Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Americans

My father in Northern Ireland, early 1960's*
Ilana and I began watching the series The Americans yesterday. It's a fantastic show. The acting is subtle and strong, the depictions of spying and undercover life understated and compelling. Ilana told me, after just one episode, that she had had a fantasy that her family was undercover, secret Soviet spies, when she was young. I never knew that, but it makes sense in light of some other fantasies she's shared with me.

Funnily enough, I never had this fantasy, despite the fact that I experienced my mother as a Russophile.

The photo above shows my dad in Northern Ireland. This is the beginning of the era where they drove to Russia together, peeping behind the Iron Curtain in a VW Bug. The story goes that they were taking a co-worker of Dad's back, but of course Mom wanted any reason to head to Russia. She was fluent, with a Master's degree in Russian. I haven't dug deeply enough to see what her personal reaction was to being there (I have letters and whatnot somewhere), but I know she joked that people mistook our father for a young Lenin. The facial hair probably had a lot to do with that.

You can see it even more obviously in this theatrical shot of him from when my parents first met. He was Judge Hawthorne in a production of The Crucible at the time:
My dad as Judge Hawthorne, late 1950's. Pretty Lenin-like, eh?!
What is funny to me is that I grew up in Joseph McCarthy's hometown and burial place - Appleton WI - and my mother was a Russophile. We had Russian books and artefacts all over our house. This was mid-Cold War - 70's, 80's. Not an easy time to be into Russia in midwestern America. My mom was pretty quiet about it - didn't have many close friends in our town anyway. Dad made jokes (and likely actually did both) about pissing on McCarthy's grave and dating one of the Rosenberg's cousins before marrying Mom.

So it wasn't exactly a secret. Then again, there was nothing to hide.

If you are a spy, you cover it all up.
My parents had nothing to hide.

But I didn't grow up in a typical American family. Definitely not average Midwesterners, and certainly not the suburban-like neighbors we had. Mom taught me that New York was the promised land, and even more so, Europe. Travel was to be expected, if not living abroad. They would have raised us in Ireland if there hadn't been "the troubles" at the time. Mom went to a private, very well cultured school in Chicago growing up.

To be a small-town Midwesterner meant things she disdained: well-kept lawns, carpools, gossip and doing your nails. It's hard now to tell what was her own shame in comparing herself or our family to the surrounding community, and what was actual ethic or cultural preference for her. But the ebony bust of Nefertiti on our grand piano and the brass-and-glass Russian tea sets on the side board certainly imply she had other tastes.

Very few objects in The Americans look familiar to me. They don't indulge in Russian culture - the spy KGB couple have to act as if they have no idea what caviar is when they encounter it. And yet, there is something about their lives - trying to get by in the 80's in America as non-Americans - that I get. My parents were Americans by birth, but they didn't act like the other Americans around us. So something feels familiar to me in the way these Americans act. A little bit off. A little bit disjointed.

*I made some revisions to this post after my eldest brother brought some family stories - and definitely some dates! - into better alignment for me.

1 comment:

  1. Such vivid tale telling, and such strong images, from the Nefertiti bust over the VW bug peeking behind the iron curtain to the impressive photo of your father. While the circumstances in which I grew up certainly weren't the norm of the 1970s and 80s either, yours seem so much more avantgarde, mysterious, adventurous, and inspiring that it almost makes me feel a bit jealous.