Vitauts Take 12: Hanover

Dad at age 18 in Germany
Dad at age 18 in Germany

Dad’s memory may be fading as he turns 88 in just a week, but some of his memories come back like lightning flashing. Some flashes are far away, on the horizon, barely noticeable, but some strike furiously and seem to jolt him from the present to the past and back again.

The other day, he was watching soccer. Most of the time, he just watches but he isn’t really sure who is playing or what league it is. Today, however, he told me that he was watching Hanover play and that Hanover is one of “my teams.”

He explained that during World War II he was a German soldier who had been ordered to go to Berlin. The war was pretty much over by then, and everyone knew that Germany was losing. Allied bombers still kept raiding cities. He said that he was stationed near Hanover when there was a major bombing raid.

I looked up “Hanover bombing” in World War II, and this was the closest thing that seems to align with dad’s story:

He said that they were stationed some miles away from where the bombs were falling, but they could see and hear them. He had been ordered to go to the bunker, but he thought, “If I die, I die.” He stayed out to watch the explosions.

His memory gets pretty mixed up, and I think some of the cities, dates and people blur together, but he has a distinct memory of going to Hanover the next day to clean up the destruction of the bombs and to clean up the dead. I could not even imagine what that would look like or how it would feel to live through that even once, and he lived through it several times. He was only seventeen years old.

So he roots for Hanover to this day because it is “his city” and “his team.” The kinship between him and the destruction of that night lives inside of him, deep, where even the destructive agents of dementia cannot reach.

Vitauts at Camp Ochfeld, Germany circa 1946
Vitauts at Camp Ochfeld, Germany circa 1946

Vitauts Take 11: What’s in a Name?

A friend of mine came over this weekend, and he tried to talk to my father, but he didn’t know how to say his name. There was an awkward exchange where he asked dad, and then me, “What is your name again?”Vitauts Blog - 14

I think dad has gone through this same experience most of his life. I’m sure in Latvia, everyone just knew how to say “Vitauts.”

Vytauts the GreatAfter a little research, I have come to found that the name is probably Lithuanian in origin dating back to Vytautas the Great who was a Lithuanian ruler way back in the Middle Ages. 

Latvia is a close neighbor of Lithuania, so it’s easy to see how the name could cross the border. According to one baby name website, there are fewer than 300 people in the world who have this first name, and my dad is one of them.

Vitauts: The closest pronunciation I can do in English is /vit-touts/. When we lived in Yutan, even after twenty years, people still just called him “Pastor” because they didn’t want to risk the humiliation of mispronunciation. The name rolls naturally off of my tongue, but probably because I’ve been saying it for forty years. It was interesting to see again, how new people have to be taught how to say my father’s name.

Sometimes we will call him “Vito” or “vittuts” which is a dull way of slurring it together as some midwesterners seem to do. But for the most part, he has just been Vitauts Grinvalds. He doesn’t know why that name was chosen from him. I have twenty relatives named “Janis” or “John,” that seemed to be the name of choice in Latvia. But I only know one Vitauts.

So next time you see him, practice carefully. See if you can get it right on the first try. He will be very proud of you if you do!

Vitauts Take 10: Going to Church

Vitauts Grinvalds has been going to church for a long time. As a young man, he went to church in Latvia, then, when he came to the UVitauts Blog - 17nited States, he continued going as a congregant until he became a pastor. Then it was church every Sunday for a long, long time. Duty called!

Saturday nights in our house were more sacred than Sundays. Dad would take a bath and go to bed early. His biggest nightmare was waking up late on Sunday and missing service. I can imagine; I too have that nightmare about missing school. It has almost happened once or twice.

So even now, after retirement, he still goes to be early on Saturday and gets up early on Sunday whether he is going to church or not. Old habits die hard.

I have tried to get him to join a church in Omaha, and several other people have encouraged him to do so, but he adamantly refuses. His reason? He doesn’t want to go somewhere where people ask him who is, where he’s from and then welcome him. He doesn’t like to be hassled by strangers, I guess. Introverted? Maybe. He hates attention.

Vitauts and Maija leave flowers at Liesma’s grave

This past Sunday morning, I woke up to find that he was already gone. I figured that he might have gone to Lincoln to his old church. He still does that once every few weeks. He drives down to Lincoln to go to the service and visit his wife’s grave at Wyuka cemetery. On this particular day, he returned at about 11 a.m., much too early to have been to church and back, and he announced, “There was no service this morning.” “Huh,” I said.

