“It’s the immigrant experience that is the lifeblood of Jewish American writing,” observed the Toronto-based writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis a few years ago. An alert, compassionate immigrant son and grandson — his family migrated to Canada from Latvia in the late 1970s — Bezmozgis continues to refashion the core themes of immigrant fiction in fresh and original ways. In a series of highly regarded, prize-winning books published over the past fifteen years — beginning with Natasha and Other Stories (2004), and followed by The Free World (2011) and The Betrayers (2014) — Bezmozgis has explored the impact of arrival on immigrant families and the psychological strains of adjusting to a new society. In flight from a menacing old world (as in the inhospitable Former Soviet Union), Bezmozgis’s immigrants seek a place of dignity — a space where, finally, after internal and external wandering, they can be at rest. In Bezmozgis’s fiction, the past tends to rupture into the present, dislodging characters who remain haunted in a new world — haunted by nostalgia for an imagined happier, earlier life, by the anomie that marks new world drift, by buried family secrets.
The author’s new collection, Immigrant City, deepens his exploration of Jewish diasporic themes of displacement and movement, memory and nostalgia. In the following story, “Little Rooster,” the narrator discovers that there were aspects of his worshiped grandfather’s life of which he was entirely unaware: “It was dawning on me that I’d underestimated and under-imagined him.” It is the grandson’s obligation to remember the dead through the art of imagining — a way of keeping faith with the past, and thus a means of gaining a sense of balance in the present. However, the dream of achieving balance, of feeling at home, remains fraught. — Donald Weber
Ten years after my grandfather died, I found myself sorting through a shallow plastic bin that held the accumulated documentation of his life. My mother had labelled it in Russian: “Mother and Father.” When she downsized from a house to a condominium, the bin migrated to me. It is humbling to consider that, to all extents and purposes, a human life can be contained inside a shallow plastic bin. It is even more humbling to consider that it can be contained in less than a shallow plastic bin. My grandfather had been a thrifty, patient and meticulous person who didn’t like to throw anything away. Besides, who knew when some relevant authority might demand a full accounting? Sentiment had stayed my mother’s hand but I intended to be ruthless. One old Israeli bus pass is poetic; one hundred are oppressive.
My grandfather was born in a small Latvian town during World War I. His first languages were Yiddish and Latvian. Traditional Jewish schooling and an interest in Zionism contributed functional Hebrew. He also had some Russian, which he was later obliged to cultivate as a soldier in the Red Army and over four decades as a Soviet citizen. Though he spent the last twenty years of his life in Canada, he never learned English. Of the things worth keeping in the bin were various photographs, passports, notarized English translations of birth certificates, a marriage licence, the official acknowledgement of my grandfather’s front-line service during World War II, a clinical description of the wounds he sustained and the consequent benefits afforded him by the Soviet state. There were two sets of claim forms for wartime reparations — a legitimate one to the Germans for their crimes, and a spurious one to the Swiss for their laundering of “looted assets” itemized as:
Two houses, furniture, dishes, jewellery $100,000 US (approx.)
Store with leather shoes, leather furniture $300,000 US
There were also numerous letters written in Russian and in Yiddish. My Russian wasn’t good enough to decipher the cursive script, but millions of Russian-speakers — including my mother — could do it. The Yiddish was another matter.
Once the vernacular, it was now the preserve of academics. I knew one, a professor at the University of Toronto, who was writing a monograph on heteronormative bias in Galician graffiti.
I made an appointment and brought the letters to her office. Some were from my grandparents’ friends, resettled in Düsseldorf; others, postmarked from Israel, were from my grandfather’s younger brother, Venyamin, affectionately called Venya. I knew Venya only from stories told to me by my mother and grandfather. I knew, for example, that when he was a boy, a horse had stepped on his head. He’d nearly died. For the rest of his life, he bore a dent in his skull in the shape of a hoof. After the war he married a Jewish woman, reputedly unkind. They had two children. The first was a son, the spitting image of Venya. The second was a daughter, exceptionally beautiful, who strongly resembled a Latvian who’d lodged temporarily in their house. Later, it emerged that Venya also had an illegitimate child, a blond girl, raised by her maternal grandparents.
Though unwilling herself to do the work, the professor connected me with one of her graduate students, a tattooed Norwegian named Knut, who agreed to write a summary of each letter for a standardized fee. He explained that this was a common way for Yiddish students to supplement their stipends. A generation of Jews appealed to them with their inherited glyphs. Most often the letters were banal, but 44 occasionally something interesting, even scandalous, surfaced. A secret in the secret language. Knut preferred when this didn’t happen. People got upset and Knut suffered moral qualms about profiting from such disclosures. He’d consulted the Talmud for guidance, but to no avail. The sages diverged.
