This is about the day I finally got to meet Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel laureate who could tell me about my grandfather.
As you may know, my mother was a complete mystery to me. For a long time my sister and I didn’t even know what country she was from – we eventually found out she was from Lithuania, a country that reveres writers. My mom rarely shared anything about the life she had before us – and hers was certainly a whopper of a life.
One day when I was in college I found a book on her shelf - The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz. I had discovered his writings on my own and was in awe of him in the same way I was in awe of Hemingway. Inside the book I found an inscription to my mother from Mr. Milosz. Also in its pages was a letter he had written to her in some other language (Lithuanian, I think). I asked her about it, and she told me – casually – that Mr. Milosz had been her friend and mentor while she was at Berkeley, and that he had been close friends with my grandfather.
Can you imagine if you were a writer majoring in writing at college, and you accidentally found out your mom knew Ernest Hemingway – that he had mentored her – and not only that, your grandfather was one of his best friends? And yet…nobody bothered to mention it to you? This is how I felt about Mr. Milosz – a Nobel Laureate, and in my opinion one of the greatest writers of our time.
TALK ABOUT OUT-TO-LUNCH PARENTING!
Apparently Mr. Milosz had been college roommates with my grandfather. They were close friends, she told me. For years they roomed together, studying law and talking politics – Stalinism, socialism – writing.
“CZESLAW MILOSZ WAS ROOMMATES WITH YOUR FATHER AND YOU DIDN”T TELL ME?” I said, outraged.
This is the brazenly passive-aggressive kind of crap about my parents that really bugged me. It was exactly like them to space out and accidentally keep crucial information like this from me. They knew I was a writer – that I had made up my mind I would become a writer at the age of ten – and they didn’t even bother to tell me that my grandfather was a writer. Or that my mother had been a journalist, or that my whole family was riddled with writers! I had no idea about any of this. When I finally went to Lithuania to meet my mother’s family, the very first thing out of their mouths after Hello at the airport, was:
“And are you writer like your grandfather?”
They were a country obsessed with writers. They even showed me a special calendar celebrating each of “Lithuania’s Beloved Writers” – with my grandfather’s name printed on one of the national days. You would think my mom would have mentioned this, but nope.
I immediately liked these people – no, I loved them. They were my tribe: quirky, geeky, and very, very funny. They all looked so much like her, and like me. I couldn’t imagine why she ran off and left them all and never once came back to them.
As we left the airport, one of her uncles said:
“Your mother was difficult from day she was born. God, was she difficult.”
In the year 2000 I was attending graduate school at the University of San Francisco, which hosted a millenial symposium where a panel of speakers – including Mr. Milosz – was scheduled to speak.
My husband and I got tickets and went. It was in an auditorium on campus and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Mr. Milosz was old then – in his 80′s – but sharp as a tack – that man did not miss a thing. As each member of the panel spoke I found myself staring intently at him, filled with an intense longing – like he had something I needed. I didn’t know what it was – but I knew I needed it.
When the panel ended, my heart sank. I knew it was over, and I probably wouldn’t get to meet him.
That’s when one of the priests asked if anyone in the audience had any questions.
Before I could think straight, my husband shoved my arm up into the air and – oh my God – out of everybody in that auditorium they called on me. What are the chances of that?
They invited me to come up to the stage so I had to make my way through the audience and up to the podium, all the while being watched by the stony-faced Mr. Milosz. My brain was scrambling to find the words I would say.
I got up there and spoke into the microphone. I think everyone in the room could sense that I had a boulder-sized lump in my throat – they seemed to know that whatever it was I wanted to ask him was important.
“Mr. Milosz,” I said, “in 1990 in an interview in a book by Tomas Venclova, you spoke at length about your good friend, Pranas A-, your roommate at university. You discussed your friendship with him and the influence he had on you…”
I looked over at Mr. Milosz. There was a blank stare on his face and it was kind of scary.
“…that man – Pranas A- – was my grandfather…”
You could hear a pin drop. Everyone in the auditorium was right there with me.
“…He died the year I was born so I don’t know much about him. I was just wondering if maybe you remembered him, if you could tell me about him?”
Mr. Milosz had a lovely writerly face, but this same face could intimidate the fuck out of you with its poker-faced stare:
Time passed. The priests were running around trying to convey to him what I had just said but he wasn’t getting it.
“His name was Pranas A-,” I repeated lamely into the microphone, trying to pronounce his last name correctly even though it was Lithuanian.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch-o. Flat-line.
I spotted my husband’s codependent face in the crowd. I knew he was wondering if I was going to faint from the embarrassment, and what he was going to have to do about this.
You could tell the audience felt for me – they were hoping he would get it. But he didn’t. He didn’t remember who my grandfather was and he had no idea who I was even though my passive-aggressive mom had led me to believe they were old friends. I’d made an ass out of myself in front of an auditorium full of people and my codependent husband was going to have to make his way to the stage and to haul my limp body off of it after I died of embarrassment.
“Never mind,” I mumbled, “…it’s alright.”
I made my way back to my husband, who whispered, “It’s okay.”
That’s when I heard a voice – it was Mr. Milosz.
“Wait, wait!” he said.
He was reading something one of the priests had written for him on a piece of paper – my grandfather’s name. Apparently I had butchered its pronunciation, but when he saw it written down – he understood.
“Pranas? Pranas A-?”
“Yes!” I said.
“You are grand-daughter of Pranas A-?”
He stood quickly and held his arms out. I ran back to the stage and into his arms. He bear-hugged me.
I can’t explain it but I’ve waited my whole life for that very hug.
It was like I was hugging my grandfather.
He held my face in his hands and repeated, “You are grandaughter of Pranas?”
My tears started, and he hugged me again.
Well – there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house. Even the priests were dabbing at their eyes.
Everyone was relieved for me, the embarrassed young woman who just wanted to know about her grandfather.
Mr. Milosz returned to the podium and spoke into the microphone again. He was energized now, and there was no sign of the poker-face.
“I would be honored to talk about my friend, Pranas A-,” he said. “Pranas was a writer. An intellectual. A revolutionary. He was a man who influenced me greatly…”
So this great man, Czelsaw Milosz, proceeded to speak to the auditorium for almost 10 minutes about my grandfather, a man who he admired.
I learned that my grandfather was a literary critic, a journalist, a socialist who had been jailed for his political beliefs, that the writers had secured his release from jail, that he had been exiled and eventually run for Canadian Parliament – all sorts of things my parents hadn’t told me, and probably never would. After he told us about my grandfather’s life, he said: “His life was a tragedy – his future was stolen from him by war. He was a revolutionary hero in exile. Here was a tall, brooding man in spectacles with dark hair over his eyes. I saw him suffer from the time he was young – he had terrible dark moods that no one could bring him out of. And then the war took his future, he was exiled. It was a tragedy – Pranas took his own life, in the end.”
I may not have had many relatives around at holidays throughout my life but somehow these ten minutes of Mr. Milosz speaking about my grandfather’s life made up for it.
Afterward my husband and I got to have tea with him. He asked about my mother so I showed him her picture, and told him she was very sick.
And then I went home. Filled.
I linked up as usual with Yeah Write, and in the words of Sally Field: “You like me! You really really like me!”.
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