Then he went to find the paperwork with the schedule of services. I printed him off the monthly newsletter so he would have a copy. He searched in his room, and then he brought it out and said, “They have made some mistake. It says that there is service today.” He showed me the newsletter, and the next communion service is on October 25th. Today was the 17th. I showed him the calendar because he didn’t believe me. Then, after checking the date on the newspaper, he was satisfied, and he changed the subject. “Next Sunday is Arnold’s birthday.” Arnold is his oldest son who passed away in 1990. “Yup,” I said. Then he proceeded to ask me if I remembered him. I said yes. And I asked, “Do you remember him?”

He responded by saying yes, and then he told me the story of Arnold’s funeral. He said that he had hurt his leg the night before, and could hardly walk for two weeks. I thought about it for a second and realized that he wasn’t talking about his son anymore. His leg injury actually happened before my mom’s funeral. I guess that’s what happens to memories after awhile.

Arnold Grinvalds circa 1985
Arnold Grinvalds circa 1985

One sorrow just blends into another.



Vitauts Take 9: Solitaire

Vitauts has always been a card player. When I was growing up, I could count on one inevitable thing: at each and every family gathering, a card game would break out, and dad would be involved.

But the image I have of him that is even more prominent than the many basement tables with poker chips and solo scores, is him sitting at the kitchen table, pipe in his mouth, slapping down 52 Bicycle cards and keeping score of his wins and losses at solitaire.

Dad playing solitaire at my house.
Dad playing solitaire at my house.

Now, solitaire is the one pastime that he can still perform with expertise as if nothing has changed. I watch him playing, and he has the same confident look on his face as he always did. He no longer smokes a pipe while he turns the cards, but he still keeps score. The method has evolved, and it actually caused a controversy among all of my siblings.

Every time someone visits the house and watches him play, they come to me urgently and say, “Dad isn’t playing solitaire the right way!” My siblings thought that he had forgotten how to play because they all saw the same memory I did; 1970s and 80s Vitauts at the white kitchen table in Yutan slapping down three cards at a time. However, his game evolved when he moved to Lincoln. I knew this because I spent a lot of time down there, but apparently none of the others had paid close attention.

Now, dad only plays one card at a time, but he can only go through the deck one time. He used to play three at a time, going through the deck until he couldn’t play any more cards. When I asked him why he switched methods many years ago, he explained that this was the “real” way to play and how they did it in Vegas. Apparently, at some stage in his life, he had played solitaire at a casino, but I still haven’t been able to confirm this. He said you paid some amount, maybe $52 to play and then you got $5 or something for every card you laid on an ace. If you won, you could make $200, but you would  usually lose.

Now dad kept score of how much money he won or lost in every game. He has probably played a million games of solitaire in his life, and just about every single game has ended up as a tick mark or number on a little white slip of paper. It’s pretty incredible to think about that. At twenty games a day for fifty years, that’s about 300,000 games. Wow.


Vitauts Take 8: Retirement

In the pulpit for the last time.
In the pulpit for the last time.

Vitauts was a pastor for a long time. It was the life he knew and his identity for over fifty years. During that time, he was a respected figure of five communities and congregations. They referred to him as “pastor” because they couldn’t say his first or last name. And then, on November 2, 2014 he performed his very last service.

All of his living children were there along with most of his grandchildren and his one great-grandson, Nicholas.

I was able to rustle up one person who could do his retirement justice, the only Latvian pastor I knew from way back in our Yutan days: Andy Sedlins. Andy used to visit us every now and then when I was a little kid. We always remembered him because he had a shiny head, bushy beard, and he was much taller than we were. He was also Latvian, and somehow he and dad knew each other. I guess when I was a kid, I would have thought that all Latvian pastors just knew one another. It would have made sense.

I put out some feelers, made a phone call, sent and email and was finally able to reach him. At first, he was a bit put out because dad had left him in the lurch when Andy had ridden his motorcycle from Minnesota and needed a place to stay. He was riding in the rain, and had called dad to set up a meeting, but dad was not home. Vitauts had likely forgotten and gone to the casino as he did most Sundays.

I explained dad’s memory loss to Andy. I told him about how much he had lost in losing Liesma, and the warm heart of this Latvian pastor melted, and he said he would be at dad’s last service.

When dad first saw Andy, there was that glint of recognition, and then they started telling stories and laughing. Andy had been with dad right out of seminary. There were a group of pastors who would go around and hang out together. Kind of like a gang of theologians, and now they were reunited drinking wine and laughing.

Andy gave a wonderful toast at the celebration. He told a story about my mom and how she settled a fight over laundry. It was a classic Liesma story, and none of us had ever heard it before, so it was extra special.

