Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The "thank you" Left Unspoken

Sometimes a person enters your life for a short amount of time, but leaves a lasting impression that continues to inspire you for the rest of your life.

My mother was a classically trained pianist and so many memories of my childhood are filled with the sound of her playing piano for hours on end. From an early age, she made it a point to teach me about classical music and composers. Though I often tried to combat these lessons, dismissing them as "boring", she would always argue that it's important to know at least a little bit about these composers because it's something I won't necessarily learn in school. I always had an interest in instruments, so naturally the piano fascinated me because it was the one instrument that was always at my disposal. My mom would try to teach me here and there, but I was too sensitive to be taught by here. She wasn't very patient and often got frustrated when I made too many errors or would rather play my own little songs instead of learning the basics. She also mentioned that I had great hands for playing piano as well as a good ear, but I was such a "stubborn pain in the ass". She was right (and I still am). What I'm getting at is that it was fairly obvious early on that if I was going to learn how to play an instrument, she most certainly wasn't going to be my teacher.

Growing up in Chicago, my mother had a handful of Czech friends that would come to visit from time to time. One of the ones I remember fondly was Otakar Sroubek, though I always knew him as "Otto". He was always a kind, soft-spoken man and my mother enjoyed being able to converse with someone who also immigrated Czechoslovakia at a similar time as her. I don't really remember the conversations, but I do remember feeling privileged and honored to have him as a teacher, even though it was for an extremely brief amount of time.

Otto was (at the time) the second chair violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and when my mother briefly mentioned how she wished I could learn an instrument, he immediately offered to give me violin lessons. For no charge whatsoever. Even as I write this, I can kick my six year old self in the ass for not following through with it. He tutored me for several weeks, but sometimes my friends would come knocking on the door asking me to come play and tears would follow when I had to decline because I was in the middle of a lesson. Eventually he explained to my mother that though I showed potential, he just couldn't go further with the lessons because I wasn't really expressing the interest in learning violin. Not to mention I also spent so much of the lesson crying.

Stupid Nina.

Otto continued to visit and always gave us tickets for performances when the CSO was playing more kid-friendly programs such as The Nutcracker or Peter and the Wolf, as well as some of the "boring" adult ones. Sometimes we were even able to talk to him afterwards."Ninotchka", he would always call me. I can still hear it. I always had a great time going and will always cherish those memories with my mom. Most kids went to see movies with their parents, but I was lucky enough to experience such beautiful music at an early age.

Once we moved to Michigan, Otto and his wife would still come to visit, but over the years the visits became  less frequent. After all, being a member of the CSO really doesn't allow for a whole lot of downtime. Years went by, we moved several times, addresses changed, phone numbers changed, and eventually him and my mother just lost track of one another, I suppose.

It was one random fall evening in 2008 that I was enjoying a night out at Czar's that something strange happened..

 Oddly enough a few months prior that random memories of Otto were surfacing and I found myself wondering how he's doing. I entertained the idea of tracking his address and sending him a letter mostly just to express the gratitude I had for his patience and kindness during those few music lessons so many years ago that I'm sure I didn't understand the full value of at the time. I also wanted to tell him how much he shaped my young mind in understanding and appreciating classical music as well as sparking the interest in possibly perusing music myself someday.

So that night at Czar's, while I was waiting for another drink, I noticed a stack of the new Michigan Shore magazines in the corner. I enjoyed flipping through these over the years (almost every job I had in SW Michigan had them on display) but hadn't seen a new issue in a while, so curiosity got the best of me. I was just about to put it down and order my drink when an article caught my eye and completely floored me. Right there in front of my eyes was an article all about Otto! One of those crazy instances in life where you feel like someone was reading your mind. I mean, what were the odds that a person I recently thought of who I hadn't seen in fifteen years would suddenly show up in a Michigan magazine?!

Suddenly I became that awkward girl crying at the bar.
I mean, it wasn't even closing time, guys.
Dare I say, "ain't nobody got time for that!".

