Nonfiction from Christopher Valdheims
Where, dear God,
Will you sojourn after we all die?
You have no father, nor dear mother,
Not your own dear brothers.
– Traditional Latvian verse
I was the child of exiles. Born on the streets, and now I was back. Back where? Back here. Back here at the edge of a field bordered by near nothing. Moments before this I walked where the church had stood, now just the shell remaining. The insides scooped out, the courtyard surrounded by sconces where once some priest had erected twelve stations of the cross. They were now empty alcoves quiet above a brook.
And now I stood here at a grassy field, bordered by near nothing. I felt the wind blow through my woolen coat and I watched the budding branches twitch against the sky, whose clouds hung like bulging canopy. I felt like the clouds wanted to lower and surround us for some reason, but I was not afraid.
We drove here. Taking a few hours to get to this tiny town from the capital of a small nation perched above the rest of Europe. I had arrived from LA the night before. The GPS we used had been old. Maybe from 2003-04, by a company called Manta. It spoke Russian, but since it could not seem to connect to the Internet or to any useful database, it spouted nonsense. Useless confusion and gibberish. Our driver shut it into the glove box and he and my new distant relative from Russia, Grigor, unfurled a paper map in the front seat, while I sat with his wife, Anastasia, in the back of the car. From time to time, we would pull over and ask a random person if they knew how to get to the next town as we moved closer to our destination. At one point an old man even got in, holding a flip phone and shouting in Russian the directions to the next crossroad.
I met Grigor and Anastasia on the Internet. We had been searching for each other, unaware that we would find one another. All of us were looking for any relatives that might have made it through the twentieth century. We came from our own directions, not knowing what each pursuit would turn up. They searched from the Russian city of Saratov, me from Los Angeles. Until about a year ago we didn’t know each other. But we all suspected that we had more flesh and blood somewhere out there in the void.
I am related to Grigor, but the truth is that we do not look the same. He is 70, with a masculine gray mustache, outdoorsman’s features, a sweater and a blazer. He looks largely what you would expect an older Russian man in good physical shape would look like. I am half his age, wearing New Balances and I look more like my African-American father than I do to our common ancestors who we were seeking here in a place that had once been captive by the Soviet Union. Here on the border of Latvia and Lithuania.
In my life, I always had questions. And most of them had been answered by shreds. Shreds rendered into digital reproductions that were ephemeral, but that I sought to collect because I wanted to find out the bigger story. I knew that there had to be one. Now those ephemeral threads had spun themselves into an actual place. And here I was, inside a part of the story. It all began to coalesce here.
I saw your hands pouring tea into delicate china. You placed the cups on a sturdy table made of blond wood. I watched as steam curled off of them. I think it was cold outside, but you had made it warm here. I could only see your arms, ensconced in a white blouse that billowed out. You invited me to take a drink with you so that you could tell me something.
Earlier in the day, before we got to this field where I was now standing, Grigor and Anastasia took me to a graveyard outside of a church in the nearby village of Alkiškiai. They had emailed me photos of the graveyard a year earlier, so seeing it as a real place gave a sense of deja vu. The church stood crisply white, blocky and Lutheran; the graveyard spread down a hill peopled by tall birch. Grigor and Anastasia had discovered the graveyard maybe a few months before they had found me. They had found the resting place of those ancestors and they restored it.
The grave was of my great-great grandfather, who was the biological connection between myself and Grigor. There too, was my great-grandmother, whose name Emilija Migla translated to the poetic “Emily Mist” in English, alongside two of her sons. There were photographs inlaid into the new marble of the graves, showing old world European women and men. Missing though, was my grandmother, Irena Migla, or, “Irene Mist”. She did not come to rest here; her fate lay elsewhere.
As I took a moment to look at their pictures on the tombstones, I felt the sadness at the top of my cheeks. I was here, but who was I to them? Who were they to me? Did it matter that I even come here? The moment hurt because my relationship to these people—who were now gone for decades—felt largely academic.
That, yes, I was technically of the same blood and flesh, but at some point the connection pulled apart. I am haunted because this moment feels like dreams. Like the veil that separates life from death also billows out and separates me from these places of flesh, blood and stone. It feels like even though the moment was happening right now, it should not have. That it only came about by random and wild chance.
