this time. She wasn't recognizing anyone, and she was paralyzed on one side. Irene had to go to her.
That evening, as she sat in the rocking chair facing the window with her sleepy boy in her lap, she hummed an old Lithuanian lullaby that almost sounded like a dirge. Los Angeles glittered below. Guilt weighed on her like an anvil. Why was she so far away from her mother?
Her generation was doing the Great American Dance: step to the left, cut all ties, step to the right, tranquillize with TV, do-si-do, buy more stuff, turn around, pick a new partner, swing 'em round, move to a new town, start all over. Los Angeles was a city of amnesiacs. No one seemed to know how to live a life anymore. Here she was, divorced in Los Angeles, one of the most spiritually bankrupt places on the globe.
Irene flew to Chicago with her young son in tow, to see her frail mother. She thought it might be the last time she would see her. By the time she got there, her mother had been transferred to a nursing home near the old Ragis farm. This is where her family used to go to get out into the "country," but now the city had spread like a cancer. She took her son to meet his grandmother. She wanted her blessing, but secretly wondered if her mother would know who she was.
Iggy and Irene walked into the red brick building that looked clean, but smelled of urine. Nick sucked on his bottle in the stroller. They found their mother in a wheelchair, sitting in front of the TV with ten other old and sick people. Irene hardly recognized her. She was asleep and looked vulnerable. Her hair had turned white. It was amazing how alike the men and women looked, as if old age and infirmity were a country that they all came from. Irene had always been afraid of her mother's quick temper, her deep sadness, her ability to isolate herself. She looked so harmless now. This was the mother she had tried so hard to please when she was little, the mother she had rebelled against so harshly in her adolescence, the mother she had managed to ignore in her adulthood. She looked so innocent here, washed clean of all of their shared histories. Funny to realize, after all this time, that Irene still wanted to please her, be her little girl, to crawl into her warm lap, to be rocked and petted. Everything will be all right, her mother would lie. Irene looked at her mother's hands folded neatly in her lap, remembering when those same hands were raw from cleaning office buildings. Her mother had been pampered in Lithuania and was not used to such hard work. She used to say she looked like Greta Garbo. She would put Nivea cream on to soothe her chapped knuckles. They looked healed now.
Why were their mothers and fathers here? Irene couldn't imagine the crime for which they were being punished, a penance of old age and infirmity. Where was the life her mother had grown up with, filled with all the generations tending one another? Who will tend her grave in this Chicago neighborhood, which everyone can't wait to leave? Grief took the air out of the room.
Iggy woke his mother up. She recognized neither of them. They wheeled her, vacant-eyed, to her room. Irene was biting her lip to fight back tears. They sat down and talked in Lithuanian. She smiled politely at them. Irene talked and talked, but her mother made no answer, no gesture of recognition. Irene hugged her, kissed her, held her hand, stroked her white hair, but it was only when Nick started fussing and crying that her mother finally responded. She reached out for Nick's hand and asked Irene, "Where did you pull this one from?" She smiled as if Irene had produced a rabbit out of a hat. Iggy looked at his sister and almost laughed at the bluntness of the question. Irene was stunned. Yes, where had she pulled this one from? Her mother had been too sick from previous strokes to know what had happened to her daughter in recent years, the years she was lost to her, so far away in Los Angeles. Her mother was far from her own home in Lithuania. The world had changed after the two world wars. Everyone seemed bereaved. Her mother hadn't known that her daughter was pregnant, so where had this baby come from? Irene told her he was her son, and she took his tiny hand and smiled and then faded again into the soulless recess of that wrecked body. Irene had wanted her mother's blessing. She guessed this was it.
They finally ran out of things to tell her so they sat quietly. As Irene held her mother's hand, she could hardly breathe. Hot tears ran down her cheeks. They said good-bye an hour later, and like survivors, they stumbled to the elevator. Irene held Nick and kissed his forehead. She wanted to plead with him not to put her in such a place when she got old and feeble.
While waiting for the elevator, she noticed a bulletin board with a picture of her old friend Al Vitkus and his sister Magda. They were the volunteers of the month. Irene felt an ache to see them both. She had loved Al once, and then he went to Viet Nam and came back changed. He was quiet and sullen, and she thought he no longer cared for her. She ran away—one of many moves that finally landed her in LA. Maybe if Al hadn't gone to war, if she had married him, life might have turned out more comprehensible. Who knows how fate plays with people's destinies? Irene was always chasing the grand life the way it was lived in the movies, in books, on TV. It seemed as if she was always waiting for life to begin. Trouble was that she was never happy with ordinary life, with a husband who might not have been exciting, but would have been good enough. He wouldn't want to see foreign movies or go to the opera or ballet, but he would be there for her, solid, dependable, like the husbands of friends. Like Jonas Kelmas or Paul Gudauskas: nerdy engineer-types, who used to walk around with slide rules in their pockets, but now made such decent fathers and husbands.
