On the night of August 3, 1944—in the hot crickety darkness of Riga, Latvia—my grandparents did two remarkable things.
After midnight, while his children were sleeping, my grandfather—Harijs Mindenbergs—sat down at the kitchen table and wrote three letters: One to Benita, his wife. One to Juris, his son. And one to Ruta, his daughter and my mother.
Soviet troops were advancing toward the city. In five hours, most of the family would flee to Germany. My grandfather, however, had decided to stay. He’d decided to stay and continue filing reports for Latvian National Radio.
And while he wrote these letters, my grandmother was in the basement with a shovel. She was digging a hole in the floor. There, in the loamy soil, she was burying the family’s most valuable possessions: the jewelry, the fine porcelain, the silver. All the gifts that she’d received on September 23, 1939, the day of her wedding.
In October 2007 I received an e-mail with this subject line: “Invitation to Visit Latvia.” Someone at the State Department, it seemed, had read my book, and they’d decided that I might be a good candidate to come to Latvia to speak about Latvian American literature and the American immigrant experience. I started a reply. The State Department of the United States of America? Are you absolutely certain this isn’t a mistake?
I accepted, of course, and prepared to go on a state visit. “Just don’t cause,” my girlfriend said, “any sort of international incident.”
“Is Latvia a nuclear power?” added my friend Dave Epstein. “Because if it is, I’m building a bomb shelter in the backyard.”
In my creative writing classes we talk a lot about beginnings. There’s a reason, I tell my students, that the Iliad begins during the ninth year of the Trojan War, not during the first. Start in medias res, I say to them. Note that the first line of dialogue in Heart of Darkness is:
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
“Hey! I was thinking we might go on a trip to the Congo!”
A narrative works best when it cycles back to the past, when it illuminates the present moment with snapshots of history.
But the challenge that I faced as I prepared to go to Latvia was this: The more I investigated my family’s story, the more I found a new beginning, and a new beginning, and a new beginning.
When I talked to my mom about the State Department trip, we had a long conversation about Latvia and her childhood. She told me half a dozen stories at least, but my favorite, easily, was post-American-immigration, from May 1952. The setting was the family home in Mount Vernon, Washington—the boxy, oak-floored Craftsman that my grandparents had rented in the heart of the Skagit River Valley.
Old friends—Latvian exiles, a couple with three children—came to visit from Los Angeles. The adults stayed up late into the night, drinking cognac and smoking cigars and discussing the politics of a redrawn Eastern Europe.
The kids awoke at seven. They snuck downstairs and my twelve-year-old uncle found some leftover cigars—cigars that, he assured everyone, were of the finest quality, hand-rolled and quite possibly from Cuba. They needed to be smoked, really, because they wouldn’t stay fresh much longer. The adults, if they even noticed, would be thankful for the assistance.
So, where did they smoke them? On the roof, of course.
They crawled through the window, inching out along the sloping surface, assembling near the triangular, tar-paper crown. They lit the cigars, and within minutes, they were all throwing up. No one had told them, sadly, not to inhale. These are the sounds my grandparents awoke to on that May morning: five vomiting children, crying and doing their dizzy best not to fall to their deaths, waking the neighbors with the sound of their retching, waking all the neighborhood dogs.
In 1944, they agreed that my grandmother was to read this letter to my mother only if my grandfather died.
And though it would certainly make for a lovely transition, I did not get airsick on the flight to Riga. Instead, I successfully negotiated customs (“Do you have any fruit, or birds?” “No. I have no fruit, nor birds.”) and emerged into baggage claim.
Immediately, an embassy official flagged me down. He offered me a friendly handshake and a “security briefing” in a manila folder. What I discovered from this briefing was that I needed to develop “counterintelligence awareness.”
Know the foreign intelligence recruitment cycle: spotting, assessing, recruitment, and handling. Know motivators: money, ideology, and ego.
BE ALERT to foreign intelligence use of unofficial Americans, third country nationals, and false flag approaches.
