The Forgotten One
My mother never heard of Janka Vrbancič. The letter, postmarked Mahično, Yugoslavia, sat for weeks with one of her sisters who did not know the woman either, or how she got her address, or what the letter meant. It was passed on to another sister who also couldn’t make any sense of it, then to my mother, whom everyone thought was strange enough to at least find it interesting. More than that, she saved it for life.
My Dear Cousin
I live her in Youglaera [Yugoslavia] we are Colica [Catholic] we are not comminisn we believe in God. And futher I would let you know that we have a poor life in this country and everything is very dear and we have high taxes in this country. The communish want us to go with them but we don’t want to go for we are good Colica and we don’t want to go with them. Dear Cousin my father is in Canadon [Canada?] in the city Hanalidon [illegible, Halifax?] and he does not ask for me. Dear Cousin I do wish if you could hep me with material and I could make my own clothes. Dear Cousin if you could send me a clock for I have no clock in my little home.
“Throw it away,” my father said. “It’s just another scheme to exploit American generosity. You send them a clock and they’ll say it was broken and ask for another one. Next they’ll want a coffee pot, then a typewriter and then money for an appendix operation. It never ends. Pretty soon you’ll have Joe McCarthy coming after you.”
As usual, she ignored him and sent the cloth and clock to Janka Vrbancič, whoever she was. She also enclosed a chatty letter about how they were cutting down trees in our trailer park outside Minneapolis to make room for more trailers, and the industrial magnet I brought to Show and Tell that was so powerful the janitor had to pry it off a metal cabinet door with a crowbar, and how I went out on Halloween with different masks and collected more than my share of candy. I don’t know how any of that ever got translated, if at all, but over the next several months she received letters in Croatian and tortured English from people named Josipa, Ignac, Franjo, Šimun, and Zdravko along with photos of grim-faced women and blank-faced children. They wrote, “times are poor,” “the children are hungry,” “we have no money,” and asked, “where should we go but the street?” They referred to husbands who were “weak,” “missing,” or “haven’t heard from.” She didn’t know any of them, nor did they seem to know who she was either, addressing her variously as Dear Cousin, Dear Auntie, Dear Bara (Barbara, her actual name), or Dear Ann (her sister’s name).
“See what happens?” my father said. “They’ll never go away.”
They asked for fabric, shoes, crayons, aspirin, Band-Aids, toothbrushes, coffee, underwear, mittens. My mother was the only one in the family moved enough to send them everything they asked for, enclosing her own letters (in English) and lots and lots of Halloween candy.
On May 10, 1926, after living in America for nearly twenty years as an alien, my grandfather, Juraj Aršulić, formally renounced allegiance to “Charles, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary,” swore before God he was not an anarchist or polygamist, and became an American citizen under the name of George Arsulich. Four years later he abandoned his wife and seven children and vanished from known existence. My mother rarely mentioned it, but of all the reasons she could have given, she always settled on her stock explanation, “He ran off with a German ballerina.”
He came from the medieval village of Varoš, a backwater in the shakily held together Royal Kingdom of Croatia. Not being the eldest son, he couldn’t inherit land, so he studied locksmithing in the capital of Zagreb. At seventeen he completed his required apprenticeship certifying him to ply the mysteries of the pin tumbler for people who had something to lock up, but in Croatia back then there weren’t many of those. More ominously, war was on the horizon. Young men were forbidden to leave the country before they served in the Austro-Hungarian army. The law was widely flaunted. In 1907 he was among 23,000 people who fled Croatia, many of them draft dodgers like himself.
He disembarked the SS Vaderland in New York on the 4th of July, knowing little English, and ended up in the industrial hellhole of Whiting, Indiana, south of Chicago. It was believed that “Bohunks” had an inherent resistance to toxic waste so he easily obtained employment at Standard Oil cleaning poisonous sludge out of giant tanks. He saved enough money to send for a fifteen-year-old bride, a twin from his village, who lied about her age and said she was seventeen. She was nicknamed “Jelka” (“Christmas tree”). If he knew her in Varoš she would have been eleven or twelve. Since all the available men were either drafted or running from the draft, her family was probably glad to marry her off to anyone just to have one less mouth to feed. He grew up in a culture where a man’s destiny, aside from going to war, was to raise and support a family. The expectation of tradition is that it be followed.