Two weeks after I turned over the letters, I met Knut at a popular, as yet unboycotted, Israeli coffee franchise near campus. Though he greeted me warmly, I detected unease. He began with the innocuous Düsseldorf correspondence, which concerned itself mostly with the realms of health, education and finance. Who was hale and who was ill. What afflictions had stricken. Who, thank God, had prevailed and who, God forbid, had succumbed. Also, the inexorable passage of the brilliant grandchildren through the stations of the school system. The admirable and incomprehensible directions they pursued in life. The exact dollar figures of their salaries and the purchase prices of their homes. Venya’s letters mostly conformed to the same model. It was only in his last four letters, sent in the sixmonth period between my grandmother’s death and his own, that the substance changed significantly. Faithful to our agreement, Knut had summarized these as well, but he cautioned me to reflect before I took possession. He didn’t pretend to understand the implications of everything he’d read, but he believed the letters touched upon matters of a delicate nature. It was possible, of course, that what he’d read in the letters was already common knowledge to me and my family. And perhaps, even if it wasn’t, I might not be disturbed by what he’d uncovered. People had different sensitivities. However, from the tone and context of the letters, Knut suspected that they addressed something confidential between my grandfather and his brother.
Though I was tempted, I took Knut’s advice and resolved to reflect. One of life’s cruellest lessons is that a person can’t unknow something. And there exists enough unavoidable pain in the world that one would be a fool or a masochist to actively court more. My grandfather, whom I loved very much and whose essence was still sometimes palpable to me, was dead ten years. His brother, a man I didn’t recall ever meeting, was dead seventeen. What did I stand to gain by scavenging through the past? The reflexive answer, of course, was that sacrament, the Truth. After all, it was just a cruel stroke of history — perpetrated by the dread mustached visages — that explained why I couldn’t read the letters myself. And would my grandfather have kept them— like so many Israeli bus passes — if he didn’t want them to be found? Perhaps the sin wasn’t of trespass but of laziness and indifference? How many vain and useless things had I done while these letters languished, humming with meaning? And wasn’t there a privileged kind of knowing available to us only after our loved ones were gone? In other words, I walked around the block and justified doing what I already wanted to do.
Summary of letter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer, 6
Venyamin asks after Berl’s well-being. He repeats his condolences on the death (January 1999) of Berl’s wife, Shayna — a generous heart, loved by all — but reminds Berl that the living must live. He asks if Berl has returned to the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre and if he has been able to verify that the woman he saw there was Lauma. He admonishes Berl not to let the matter drop. He concludes with affectionate wishes.
Summary of letter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer, 30 March 1999
Venyamin praises Berl for persisting re: Lauma. He remarks upon the mysteries of fate. He dismisses Berl’s reservations and apprehensions. (There is an uncontextualized allusion to homemade farmer’s cheese[?].) He insists Berl act decisively and make contact with Lauma. He concludes with affectionate wishes.
Summary of letter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer, 9 May 1999
Venyamin congratulates Berl on Victory Day (Great Patriotic War). He reproaches Berl for the pessimistic attitude he displayed during their telephone conversation (date unspecified). He says he has slept poorly since the conversation, worried about Berl. He relates his attempts to book a flight to Toronto. He cites his course of chemotherapy and his doctor’s refusal to write a letter of permission (to airline). He criticizes his doctor, the Israeli healthcare system and the airline. He insists he feels well but is not naive about his prospects. This explains his sense of urgency re: Lauma. He says she is the love of his life. He concludes with affectionate wishes.
Summary of letter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer,
3 July 1999
[NB: Handwriting illegible in some places.] Venyamin asks after Berl’s well-being. He apologizes for his long silence. He experienced complications from the surgery. He blames (a commander?) for (the pills?). (Electricity?) in his hand makes it hard for him to write. He confirms that he received Berl’s last letter. He says (the sisters?) stole the photograph Berl sent of Lauma. He asks that Berl send another. He encloses a photograph of himself taken in the (??) fortress. He also encloses a letter to Lauma. He asks Berl to relay it. He recalls a different letter he asked Berl to deliver to her. He hopes Berl has (??) (vagina?) (this time?). He concludes with affectionate wishes.
I didn’t share with my mother what I’d learned from Knut. The subject of my grandparents’ deaths remained raw for her. She still drove to the cemetery nearly every Sunday to 48 visit their graves. If the trail of Venya’s letters led somewhere unsettling, I couldn’t see how that knowledge would do her any good. However, under the pretext of trying to make sense of disparate bits of my grandfather’s files, I asked her if she knew the name Lauma or if she’d ever been to the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre. She didn’t recognize Lauma, but not long after my grandmother’s death, she had visited the Latvian Centre with my grandfather. The Latvian government, having partially crawled out of its post-Soviet hole, announced that it would offer pensions to eligible expatriates. My grandfather qualified, and my mother took him to the Latvian Centre to help process his application. It was the only time she’d been there. Though she’d lived half her life in Latvia and now, by virtue of her age, was receiving her own modest Latvian pension, she found no reason to return. The Latvian she’d learned at school, she’d mostly forgotten. Her language was Russian. She was Jewish. And she was leery of ethnic Latvian expatriates, most of whom had retreated with the Germans at the end of the war or descended from people who had retreated with the Germans. What they had or had not done to Jews, or why they might have preferred to retreat with the Germans rather than be “liberated” by the Soviets, was too esoteric a consideration. Simply, she didn’t feel comfortable with them.