Andra, Vitauts, Andy, Paul and Sue
Andra, Vitauts, Andy, Paul and Sue

The day finished up with a toast at the old parsonage on Mohawk Street, and then it was over. A few weeks later, we packed Vitauts up, and he moved in with me. Now he no longer stresses out on Saturday nights worrying about the next morning’s sermon. He still gets up early every morning, wears pants and a nice shirt, shaves and puts on his Brut aftershave, but instead of going to the office or editing the bulletin, he makes breakfast and earns a quiet morning of solitaire and coffee.

What does a person who has worked his entire life do once he’s finished at age 87?

Vitauts Take 7: Dad’s Swollen Foot

Today, September 29th, 2015, I took dad to the doctor. He hurt his foot last weekend, or at least he thought he did. On Monday he told me that he would like to go to the doctor because he hurt his foot. I suggested that we wait to see if it gets better. I figure that if it was just a sprain, it would be a wasted trip to go to the doctor. I suggested he ice it, take some ibuprofen and elevate throughout the day. I wrote him a prescription and put it on the table so he’d remember.

“Ja (pronounced /ya/), I think I twisted it or stepped on something,” he told me, and everyone else who asked him what was wrong with his foot. Sometimes his story would include details like “on the steps” or “while walking across the lawn.” They sounded pretty convincing.

We can't figure out why his feet are more tanned than his legs.
We can’t figure out why his feet are more tanned than his legs.

So we finally went to the doctor a week later after his foot didn’t get better. I suspect that he never really iced his foot, elevated, or took ibuprofen, but the swelling wasn’t going away. When I checked his foot a second time, I was actually a little worried because the swelling wasn’t only around his ankle, but on the top of his foot.

We were in driving to the doctor in his big red Mercury, and he started to recall how many times he had been to see her. In reality, he had been to her office twice, but he kept recalling other times that he had gone. By the end of the journey, he had counted seven different visits to the doctor’s office.

I spent an hour in the waiting room while good Doctor Stephenson checked out dad’s foot. He emerged and told me that, “It is gout. She believes it is gout.” And he was beating himself up because he felt like he should have known. Apparently he’s had gout several times before, and as soon as he told the doctor, that’s what she went with. “I do not know why I did not remember gout.”

We drove home, and on the way he pointed out what street we were driving on and the buildings he recognized. He told me over and over how many times he had driven on these roads and how they used to be so familiar. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in a place you know that you once knew, but now you didn’t know it at all anymore. I think I got pretty close.


Vitauts Take 6: A Little Background

I have told the story so many times that it has become almost a litany. Dad was born in or around Smiltene, Latvia on November 1, 1927. Almost 88 years ago. I told him that today, and he couldn’t believe he has lived this long. He tried to remember how old his sister was when she died. I assured him that he had already won.

He is virtually indestructible.

Look at that grin.
Look at that grin. Left of center. Crew Cut.

Recently, I found out that he was a rambunctious, naughty child who didn’t mind his teachers or parents. He spent a lot of time in trouble in elementary school. Can you imagine? Pastor Vitauts Grinvalds a hell raiser? He never wanted to be a farmer even though he grew up on a farm. Dad likes to tell the story about how his father’s inheritance was stolen. The Golden Rubles sent to my grandfather’s caretakers was never given to him. They kept that money that my great-grandfather sent from Russia, and so my dad’s family was impoverished, and his father was never able to go to college. So the farm it was.

He spent fourteen years on that farm, doing chores and learning how to raise livestock. His memories of those days are broad strokes of warm fuzzies. The smell of baking bread. The taste of a certain soup. But not very vivid detailed stories; those would come later.

When he turned fifteen, it was 1942, and the war was in full swing. Latvia was in the middle of a skirmish between the Germans and the Russians. Germany had allowed Russia to take over in 1939 with the promise that they wouldn’t retaliate if the Russians invaded the Baltics. And so it was that my dad lived under Soviet rule for four years. This greatly influenced his life.

Then the Germans invaded Latvia and expelled the Soviets.

Finally, in 1944, Russia launched an offensive against the German occupiers. Vitauts was drafted into the Latvian Army at age 15. He walked to the bus station, learned how to fire a gun, and tried to shoot down Russian planes flying over Riga during the Fall of Riga. While at the same time, my mother’s family was getting on a boat for Germany to escape the Russian army.

