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.