When my grandparents bought the house on Hiview Road in 1965, the oak tree in the backyard was impressive enough that Oma lived in fear that it would crash into her bedroom during a storm. At some point, they planted a beech tree near the oak, along with the dogwoods out front and the junipers on the side. (The latter were an homage of sorts to Opa’s kin – their name deriving from the Latvian for juniper.) Opa’s precise hand must have suffered a rare lapse that day the beech was planted, for as the years went by it grew so close to the oak that it came to resemble a giant mutant limb. From both afar and up close it was an anomaly – one tree, two species.
Last fall, as we gathered to scatter him under the anomaly tree, we stressed Opa’s otherness through our graspings of that slippery thing called tradition. We sang, because Latvians sing, but we sang a song by Pete Seeger, whose liberal leanings could not have been more opposed to Opa’s. My sister wore amber earrings and a silver ring with a braided pattern steeped in Baltic mythology, but whose origin story none of us can tell without the aid of Google. In a poem, in thoughts spontaneous and prepared, we invoked his journey from farm to battlefield to camps to ship to home. And now to the yard.
Two weeks after, Trump announced that the U.S. would aim to admit at most 45,000 refugees during the current fiscal year. That this was by far the lowest target since the Refugee Act of 1980 formalized refugee resettlement to the U.S. is upsetting in its own right. That it comes at a time when, according to UNHCR, there are even more displaced people worldwide than during the years following World War Two is truly egregious.
What salts the wound is that Opa probably would have supported the plan. Conscripted into a Latvian branch of the German army in his late teens, he was lucky enough to wind up a POW under the British, eventually trading those letters in for a D and a P, ending his teens in a displaced persons camp in West Germany. There, he would be reunited with a half uncle who, a few years later, would sponsor him to come to America. Six months after Opa came, Oma arrived on Memorial Day weekend and later that summer my mother, conceived amidst the embers of the old world, was born into the new one. Technically, Opa was not a refugee. He was an immigrant who benefitted from family reunification, though the uncle who sponsored him was a direct beneficiary of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which authorized the resettlement in the U.S. of 200,000 European refugees, including thousands of Latvians unwilling to reinvent themselves as Soviet subjects.
Still, we – his children and grandchildren – always conceived of Opa as a refugee, as compelled by History to turn away from his family and homeland. Though to our continual amazement and eventual despair, Opa never allied his own experience with the narratives of other migrants and refugees, both here and abroad. While tight-lipped about the details of his life back in Europe, Opa would talk about all the white bread and oranges he ate on the ship over, how he slept for two whole days upon arriving at his uncle’s apartment in Queens, or how once a waitress set him straight when he asked for a “bowl of soap.” We would scramble to pick up these stories like coins, no matter how many times he dropped them. At a young age, I could recite his resume: box baler, window washer, building super, electrician, draftsman, engineer.
His life fit neatly within the clichéd confines of “yesterday’s immigrants” who seemingly were able to turn hardly anything into absolutely everything. Opa’s story is remarkable, but more remarkable still was his inability to empathize with “today’s immigrants,” who are just as capable of the alchemy of their predecessors, and yet whose trajectories Opa failed to see reflected in his own. Instead he would lament how “easy” it was for people to come to America compared to him, how much English he did not hear on his trips to the laundromat, or how “there oughtta be a law” controlling this and limiting that.
It was no secret who Opa voted for in 2016, but in the 10 months that elapsed between Election Day and his death, we were too heartsick to ever bring it up. Opa suffered toward the end, becoming more insular than ever, lashing out at our attempts to care for him. A part of me felt that we gained something in the very act of losing him – that with him gone, we were that much closer to some kind of change, not so much as a family but rather as a nation.
I want to recoil from this infinitesimal rejoicing and yet perhaps I am merely following in a tradition: A man loses one homeland, gains another and yet cannot see his experience in those of millions of others like him. I, a descendant of his displacement, not only map the connections but obsess over the weight of their relevance, how it all could just as well have not happened – not here, not anywhere. Two trees bear different fruit, though they appear to share the same roots.