Monday, May 27, 2013

One immigrant's story

My Grandfather, Edvard Wallner, 1930.
Probably like every immigrants' story my grandparents' story includes a twist of fate.

My grandfather was in his 40s during the World War II and was likely pressed into some sort of service as all able-bodied German men and male children were toward the end of the war. It was never clear what my grandfather did during the war. My father was born in a refugee camp in Grotniki, Poland in 1941. This always seemed dubious to me. How was a conception and pregnancy possible during this part of the war?  They were German nationals who called Lithuania home: What were they doing in Poland? There were vague stories about my grandfather being an officer's driver, and the family fleeing a fire-bombed Dresden which my father claimed to remember. There are many holes in the story and I can only assume the holes are filled with a combination of heroics, shame and survival.

Questioning the story was not possible. I didn't have a good enough command of German (and no comprehension of Lithuanian) to ask the questions myself. All answers were filtered through my father's translations. Things were left out and my imagination is not kind.

But the story of their immigration to the United States has been told and retold many times, and the details aren't as sketchy. It is filled with heroics, shame and survival too.

Though the exact timeline isn't clear, it began sometime in the late '40s. Starving in post-war Germany, my grandparents made plans to emigrate. Their families had scattered around the globe after the war. My grandmother's family immigrated to Australia. My grandfather's family were in Canada, Chicago, and West Germany.

Having siblings already living in Australia and Canada, my grandparents tried to emigrate there first.

Tuberculosis was a threat. Because of this, all emigres had to have clean chest X-rays. My grandmother's showed spots. She had survived TB, but her X-rays called her out and Australia and Canada denied their visas.

Tapping into the resourcefulness that got him and his family through two wars, my grandfather came up with a plan. The U.S. required immigrants to have a sponsor. My grandfather contacted his cousin who was living on Chicago's south side in the Marquette Park neighborhood.  She and her husband agreed to sponsor my grandparents. But there was still the hurdle of the chest X-ray.

Wising up this time, my grandfather stepped on my grandmother's X-ray, obscuring the TB spots. Her X-ray now looked like many others — a poor-quality medical record. They were granted visas to the U.S. and told they were only allowed to bring $20 in cash per person with them on the boat voyage west. Ignoring this, my grandfather sewed $20 bills into his socks and the family embarked a ship leaving Hamburg for New York. They arrived in October, 1950.

The rest of their story is all-American. They got jobs, learned English (somewhat) and became U.S. citizens — my father being the last to become naturalized in 1976. ("I wanted to vote against Jimmy Carter," he told me once.) They led prosperous lives. Whenever the subject of the old country would come up, as it often did when we were all together, there was never longing. They were thankful to be here. Their gratitude was handed down to me.
They never returned to Germany. But I did. I went to Berlin in 1978, driving through East Germany to get there. I silently thanked my grandfather every mile of that drive. And I thank him  every Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Election Day, Veteran's Day, every time I hear the "Star Spangled Banner", every time I say the Pledge of Allegiance, every time I see the U.S. Flag, every time I call my myself an American.  

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Not So Great Gatsby

My husband and I are long past the double-date stage. We seldom go out with other couples for dinner, rarer still, a movie.  I have no theories on why we are this way. It's never bothered me enough to give it a second thought.

Last weekend we found ourselves in the company of two other couples for dinner. It was a spontaneous thing and it was a lot of fun. During this dinner, the conversation turned to the upcoming film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." I'm sure I squealed (yeah, I'm a squealer) "Oooohhh I really want to see that!" The others were already making plans to see it opening night.

"You should come!" squealed Laura. (There's a reason we are friends.)
"Yes! Can we?" I asked Kevin.
"Have you read anything about it? You should because I don't think you are going to like it," he said.
"No, but I've seen the trailer and it looks dazzling. I want to be dazzled," I said, sounding like the feather head I become in mixed company after two healthy pours of Chianti.