Without a car, the trip from my grandfather’s apartment to the Latvian Centre required three buses. It was hard for me to imagine my grandfather making such a trip on his own. I couldn’t recall him venturing anywhere by himself. He seldom even went to the nearby supermarket for groceries; my mother and aunt handled the weekly purchases for him — not because he was physically incapable but because his lack of English made the task inconvenient. If he had a doctor’s appointment, someone in the family drove him. The grocery store, the doctor’s office, a family gathering — did my grandfather go anywhere else during the last decade of his life? His synagogue was on the ground floor of his building. Maybe he went for a stroll in the park across the street or sometimes attended a different synagogue a block or two from home, but I wasn’t even sure about that. To the extent that I thought about my grandfather when I wasn’t with him, I pictured him scrupulously engaged in some mundane task in the circumscribed precinct of his one-bedroom apartment. I certainly didn’t imagine him embarking on an hour-long, multi-stage journey to a distant part of the city. But a spry and surprisingly attractive nonagenarian Latvian woman confirmed that he’d done it quite regularly.
She’d known him as Berls Singers, the Latvianate version of his name. I encountered her at the entrance to the dining hall, seated at a table, ticking off the names of the seniors who attended a Thursday afternoon social club. As we spoke, the members of a folk choir finished their rehearsal and descended from a stage at the front of the hall. The singers were elderly Latvian men; their piano accompanist was an elderly woman. All had approached their efforts with vigorous 50 and joyless determination, as if at once proud and resentful at having to bear so disproportionate a cultural burden.
The woman was surprised to learn that I was Berls’s grandson. In all the time he had frequented the Latvian Centre, she had thought him alone in the world. No family member had ever accompanied him or come to watch him perform with the choir. He’d been circumspect, so she hadn’t pried. To live a long life was to accrue many joys but also many hurts and disappointments. She remembered my grandfather as a quiet, mild-tempered man who possessed a beautiful singing voice and a remarkable memory for Latvian poems and songs.
As she spoke I sensed her subtly inspecting me. She asked my name, and to ingratiate myself I offered the Latvianate version, which sounded foreign coming from my mouth. She inquired if I spoke Latvian and I conceded that I did not. She asked where I was born and was enthused to learn it was Riga. She, too, had been born there. A half-century before me. She’d last seen it in 1944, when she’d fled with her parents. I volunteered that I’d left with my parents in 1979. I’d imagined that from my grandfather’s name and physiognomy, she would have deduced he was a Jew, but her reaction led me to wonder. Maybe she’d known and forgotten? In any event, the little yellow pilot light did not come on. We smiled at each other as we each performed the sordid calculations. Innumerable faces, voices and landscapes swirled in the silence between us. Boxcars rolled to the east and west. A commissar and an SS officer shouted orders in a hoarse voice. A crow landed on a corpse.
Despite whatever the woman had deduced about my origins, she invited me to stay for lunch. The centre’s kitchen prepared traditional Latvian foods and offered them at a reasonable price, and was particularly renowned for the baked goods. If I was curious about the centre, I could sit and talk to the other diners. They would be happy for the company. I observed them at their tables — most chewing silently or conversing in muted tones — and tried to imagine my grandfather among them. The men of the choir were rigid, silver-haired, peasant-faced. They wore suit jackets and narrow ties after a Latvian folk pattern. When I’d seen my grandfather surrounded by his contemporaries, wearing an ordinary tie, it was for the complimentary kiddush after the service at his building’s synagogue. He’d be one of a dozen or so elderly Soviet Jews loading paper plates with herring, honey cake and egg salad, and allowing the more boisterous of the group to pour down-market whiskey into his Styrofoam cup. In a room loud with joking and grumbling, my grandfather was usually reserved. I’d always taken it as a function of individual temperament rather than a manifestation of national character. But it was dawning on me that I’d underestimated and under-imagined him.
With one question answered, I posed the other.
“We have more than one Lauma,” the woman said, “but I think I know who you mean.”
“My grandfather would have known her.”
“Lauma Gulbis. In her day she walked on air. It was very sad how she ended. The more God gives in your youth, the more He takes in old age. Her daughter is Agnes. She lives in her house.”
There was a courtyard in the Latvian Centre with green patio tables. I took a seat to place my call to Agnes. Around me, paralegals drank coffee and smoked cigarettes during a break in a seminar. There weren’t enough Latvians to cover the overhead, so the community let space and offered catering. I could tell that the paralegals were only negligibly aware of their surroundings, as if to convey that life, already taxing, would be untenable if one took heed of every abstruse thing dear to strangers.
