Wondering if love can endure
Mother has always been psychic. She has dreamed Latvia’s future, seen ghosts, heard voices and had out-of-body experiences.
A year or two after World War II ended, Mother conducted séances for many of the women in the displaced persons camp, women who wanted to know if their husbands were dead or alive. Evening after evening, they sat at the kitchen table while Mother performed the ritual “teacup walk” using an inverted teacup which moved from one letter of the alphabet to another on a homemade Ouija board.
I stood at Mother’s elbow, my chin even with the tabletop and watched the teacup pull her fingers to the letters “no” or “yes.” No matter the teacup’s response, the women always burst out crying.
That is, all the women except my Aunt Baiba. Uncle Verner, her husband, the teacup said, was “lost.” Mother was dismayed. She accused the teacup of evasion, but the teacup was not intimidated or swayed. Aunt Baiba said, “Never mind,” and left the room, her lips pressed in a straight line, her face empty.
The men who were destined to come back from the war, did. Aunt Baiba waited and waited, but Uncle Verner did not return. The Red Cross knew nothing of his whereabouts, nor did the Americans, Germans or anyone else.
I was 4 when the men began returning from prisoner-of-war camps. The world I had known, a world solely of mothers and children, suddenly changed to one focused on men. I did not understand half of what I heard, but I felt a growing uncertainty and unease.
A woman whose husband was still missing was nevertheless “seeing a man.” Some man who had loved a woman came back from the war and no longer loved her. Someone who weighed sugar, flour or a piece of meat at the United Nations Relief Organization, cheated. Several men had assumed fake names because of something they had done earlier in the war which they now wanted to hide. A group of men poached game, but everyone had to pretend they had not because everyone wanted meat.
There was more. Despite Mother’s explanation, I did not understand how being separated for five years or more during wartime meant a wife could marry another man, even if the wife knew her husband was alive.
My Aunt Baiba’s situation was different, I thought, since Uncle Verner was “lost,” but then she married Uncle Albert in 1952, after we had all emigrated to the U.S. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that she was somehow married to two men.
Their situation was made worse, in my mind, because her new husband, Uncle Albert, still had a wife and son in Latvia, behind the Iron Curtain. I could not comprehend how it was that they had been “left behind.” Mother and I had not been left behind, nor had my aunts or cousins. Uncle Albert’s leaving them must have been deliberate. How could it be otherwise?
I found my aunt’s desire to find Uncle Verner both reassuring and discomforting. If she did find him one day, what would she do about Uncle Albert? Would she leave him? How could she not?
Where all the rumors or news originated, I never understood, but Aunt Baiba would take Mother aside and quietly report that Uncle Verner had been sighted in Sweden or in Russia, that he had been imprisoned or had escaped. Nothing ever came of these stories, but I could not let them or Uncle Verner go. Neither could my aunt.
I grew up, went away to college, married, and had a child. In 1989, when my son, Sev, completed fourth grade, we planned to visit Latvia since the Soviet regime had lifted its “off limits” stricture on my hometown. Early that spring, Uncle Albert died, and as soon as school was out, Sev and I were in Michigan, staying with my parents and getting ready for our trip.
It was a warm day in June, and Aunt Baiba invited us to her property at Big Crooked Lake. We swam, rowed, ate a picnic lunch, and went for our customary walk down country roads. Without preface, Aunt Baiba announced that Uncle Verner was alive in Kursk, USSR.
She had never given up her search, and now, 45 years after they had last seen each other, he had been found. She was 70, but seemed a young woman. She was worried that Verner might have forgotten her, that he might not want her anymore.
Other women who had found their husbands after many years had been disappointed, Aunt Baiba said, for most of them were no longer interested in their former loves.
I didn’t want to believe it. I could not imagine my star-crossed aunt and uncle, the young couple who wanted to name a daughter, if they had one, Juliet, indifferent to each other.
To be continued …
n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.