After a million and a half young men who did not dodge the draft lost their lives in the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War, Juraj and Jelka moved to Milwaukee and had seven children. Milwaukee was an industrial city like Whiting, where thousands of immigrants with origins similar to theirs had experienced wars, economic collapse and crumbled empires. These immigrants had no faith in institutions of any kind, least of all banks, and kept their carefully saved dollars in cans buried in back yards guarded by dogs. Like many people in the ethnically mixed Balkans, Juraj spoke half a dozen languages. He could talk to skeptical immigrants in their native Bulgarian, Slovene, Albanian or Montenegrin and get them to dig up those cans of cash and hand it to him on the assurance he would use it to make them rich. With their shoveled up tender he leveraged his way into the ownership of numerous rental properties. In today’s dollars he became a millionaire.
Photographs from the 1920s show him in a pinstripe suit with butterfly lapels and a white Al Capone fedora. He drove a Lincoln deluxe with whitewall tires and, my mother remembered, retractable electric cigar lighter. But under the surface something was going terribly wrong between the two formerly impoverished peasants now living in luxury. Their youngest son, Bill, the quiet one always in the corner watching, remembered seeing his mother in their bedroom one night, scooping up bundles of cash from a suitcase and flinging them in his father’s face. She was pregnant with their seventh and last child.
Jelka filed for divorce, petitioning the court to put his “concealed assets” into receivership, which did not happen. She further demanded that he cease and desist locking her in a room while he slept with another man’s wife, which resulted in a lawsuit against him from the woman’s husband for alienation of affection.
Many an immigrant who becomes even moderately successful is known to return to the old country to show off their wealth. To Juraj this was as good a time as any to do just that. In the midst of his divorce in which he “willfully and contumaciously refused to pay” weekly support, he fled to Europe with several large steamer chests. One can only imagine how a well-dressed, thirty-seven-year-old man with plenty of money and a reputation for carousing, would have spent his year in Croatia as well as Poland and France. Under Serbian occupation after the war, Zagreb was a place where secret police and government assassins arrested people and made them disappear. Curbside massacres were common. Juraj was still a draft dodger from 1907, but must have felt safe enough with an American passport and a different spelling of his name. In Varoš he dispensed trunks of gifts for friends and relatives who had gone a lifetime without owning anything new. The son who could not inherit so much as a garden plot was now rich enough to buy the whole village.
How his family in Milwaukee supported themselves during his absence is not known. Whether or not he instructed his partners at the Croatian Investment Company to dole Jelka some funds, she still ran up charges she was not able to pay, resulting in suits against her in small claims court.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost all his properties and went bankrupt. Once more he disappeared, this time for good. With a “German ballerina” and perhaps a suitcase full of “concealed assets.” Now penniless, the Arsulich family he left behind was forced out of their mansion to live in poverty for the rest of the Great Depression. The fatherless children grew up, married, and had children of their own. Decades passed.
In trying to translate some of the letters she received written in Croatian, my mother contacted people in Whiting, some of them turning out to be relatives she didn’t know how to describe. First cousin once removed? Third cousin twice removed? One of her translators was a nun who knew a relative in the Aršulić family, a grand-uncle’s half niece, or something like that. In one of her letters the nun mentioned a “cousin Juraj” in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, not knowing it was the name of my mother’s long lost father. Taking a wild chance, my mother wrote a letter addressed simply, “George Arsulich, Black River Falls, Wisconsin.” Someone at the Post Office apparently recognized the name because the letter was delivered and a reply came back. That’s when her fits of crying began and became more frequent.
The alld saying is still right that when you lest expect you sure get a surprise, received your letter and was very happy to here from you to know everything is O.K. you must have bin thinking of me laitly for you often came to my mind. Yes I have farm here but am not doing much just fucing around to keep myself occupied, I have no cattele only 30 pigs that’s all. I was just thinking this morning of the day 47 years and 10 monts ago when a littele slim boy arrived from Europ to New York not knowing English lunguage but still brawe was not afraid even of devol who you soopose that was back in 1907 on fourth of July everybody was shooting fire crekers in solabration of new arrival from that littele Croatia. Hop this will find you and you family in good health an happiness best wishes to you from fogoten one.
