Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lost and Found

 -         Ignace “Iggy” Yakoushkin’s memory to share with the ones he loves. Documented by Dawn Gernhardt.

Families are complicated in their simplicity. Sometimes figuring out how you all fit together is easy, other times the lines are more intricately woven. Even if the shape shifts over time, your ancestry connects you forever – sometimes in unexpected ways. Iggy and I discussed his life and family - the last time he said good-bye to some, and the first time he said hello to others. 
Iggy’s parents had been divorced since he was about one-year-old. He recalled, “After my parents separated, I never saw my father except when we were leaving Russia. My mother came with me to see him. I remember he picked me up, threw me up, and caught me. That’s all I remember of my father.”
“I remember he picked me up, threw me up, and caught me. That’s all I remember of my father.”

In 1932, when Iggy was two-years-old, his great-uncle Gaga (who had become a U.S. citizen employed by an American company and split his time between the two countries), was able to gain permission for Iggy and his mom to leave Russia. “We crossed the Atlantic on the S.S. Bremen, a German liner. I remember we had hit a fairly good storm. Everybody got sick but I didn’t get sick and I was fascinated by the big waves that were as high as the decks.”
As a child, an unexpected tragedy struck his mother. “About two years after my mother and I came to the United States, she went for a walk in the morning, by herself. And in the evening, when it was already dark, she was brought home by policemen and a guy in a white coat. They took her away that same night and she went to an institution—a hospital for the insane or the mentally disturbed. I never saw my mother again. She stayed in that hospital for 14 years, from 1934 until she died in 1948. A family friend, Mrs. Lawrence, used to go and see my mother. She told me, ‘You really don’t want to go there. Your mother really wouldn’t recognize you.’ ”
After his mother was institutionalized, Iggy was forced to find the security and comfort of family elsewhere. He attended middle school at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, where Iggy continued to live with his great-uncle in New York, but spent his summers with their family friends, the Lawrence’s, in Yonkers. “It was like a second home and really it was, to me, like a joy to be there. The Lawrence’s had four children of their own (two of them were younger than I was and two of them were older than I was). They informally adopted me and legally adopted three other children.”
Iggy graduated high school and enlisted in the army during World War II. After returning home, he lived with the Lawrence’s until he was accepted at the Colorado School of Mines. “I graduated in 1950 with a degree in Geological Engineering. I was hired by an oil company in Oklahoma and I became an Oil Scout. After that I watched wells, from about 1955 until probably 1962. I got involved in the oil business with an individual who had a small oil company. He liked my work - my first prospect hit oil or gas. I persuaded Cleary Petroleum to drill an abandoned hole deeper and pretty soon it petered out. Cleary sold all the leases; but, my override (a small percentage of the proceeds) went with the sale. The other company drilled the well and it came in for 1,000 barrels of oil a day. They deepened the well and subsequently that pool probably had between around 80-90 wells. I started getting some income from the wells that succeeded.”
After Iggy’s return from the service he reconnected with Gabrielle, his middle-school sweetheart. While attending college in Colorado, they nurtured their relationship, eventually married, and had three children in Oklahoma. Along with starting his own family, Iggy was inspired to find his father and other Yakoushkin relations in Russia. “I had tried to locate my father through the Salvation Army and they weren’t able to. I used to look in telephone directories. I remember this one time I went to the Oklahoma City Library to look up something and I found a Yakoushkin in the Manhattan telephone directory. They had the address and everything so, I wrote to him. His name was Dmitri.”
“In his response he said, ‘You and I are cousins. I knew your father quite well. He died about two years ago and I saw him just before he died. He was a very successful man, made movies for children, educational movies. He remarried and had a daughter.’ I called him up. I got all excited. I told him, ‘I have to come see you.’ I got on a plane and went to New York. He lived in a high-rise apartment on the East River not far from the United Nations, which is where he worked.”
From his newly found cousin Ig learned that he had a half-sister, Elena, who was living in Russia. After that, he decided to go to Russia and locate her.
 “I went to Russia all by myself and checked into the Hotel Rossiya. I would call up Dmitri, my cousin who worked with the U.N., and was in Russia at that time. But, I didn’t know how to get a hold of him. I was assigned a Russian woman, who when I went somewhere in Moscow, she would always go along with me. That’s what they did. I told her about the situation. She said, ‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.’ The next day, she gave me this guy’s phone number. So I call him up and the first thing he says, ‘How did you get my number?’”
It turned out that he wasn’t talking to his cousin, Dmitri, but instead Dmitri’s superior. When he finally got Dmitri’s number, and spoke to him on the phone, Dmitri seemed put off and he too asked Iggy, “How did you get my number?” And, he added that he was far too busy to meet. Iggy realized that he would have to find his sister on his own.
“The way you located people at that time, as there were no telephone books, was to go to a booth—they had little booths scattered all over Moscow—and usually there was some old-looking lady sitting there, and you’d tell her whom you wanted to locate. You’d tell them the full name, the date of their birth, and death, to find out where they lived. With that information she said, ‘Well, when your father died, and he died about two years before, he lived here.’ She gave me the address. Elena’s aunt answered the door.”
Elena (sixteen-years-old at the time) was at school, and her mother was at work, but her aunt was home. The family knew that Ig’s father, Eugene, had previously had a child with his first wife decades ago, but the aunt was dumbfounded to see the adult child standing there on her doorstep. She told Ig to come back the next day. When Ig finally met Elena in person, they were both surprised that neither of them had heard of the other. They shared their histories and the passing of their father. Elena took Ig to the cemetery where Eugene was buried. After Ig returned to the United States, he and Elena continued to reach out to each other. 
“Elena paid two visits to California. On her last visit she said, ‘You know, if I could bring my son here, I would stay.’ I talked to the FBI about that and they said, ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ She got permission from the U.S. government to come here with her son, Dimitry, who was a newborn at the time.”
After moving from Oklahoma to California, possibly initiated by his first voyage to America, Iggy became a commercial salmon fisherman. He eventually moved to the seaside village of Mendocino. Elena and Dimitry moved into Iggy’s home in Mendocino upon leaving Russia - brother and sister, were finally together at last.
Throughout his journey, whether mining the land, fishing at sea, or searching distant lands, Iggy trusted his instincts and looked beyond the surface to find what needed to be found – what was already there. Of all he sought, despite great distances and incredible odds, Ig’s most rewarding discovery was family.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Out from Under the Bridge

