Friday, November 11, 2016

An Unlikely Soldier: In Memory of Michael William “Brother Mike” Gural

My father, Michael William “Brother Mike” Gural, was a pacifist humanist. But being born into abject poverty to factory worker immigrant parents in Newark, NJ., in 1926, he enlisted as a Medical Administrative Corps (MAC) Officer with Army Serial #12102416 at Ft. Dix New Jersey in 1943, “for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law.” .[1] He did it to send money back to his parents, so they could escape the crime-ridden, downtrodden neighborhood, where the family lived in a single-room efficiency above a rowdy saloon. One of his older brothers died as a child at the former NY Marine Hospital, known solely as the “Quarantine,” in Staten Island, where we was sent after a tragic injury. My paternal grandparents, who died before I was born, had no access to health insurance and no money for medical care. The dreaded Quarantine was the only option. They didn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford to travel from New Jersey to Staten Island to visit him. My father attempted to send them enough money to cover medical bills while he was serving overseas.

My father's complete dossier was turned to ash in the National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973, sometimes called the 1973 National Archives fire, that destroyed as many as 18 million official military personnel records at the United States National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in the St. Louis suburb, Overland, Missouri. As a result, there is no digital evidence of his service before and during the start of the Korean War, nor his service in the South West Pacific theatre. I vividly recall him telling me about a typhoon (though I don’t think it was the Pacific Typhoon, of Dec. 18, 1944) while he was on a ship as a Radio Sergeant working in the kitchen. The crew was taking a recreational swim, and my father, a former competitive swimmer, was strong enough to pull himself and others out of the tumultuous waters.

His involvement in D-Day, however, is recorded at The National WWII Museum, formerly known as the D-Day Museum, in New Orleans. Further tangible proof is found on a plaque in the house my father built in 1966, and where my mother has lived since they married in 1969. (My father died on June 21, 2002, of cancer.)

I’m unsure if my mother has any pictures of my father in a military uniform. He embraced his identity as a scholar and a professor, and he always noted that Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill, helped to lift him dire poverty.

1. Online Military Records in AAD | National Archives

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Lament, Regret, and the Eeriness of 14: In Loving Memory of Brother Mike

One of the many books my scholar father gifted me from his vast collection to sate my passion for all things otherworldly was a book of amulets and talisman. I cried just now when I couldn’t find it in our pared-down West Village-sized library, though I found some comfort holding my prized copy of “An Encyclopaedia of Occultism,” by Spence, Lewis (1874-1955).

Both those books served as the 1980s version of an open Chrome tab, as I’d reference them constantly and apply my findings to subvert anything and everything normative that I was forced to write or discuss. I’d get written comments from teachers like “I’m not sure how this fits in. It didn’t. Not in any contemporary and contemporaneous sense. Inserting strange references to facts, myths, or theories that have been long debunked or dismissed, was my way of rebelling, ever so strangely.

I recall re-reading parts of the tome on amulets and talisman and being fascinated by the story of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld. Unlike my son Michael Alexander, who has a photographic memory of everything he reads or learns about science, I have always struggled to remember details and instead relied on my own ability to weave elaborate stories around a few facts. One high school teacher commented on my report card that “Natasha has a great ability to ‘write’ history.” Her interpretation of that comment was meant to justify the lower “effort” grade that didn’t correlate with the higher letter grade. I took it as a compliment.

Back to Osiris and his myriad identities. As I lay awake early this morning profoundly saddened and anxious because Michael Alexander is being repeatedly bullied and physically harmed at an after-school program (born into poverty in Newark, N.J., my father taught me to always fight back, yet my son must be a pacifist and is applauded by the program site director for his “good behavior,” which means he does not strike back as the victim of ongoing attacks by two boys), many random thoughts sifted through my brain. For some reason, I thought of Osiris.

In some retellings of the myth (there are many), Osiris was slaughtered and carved into 14 parts by his brother Set. Isis, the sister Osiris married, recovered 13 pieces of his body. The 14th piece, his penis, was devoured by fishes. Somehow, 14 stuck in my head, the subject of a perverse and playful song like a miscreant version of the “Number of the Day” segment that premiered on “Sesame Street” in Season 33, which aired in 2002, the year my father died. No, I was not watching “Sesame Street” daily before I had a child in 2010.