They paid no attention to me, either, sitting by myself, daunted at the prospect of making a phone call. The initial momentum that had propelled me forward had stalled. It had been easy to come this far. Contacting my professor friend at U of T and Knut the Norwegian had seemed like a game. Dropping in on the Latvian Centre, like an adventure. But calling a woman out of the blue to pose intimate questions about her dead mother seemed like only an unwelcome intrusion. Then again, had I not passed the point of no return when thought became deed? And wasn’t the world already strewn with too many half-consummated acts? I didn’t want to contribute another.I dialed the number I’d been given — a number, I was told, that had been in operation for fifty years — and heard a woman answer. I ascertained that she was Agnes and then tried, as succinctly as possible, to explain who I was. There was a drawn-out silence on her end when I asked if she knew Berl Singer, as though she wasn’t so much trying to place the name as decide whether or not to avow what she knew.
“Is he still alive?” she asked.
“No, he died ten years ago.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, and fell again into a tempered silence.
I filled the silence by telling her that I’d recently discovered a reference to her mother in my grandfather’s documents and was curious to learn about her and the relationship she’d had with him, since he had, for some reason, kept it a secret from his family. I’d hoped to determine why.
“I can’t answer that question for you,” Agnes said. “He never spoke of any family, so I had no reason to believe he was concealing anything.”
“What did he speak of ?”
“The past. My mother was already not well when he encountered her. Alzheimer’s. He reminisced with her about people they knew in their youth.”
“I’d like to hear more about that,” I said.
“You want me to recite conversations from fifteen years ago?”
“I’m sorry if it sounds strange.”
Agnes fell silent once more, although this silence felt gentle, ruminative.
“You couldn’t know, but you have called on my mother’s name day. So maybe it isn’t purely accidental. I’m now in my kitchen baking a cake in honour of the day and will celebrate it with my daughter, who is practically the only person left with whom I can reminisce about my mother.”
Agnes’s house turned out to be not very far from my own, twenty minutes by bicycle. I rode there in the late afternoon as we’d agreed, a bouquet of red carnations jouncing in the basket before me. The neighbourhood had once been Polish and Hungarian but was gentrifying like every other in the city. Young professionals with children and enigmatic resources were eradicating the old houses and replacing them, often as not, with narrow modernist boxes, architectural lexicon for “Fuck off, old.” Any of the remaining original homes looked like poor relations, stubbornly or haplessly impeding progress. Agnes’s was one of these, flanked alternately by a cube and a construction site. As I rode up I saw a blond woman smoking a cigarette in the shared lane between Agnes’s house and the cube. She eyed me sullenly as I came to a stop, dropped her cigarette on the pavement, ground it out with her boot and disappeared through a side door. Her terse revulsion evoked the usual countervailing response. I presumed this was Agnes’s daughter and imagined, against reason and practically against my own will, the illicit possibilities. The heart barks like a dog.
I walked my bicycle up the driveway, past a Japanese compact car, to the steps that led to the covered porch, which was painted a pale blue. To the right of the front door, set against the brickwork of the house, two patio chairs with striped blue cushions faced the street. To the left, a large ceramic pot blazed with pink geraniums. Before I reached the landing, Agnes was waiting at the threshold, regarding me in a flat, unsmiling, almost clinical way. She appeared to be in her sixties and altogether reconciled to the fact. She wore no makeup, and her grey hair was gathered in a simple ponytail level with her shoulders. She had on a cream-coloured sleeveless blouse and roomy denim shorts that fell just below her knees. On her feet were brown orthopaedic sandals. The only adornment she’d permitted herself was a silver necklace with an amber pendant and earrings to match, like an affirmation of Baltic heritage. My mother owned similar things.
Agnes directed me to lock my bicycle to the balusters. As I knelt to secure the device, she watched me silently. When I’d finished with the awkward business, she remarked on my resemblance to my grandfather. Now that I’d crossed into my forties, I’d noted the same thing about myself. Though, peculiarly, the resemblance wasn’t just to him, but to all my male relatives in their more advanced years. It was as if some primordial, Jewish oy-face had surfaced with time, rounding 56 and softening features, imbuing a fatherly, grandfatherly, even ancestral lachrymosity as from the headwaters of the biblical patriarchs.
“I look nothing like my mother,” Agnes said. “The resemblance skipped a generation. Ruta, my daughter, inherited my mother’s looks, but not much else.”
I removed the bouquet from my basket and followed her into the house. We walked through a dim foyer — to the left, a staircase led to the upper floor; to the right, an archway accessed the living room. Another archway separated the living room from the dining room. In other words, the rooms were small and dark, closed off from one another.
Agnes ushered me into the kitchen, where a glass door offered a view of the backyard. It was late September, and the leaves of the Norway maples cast a copper wash over everything. On the table Agnes had set out a kettle, teacups, plates, forks and three-quarters of a cake.
“The cake I baked for my mother’s name day,” she said. “We’re only two women; we could never finish it.”
