Algis' Memories

dad with coat

When I think of my father, I think of a tall, thin man wearing a brown hat and smoking a pipe. He often had a whimsical or bemused expression on his face.  When I first saw Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle, I was reminded of my father.

He was an interesting person and an interesting parent. A writer of fiction and essays, a psychiatrist, a painter, a photographer, and someone who liked to discuss ideas with students. Fleeing Lithuania in his early twenties as the occupying Russian troops advanced, he made his way to Germany and eventually came to America, making a career as a psychiatrist and raising a family. He and his fellow Lithuanians struggled to keep their country's history and culture alive, and did what they could to once again secure its freedom. Nevertheless, he never again saw the country that he had been born in. I could only surmise what this meant to him by his dedication to the Lithuanian emigre community and the fact that he returned to the scenes of his youth again and again in his paintings.

My fondest childhood memories are of him with me and my sister, lying on the living room rug, reading comics in the Sunday paper. My favorite memory was of me being clever little Mickey Mouse and my father being Goofy. I laughed and laughed, and felt smart and important. He drew street scenes of Kaunas and Vienna in pastels on the walls of our house, creating a magical world. There was always music playing in the house. A package of records arrived from New York almost every week – classical music recordings and the latest jazz albums. He loved “The Three Penny Opera” and the beatnik poets. I was too young to really understand them but I often went to the bookshelves and read Freud, Jung, Kazantzakis,  and analyses of the life of Christ, as well as looking through the art books. His was a world of ideas. He loved discussing life, philosophy and politics with students. I wish I had been old enough to discuss those things with him before his untimely death.

I sometimes went on photographic expeditions with my father. He had a small Rolleicord twin-lens reflex camera and would go wandering in the neighborhoods and woods of Detroit, taking photographs to serve as possible subject matter for his paintings. I particularly remember one photograph in a small Italian restaurant. He sat at a table with a red checkered table cloth, hat on his head, pipe in his mouth, several bottles of beer in front of him as atmospheric props. The light came from the large window and there were posters on the walls. Years later, when I lived in New York and particularly when I visited Paris, Kaunas and Vilnius, I realized that he was remembering the cafes of his youth.

My father was a kind and gentle man. I remember visiting him once at the hospital where he was a psychiatrist. I was perhaps 12 at the time. A janitor came up to me and remarked that my father always stopped and had a chat with him in the mornings. An old white-haired woman took me aside and showed off her hairdo, saying it was wonderful that my father had brought in a beautician to do the hair of the women there. These were small things but showed that people truly mattered to him.

He was also a patient man. When we lived in Garden City we didn't mow the lawn and the front and back yards were untamed meadows. I'm not sure why, probably the pressures of time. At any rate, a delegation of neighbors came over to our house and knocked on the door one day. They said that they understood that he wasn't from America and perhaps was not familiar with American ways. They explained to him that in America it was customary to mow the lawn - and to mow it short - every week. My father listened patiently, puffing on his pipe. He thanked the neighbors for their concern and their advice. He patted me on the head and assured them that I would attend to this task. We bought a lawn mower and that became my weekly chore.  Curses!

He once wrote that he was standing in a train station, eating peanuts that he had purchased from a vending machine when several of the characters from his stories approached him, saying that they wished to speak to him. They wanted to discuss how they were described and, most importantly, what would happen to them in the stories. Somehow his characters were like the people he knew in his real life and needed to be treated with respect and kindness, and needed to be heard.

We spent many summer vacations on Cape Cod. When I first came to Nida I understood why. Cape Cod looks a lot like Nida – sand dunes, pine trees, the ocean. We rented a cottage and lay in the sun, swam in the ocean, played the “karousele ir snapsiukas” card game in the evenings, and looked at the stars at night.

We periodically received letters from Lietuva, addressed to made-up names, coming from people with equally made-up names. Letters to us from our relatives, disguised so that no one could identify them as having relatives in the West, and therefore subject to suspicion. They were read aloud and the house would be very quiet for a few days. Sighs, sad looks, looks of resignation. My sister and I went to Saturday school and learned the history of Lithuania, the language and the songs. We went to Lithuanian camp in the summers and did the same there, but outside and in the fresh air.

My father was very active in Lithuanian organizations and contributed to Lithuanian periodicals, both as a writer and as an editor. I’m sorry that he didn’t live to see Lietuva independent. He would have loved it, he would have participated as much as he could. He truly loved his country. As a young man he bicycled all over the country. “Daktaras Kripstukas” is full of details and locations in Kaunas that embellish the fantastic elements.

Several times when I visited Kaunas I stayed in the Jesuit residence there. I imagined my father sitting at his school desk, looking at the City Hall, and slowly beginning to imagine someone living in the attic, a snowman, a snowman who collected and wrote down the stories that were brought to him by the dogs of the city. And who fell in love with his beloved linden tree. And remained there past the spring thaw to see her in full bloom.

I'm glad that he is being remembered in Kaunas. I hope that he is looking down from heaven, smoking his pipe, pleased that he and his stories are still being remembered and read by the people of the city and the country that he loved.

~ Algis Kaupas