The 14 stuck in my mind like the jingle in Mark Twain's 1876 story "A Literary Nightmare.” I was stuck with that earworm, as the only way to ditch it is by transferring it to another person. Somehow, 14 was distinctly mine in the early morning hours enveloped in anxiety.

Michael W. "Brother Mike" Gural died 14 years ago today, on June 21, 2002. It’s essential that I make Father’s Day a joyous occasion for my husband and son. I last saw my own father on Father’s Day, June 16, 2002. Because of a female boss who treated my emotional struggle over my father’s demise from Stage IV colon cancer spread to the liver, the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), and eventually the brain, with callous disregard, I had just returned from a shift at The Associated Press when I got the call from my sister on my landline.

How I could I not have been at his side? This cavernous regret will follow me to my own grave, haunting me forever like an unwanted spirit.

After crying for a few hours, both because of my lament and remorse over being absent at the time of my father’s death, and because I know how enraged my father would be over the institutionalized abuse being perpetuated by a program director who laughs off any criticism and leaves it to her powerless site director to apologize but do nothing to stop the cycle of bullying and attacks on my son, I fell asleep for a precious short time. Gurals are not victims. Gurals fight back. Gurals do not put up with institutional abuse. Yet my son is as much the prey of bullies who go unpunished, as I was the sucker who worked extra shifts, filing thousands of pieces of copy, as my father lay dying just four hours away.

I can change my son’s fate by switching him to another program in the fall, though he already has been conditioned to believe that it’s “good news” when he won’t raise fist back at his assailant, which makes me fearful and ashamed as the daughter of a man who taught her to always fight back -- if not physically, socially. But I will never reclaim that moment when my father took his last breath.

Waking with the alarm this morning, I was overcome by grief, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Thankfully, I do find value in the world and would not commit suicide, but in darkness and despair I identify with the narrator ahead of his chance encounter with a girl who reinstates his will to live and his faith in humanity.

“Then such grief took possession of my soul that my heart was wrung, and I felt as though I were dying; and then,” according to the English translation by Constance Garnett, “then I awoke.”

It takes 14 days (or one fortnight, short for fourteen-night) for the moon to wax from new to full or to wane from full to new. Yesterday, at 22:34 UTC (6:34 p.m. in New York), the sun reached its highest declination in the sky, its farthest point north for the year, otherwise known as the June solstice. The June full moon occurred on the same day.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Life Lessons From Babushka: Why I Bake Like I’m Blind and I Swim Like a Fish

I ignore recipes, even for baking. (Unless I am trying to execute something with a high failure rate like flourless chocolate cake for guests.) I'm able to understand most non-English speakers enough to determine whether they are in eminent peril and whether I can and should try to help. I've long been a tireless advocate for teaching infants and toddlers to swim without any floatation device. Even if I still panic when I see it, I know that head injuries can create a massive pool of blood without being life-threatening.

IMAGE: My mother and my babushka, 1949.

All of this, and much, much more I owe to my babushka who played one of the most critical and influential roles in my early childhood.

My mother’s mother, Alexandra Dimitrievna (Dimitrieva) Grishaev, was born March 3, 1913, in Dubrovka, a village in Vitebsk Oblast, Belarus. She died one day after he 85th birthday on March 4, 1998, in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. (You can grasp why this week is the toughest for my mother.) After decades of suffering, including losing all three of her sons as infants in the 1930s, watching many of her closest relatives and friends brutally murdered, toiling on the verge of starvation in various prison camps, and nearly drowning after being forced to walk a plank en route from Germany to England, she spent her last decade invalid, unable to speak or walk. My mother was her primary caregiver, after the two of them spent more than two years caring for my dying maternal grandfather, who also was bedridden.