She took the bouquet of carnations from my hand and motioned for me to sit at the table while she went to the sink. I watched her deftly free the flowers from the plastic wrapping, separate out the blooms, count them and then snap one of the stems in half and deposit it in the trash.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought the superstition against even-numbered flowers was only Russian.”
“Who knows who borrowed from whom,” Agnes said.
She trimmed the remaining stems, filled a vase from the tap and set them in water.
Framed on the kitchen walls were several small amateur watercolours of regional songbirds and a larger charcoal drawing of a cat. There were also photographs: a posed portrait of an elderly couple — presumably Agnes’s parents — taken on the occasion of some notable life event, and a more recent snapshot of a young woman in bulky workwear — a reflective vest, green hard hat and protective goggles — standing inside a monumental garage, dwarfed by the treads of a gigantic front-end loader. Though her features were obscured by the hard hat and goggles, it was obviously the woman I’d seen smoking outside.
Agnes brought the vase to the table, cut each of us a slice of cake and commenced to pour tea. She noted my interest in the drawings and photographs.
“My mother painted the birds and drew the cat. The birds she did from pictures in books. The cat she did from memory. It was her cat, Mitzi, from Latvia. When she and my father fled the Russians, she brought the cat with her. All the way to Germany. Imagine that. For three years Mitzi lived with them in the DP camp, but she didn’t make it to Canada.” “Very lifelike,” I said.
“My mother was very talented, very artistic. My father was also talented, especially with his hands. He kept a wood shop in the garage where he created beautiful things. Figures. Sculptures. Also traditional Latvian musical instruments. Maybe in another life they could have been recognized for 58 their gifts. But for people of their generation, from simple families, from small provincial towns, they had limited opportunities. My father finished the eighth grade; my mother the sixth. It’s amazing they accomplished all they did.” “I felt the same about my grandparents,” I said.
“Come,” Agnes said, rising. “I’ll show you something.”
I followed her into the living room, where, hanging by braided leather straps along a wall, in the shape of a V, were three trapezoidal, dulcimer-like instruments. Agnes took one down and presented it to me. It was made of pale wood — pine or birch — and was decoratively carved in the Latvian style, the minimalist suggestion of a sun for the resonant chamber, and runic designs that resembled intersecting swastikas above the tuning pegs.
“You can hold it,” she said.
It felt quite solid, heavier than I’d expected it to be. “What is it?” I asked.
“A kokle,” she replied, disapproving of my ignorance. “You play it by resting it on a table or on your lap. That is the Latgalian kokle. There is a Kurzeme kokle, but it is smaller and has fewer strings. My parents were from Latgalia, same as your grandfather, and so my father preferred the Latgalian kokle. He made many of them. A few, like these, he kept. The rest he donated to the community. Not just in Toronto, but across Canada and even the United States. Chicago, for instance. Also Texas.”
“Did he play them?”
“He made them; my mother played them,” Agnes said, looking wistfully at the instrument in my hands. “She played also when your grandfather visited. When she wasn’t capable of doing much else, she could still play. She played and he sang. I think it was a great comfort to her. Perhaps to him, too.”
I tried to imagine my grandfather in this room with the elderly Lauma — she with the kokle on her lap, he sitting next to her singing Latvian songs. I supposed it was a touching scene, but so much about what Agnes described didn’t add up. How extensive was the secret life he’d led? Not only was he making furtive trips by bus to the Latvian Centre in one end of the city, but also travelling to Agnes’s house in another. He never had a cellphone, and my mother, aunt and uncle called him routinely. If he didn’t answer, nodes of panic would aggregate like birds on a roof and occasionally erupt in a spasm of flapping.
I asked Agnes, “What did you know about my grandfather?”
“Not very much. He told me he was a friend from Baltinava, from my mother’s youth. After my father died, I used to take my mother to the Latvian Centre. Her mind was going and she was depressed and confused by my father’s death. At the Latvian Centre, people knew her. They looked after her. I could leave her and run errands. One afternoon I came back and found her sitting at a table holding hands with a strange man. Your grandfather. Then he started coming to the house.”
“By himself ? He didn’t speak English.”
“I gave him directions in Latvian.”
“Had your mother ever mentioned him before?”
“No, but she wasn’t one to talk much about her past.”
“When the two of them spoke about the past, what did they speak of ?”
“Do you know what it’s like to care for someone with Alzheimer’s? If you can get a moment to yourself, you take it. He came here and they talked or sang. It gave me a chance to cook, to clean, to wash my hair. I didn’t sit over them and listen to every word.”
“I understand. But did you possibly hear them talk about his brother, Venyamin? Venya?”
“Not that I recall.”
“My grandfather never delivered a letter from him?”
“A letter to my mother?” Agnes regarded me as if I were impaired. “In her condition, what would she do with a letter?”
I understood that my line of inquiry would lead nowhere. Either my grandfather had been a master of concealment, careful to divulge nothing to Agnes — as he had divulged nothing to us — or Agnes had been, and continued to be, a party to the subterfuge. Why that might be, I couldn’t comprehend. I felt myself gripping the kokle very tightly. That I still held it compounded my sense of frustration and foolishness. I relaxed my grip and set the instrument on the sofa.