Write soon Pop.
For me, a grandfather had suddenly appeared, I suppose the opposite of one who suddenly disappeared. We drove from Minneapolis to rural Black River Falls and quickly became lost on small country roads. My mother went up to a farm house to ask directions and stood at the door a long time talking with the man who answered. I saw by their facial expressions the conversation was serious. He accompanied her back to the car and amidst the thank-yous and good-byes the man put in a last remark, “—and he was working on another one in Alma Center.” He did provide directions, however, and we found a cabin along an unmarked dirt road.
I knew that the middle-aged man who came out to greet us was my grandfather because he looked so much like my mother and their mannerisms were the same. He was dressed in a well-worn suit with wide lapels. His personality was more like a salesman than a farmer. He and my mother did not embrace or express anything more than cordial greetings, but they did study each other closely.
With a foreign accent and a winning smile he said, “You’ve got gray hairs!” to my serious-minded father, who clearly did not appreciate such familiarity from someone he didn’t know. Juraj was twenty years older than him and had gray hair too, but not as much.
We sat at a small table in the single room of his cabin with a pot-bellied stove in the middle of a deeply warped floor. I knew what it was like to live in primitive conditions. Our trailer had only kerosene to keep us warm in the Minnesota winters when it was so cold in my room that my mother used the area under my bed as a freezer. Juraj’s living conditions looked even more primitive than that. It was unsettling to see someone in a frayed suit living with such a lack of comforts: no television, no furniture, nothing that would bring life to his bleak surroundings. He had reverted back to the way he lived life in Varoš in 1907. Somehow, out of this bleakness, he had managed to make some ginger cookies for us from a wood-burning oven. They were hard as rock. I sat through adult chitchat I neither understood nor cared about, but I do remember him going on at great length about some recent misunderstanding.
“All I said was I’m no fisherman. That’s all. I’m no fisherman. And because of that they didn’t want me to visit. Can you believe that? Just because I said I was no fisherman!” He smiled imploringly for sympathy.
In my child-like way I began to see him as a little off, unbalanced. By the time we left I figured he was more or less nuts.
During our brief visit there was no mention as to why he might have disappeared in 1929 or what he’d been doing in the years since. All he talked about was selling timber from a wooded area on his property and renting his land to someone to grow corn. And how he was no fisherman. Whatever emotion there was in the reunion remained unexpressed except for her inconsolable episodes of crying afterward.
My mother exchanged letters with him, but there were no more visits. The letters (except for the first one) have been lost, which is strange because my mother never threw anything away. In fact, it was her hoarding that finally drove us out of the trailer and into a house. Grandpa Juraj remembered me at Christmas with what he considered thoughtful presents of socks and underwear. It would have been a luxury in Croatia, at least from how he remembered it, but socks and underwear were not exactly what I wanted. My mother made me go through the agony of pretending gratitude in a thank-you note every year.
By the time I started high school he had sold his cabin and moved back to Whiting where he began his life in America. Not long after that “the forgotten one” died. On his death certificate, which is rubber-stamped “belated,” my mother’s name is given as “informant.” Cause of death is entered as “atherosclerotic heart disease” and “cirrhosis of liver.” She made arrangements for a funeral, which no one attended except her. No one was interested in his few personal effects, passport, locksmith certificate and a few studio photos of himself, so my mother kept them and now they’re mine. He left behind nine Warranty Deeds for property in Milwaukee and Black River Falls, all acquired from women “for one dollar and other good and valuable considerations.” The attorney who handled his estate wrote that his real estate dealings “used a different practice than that which most of us have become familiar.” The deeds turned out to be worthless. His estate, after expenses, amounted to $2,400, or a little under $350 for each of his seven abandoned children, none of whom would ever visit his gravestone on which is carved, “George Arsulich, Father.”
His descendants thought of themselves, if at all, not as Croatian, but as traditional middle-class Americans with no cause to complain.
John-Ivan Palmer‘s work has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Nth Position, Wild River Review, Wisconsin Review, New Oregon Review, and Other Voices. The Drill Press published, Motels of Burning Madness, a novel, in 2009 and he is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize for fiction.