Evidently I come from a long line of matchmakers. I should not be surprised when my grandmother tries to pair my oldest daughter with an eligible Lithuanian bachelor. So what if he is several years younger, still in high school, and lives hours away? He is the son of the woman who comes to her house every couple of months to cut her hair. My grandmother slyly, or not, asked the stylist if her son has any girlfriends.
She tells me this after asking if my daughter has any boyfriends. The plural part confuses me. If she didn’t have a boyfriend when she asked the same question last week, why would she have more than one today?
The stylist told my grandmother no, her son doesn’t have any girlfriends. He is shy, she explained. When he went to school in Lithuania, his classmates called him Americano and teased him about his weight. When he moved to America, he grew tall and slim and decided he never wanted to go back. These are presented as selling points of suitability: his lean physique and steadfast commitment to not leaving the country.
I listen to the pitch without comment. A few years back she wanted to set my daughter up with another Lithuanian boy. It had something to do with prom and my daughter already had a date, but maybe the boy didn’t. I’m certain she would have asked his mother, setting the wheels in motion.
My grandmother moves on to my father’s success as a matchmaker as if describing the accomplishments of an apprentice. When he dated my mother in college, he introduced a couple of his American friends to my mother’s Lithuanian friends and soon they had an American-Lithuanian group date. They sat in my grandmother’s sunporch in stiff dresses and suits and drank ginger ale and listened to records. Gay times. My dad married my mother and one of his friends married a friend of hers. The two couples did everything together until the other husband died of a massive coronary when he was barely in his forties.
There are no guarantees from a matchmaker. The law of averages means they’ll have more wins than a novice meddler, but their crystal ball isn’t any clearer. In high school my grandmother tried to pair me with a Lithuanian boy who was a year or two behind me in school. I wasn’t interested in boys my own age, let alone someone younger. He was tan and tall with the comically smoldering air of certain handsome but awkward young men. I tried to make small talk as we walked along the beach at sunset. What kind of music and movies did he like? He spoke decent English but gave minimal responses. He then thoroughly picked apart my own American tastes. Fair enough, but at least wait until we’re a couple.
I hadn’t known about the set up or I would have found an excuse not to go. The feeling was mutual because I never heard his name again. My grandmother is a crafty and unrealistic matchmaker, but she seems to accept her failures. There is always next time.
My favorite matchmaking story is the one she tells about how her parents met. My great-grandmother was the youngest of six girls. Her parents were farmers in a small village in Lithuania near the Polish border. They called on a matchmaker to find a husband for one of their two oldest daughters.
My great-grandfather arrived one afternoon and was seated at the dining room table, where he was no doubt served a small feast in salted meats and cheeses. My great-grandmother kept sneaking in to fill his water glass and bat her eyelashes. What about this daughter? he asked the parents. Would he have settled for one of the older girls if the meats and cheeses had been less salty? Impossible to say or deny how precarious and random our own fates are.
The story continues and takes several dips and curves. They married, of course. He bought her a beautiful fur trimmed coat, which she wore in their wedding photo. She was 12 years younger than her groom and looks every bit of it. He stood next to her dressed like he’s ready to board a train for work. He sold her on promises of new clothes and a trip to America. The only problem was his passport had expired. He came up with another plan.
They took a boat to Mexico and paid someone to help them cross the border. Something went wrong, according to my great-grandmother. There either was a double-cross or a feared one, and my great-grandparents took off on their own. They came to a figurative end of the road at a river too wide and deep to cross. My great-grandfather panicked at their lack of options in a foreign, hostile country and offered to shoot her and them himself with a gun he picked up for the trip. She cried and pleaded until he changed his mind and came up with yet another plan. They would try and cross the river anyway.
The next morning, my great-grandmother walked to the river’s edge to wash herself. Just then a giant animal breached the surface and opened its jaws wide enough to swallow her whole.
This is the part in the story where the needle screeches across the record. Wait, what kind of animal? I ask. The great big one that lays halfway in the water, my grandmother says, struggling to remember the right name. It’s gray, she offers helpfully.
You mean a hippo? I say. It’s the only water animal I can think of and I say it before realizing hippos in the Americas wouldn’t become a thing until Pablo Escobar gets shot in the early nineties and animals from his private zoo are left to fend for themselves.
A friend later suggested maybe she meant a Texas longhorn. I feel like my great-grandmother would have mentioned the horns, but it’s possible my grandmother doesn’t remember the details correctly. Our memories erode and emerge with murky new details to fill in the gaps.
My great-grandparents made it across the river safely, possibly on the back of a hippo, and went to a small store in town to buy food. Something about their travel weary, eastern european ways aroused suspicion and soon they were detained by police. They took my great-grandfather to jail and my great-grandmother went to a nunnery while they sorted out what to do with them. The nuns gave her a beautiful rosary she would one day be buried with.
My grandmother’s biggest regret seems to be that she buried her mother with that nunnery rosary. She wishes she’d kept it to pass on to me. I picture my great-grandmother buried in the salmon colored, sequined dress she wore to my brother’s wedding and later my own, her bony fingers wrapped around the coveted rosary. So many lost treasures in the ground we walk on every day.
In the end, authorities sent them on a train to stay with relatives in Baltimore. This was always the plan, it just took longer and gave them a better story to tell. That is how my grandmother came to be born in America. My great-grandparents hired an immigration lawyer who took their money and told them everything would work out and they would be allowed to stay in America. He lied. That is how my grandmother came to grow up in Lithuania and why she is probably one of the oldest Lithuanian-American matchmakers around today.