- Ben Galindo’s memory to share with the ones he loves. Documented by Dawn Gernhardt.

When we follow our intuition, not knowing what we’ll find, providence steers us in the right direction—sometimes navigating us through the nightmare and into the dream.  

Ben and I recently discussed his life, the risks he took, and unexpected outcomes that occurred after his life-altering leap to follow his entrepreneurial spirit.

He recalled being inspired to own a business. There was a lucrative market for the product he would sell. First, he needed to learn the craft. His brother-in-law—who was to be his business partner—wrote to him of a promised land. 

“We would be our own bosses and we wouldn’t have to work for anybody else. I thought that was a good idea. I quit the police force and came to California. But, as soon as I got to Los Angeles, everything was different than I expected.”

“My brother-in-law was no longer working at a leather factory—that factory had closed down. He was working at a mattress factory. He didn’t live in a house—he lived behind the house in a shed where they kept their lawnmower and tools. So, I didn’t have a place to live.”

“They let me sleep in a part of the shop within the mattress factory, but they locked me in at night. I didn’t even have access to a bathroom. After a few days, I had to leave. I was living on the street with no place to go. I was sleeping behind the bushes, or wherever people couldn’t see me.”

Ben remembered his friends who had also come from Mexico City. They lived in Los Angeles. It took a while, but after a few months, he found them.

“When I arrived at their place, they didn’t recognize me because of my full beard—I had nothing to shave with—and I was filthy from sleeping on the ground. In that apartment there were eight or nine people - only men. They helped me to find a job. I was making minimum wage, but I worked overtime from 6am-10pm, Monday through Saturday. I was saving every penny I earned to send back to my wife. One time I sent home three thousand dollars.”

One day, Ben received an urgent letter from his mother pleading him to come home to Mexico City, immediately. So he did. When he got back, Ben found that he had no wife, no money, no home, and no job. The money he had sent to his wife didn’t go towards paying the bills. Therefore, he lost his two homes. His wife was leaving him, and their three children. His previous position on the force was already filled. So, he asked his mother to raise his children for one year, until he could afford to bring them to America with him.

In that year, Ben returned to living on the streets of Los Angeles. But this time, he planned to work his way to Illinois where other people he knew from Mexico City had found work. After working various hourly and day jobs, Ben heard news of employment at wineries in Kenwood. His potential earnings would later fund his fare to Chicago.

Ben was able to work his way to northern California. He found a house to live alongside 25 other laborers. They all vied for the same scarce day jobs. Living in those conditions was not sustainable. Soon, the landlord asked everyone to leave.