The United States Government, I suddenly realized, had given me at least three titles for sure fire espionage bestsellers. I envisioned a trilogy. First: Money, Ideology, Ego. Then: The Unofficial American. And finally: False Flag Approach. I would call my film agent as soon as I got to the hotel.
More seriously, though, the State Department had also given me the chance to see, for perhaps the last time, the apartment building in central Riga that belonged to my family, the apartment building at 9 Sencu Iela. It was there that my mother spent the first year of her life. And now she was selling it, motivated by her own retirement and by the difficulties of managing a rental property from across the world.
Of course, my mom had told me when I’d gone home over the holidays, the paperwork was proving a bit tricky.
“So we pay taxes to the local municipality,” she said. “But only on the appreciation of the land since 1991. Improvements to the buildings are appraised separately and the profits are held in escrow.” She looked at me.
“Escrow,” she said, “or esgrow? Grow as in plant? Or crow as in raven?”
And here she made a cawing noise and flapped her arms like a bird.
“How about another glass of bourbon?” I suggested.
I have always wanted to be a spy.
The building itself was worth just over a million dollars, and its history was a thumbnail sketch of the history of the country. Built with a flourish of optimism in the years between the First and Second World Wars, 9 Sencu Iela rose three stories from the pavement. It was an expansive private residence—the result of my great-grandfather’s success in business.
Then, in 1944, the Soviet occupation began.
In exchange for volunteering to donate his home to the Latvian People’s Soviet Socialist Republic, my great-grandfather managed to avoid deportation to a Siberian gulag. Nine Sencu Iela was then subdivided into nine apartments. In one of these apartments my great-grandfather and great-grandmother died—in 1950 and 1951—of medical problems exacerbated by extreme hunger. It was where my great-aunt subsequently lived out the remainder of her life in crushing poverty.
Once the Soviet Union fell, the city slowly rebounded, reclaiming some of its beauty and its bourgeois vitality. And so it was to this rebuilt neighborhood that my grandmother returned in 1993, when she was dying of cancer. She wanted to see the house that had haunted her for half a century. But she only wanted to look. She didn’t want to try to unearth the things she’d buried in 1944.
On my first afternoon in Riga, I went to visit the Okupācijas Muzejs, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, located in Riga’s Old Town. It’s difficult to imagine a building more at odds with its surroundings. Old Town overflows with pastel-colored, neoclassical buildings, with intricately carved rococo facades and whole city blocks that look like, say, Marie Antoinette’s wedding cake. The Okupācijas Muzejs, by comparison, looks a lot like a giant black cheese grater.
Inside this cheese grater, however, are a dispiriting array of photographs, artifacts, and statistics. There’s also a full-size reproduction of a Siberian barracks, complete with claustrophobically small bunks and broken-paneled windows. On the stairs leading to the exit, however, they’ve stenciled this number: 550,000.
This is the documented number of Latvians displaced during the Second World War and the ensuing five years of Stalin’s deportations — with 370,000 dead and 180,000 forced to flee as refugees. That’s 550,000 out of two million.
In the United States, by comparison, this figure would translate, proportionally, to seventy million. 70,000,000. I tried to imagine what this number would feel like. I tried to imagine if by 2018, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Washington, DC, Phoenix, and Detroit were all wiped off the map by, say, pandemic flu? How would the American nation recover? How would it cope? Maybe this is why the Latvian character—Latvieu raksturis—is widely believed to be so deeply pessimistic. Even the loss of these American cities—eight of the largest in the United States—would only add up to twenty-two million.
On my way out of the museum, I stopped to speak with the docent, wanting to confirm that the numbers were indeed correct. She was a pleasant, middle-aged woman with dyed brown hair and eyes bordered by deep worry lines. When I mentioned that number, she just nodded, making and holding eye contact.
“But that’s one-quarter of the country,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. She started to say something else—but her breath caught in her throat and her eyes filled with tears. “Yes,” she said again.