“Agnes,” I said, “can I ask you one more, possibly very stupid, question?”
“Ask whatever you like.”
The question was gratuitous and indulgent, but I persisted anyway.
“I didn’t know that he was or was not a Jew,” she replied.
When we parted at the front door, Agnes regretted if I was disappointed with my visit and that she’d been unable to provide me with the information I’d sought. She had tried, in advance of my arrival, to locate a video she’d shot of her mother and my grandfather together — her mother playing the kokle and my grandfather singing. But she’d been unable to find it. She pledged to try again and to call me once she did. I could return and we’d watch the video together.
It was dusk when I rode home to my wife and daughters. Under the darkening canopy of trees, I flowed along residential streets as though indistinguishable from my thoughts.
What had I learned from Agnes? My grandfather had visited Lauma at her home. They’d sung parochial songs and talked about things Agnes could not recount. When it was no longer advisable, he’d stopped coming. That was the sum of what Agnes had given me. And after Agnes, the trail went cold. There was nobody else who could shed light on what had motivated my grandfather to keep visiting Lauma in her reduced state. She was a sick woman. It wasn’t as if they were engaged in some love affair. And even if they had been, what would have been the harm? She was a widow; he was a widower. Why choose to withhold it from us? Unless 62 his intention was to withhold for the sake of withholding. To have something altogether his own. A secret like a muscle built up for his own delectation, which nobody else could see but which he could flex and feel. A sense of firmness in the core, when everything else was deteriorating. A small claim to autonomy or wildness in the face of neutralizing domesticity. Or was I ascribing my own impulses to him? In life, I’d never thought him capable of reasoning this way. But what did I know about the limits of his mind? Apparently, not enough. And apparently, that was how it would remain. I would have to resign myself to it.
At home I was drawn into the eddies of our evening ritual. There were grievances to adjudicate and half-hearted punishments to mete out. There was bargaining and cajoling over math homework and piano practice, interspersed with earnest and playful affections. There was fitful conversation, dinner, dishes, toilet and bedtime. All the while, looking at the faces of my wife and children, I felt the attenuated weight of my grandfather’s secret. It was a small fraction of what he must have felt. He’d kept a secret while I was keeping the secret of a secret — and one I understood only partially and imperfectly. Maybe because of that — because there really wasn’t anything definitive to say — I didn’t tell my wife where I’d been or what I’d been doing. Or it may have been out of a sense of fealty to my grandfather, as though, as his only male grandchild, I had an obligation to keep faith with him in death as I’d kept faith with him in life. When nobody else could summon the patience, I’d listened to exhaustive recollections about his beloved pre-war Baltinava. And his repeated accounts of being wounded at the front and his long and arduous recuperation. Were someone to ask me, I could name the surgeon who saved my grandfather’s arm. Posterity would know him as Dr. Dubinsky.
To regain our psychological equilibrium after the rigours of bedtime, my wife and I repaired to our individual screens, she in our bedroom, I downstairs in my office. After ingesting my dose of the day’s cultural and political news, I checked my email and found a message from Ruta Gulbis. Its subject line read: “Your grandfather.”
You were just at my mom’s house. I’m sending you the video. I don’t know what she told you, but it probably wasn’t the truth. Ruta Gulbis
I clicked on the file and encountered Lauma sitting on the sofa in Agnes’s living room. She wore a grey skirt and pale- yellow sweater. In her lap she cradled a kokle. Her expression was vaguely fearful, as if she expected to be scolded for some indeterminate offence. A woman’s voice sounded off-screen, presumably Agnes’s, saying something in Latvian. Lauma didn’t so much as twitch. A moment later my grandfather 64 walked stiffly into the frame and sat near Lauma. He wore burgundy house slippers, dark trousers and a striped shirt with a blue tie under a blue-and-red argyle vest he’d favoured. As Lauma watched him take his seat, her expression changed from anxious to impassive. My grandfather glanced at her, as if to ascertain her mind, and turned calmly to face the camera. Agnes spoke again and he nodded. The camera then zoomed in on his face, immediately zoomed out, adjusted focus and jerkily panned over and down to reframe him and Lauma so they were centred on the screen. All the while, my grandfather appeared and behaved exactly like himself, patient and obedient. I felt a powerful rush of feeling surge up in me, which manifested itself, surprisingly, in Yiddish. My mind formed the phrase: Berl, vos tostu? It translated, not harshly but endearingly, as “Berl, what are you doing?”It was an echo of the way my relatives — my father, my uncle— would greet my grandfather in his apartment or at one of our houses. Before switching to Russian, they’d offer one or another phrase in Yiddish, delivered mostly in jest, like an acknowledgement of their legacy membership in a quaint but defunct club. Meanwhile, in the video, Lauma’s fingers started moving across the strings of the instrument. She played a short introductory passage, and then my grandfather launched into the lyrics with his strong, confident voice. It was a happy, jaunty tune — odd in the context. Even though I was ignorant of most things Latvian, I recognized it. It told of a little rooster impatient to wake the sleepy village girls. I’d heard my grandfather sing it before, in the guise of Latvia’snational folk song. I watched him and Lauma perform it to completion, whereupon Lauma removed her hands from the kokle and Agnes applauded. Agnes then uttered what sounded like a request for another song, but Lauma rose from the sofa. My grandfather also began to rise when the video abruptly ended.