“I found a bridge in Glen Ellen, used a tarp to make a tent, and slept under the bridge. I showered in the creek. It was hard because some times I didn’t have anything to eat. For two or three months I lived like this.”

“I was not eating, and I had no money. I just didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go back to Mexico with my empty hands. And, I promised my mom to take care of my kids. I needed to make money to rent an apartment to bring my kids with me. But at that time, I didn’t have any money.”

Ben was overcome with emotion by the memory of his hunger and homelessness. It had all seemed hopeless, until a seventy-year-old lady driving a brown Camero pulled into the parking lot looking for someone to do some yard work for her.

Several men from Mexico, including Ben, were all gathered around hoping someone would come to hire them for the day. By noon, Ben and other day laborers were calling it quits. No one had hired them. These other men wouldn’t work for less than eight hours a day, at eight dollars an hour.

“Someone called out, ‘Hey Ben, you want to work for four hours, for five dollars an hour?’ I thought, I would make twenty dollars. With twenty dollars I can eat something. I said yes.”
She drove Ben to her house. As soon as they got there, she asked him to mow the grass in the front and on one side of her house. She showed him what to do and then she went inside.

“I was working. I was running like crazy. I tried to do my best. After a while she came out of the house and looked around. She told me to turn the mower off and said, ‘No more work.’ For the moment, I thought she wanted me to quit and go away from her house.”

But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“She said to come into her kitchen. She asked me if I was hungry. I said yes, I was hungry. I saw on the table, she had a plate with two eggs, toast, and coffee.”

“She tried to tell me, ‘No more work. You already did enough.’ “But I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t understand English. She got a book that had both English and Spanish words. Whenever she wanted to say something to me, she looked for the words in the book. And, for me to answer, I looked for the words in the book.”

“Then she said that she was happy with my work. Instead of giving me twenty dollars, she gave me forty. It was good. That lady’s name was Ruth, Ruth Luzzi. She asked me, ‘Do you want to work for me one day every week?’ I said sure. Every week, she came to pick me up and then after I finished, she dropped me off again. One time she asked me where I lived. I told her I lived under the bridge. She couldn’t believe it. But, I told her, ‘Yes, I live under the bridge—but, I’m on my way to Chicago.’ She said, ‘You don’t have to go to Chicago. Why don’t you stay here?’”

After a few months, Mrs. Ruth Luzzi went on vacation and trusted Ben with her home. She told him to invite a friend—another person who also lived under the bridge—so that they would have a place to stay and Ben wouldn’t be alone. Ben worked hard so that when she returned, the house would be in excellent condition. To show gratitude for her kindness, he painted the entire exterior of her home.

“Everything was fine. She was happy. She asked me if I wanted to live in her house. But, to live there, I had to work to do whatever needed to be done in the house in exchange for the rent. And I said, ‘Yes, you give me the chance.’”

“She said that it was all under one condition – she wanted me to learn English. So, I learned English. At first, I went to a grammar school at night, taking classes after work, for two semesters. Then, the teacher said, ‘Why don’t you go and take some more advanced classes at the Junior College, so that you can learn to read and write.’ I did that for a few years.”

“Little by little she asked me if I had children. I told her yes. I told her all about my life in Mexico and what was going on with my wife. She felt sorry for me.”

“Mrs. Ruth lent me the money to help me bring my kids to the United States. After that, my two sons, one daughter, and I all lived with her in Kenwood.”

When that kind, brave woman drove up in her brown Camero, looking for someone to help her with yard work, she was also seeking to make a difference in someone’s life. Ben didn’t know that Ruth Luzzi would become a second mother to him and a North American grandmother to his children.

Ben made a permanent life for himself in the United States due to his strong work ethic and perseverance. He has been remarried for 15 years now. His adult children have grown and prospered. The memory of Ms. Ruth lives on within all that Ben and his children do and who they have become. It was his luck to find “an angel.” As providence would have it, he was her angel, too.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Three Laps to Complete the Circle

 -  Sandie Galindo’s memory to share with the ones she loves. Documented by Dawn Gernhardt

It’s easy to go about your life without reflecting upon the delicate patterns and coincidences that occur. However, Sandie has learned from her past. As she returned to places where she’d been, with each full circle, she spiraled upwards.  

Sandie and I recently discussed her life, and marriage to Ben. She wanted to share the importance of their relationship — and the possibility for love that it’s built upon. Sandie recalled meeting Ben at work, after a series of less than fulfilling romantic relationships. When she first saw him, how could she have known that five months later, he would be her husband, and that they would be married for fifteen years—and still going strong.