“Thank you,” I said, and left the museum as quickly as I could. Around the corner, alone on the boulevard across from the Daugava River, I looked at the steady roll of the water. The river was wide and slate gray and the air had a saline scent. I stood there for a long time, watching the Daugava move inexorably toward the sea.
But there was one more statistic that made an impression on me at the Okupacijas Muzejs. Of those 180,000 Latvians who fled the country during the Second World War, only 120,000 survived. Sixty thousand died in one way or another. Many of them simply vanished, their bodies destroyed in some nameless way, buried in mass graves or burned or drowned, their bodies elementally surrendered.
And so the story I want to tell now is about what happened after my grandmother fled—after she left my grandfather behind and went to Germany with the children. It was late October. Almost three months had passed. She was still alone. She hadn’t heard anything from my grandfather. Allied planes hit Berlin every day, killing hundreds of people in the streets, perpetually filling the air with an acrid, greasy smoke. So she decided to leave the city and travel to the south of the country, where it was supposed to be safer.
The train snaked through a landscape pocked with craters and the skeletal remains of factories and homes. My grandmother had sprained her ankle; she was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to stay there in coach. But my uncle, a typical four-year-old kid, was relentlessly hyperactive. He wanted to see the locomotive. He was insistent. He begged and begged and begged. Finally, after his endless battery of pleas, my grandmother gave in. She bundled them up and limped toward the front of the train.
Fifteen minutes later, an Allied bombing run targeted the tracks. Incendiary rounds tore through the back compartments, derailing all of its cars and killing nearly everyone on board. But my family survived—they were among a handful of survivors—because they’d gone to look at the engine.
When I checked in at the hotel, the first thing I told the concierge was that I was looking for a metal detector (metalu detektors). He looked at me as if I’d told him I was looking for Catherine the Great. But he was good. Professional. That look only lasted a moment. “Let us see what can be done,” he said, in the tortured, formal English that is so common in the streets of the city.
My plan was to somehow, despite the hectic itinerary of my trip, find a window of time where I could do two things: (1) rent a metal detector, (2) find the family heirlooms in the floor of the basement and dig them up.
The State Department had rented me a room in the Reval Hotel Ridzene—a tall, Soviet-era hotel two blocks from the Freedom Monument. The Reval Hotel Ridzene was also directly behind the embassy. My broad, thin-curtained window looked directly out at the embassy’s back wall. Was the room bugged? Was the trip about to turn into a Tom Clancy novel? Would someone hand me a package in the lobby, saying: Bring this to the Ministry of Culture at ten o’clock. Outside the gates you will see a man with red carnation in his lapel.
I have always wanted to be a spy.
By the end of the day the message light in my room was blinking. I went to the front desk, where I learned an interesting bit of information. Dozimetrs, the leading name in Latvian metal-detector technology, was located at 2 Sencu Iela. This was roughly 200 yards from my family’s apartment building.
My grandfather did manage to escape Latvia before the Soviet troops rolled in—just barely. He was on one of the last trains out of the country, a train that took hostile fire as it crossed the Polish-German border at Zittau. After traveling for several more weeks, he finally located my grandmother, and the family was reunited in the south of Germany. They survived the war and lived—for six years—in a German Displaced Persons camp outside of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. And then, two and a half years after the Truman Commission passed the Displaced Persons Immigration Act on June 25, 1948—my family came to America.
Dorothea Lange, the celebrated photographer of Depression-era America, wrote: “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” And this is what has happened to this image; my family’s progress has been halted, arrested, removed from time. That’s my mother on the right, staring at the camera with pale, almost ghostly eyes. She’s bracing herself on the window of the train. That’s my uncle in the center of the photograph. And just to his left, of course, my grandparents.
Trains, boats, buses. This photograph was taken on the day my family left Europe. They were about to traverse an ocean and a continent; they were about to negotiate Ellis Island, the New York Port Authority, the cross-country Greyhound; they were about to become Americans.