The conversation turns to other versions of the movie, but it's clear the three of us women really want to see the new film. One of the other husbands, Steve, wants to see it as well, and I think that might bring some masculine credibility to the venture. I quickly forget why Kevin thinks I will not like the movie and I'm caught up in thoughts of how fun it will be to see a movie with other couples. Any movie. (Excepting porn.)

As I've mentioned before, I love it when men make social plans. So I thought it was cute when our friend Steve asked me the following day if Kevin and I were in for the movie Friday. He and his wife were going to select a time and theater and get advanced tickets. I asked Kevin if we were indeed in.

"I don't know. Let's wait and see if Chip gets back to me about a meeting Friday," he says.
"You're stalling. You don't want to see the movie, do you?" I accuse.
He denies this and I drop it.

Steve emails me the following day, asking if we are in. I explain the delayed response, perhaps maybe whining just a wee bit.
"Do I need to send him a 'what kind of hubby are you email?' Steve volunteers.
"And how would that email go?" I ask, knowing such an email would not go over well at all.
"Just a nudge about doing something just because your best girl likes it. And a reminder that chivalry and generosity gets returned ten-fold," he writes.
I decline his offer. Just the other night Kevin rescued a dying, half-paralyzed wild rabbit, setting it up in a cozy box in our garage with some spinach leaves. He then drove it to the animal hospital the next morning so they could humanely end its life. Kevin needs no reminders of chivalry. Ever.  
Another day passes and Kevin calls me at work to check in. He says an odd thing.
"There wasn't much in the mail for you today. Your "New Yorker" came. Wait'll you see it."
"Oh, that's right, they've got a piece about 'Gatsby'. It's on the cover too, right?"
"No, not the cover. There's a 'Gatsby' review. You're going to want to read it before you consider going to see it."
"Why? Is it scathing?"
"It's bad."
"I don't care. I want to see it. You don't have to come along." I snap like a petulant 12-year-old.

This morning Kevin gets up before me and makes me buckwheat pancakes and coffee, and I am reminded again how he would never need a nudge about generosity and chivalry. My heart swells with love. We sit down to eat and he says: "Did you read that review in the New Yorker last night?"
"No. I was reading about Syria," I say defensively.
"We're not going to Syria Friday," he shoots back.
"You're not going to read it are you? I know how this goes," he says with more than a little contempt.
"And you are going to hate this movie no matter what," I shoot back. "You are going to base your opinions on this one review? You don't even like the New Yorker!"
"No, I base them on what I've seen in the trailer too. I don't think I will like it and I don't think you will either. The reviewer got motion sickness from the camera work. Beware," he says.

He asks questions about the logistics of going to the movie as if it were an entire weekend getaway.
"Did Laura's email mean we are to buy our own tickets or were they buying them? What time is the show? When do we need to be there to get a seat together? It's not that theater way out there in Naperville is it?" he continues.
We are now snipping at each other and I'm incredulous. Why is this outing turning into a pain point?
As I head out the door for work he comments on my outfit. He does this a lot and creatively.
"Lori's all in black and white today. Yin and Yang. The duality of man," he says.
"Yes. That's me. I'm a duality," I say.

Kevin is very likely right. All signs do point to me hating the "Great Gatsby". Questionable camera work, an incongruous soundtrack, a filmmaker whose previous work "Moulin Rouge!" I loathed— all adds up to a fat thumbs down. He knows me well.

Once at the office, I check the email trail regarding the movie and I buy our tickets online, happily responding that the B.'s have purchased their tickets. I'm weirdly excited that we're "in." It is then that it dawns on me: I want to see this movie, on this night, with these people because I don't want to be left out. I need to be part of a mini society of happily married couples. What I overlooked is how strong-arming my husband makes me a lesser member of that society.

There's a solid chance Kevin and I will be leaving the theater tomorrow night disappointed in the movie and wishing we could have those four hours of our lives back. If that happens, I know I will have to apologize. But I know Kevin will not say "I told you so."

I guess that would make us a happy couple after all.