We used blue and white sponges to wipe the graves of the ancestors and then used a small broom to sweep the dust from the marble. Then we laid candles in those red votives and put flowers nearby. We asked the driver to take pictures of the three of us together, standing alongside the tombs of the deceased.
Walking out, we passed another grave whose stone had been partially caved in. A small, stout tree grew from the center, perhaps nourished by whatever minerals had collected in the bones of someone else’s great-great grandmother and were now being released back to the soil. A slender cross made out of ratty sticks had dropped across the crumbled stone. The cross looked like it had been rained on many times, and like it too would meld into the soil to share its minerals. Grigor walked near me, and shook his head, saying something in Russian which I took as a lament for the fact the person who lay in this grave had no one to care for their memory.
We left the graveyard and stood just beyond a low stone wall eating hard cheese and black bread and drinking hot, strong tea. Vapors began to descend as rain, but the mood was quiet and none seemed disturbed by it.
I saw them proceed down the road in a line. I don’t know how I had got here, but there I was observing them as they paraded down a dirt path between fields of rye. Very early morning and I wasn’t sure if they had gotten up with the sun, or had stayed up all night and were just now closing.
All women, dressed in similar fashion. White blouses, red skirts embroidered with intricate patterns. Jewelry of gold and bronze. Some of the younger women carried poles with wooden symbols at the top. These were not crosses, but a variety of lines, zig zags, suns, and other signs whose meaning I did not yet know.
Somewhere out there was the sound of one low drum that beat a slow rhythm. Boom. The resonance fades. Boom. Another sound fades. Through each, I could feel the essence of our tribe come back to me. These women had carried it, and they wanted me to know it and remember them.
Growing up, I knew nothing of the ancestors we visited and I felt now as if I had no right to. I had always felt unmoored and now I still did, especially finding myself near the other side of world. These were the places where one half of my family came from. I am the first one of them to come here in probably seventy years. I didn’t know if I should feel some molecular or genetic connection to the ground on which I stood.
When I had been born, it was the Summer of Sam in New York City. Extreme humidity and killings made it a crazy summer. My mother had been homeless when I was born in Greenwich Village—our first address was the Chardon Street House. It was only later that I learned that my mother had passed through that place and other places, at one point passing through the infamous Bellevue.
Police officers separated me from my mother when I was five years old. I ended up in foster homes and she disappeared. Once she had written me a letter from France, saying that she was being pursued and had to flee back to Europe from America. I became lost and my grandparents died. My uncle was committed to a psychiatric ward in Florida, and then died. I was the last one.
That’s how it was when ten years ago I started to look for answers. Maybe I sought these answers because I was to be a father myself.
What had happened here that my whole family had disappeared and seemed shrouded in secrecy? I have devoted a good part of my life to seeking these answers, traveling to places where I might find traces.
It was hard to communicate with Grigor and Anastasia, even though both were warm. They felt very open towards me, and had treated me like family the moment they had met me. Now and again, Anastasia would lightly take hold of my upper arm, almost to reassure herself that I really existed or for some sort of support. Both stood close to me when we talked and since they only spoke Russian and I only spoke English, our conversation mainly consisted of running what we wanted to say through some machine translation algorithm and then showing the phone to each other. Rough translation, but we started to get one another. From time to time Anastasia would say something to me in Russian, hoping that I would understand through force of will.
The funny thing is that when I say we found each other on the Internet, we actually connected through a website that I had once used to connect with the memory of my deceased grandfather, who had been an artist but also something of a hermit. I met him only once as a very young child. His friend had made a site as a tribute to him. That friend had known my grandfather for decades, so he told me some stories about my family.
The story is weird, so I will try to sum it up: something happened to my grandfather during World War II or after. Then the family had been taken as slave labor by Nazis and been forced to work in camps. Then they became refugees in Europe and came to America. They fell to America in pieces. My mother and grandmother landed in the USA, my grandfather ending up in Montreal, Canada. When my grandfather got to Montreal, he became obsessed with seeking a geometric formula that explained and underpinned human experience. He was determined that there was an underlying order to the world and if we could find it we could end things like war. He looked for this to the exclusion of most else.
That quest led him to produce over 600 pieces of art which can best be described as hypermodern symbolic mandalas. Each one was based on the same geometric formula, but each could be decoded to a different meaning, based on whatever philosopher my grandfather was reading at the time. And he had a systematic approach to what he read. This art was why I had now traveled here to Latvia and why Grigor and Anastasia had too; the next day we would see those works displayed in Latvia’s national art museum.