Latvian video poker, I learned, is a voraciously addictive game.
Teksasu holdems was available at most every dive bar in the capital. SPELESIM! the signs said. Let’s play! And somehow this seemed like a gentle invitation. A loving enticement. Of course, the dollar was terribly weak and every lats I lost actually cost me twice as many corresponding units of our currency. But it was all innocent fun—wasn’t it?—a child’s game, an electronic romp. Let’s play again! Let’s play some more! Let’s play until our fingertips blister!
When I arrived at the address listed for Dozimetrs—early one morning halfway through the visit—I saw no immediate evidence of a metal-detector store. Instead, I saw The Phoenix Bar (Fenikss Bars) and the largest car wash this side of the Atlantic.
I looked at the sign for Fenikss Bars.
Drinking, it advertised. Atverts 00-24. Open twenty-four hours. Video pokers.
Let’s play, I thought.
A tender summons.
“I’m looking for Dozimetrs,” I told the bartender. “It was listed at this address.”
Latvians can be laconic. This isn’t rudeness. It’s just a different understanding of customer service. In Latvia, if the shopkeeper doesn’t have an answer for your question, he won’t go out of his way to tell you this. He’ll just look at you silently. The silence is the answer.
The bartender gazed quietly at me.
“Do you have video poker?” I asked him.
“Five different kinds,” he said.
That morning, I was ten minutes late for my speaking engagement. Ten minutes late and thirty dollars poorer. But what I did discover, after an eight A.M. beer and a little gentle video pokers, was that Dozimetrs had its offices on the second floor, just above the Fenikss Bars. And also (after rushing excitedly outside and lumbering up the stairs) that Dozimetrs in fact sold an entirely different kind of metal detector. Not the kind I was looking for. The airport-security kind.
But its owner offered to put me in touch with Maris Slanars, a man who lived on the outskirts of Riga. Slanars, I was told, rented handheld metal detectors for a living. He would be able to get me exactly what I needed.
During my Latvian visit, I was interviewed by Liega Piešiņa of Latvijas (Latvian) Radio 1. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned my grandfather’s name and said that he’d been a journalist in Riga from 1929 to 1945. When the interview was broadcast the next morning, Piešina got a call from Zigmunds Skujiņš, the lauded writer of fiction and memoir.
Skujiņš told Piešina that he remembered my grandfather, or a man whom he thought might be my grandfather. Was there a chance that I’d be interested in getting together for coffee?
There are few figures in contemporary Latvian literature as well respected as Zigmunds Skujiņš. Publishers have brought his books out in over ten languages, printing roughly seven million copies of his novels and memoirs. He was there, in 1940, at the founding of the Latvian Writers’ Union. Having coffee with this man was an honor.
Imagine a thirty-one-year-old Latvian writer with one published novel coming to visit the United States. No problem, the folks handling his visit tell him. We’ll arrange a meeting with Toni Morrison, or John Updike, or Philip Roth.
Eighty-two years old, Skujiņš was white-whiskered and spry. Though he insisted that his health wasn’t good, he moved through his apartment with the vitality of a pinball, opening books and pointing out passages and reading stanzas of verse aloud.
“That was a time of real terror,” he told me, when I asked him what it was like in Latvia after the Second World War. Tas bija terora laiks. “You never knew when they might just knock on your door in the middle of the night. If your name got on a list, that was it. You’d be sent to Siberia for ten, fifteen years.”
We drank strong coffee and ate small sugary cookies in his living room.
“But the most horrifying thing about it,” Skujiņš continued, “was the bureaucracy. If you were on the list for November 10, for example, then they’d come to your door on November 10. They wouldn’t come on the ninth, or on the eleventh. You were part of a quota for that single day. If they didn’t get you—well, they’d just end up one person short. Their percentages would just be a little lower. A little less efficient.