“I had just started my job at Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa the day after Thanksgiving. It was an upscale hotel for this area - Sonoma County. It’s a beautiful area in the wine country.”

Sequestered in a tiny room, working as the hotel and spa telephone operator, Sandie answered and directed calls. She found solace in connecting with employees who would wave greetings as they passed by her window. One day, she noticed a particularly unfriendly employee who didn’t greet her in the same manner as all of the others.

“One day I saw this guy walk by the window. He wasn’t very friendly looking - almost mean, in a way. I said to myself, ‘I wonder who that is. He’s kinda grumpy looking.’ Usually everybody would wave.”

“Later, during one of my shifts, this guy came in and I didn’t even hear him. He was right behind me, and he said, ‘Excuse me, I’d like to get the garbage can.’ He was working in housekeeping at the time. He didn’t introduce himself, but he was still polite enough to say excuse me.”
 “I looked around and all of the tables were full except for this one table where this unfriendly guy was sitting at and I thought, ‘Oh God.’”
One day, while searching for a place to eat among the crowded lunch room patrons, Sandie found more than what she was looking for. 

“I looked around and all of the tables were full except for this one table where this unfriendly guy was sitting at and I thought, ‘Oh God.’ So I walked up and I had my food and said, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ He was sitting at the biggest table and it was just him.”

“So, I sat down and we started talking and he seemed to be kind of friendly. It was nice; we talked about our kids and our families and how he got here. He was from Mexico City. He was living with an elderly woman that had property in Kenwood. He told me how he had met her. She helped him bring his kids here from Mexico.”

In the days after they ate lunch together, when Ben would pass by Sandie’s window at work, he would wave and smile.

“One time, around the 4th of July, he brought me these cupcakes that were decorated red, white, and blue and I thought, That’s interesting.”

“Shortly thereafter, he asked me out on a date. I’d been divorced twice already, and I’d been in a really bad relationship. So, at this point in my life, I wasn’t looking to find another person.”

She said yes anyway.

“It was on Wednesday, July 17th. I said sure, do you want to go out to the ocean? They have nice places to eat. And I have a coupon.”

It was the third day of the week. Good things come in threes for Sandie.

“He came over and met Mom, and picked me up and we went out to the ocean. We walked out on the wharf. We had a good time. We came back and were driving around. I could tell he was very shy. I could tell that he wanted to kiss me. We were on Lynch Road looking out over Petaluma. It’s a great view. It was still light out, in the summer time. He kissed me. We started dating.”

Two months later, they moved in together.

“He was really serious. He was more interested in a relationship at that time than I was. He was such a nice guy and I could tell that he was sincere. We moved to Glen Ellen. When I had gotten married to my first husband, Owen, we lived on Madrone Road in the apartments just down from where I was living with Ben. To me it seemed as if it was coming full circle. Here I was, twenty-some-odd years later, living on Madrone Road again - with my third husband.”

Some times we make mistakes. And, we’re better for them if we can learn a thing or two - or three. Sandie may have been in the same physical space as she had been, but emotionally and spiritually she was evolving—this time, thanks to her relationship and marriage to Ben.

“We got married on December 10th. Ben had gotten the rings. We decided to drive up to Reno, Nevada. We both took Friday off so we had the whole weekend. We left early in the morning. It was just pouring so hard all the way up through Sacramento, all the way up to Auburn. And then we noticed it had been snowing. We had to wait on the road to get past Donner’s Summit. I was getting worried because it was getting late. The funny part was that Ben had put the date on our rings. I said to him, ‘What if we don’t make it? What if we’re married the day after? Why did you put the date on our rings?’ ”

But, they made it in time.

“I have his name in my ring and he has my name in his ring – it’s nice that we have the rings – with the right wedding date!”

Sandie and Ben’s relationship deepened over the years.

“We moved to Webster Street in Petaluma. Webster was right off of Broadway, which was really close to the street where we lived when I was born. Again, I had come a complete circle.”

Each return for Sandie held a new sense of awareness and hope. As a couple, living in Sonoma and Petaluma, they raised Ben’s three children. These were the same places where she’d grown up, and had raised her own two children a decade prior.

Sandie and Ben currently live at her childhood home in Petaluma. Her parents left her the house where she had grown up. "That’s where we had moved when I was three years old. Again, full circle. Three circles.”

“Thank you, Ben, for letting me sit at your table and eat lunch with you. I love you.”