Since Grigor’s family is related to my grandmother, he was able to find my name by seeing her name listed as my grandfather’s first wife in his biography. Our visit to the graveyard and now to this field was a side trip to pay respect to those who came before and who we were learning to love and remember. And I knew that outside of their immediate family, I was the only living relative that Grigor and Anastasia had. Their experience had mirrored mine, in certain ways.
I felt my soul lift when you spoke to me even though I could not understand your words. I could not touch your face or your hands, but I knew that you were there and always had been there.
I saw that you were happy and you looked at the tragedy in your life as some bad joke. You had been sad at my own suffering, but you also knew that one day I too would see things as you saw them now.
The night before our journey, I met Grigor and Anastasia in the lobby of my hotel, when I was still wacked out from jet lag. It had taken about 20 hours to get to Latvia from LA, and all I had wanted to do was sleep when they got there, but they were excited to meet me. It was hard for me to get to their level of enthusiasm that easily. My mind was still pretty churned over from the flight and ten-hour time difference.
That first night they sat on either side of me and we showed each other pictures of our lives on our phones. They showed me pictures of dogs, hunts, the Volga River, and their grown sons. I showed pictures of my wife, my children, our house. We learned to use machine translation to write out notes to one another on our phones.
Talking to them, I learned that Anastasia was a doctor, Grigor an operator of a metal company. Anastasia wore a primary blue overcoat and has blond hair despite being in her sixties. Both strong and in good shape. They told me that they are fans of the industrial band Rammstein.
So as I stood there with them at the edge of the field, I could feel the vapors that descended on this place begin to coalesce into a light rain that showed up as dark spots on my coat. We had all left the car and some dogs barked at us from a nearby barn. The trees were still mostly leafless. The sky was low and gray.
I walked out into the grass of the field. The grass was long and tough, interspersed with tiny blue flowers that opened now that winter had left. The dirt was soft underfoot. As I got out there I saw that under the grass there were lines where the dirt was slightly higher than the flat ground. I traced those lines and began to make out a shape. A square. Or a rectangle. I realized it was the outline of a place where a building had once stood. Maybe decades ago. That building was gone. Earlier in the day, Grigor showed me his phone where he had translated: “Вся деревня была сожжена в 1944 году” to “The whole village burned in 1944.”
I knew half of the population of this village had once been Jewish. And I also knew there were no longer Jewish people here. I knew that even those who were not Jewish had fled during the war, including my family, and that if WWII had a center, we were now standing close to it. The cold and brutal Eastern front, where the magnitude of bloodshed had been shrouded from the West by the Iron Curtain.
I knew tanks had come this way. That hungry Russian boys with rifles had come this way. I knew houses had been blown to bits, history be damned. Future be damned. It was the end of the world.
Next to the graveyard we visited earlier was another a graveyard, down the hill. Lines of stone crosses. Each represented some German boy whose mind had been infected by primitive, half-baked theories about race and fatherland. For that they got churned and their flesh stayed here under foreign dirt.
It was only now that I saw what lay in the dirt. A small dress for a small girl, black and embroidered with flowers. It would have been for a festival. Even though the remains of the house had collapsed around it, it remained clean. It stared back at me like a dark beacon and I realized.
I realized and understood that you would come here as a child, to learn traditions from your mother and grandmother. You would make boats from leaves and sail them in the brook that I had seen. You had not ever come back here, but I did. There was so much that you wanted to explain to me, but you never could.
As I entered the square that just barely made itself visible through the grass and soil, I realized I was at the center of the void. There would be no answers here. That whatever revelations we hope for sometimes come up naught. We are not entitled to answers. We are not entitled to closure and we must live with it.
I felt Grigor come and stand next to me. His presence consoled me; somewhere in both of our bodies, we felt echoes of the same terrors. He started typing on his phone in Russian and then he showed it to me: Эмилия и Ирена домой. The phone’s English translation: “Emilija and Irena home.” He looked me in the eye to make sure that I understood.
I understood. This was the place where my grandmother had been born, and where, as a young woman she fled from. She would never come back. None of them would ever come back. Only me, and Grigor, and Anastasia. We would be the ones to stand within this void and push back the darkness only a little.
Christopher Valdheims is a writer based in Los Angeles.