“A friend of mine found out he was on the list for a certain day. That night, he slept in his garden, hidden in a bush. They broke down his door; he wasn’t there. They crossed him off and went on to the next address. He was saved, but even so, he was never the same. His life always felt like a percentage, like a figure, like a column on a balance sheet.”
I talked with Skujiņš for most of an afternoon. The man he remembered, it turned out, wasn’t my grandfather after all. It was Eizens Mindenbergs, my grandfather’s older brother. Eizens had been a poet and a Russian translator; he’d stayed in Latvia and had died during the Soviet occupation. Though he tried, Skujiņš could conjure little more than a passing image of that other Mindenbergs, of Harijs—the one who’d fled to America with his wife and his children.
If he were alive today, my grandfather would be 101 years old. Within a few years, everyone who knew him will be dead. There will be no one for whom he is anything other than a photograph, a two-dimensional image cut from the loop of time.
Certainly I do not remember him. Harijs Mindenbergs died seven months before I was born. He had a heart attack while fishing for octopus in Puget Sound. He passed away in the hospital on the morning of December 23, 1975. He was sixty-eight years old. Two weeks earlier, my mother had told him that she was pregnant.
Before I knew that I was going to go to Latvia I had no idea that he’d written those letters: I didn’t know that on that August night he’d sat down with his ink and his fountain pen to say goodbye to his wife and children.
The letter to my mother is beautiful in a physical way, beautiful as a material artifact. Its ink is faded in a number of places. Holding that letter in my hands, I saw that these were in fact the marks of my grandfather’s tears. He cried as he wrote the letter. And here they were—these small gray coronas of sorrow—preserved in a fold of paper for nearly sixty-five years.
“My dear little Ruta,” the letter reads. “Maybe when mother reads you these lines you will be a lovely young woman with fine red ribbons in your hair.”
In every battle—a hero. In every battle—a fool. But which one am I?
After she told me about the letters, my mom refused to send them to me through the mail. There was a chance, she argued, that the US Postal Service would lose them. Instead, she carried them from Seattle to Portland, placing them carefully on the seat beside her in the car.
“Did you buckle them in?” I asked.
“Very funny,” she said.
In 1944, my grandparents had agreed that my grandmother was to read this letter to my mother only if my grandfather died. But if he survived the war—then they’d burn the paper and the envelope and the memory of it all.
Thankfully, my grandmother couldn’t bring herself to do this.
She kept the letter, instead, preserved in the pages of a book.
Working on this essay, I wrote and rewrote commentary about the letter. I imagined the room where my grandfather was working. I imagined my grandmother walking up behind him, pausing with her hand on his shoulder, leaning down and breathing there in the dark, leaning down and reading the lines he’d scrawled across the page.
I noticed the way that my grandfather’s handwriting became larger and more dramatic toward the end, as he convinced himself that he was going to survive the war, that he would see his family again. I wondered how much of his survival—in a violent, splintering world that killed so many of his friends and family—had depended on this very belief.
But nothing I wrote seemed true. Everything seemed like a diminishment of the thing itself, of the words he’d chosen:
In my memory, Ruta, you will stay as you are—a little kipper—endlessly beloved and dear. For you, my daughter, the next days will be the hardest. How my heart hurts because of this.
But know, for as long as that heart still pulses in its chest, I will linger in my thoughts with you. And these thoughts will be, for me, a shield. An unbreakable steel shield.
My beautiful daughter, I am living only for the day in the future when I will be able to see you, once again, with my own clear eyes.
The translation of this letter, like any translation, is difficult. In any language, individual words have a roster of associative meanings—a luminous silvery cloud of subtle secondary values—a history in the vernacular and in print, an organic sensibility. And this can easily be lost in translation. Translation, itself, can be an unreliable thing. Shifting from language to language, words shed their subtleties. Terauds means “steel” in English. But in English it also loses its secondary Latvian meanings. It loses, for example, some of the sense of medieval armor, of plate mail and the sword-swinging German crusader.