Tears that came from complete joy and total bewilderment suddenly turned into tears of sadness and even greater appreciation for this man as I read through the article and learned about his remarkable life. At the end of the article, however, the tears turned to those of complete devastation when I read that at press time, Otakar had passed away.

I'm crying now as I write this.

If not learning violin all those years ago was one of my only regrets, not getting to properly thank him suddenly became another.

We take many things for granted in this life, and I've always felt that getting to know our elders and not only where they came from, but what they went through, is one of the biggest things that take a backseat. A human life is a phenomenal thing and when you add history to mix, well, there is simply nothing else more fascinating to me. Maybe it's the writer in me, but the amount of stories that never get told or just simply get lost throughout the years completely saddens me. When you read about a person like Otto and the obstacles he overcame to not only survive, but pursue his dreams, I become all the more honored to have had him in my life. His story and the short time I got to spend with him will live with me until I too close my eyes for good one day. And though I'll always be upset, to some degree, that I never got to personally reach out to him and say "thank you" as an adult, I do find peace in knowing that I'm sure many others did. His outstanding dedication to his talent and the way it shaped his life will continue to inspire and motivate me for the rest of mine.

Bravo, Otakar!

Somewhere within me lives your encore performance.

Monday, July 29, 2013

thoughts without clarity

In the middle of the night, I wake up in frantic mode
Unaware of if it was a dream that triggered it all, but my first coherent thoughts come to me like a backwards puzzle. Bits and pieces of a fragile childhood.

If he didn't work so hard at wrecking everything, things could be different. But he did it like it was his job. As if something clicked in him before I ever even met him. Something just clicked and said to hate it all. Hate the family he made the choice to create.

If he spent more time trying to give a shit about being a dad
more time trying to be a husband
more time defending his family
More time taking responsibility
less time drinking
more time feeling
less time lying
more time caring

if he would have taught me how to believe "everything is going to work out"
he wouldn't have had to try too hard
just to say it once in a while
because sometimes it's good for your 8 year old daughter to hear
because kids don't deserve chaos
you don't bring a child into this world to take on your problems
and you don't marry someone to "own them"
you're taking a vow
not fucking buying property

and when
divorce becomes the only solution
you don't turn your children against the other parent.
and if you do
you can't be surprised when it all backfires on you someday
kids are impressionable, but they're not idiots
eventually they see through it all

what exactly goes through your mind?
I'm fortunate enough to never be able to think the way you do and find out
there are things I'm lucky enough to not recall anymore
there are things I'd give up everything in order to forget.

being 5 years old and going for a walk with you
you stopped and pointed up at a lamppost
same one we walked past dozens of times before
"You're mother hung someone from there once."
that's the one
that's the one that doubles as my first real memory of you
as well as one of the things I wish I could forget more than anything.
what an achievement
you must be so proud

that's what I got for a father
there's really no coming back from that one
I never thought of it before now
maybe I was lucky to have my image of you tarnished in the worst way at such a young age
it saved me years of disappointment
it saved me years of me allowing you to let me down
and over

perhaps most importantly
it saved me from ever wanting to end up with someone the way my mother ended up with you

everything about you is everything I don't want from the person I choose to be with in this life
some people find that out in a much more difficult way
I remind myself that I'm lucky
and that there is no place to go from the past except forward

I shake it off

and go back to bed

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Freedom's Just Another Word for.." Part 1

     My mother was born in Prague on February 17th 1944. She was one of two children, the other being her sister Elizabeth. Her sister would one day marry and have a daughter named Lenka. When Lenka was about three, my mother and grandma agreed to watch her for the weekend while Elizabeth settled into a new home. Also, the chimney cleaners were scheduled to come. At some point during that weekend, Elizabeth went to sleep and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 23 (I believe). My mother and grandmother were obviously completely distraught. They tried to gain custody of little Lenka, but her father was given custody instead. For one reason or another my mother and grandmother never heard or saw Lenka ever again.

