William Liga was my mother’s godfather, so I was told. Every time he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit, like a retired businessman. I remember his presence – he seemed kind – although I think I did not ever have a conversation with him. Liga rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit, with a top coat and hat in the winter. In his final years, he lived in an old, narrow apartment close to downtown. The place was dark, made darker by the sounds of the busy street it faced.
Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. Days later, my parents went to check on him. My father found him, dead. Later, Dad told me that he couldn’t sleep for several days after finding Liga’s body. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.
Liga worked in the foundry with other men who arrived in steerage from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. When I knew him, he was alone. Somewhere, I found a picture – a formal portrait – of Liga and a woman. I’m sure it was taken in “the old country.” A formally dressed Liga sat in a chair, looking sternly into the distance, and the woman, buxom, dressed in a white blouse and a long, dark skirt, belted at the waist, peered into the distance, also. Her dark eyes held something – what? – a part of the mystery of who this old man was, had been. For a long time, that photo was pinned onto the front of my refrigerator, as if seeing it, again and again, would unlock the mystery of who Uncle Liga was.
Many Ukrainians who fled Ukraine for work and food – and an education for their children – arrived in the New World, and settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest – Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee. Others settled in Canada. They brought with them their hard work, their ability to live simply – the grandchildren of freed serfs – and a need to drink.
He spent most holidays with our family, and so Uncle Liga was there, too, at Christmas dinner, and at Easter, when we tapped the ends of colored painted eggs together to see which would crack first. The one that didn’t crack was the winner!
Every few months, the front doorbell rang. In the summer, I ran down the front hall steps to find Uncle Liga at the door. He greeted me, shyly and gently. He and Mom sat together at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which he carried carefully in the pocket of his pants. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included with the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, what to write in return to his family. She translated his Ukrainian into English. He always included some money in the small white envelopes – a few dollars from a poor man.
When I think of Uncle Liga, a small place in my heart is warm.