My grandfather continued writing, much longer than the single page he’d imagined when he’d sat down at the table:
This Spring, thinking about my beloved little girl, I planted 100 gladiolas. And today, I cut the first one and gave it to your mother. Oh, if only I could live long enough to grow and give more flowers to you both.
And then, finally:
If it only could be that way. It will!
And when she read this to me—my grandfather’s resounding declaration of faith, his use of bus, of that single word, the future participle of the verb to be—my mom started crying. The wound of it all—the forced exile, the death in a foreign country, the persistent and unending nostalgia in which she was raised—suddenly overwhelmed her. Sure, it made her miss her father. But the depth and resonance of that feeling wasn’t something she could totally explain.
“Thinking about this,” she said, “is just so sad.”
Maris Slanars had Soviet prison tattoos. Or possibly Soviet Army tattoos; they spidered up his arms, faded and indistinct, far beneath the skin. They were the first details that I noticed upon entering his storefront. Well, that, and the metal detectors. Dozens of metal detectors lining the walls, propped against tables, stuffed into closets, stacked near the door. This was an old-fashioned tinker’s workshop. I’d never seen so many disemboweled radios, salvaged batteries, copper wires.
“This is what you need to remember,” Slanars was telling me, making sure he spoke very slowly. “Silver makes this sound.”
He passed a silver coin of some sort underneath the hood of the metal detector. The machine chattered like an amorous woodpecker.
“And steel,” he said, “makes this sound.” He passed a steel nail under the hood. A different metal, the same exact sound.
I nodded again.
“The difference is clear,” I said.
I’d taken a taxi to the city limits in order to meet with Slanars. The quality and quantity of his metal-detector inventory didn’t disappoint. What did disappoint, however, was his assessment of my chances of finding something.
“Between zero and 1 percent,” he said.
“But closer to one?” I said.
“Closer to zero,” he said, cheerfully.
I’d arranged for a few hours away from my speaking schedule. The folks at the embassy, of course, had been a little surprised by my plan. I’d told them the whole story, knowing that it made me unreasonably excited, that I tended to chuckle manically at inappropriate junctures during the telling of it.
Now I’d collected the keys from the lawyer who handled the building’s maintenance and administration. I had a shovel. All that remained was the detecting. At the door to his workshop, Slanars patted me on the back.
“There’s an old Latvian saying,” he said. “In every battle—a hero. In every battle—a fool.”
“But which one am I?” I asked.
He just looked at me and smiled.
The World’s Largest Antique Heirloom is located—unburied—in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
It’s there, on the halcyon shores of Lake Havasu, that you’ll find the London Bridge. Robert McCulloch—the eccentric American billionaire famous for his oil refineries and chain saws—bought the bridge from the City of London in 1968. He paid $2.4 million to have it painstakingly disassembled, labeled, and shipped to Arizona through the Panama Canal. In Arizona, McCulloch rebuilt the stone behemoth. A team of workers reconstructed it over the course of three years.
And so, in September of 1971, at the age of sixty-four, my grandfather bought a $99 Greyhound bus ticket. It was an unrestricted, month-long pass. He crammed his clothes into two suitcases. In a third case he packed his fifty pound Ampex tape recorder. He kissed his wife on the cheek and set out, traveling on behalf of the Voice of America, to record a pastiche of immigrant lives in the American West. The culmination of his journey was McCulloch’s unveiling of the bridge on October 10, 1971.
Media coverage of this event was extensive. In a piece that appeared on page forty-five of the October 11, 1971, New York Times, a piece titled, “London Bridge Falls Up, and Arizona Hopes for Profits,” Steven Roberts described the ceremony:
In an extravagant splash of ancient pageantry and modern press-agentry, the London Bridge was opened today here in the middle of the Arizona desert.