Nobody escapes reigns of terror and mass murders without suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, but my babushka was generally able to repress any obvious psychological impact throughout my early childhood. I was a toddler, maybe 2-years-old, the first time I’d witnessed her in an emotionally fragile state. My mother, father, and degushka (maternal grandfather), had gone to the maternity hospital, and I was home with babushka. She was giving me a bath. Always eager to be in water, I recall babushka signing to me in a joyful, buoyant voice. The telephone rang, and she ran to answer it, in the days before cordless phones were ubiquitous in suburban homes. She returned, kneeled down beside the tub, continued washing my hair, and resumed signing. But the tune had become funerary, something anyone, even a very young child, who has experienced Russian Orthodox mourning would immediately recognize. My mother had lost the baby. Of course my babushka mourned properly and purposefully at burials and memorial services, but with a powerful voice that conveyed respect for tradition and the deceased. This was different. It wasn’t until fluid had filled her brain and dementia went undiagnosed beyond treatment that she would revert to that desperate, rote, haunting sound.

Because of my babushka’s unflappable resilience and adoration of children, I lived a blithe childhood, owed to her tenderness and unconditional love. I recall the intensity of her smile, knowing she was there to nurture and protect me.

One of my fondest and most vivid memories is kneeling on a high stool to reach the counter while making blinchiki (crepes not to be confused with blini, which are more like pancakes). (Legally) blind, likely from a combination of typhoid fever and near-drowning, my babushka didn’t rely on recipes, even when working in a bakery or preparing feasts for hundreds of people. She taught me how to measure and add ingredients gradually by judging the texture of the batter, a skill that I’ve gratefully carried down to my son.

Babushka made the cakes when we celebrated my “burzdays.” Raised speaking mostly Russian and reading and writing mostly English, I’ve always been proficient in what I joke is “Immigrant” or “first-generation English.” Russian-speaking women have approached me countless times on subway platforms asking in Russian how to get Corbin Place. I’d have to apologize in Russian, saying I only know that the B train goes to Brighton Beach. A couple months ago, an elderly Chinese woman who spoke no English, walked directly to me as I exited a downtown 6 train at Spring Street. Somehow, I figured out she needed to get uptown, so I walked her to the proper entrance and had the attendant scan her MetroCard to prove that she’d just swiped at the wrong platform. She smiled, nodded, and clenched my hand, reminding me so much of my babushka. Tourists seem to sense this, as I’ve somehow directed people to their destination without speaking the same language. About 20 years ago, I interjected when I heard emergency room staff say they needed a German translator for a newly-immigrated Polish family. Without fluency, even proficiency, in Polish, I managed to translate enough to ensure the elderly patriarch saw an orthopedist for the leg and hip injuries he’d sustained in a fall, rather than the cardiologist the staff suspected he needed.

Because they didn’t have YMCAs in prison camps and displaced persons camps, my mother never learned to swim, though she loves and does not fear the ocean. Knowledge of my babushka’s near-drowning (along with my affinity with immersion in all bodies of water) were enough to convince me that swimming is one of the most vital life skills. My babushka would be gratified to see my son swim with great confidence and zeal. I started taking him to public swimming pools when he was just a couple months old, much to the criticism of other mothers, caregivers, and city park employees, including one who asked for name and contact information.

One of the most terrifying memories from my adolescence was finding my babushka lying in a pool of her blood at the bottom of her basement stairs. While she assured me she would be fine as she vigorously grasped my hand, I called my father, who – based on his experience growing up in a rough Newark, New Jersey slum and fighting in two major wars -- reassured me that “all head injuries are like that. There’s always a lot of blood.” While I always worry, I am not squeamish and can pull it together enough to seek proper medical attention at the sight of vast quantities of spilled blood.

My babushka is with us in spirit. Her exuberance and unrivaled talents couldn’t be squashed by a generation or two subjected to Americanization. Oh, how she and Michael Alexander would enjoy each other. And my husband Mike would never get enough of her piroshki, as my humble version needs practice. I’m sure Mike would advise me that with practice, I could master the art and do hers justice. Maybe I’ll make that a goal once Michael Alexander accepts that dumplings are a food just like sushi.