I sat quietly for a minute, the black screen before me, and considered exactly how I would proceed. It was nearly ten o’clock. Ruta had written not a full hour earlier.
Modern technology furnished too many alternatives and confused what should have been a simple matter. I wanted to speak to Ruta. But when did I want to inform her that I wanted to speak to her? And then when did I actually want to speak to her? And what was appropriate based on the timing and the content of her email? Each succeeding question didn’t so much bring me closer to an answer as cause me to despise myself and the culture I lived in. In the end I composed the following text: “Hi Ruta. It’s David. Thank you for the video.”
Immediately, I saw the ellipsis blink in the respondent’s bubble.
I told my wife I was going for a walk and sat on a bench in the park near our house. During the day the park teemed with nannies and children. Plastic playground equipment had been installed atop a spongy surface, and a set of swings fixed over a sandpit. Beyond the playground were an open field, a knoll, a mix of young and mature trees where dogs 66 ran and relieved themselves, sternly warned to keep clear of the children. At night, these same dogs streaked unrestrained across the entire park while their owners chatted. Sometimes teenagers got high and behaved obnoxiously on the swings. During warmer months, shadowy characters hunched at the edge of the park, and in the mornings parents and dog owners found spent condoms and hypodermic needles. As I waited for Ruta, I had the park mostly to myself. Occasionally someone walked or cycled past. In a far corner, dog tags tinkled around the glow of a cellphone.
From the bench I could see cars turn from the main road onto our street. I inferred which was Ruta’s — a silver Dodge Ram pickup with Alberta plates that slowed several houses before ours and crept forward. I went to meet her where she parked. Through the window, she appeared younger than I’d originally thought, closer to thirty than forty. She met my eyes briefly, then leaned across the passenger seat to retrieve something. As Agnes had conceded, Ruta was beautiful, but grimly or antagonistically so, as if she regarded her looks as a gift she’d been unable to decline or destroy. She opened the door and swung around to face me. Her blond hair fell loosely over the collar of a plaid shirt. She wore faded jeans and rested her scuffed brown leather boots on the truck’s running board.
“Where do you want to talk?” she asked.
“Probably not across from my bedroom window.”
“You didn’t tell your wife?”
“What’s there to tell?”
I retreated a step and turned in the direction of the park. Ruta swept her purse off the seat, hopped down and shut the door. We walked wordlessly to the bench I’d occupied while waiting for her.
Once we’d sat, she rummaged in her purse for a cigarette and a lighter. Sparking the flame, she said, “I hope you’re not expecting me to jerk you off or anything.” “It hadn’t crossed my mind,” I said.
“Really?” she replied mordantly, and lit her cigarette. “I was in Alberta for almost ten years working in the oil sands. You probably read all sorts of shit about it. Most of it was true. Guys propositioned me all the time. Not just me, but any woman with a pulse. In the work camps and on the job sites, you could be offered hundreds or even thousands of dollars to jerk someone off or blow them. It could be the labourers, the cooks, the security guards, the supervisors, oil executives, even cops. I never did, in case you’re wondering. Not because I’m a prude or a feminist or anything, but because I respect myself and demand to be respected for what I can do. Which is a lot more than jerking people off.”
To substantiate her point, Ruta rifled through her purse for her phone and showed me photographs similar to the one I’d seen in her mother’s kitchen: her beside or inside large machines. As she swiped through the images, I noted that she had exceptionally well-formed hands, the fingers long and slender, though the nails were trimmed or bitten to the 68 quick. There was also something manic about the play of her hands that seeped increasingly into the pitch of her voice. She lingered on a shot she’d taken through the windshield of an excavator depicting the colossal raw expanses of the bitumen mines. Her job had been to clear the land of overburden — layers of worthless rock and dirt that rested atop the valuable resource. She proudly displayed a series of pictures of a trailer home she’d bought. She’d been paid handsomely for her work but had sunk much of her money into the trailer at the peak of the market. Then the price of oil tanked and work became precarious. And then, in the spring, the wildfire struck and reduced her home to a pile of toxic ash. She’d been forced to flee, just like her grandparents from the Red Army, snatching only a few possessions and driving her truck through the flames. The only refuge she could afford while waiting for the insurance company to process her claim— which they were in no hurry to do — was in her mother’s house. Ironically, it was a desire to escape her mother’s house and seek her independence that had compelled her to go to Alberta in the first place. Now she was stranded there and even more miserable than she’d been before.