As Sir Peter Studd, the Lord Mayor of London, and Gov. Jack Williams of Arizona pulled on a red silk ribbon, they set off a fantastic grab-bag of gimmicks: thousands of multicolored balloons, hundreds of white pigeons, skydivers, rockets and a hot-air balloon dragging a huge papier-mache dove behind it.
“It a super-gimmick,” said a British newspaperman. “It’s all quite mad—it could only happen in America. Only an American would think of investing that much in something as crazy as this.”
What my grandfather thought of the unveiling I’ll never know. He could never manage to get an interview with McCulloch and, without this interview, he didn’t file a report. But he was there, an onlooker in the crowd. What must he have thought of this strange and surreal spectacle, so far from both his adopted home, and his original homeland?
A story from my grandfather’s trip, one that he always used to tell: On a dusty, deserted stretch of Route 66, he mistakenly got off the bus, believing himself to be near his destination. In actuality he was ten miles from Lake Havasu City. These were ten miles of hot, empty desert. He also had three suitcases. There was no way to carry them all at once.
So, always pragmatic, he simply picked up two of the bags and lugged them fifty yards down the road. Then he walked back to the Ampex, lifted the cumbersome beast, and carried it to his suitcases. He repeated this process for hours and hours, until he reached Lake Havasu. At least a hundred cars passed him by. No one stopped.
Liega Piešina taped my Latvian radio interview on a tiny, handheld, digital recording device. It weighed ten ounces at most.
But what impelled my grandfather all the way across the country—on a Greyhound bus—to this one specific ceremony? Was there a certain magnetism in the way this bridge was disassembled, carefully categorized and labeled, and carried across an ocean on a ship? Maybe he understood something about this edifice of granite and gray stone. Maybe he empathized with something that had to be completely rebuilt, piece by piece, in America. In its new home.
Standing there in the basement of 9 Sencu Iela, I turned on the metal detector. It snapped to life, an eager creature, waiting to uncover some buried, decades-old treasure. I ran the machine over the uneven dirt floor. Immediately, it started humming and buzzing, issuing a steady, and steadily changing, series of tones.
The thing that Slanars predicted would happen was happening. The metal detector—far more useful in an open, grassy field—was detecting parts of the home’s foundation. Pipes, buried fixtures, loose nails. Anything with even the smallest bit of metal.
I realized that to recover my grandmother’s jewelry I would have to dig up the entire basement. And so, at this moment, I didn’t feel like the hero of the battle.
But, on the other hand, I did have that sturdy-looking shovel.
What I didn’t have, however, was time.
That evening I called my girlfriend from the hotel. “We’ll come back in the summer,” she said. “Maybe we can rent a bulldozer?”
“A tiny bulldozer?” I said.
“A tiny bulldozer,” she said.
A few weeks after I was first invited to Latvia, I noticed this headline in the International Herald Tribune: “Quietly, the Polish-German border dissolves.”
The article was straightforward:
As of midnight Thursday the once contentious border between Poland and Germany will be thrown open. For the most part, it has been more whimper than bang for the fall of one of the most historically fraught and violently fought over frontiers on earth.
A few days later, I got my itinerary: Portland to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Riga. A nearly exact reversal of the journey that my mother, and my grandparents, took during the Second World War. Except I would soar thousands of miles over an erased boundary, over a line of division that was so important then but may never exist again.
Sitting at that table, on August 3, 1944, my grandfather summoned a kind of bravery that I can barely imagine. Sitting at that table—crying and writing the letters to his wife and my uncle and my mother—he conjured an elemental courage that astonishes me. Where can I look for that kind of strength in my own soft life? Nowhere. It seems, quite honestly, like a total impossibility.
When I stood in my family’s basement with the metal detector, the message I seemed to get was—Sometimes the past wants to stay buried.
But my grandfather’s letters—their presence in my life, as artifacts—seem to indicate something entirely different. They indicate, I think, that the future exists in the present moment. It is a shell, a husk, a gauze, a ghost, a valence. It’s there but you can’t see it.