Vitauts was then drafted into the German army, and they put him on a boat for Germany where he spent the remainder of the war on a train. He says he helped to clean up Dresden after it was bombed. He almost died of fever when he got his toe injured by a train (we’re not sure how). He was captured by French forces, turned over to the Americans, and guarded by Italians. This sixteen-year-old Latvian was hundreds of miles from a home he would never return to. Can you imagine?

Letter sent from POW camp to Vitauts' mother.
Letter sent from POW camp to Vitauts’ mother.

Vitauts and the Flat Tire (Take 5)

Vitauts Blog - 1 (4)My dad moved in with me two years after Liesma died. We had to clean out the parsonage, but that’s another story.

He has been driving the same 1993 Maroon Mercury Grand Marquis for about twenty years, and at 231,000 miles, it’s doing pretty well for its age. I could say the same about Vitauts.

On any given Sunday, dad might decide to drive to Lincoln to go to church. The Latvian church has two English services and two Latvian services a month, give or take. Generally, we try to go with him to the English services, at least a few of us do. But none of us really want to go to the Latvian services, so sometimes he drives to Lincoln on his own.

Omaha to Lincoln is about fifty miles, and dad will say he’s driven the road “a thousand times.” And he’s right, I’m sure he has. On this particular Sunday, however, the road was not kind to him. I got the phone call at about 8:30 or so. Church didn’t start until 10 a.m., but dad was always in a hurry and early for things. He can’t stand to wait around. “Jeff, I am stranded,” he told me. He had suffered a flat tire outside of Greenwood, but he couldn’t change the tire himself.

Kyle, my son, lives in Ashland which is a stone’s throw away from where dad was, so I decided to give him a call to see if he could help. Maybe that makes me selfish, but it just seemed to make a lot more sense than me, driving forty minutes to save him. It was a hot morning, and I didn’t want dad standing out on the interstate alone any longer than he had to.

Kyle was more than up to the task. He jumped at the opportunity to help. Dad came home about an hour later; he had given up on going to Lincoln at all. The car was no worse for wear, but I was worried that if one tire was going to blow out, then wouldn’t the others surely follow?

He took it to Firestone the next day and had a new tire put on. Apparently all is well because he hasn’t had another tire issue for months. We’re crossing our fingers on this.

The fun part of the story is that when his car broke down again just recently, he actually called Kyle himself. He did that because when he retells the story of the flat tire, Vitauts was the one who called my son, not me. And when he repeats this over and over, I start to doubt my own memory, but I’m certain that dad would  not have called Kyle. In fact, I’m fairly certain that at the time he wouldn’t have even had Kyle’s number on his phone. But Kyle was dad’s new hero, and in his fading memory, he had created a story that was bigger than reality and more permanent than any recollection.

Vitauts Take 4 (Liesma)

All of my life, I had seen my mother, Liesma and my father fighting and arguing. I recall one very poignant and powerful moment when dad had missed getting me to a doctor’s appointment and my mom just opened up a can of Latvian woman whoop ass on him in the car. What started out as an argument escalated to her screaming about divorce. Divorce! I must have been 8 years old and scared out of my mother-loving mind listening to her rant and rave. Divorce? Because of me? Because of a doctor’s appointment?

Vitauts Blog - 5 (1)That was just one of many highlights of their constant fights throughout their 50+ years of marriage. The points isn’t to denigrate their relationship because you don’t stay together for 50 years without some modicum of love, but their marriage certainly wasn’t the romantic movie that dad now makes it out to have been.

But in the sepia tones of his fading memories, he has elevated my mother to almost sainthood, lamenting the days that they no longer have together. He visited her grave nearly every day while he still lived in Lincoln, and he brought her flowers from her roses that grew in the front of the parsonage. When winter came, he bought flowers from the pharmacy down the street, and he still continues this tradition at least a few times a month when he ventures down to the Latvian church either with some of us or on his own.

Toward the end of her life, my sisters and I recall how mom suffered under the rule of Vitauts. He wasn’t mean or abusive or anything, but he tortured her in subtle ways. He would watch terrible movies and make her sit with him and watch them. They would play cards with my cousin John and yell at one another, although the yelling did mellow with age. She would whisper to us harshly, “You will never know,” and threaten to walk into Holmes Lake and just end it all.

Who knows how serious she was about all of that. It was always her word against his. Vitauts Blog - 1He always came across as a polite gentleman when we visited in Lincoln, but we never really knew him. He never really wanted to be known.

In fact, when we brought the grandchildren around, and they were little and rambunctious, he would suffer us for thirty minutes or so, and then disappear into the confines of his office in the basement. He would suggest that he had work to do, but mom told us that he couldn’t take the commotion, and he usually took a nap on the couch. Again, his word against hers.