     My father was born in Russia on August 23rd 1937, but moved to the small town of Bad Schussenried, Germany with his family when he was a child. He was one of six children. All of his siblings immigrated to America (I think around the 1960's) except for the oldest, Peter, who was paralyzed at a young age and lived in Germany until his death.   Him and his siblings lived in Colorado initially and then eventually settled in Chicago, IL. I don't know much about my father during this time because he rarely ever speaks the truth about anything, and I haven't talked to anyone on his side of the family for over ten years, so who the fuck  knows? My father lived near Lincoln Ave in Chicago (a predominantly German-American area) and most of his siblings did too. It was here where he married his first wife and also owned his beauty shop in the Kempf Plaza. Next to it was Selmarie Bakery which had some of the most delicious pastries I ever had. This fact is completely unrelated to anything, but I'm in dire need of some positive memories while typing this, so forgive me.

   (this next paragraph is where I need to do some fact checking with my mom in regards to where Franz was from and the citizenship she obtained with him. I'll be sure to edit it as soon as I know for sure)

        My mother's first marriage was to a concert pianist named Franz Schmidt (though she told me, I've since forgotten where they were married). I believe that he was from Austria. She left Prague during Communist rule understanding fully that she could never come back to her country as long as it was still under Communism. From Prague, she went to Austria and that was where they obtained her Czech (at the time, Czechoslovakian) passport and she was issued a new one from Austria. My mom and Franz spent a great deal of time traveling and living in many places in Europe including Munich (Germany), Belgium, and Spain. It was when she divorced Franz (again, I have to get the dates) that she immigrated to America by means of working with the Austrian Consulate with very little more than a suitcase. She spent some time in California and then came to Chicago. She was living in Lake Point Tower (downtown) when someone mentioned to her how predominantly German the Lincoln/Western area on the north side was (though born Czech, she loved all things German and enjoyed living in Germany very much). This peaked her interest greatly and she decided to go there one day in hopes for an authentic meal and maybe even some live music.

    It was there she met my father. In a bar. If you know me at all, you can see how that makes a great deal on sense.

     I know most kids wonder, at one point or the other, what their parents saw in one another. I'm convinced that most of the attraction (at least enough to bring me into the world) was booze-related. If you saw how they got along, you'd understand. My complete disregard for believing in a higher power makes me roll my eyes at then "God's plan" scheisse most people tend to throw at me. This is like the butterfly effect if the result was a series of atomic bombs. The universe went out of it's way to make sure these two people would never cross one another's path, and yet the inevitable happened.

     When they met, my father claimed to be divorced (nope. not the case), and my mother actually was. Pregnancy was the last concern on her mind because her doctor in Germany told her she was unable to reproduce. Shortly after they met, though, my mother learned she was, indeed, sick with baby. It's at this point in the story where I tend to start veering off topic entirely and tend to start yammering on about my childhood. That wasn't the purpose in me writing this tonight, however. I mostly just wanted to give a better explanation for my mother's "alien status" in this country. In a way, it's still me yammering about my childhood because her history has become my history, too. She's been fighting for her freedom since I've been born, thus I've grown up fighting for it too my entire life.When I bring my mother's situation, it's funny how many people suddenly think that they know everything about the topic of immigration. By funny, I mostly mean infuriating. Immigration laws are changing constantly. You almost have to constantly study it to ever really have a good understanding of it, and even then, there are a multitude of different circumstances. The more I learn about it, the more I feel like no two cases are the same. It's frustrating. It's disillusioning, and heartbreaking.

     The bottom line with my mother's case is that she left a country that has since turned into another country who's government has since changed into a whole other type of government. Google "Velvet Revolution" if you don't remember your history teacher ever covering this (imagine that). This alone makes it difficult enough, but also the fact that she no longer has any type of documentation proving she is who she says she is. None. My mother is a ghost on the map.

and it's everything she never wanted.

How did it get to be this way? I'll get more into depth on that one in the second half.