Irene looked at her brother standing uncomfortably by the elevator. Iggy was looking at another sign on the bulletin board that said: "This month's birthdays," just like in elementary school. With a start, Irene recognized one of the names on the list. It was Antanas Balys who had lived with them for so many years as one of their boarders.
"It can't be him," she said to Iggy. They asked the attendant where this Mr. Balys was and were shown a room down the opposite end of the hall from their mother's room. They knocked on the door and walked in. They recognized him right away. How was it he was here and none of their family knew about it? They walked over to his bed and introduced themselves to Mr. Balys.
"Hello, Irene," he answered. "I'm glad to see you." He spoke in the old dialect of Samogitia, his corner of Lithuania. Irene noticed that, although he was lying in bed, his arms and legs were moving back and forth as if he were walking. He was restrained by strips of cloth tied to his wrists and ankles. The attendant explained that he walked out into the street otherwise. She circled her finger around her temple.
"I walked too far, you see," he said, suddenly frightened. "I shouldn't have gone so far. I should have stayed closer to home."
Iggy and Irene looked at each other, puzzled.
"They grabbed me," he continued. "Those Germans got me. Tell my wife."
Iggy patiently started to explain who they were, how he had been their father's neighbor in their village in Lithuania, how he had lived with them for so many years after we came to America.
"Tell your father not to go too far. Tell him they came to the farm. The Germans took me to the camps. Tell him to be careful. Tell everyone." He didn't look at them as he said this. His eyes were wide and he looked beyond them into his own vision of hell.
"OK, sure we'll tell him, don't worry," Irene said. She patted his arm, which was still marching back and forth in bed. She told him that her mother was down the hall. Maybe they could visit each other.
"The camps are bad," he answered, "I want to go home."
That evening, after Nick had fallen asleep, Irene and her father sat quietly talking. Her father said she reminded him of some tropical bird who flies into Chicago once a year and then flies back. Irene nodded sadly. He was right, she was no longer part of their everyday life. She had mutated into some foreign bird.
He talked about his fears for his wife, of his own poor health. Irene told him about her visit and asked about Antanas Balys. He shook his head sadly.
"Poor man, he left a wife and four children behind in Lithuania. The Germans were grabbing able-bodied men for the forced labor camps. They took Antanas and his brother Jurgis right out of their fields while they were working. Their wives didn't even know what had happened to them. Antanas survived the camps, but when the Americans came to liberate the camp, the inmates started cheering and jumping for joy. Some skittish soldier mistook some of them for Germans. He didn't understand the commotion. He fired into the crowd killing two men. Antanas's brother was one of them. Antanas wasn't hurt, but he broke down completely. He was hospitalized. Near the end of the war, when the Russians were returning to Lithuania, we all ran. The Germans were evil; but for us, the Russians were even worse. After the war, we ended up in the displaced person's camp that was run by American GIs. We found Antanas in a camp hospital after the war. He was not well. All of the refugees in the camps were applying for visas to America, Canada, Australia. We couldn't go back home. The Iron Curtain had closed like a steel trap. They wouldn't give Antanas a visa. No one wanted a man who had had a nervous breakdown. What could we do? I signed papers saying I would take care of him. He came with us to America. He had been my neighbor."
All of these war-torn lives. Irene was the lucky child who was born postwar. But she was born with the taste of ash. Her mother sang dirges for lullabies in the displaced person's camp. They went to America when she was three. She had such vivid memories of their first house in Chicago, a big two-story, white clapboard house filled with family and the boarders they took in to help pay expenses. When she was very young, she didn't know exactly who were family and who were boarders. They all ate their meals together. Sometimes, Sunday dinner meant ten people eating their mother's roast and discussing politics and telling anecdotes, drinking cognac and laughing or crying—depending on the mood and the amount of liquor. There seemed to be rooms everywhere in that old house that various members of the household retreated to. Half of the basement had been turned into rooms for the boarders. The other half held the laundry and the coal chute with the large black furnace. She'd come down the stairs and run past the stove, sure that something horrible was chasing her.
They had a variety of boarders over the years. There was Captain Eddy, a middle-aged bachelor, who always laughed to hysterics. There was also Mr. George, a nervous, fox-faced man, who only smiled with one side of his mouth. He was always sure that people were plotting against him. There was also Felius the Poet, who was her favorite because he taught her friends how to tango. And finally there was Antanas, who lived with them so long he became part of the family—like an eccentric uncle. He was a short, sturdy man who always seemed put upon. He seemed more lonely than any human could bear. Sometimes he drank too much. Irene had wondered why these people had no home of their own. Where were their families? Her child's sense of order in the universe was disturbed by these solitary men.