In the time she spoke, Ruta didn’t provide me an opening to say a word, and I felt a growing and desperate need to leave — as if for the sake of my sanity. I sensed that I had finally arrived at the stage Knut had warned me about, and I feared that anything Ruta might say about my grandfather — true or false — would do me harm. I’d pursued the mystery faithfully and lovingly, but it was clear to me now that people either didn’t know, wouldn’t say or couldn’t be trusted to speak sense.
I rose from the bench and said something to this effect as diplomatically as I could.
Ruta responded with a look of naked, childlike hurt — a look that declared that I’d joined the ranks of all the people who’d disappointed her in life.
“I was trying to form a human connection,” she said. “But if you can’t handle that kind of intimacy, I’m not going to force it on you. I respect your choice. But it doesn’t change my intentions. I came here to repay my family’s debt to your grandfather and to Jewish people.”
Once more she dug into her purse and this time pulled out a sealed, white letter-size envelope, which she then extended to me.
“You can do what you want with it. Open it. Don’t open it. Throw it into one of the garbage cans with the diapers and dog shit. It’s up to you.”
I accepted it and turned to go. Ruta remained where she was, smoking her cigarette. But before I’d gone very far, she called after me.
“Did my mother say anything about the child my grandmother left behind in Latvia?”
“She didn’t,” I said, though my tone made clear that the existence of the child wasn’t a revelation to me.
“Did she show you the drawing of my grandmother’s cat?”
“Did you happen to ask why she took her fucking cat and not her child?”
It would have been impossible to ask, but I felt stupid that it hadn’t even occurred to me.
“My grandmother was very beautiful and very weak. My grandfather ruled her life. If he decided they weren’t going to take her Jewish bastard, then guess what, her Jewish bastard got left behind.”
Ruta looked at me defiantly, as if, having dangled such provocative bait, she dared me to keep walking. I felt a shiver of disdain pass through me.
I held up the envelope. “What’s in it?”
“Our family history.”
“I know about it.”
“Then you know about it,” she replied.
In reproach, I tore the envelope open where I stood. It contained a single photocopy, which I read by the light of my phone. One side was a typed and notarized document in Latvian; the other side bore a handwritten English translation.
I, Berls Singers, born in Baltinava, Latvia, the sole surviving heir of my parents, Natans and Fruma Singers, declare that my family was dispossessed of property by the Soviet occupiers in the form of two houses at 7 and 20 Darza Street and a leather store at 5 Tirgus Street. I assert my rights to have the properties restored to me and their deeds transferred to Mara Smiltnieks, my biological daughter from Lauma Gulbis, née Smiltnieks.
Signed this 17th day of February 2001 in Toronto, Canada.
I looked up to find Ruta eyeing me boldly, as if we were now implicitly joined in profound and painful feeling.
“My mother was never going to tell you.”
The anger I’d felt drained away and was replaced by a weary pity.
“To protect Mara? So I didn’t go after the houses and the store?”
“You had a right to know.”
I walked slowly back to the bench and sat beside her.
“We knew, but we believed she was my grandfather’s brother’s.”
“Not according to what your grandfather wrote here.”
“If he wrote it out of charity, better to write daughter rather than niece. There’s nobody left to deny it.”
“You’re denying it.”
“Ruta, it doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s all past. You can believe whatever you want.”
“Thanks, so can you.”
“I try not to believe what I want to believe.”
“I don’t understand,” she said with exasperation. “Why did you even text me?”
“I don’t know. I thought there would be more.”
She reached into her purse again for cigarettes. Deliberately
averting her eyes from me, she lit one and gazed out at the park.
I reflected on the tortuous circumstances that had brought us together. Something had happened a long time ago between people who were no longer alive and whom we would be the last to know. For flawed and powerful reasons, we assigned too much importance to it, even as we didn’t really know what it was.
Had our grandparents loved each other but suppressed their feelings for the sake of the brother with the dent in his head? Had they coveted each other, as proscribed by the Bible? Or had they simply, in the terror-eros of war, submitted to a spontaneous passion?
Through green fields, insuperable Aryans advanced. Of one hundred Jewish families in Baltinava, three fled. The others perished. Perhaps at Ruta’s grandfather’s hand. In the shadow of the crimson reckoning, Lauma looked into her daughter’s face for the last time and left.
On my phone were pictures I’d taken of my girls at Georgian Bay. They posed in their swimsuits on the white sand, in the glare of the sun; the dark, shallow lake spread out behind them, stands of birch and pine describing the coast. The setting evoked the summers I’d spent as a boy on the Baltic shore. My memory of them now was visceral and ephemeral, like a deep breath. I brought up the photos and offered them to Ruta. She took the phone from my hand and studied them carefully. From across the park, a girl shrieked. The sound whisked through the night like an arrow that landed between us, narrowly missing its mark. Ruta and I startled and looked to each other as if we might embrace or leap to each other’s defence. The sincerity of the feeling gripped us and then released as the girl’s shriek spiralled into laughter.