Antanas was the only boarder who moved with them into the new house on Talman Street, when she was in the first grade. There was a basement there as well, but there was no coal. Now the house was oil heated, but the basement still scared her. Her father fixed it up like a giant recreation room, with a bar and sofas and a piano. Her mother held parties there after the opera or for the radio show she worked at. Antanas had a room in the back, with a small kitchenette of his own, though he still ate with them on weekends. Irene was taking piano lessons then, and she often came down into the basement and turned on the light and found Antanas sitting in the middle of the dark room wearing a robe. Irene would always be startled, no matter how many times it happened. She would always jump. He would apologize for startling her with an embarrassed laugh, like a little boy. It was uncanny. He so rarely laughed, unless he was drinking. Otherwise, it looked as if his mouth wasn't used to laughter. Once, after too many highballs, during some party, Irene heard him talking about how beautiful her mother had been when she was young, what a grand lady she was. Antanas had a softness in his face that was uncharacteristic of him. Maybe he was in love with her mother, or maybe she just reminded him of his own wife left behind in Lithuania.
It was painful for Irene to imagine her white-haired mother in the nursing home as young and beautiful. She was dying and no longer reachable. She had retreated into some deep part of herself that none of them could touch. In this inner place, perhaps she was still young and beautiful.
Antanas had worked at the railroad yards and saved every penny he made to send packages to his wife and children in Lithuania. Irene was a sophomore when she saw him go on a bender that lasted three days. He cried and talked nonsense. Irene asked her mother what was wrong.
"Leave him alone," she said. "The man is grieving for his dead wife."
A few weeks after his wife died, Antanas took his money out of the bank and decided to buy each of his four children a car. He bought four new, blue Chrysler sedans. He paid cash and had them shipped to Lithuania at great expense. Afterwards, he seemed agitated and angry. He started drinking again and, often, he would stay out all night. Irene's father would search the neighborhood bars for him. Sometimes he found him and sometimes he didn't. Once or twice, he got a call from the police. Antanas had been wandering the neighborhood in a drunken stupor, talking nonsense. This went on until he had another nervous breakdown. He sat in the basement crying. No one could talk him into doing anything—not eating, not bathing, not seeing the doctor. He cried about his wife, his children, his home. "I want to go home," he sobbed. "I want to see my wife's grave. Who's taking care of it? Who's taking care of my parent's grave? I have three grandchildren I've never seen." He beat the table with his fist.
"Calm down, be reasonable," Irene's father said. "You can't go there—and they can't come here, but maybe someday soon..."
"How long can a man wait?" he asked. Her father had no answer. He too was waiting. All of them counting the years, waiting to return to old lives. Antanas couldn't wait any longer. He was hospitalized.
Irene saw him a few times after that at the Amber Tavern. He seemed the same, only quieter, sadder, older. Her father said he had moved in with an old bachelor. The two of them lived a quiet life in an apartment in Town of Lake.
Irene forgot about Antanas, with time. She moved away form home and forgot about her life as a refugee. She left the cloistered community of Lithuanians and went to Los Angeles. She had been a displaced person; now she became a misplaced person. Her family had been forced into exile, but she had voluntarily exiled herself from all that had rooted her, given her identity. She tried to reinvent herself like all good Americans do. She failed. She became a boarder in her own life, as if she had no family, no roots, no graves to tend, no husband to worry about. So easily lost, like Antanas. And then her mother was dying and she ran into Antanas, the boarder, once again. Once more her mother's neighbor, once more both were under the same roof— together again near the end of their lives—and yet, neither one knew that the other was there.
Antanas died a few months after her mother died. Irene tends her grave once a year when she visits Chicago. Every year, her father teaches Nick a few more Lithuanian words. Next year, they will spend the summer with her father. With these small sacramental acts, something in her is able to heal a little each time.
Where Irene visits her mother's grave, she puts flowers on Antanas's grave as well. They are in the same cemetery, the Lithuanian one. Antanas never returned home to his farm in Lithuania, he never saw his wife or his four children with their new blue Chryslers. He died thinking he was back in the Nazi labor camps, regretting having walked too far.
It's October again and the hills of Los Angeles are burning as usual. Tonight Irene can see the ridge of the canyon burning like a garland of fire. There's an eerie beauty to it.
Irene too regrets having walked too far; and having walked so long, she finds that she no longer recognizes home when she gets there. Antanas and her parents were homesick all their lives for that patch of earth where they were born. Irene too suffers a homesickness, but for something she can no longer find.
Artwork of Vytautas O. Virkau