King Lear and Great-Uncle Schika
by Stas Holodnak
I expected more from my first experience of Shakespeare on stage: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear should have been spectacular. Yet the play felt all too familiar, reminding me of the subject of endless family feuds over the years. An old and frail, borderline senile man, bouncing all over the stage in a shabby fur coat like a leaf in the wind, might have been King Lear to the rest of the audience, but to me, he was the dramatic version of my very own Great-Uncle Schika.
For most of his life, Schika lived in a small, rural Ukrainian town called Fastov. His home was a modest, single-story, single-room cottage whose floor was covered with a great many thick winter coats. Schika’s grandchildren, who lived in Leningrad, stayed with him in the summer, and the coats made it warm and comfortable for them to sleep on the floor. The other items that Schika possessed in great quantity were books. He had hundreds of them, nestled in simple wooden shelves that he built himself. He and his wife, Schprinza, were voracious readers. There was no book in Fastov’s library that Schika hadn’t read. Methodically, in alphabetical order, he checked out and read each and every one.
I’ve never tried to imagine my great-uncle as a young man. He was too old to fight in the First World War. He was of course even older when the Second World War started, yet he was drafted into the Soviet Army and forced to dig trenches. By his own account, the best time of his hundred-year life was twenty months of captivity somewhere in Austria. At the turn of the twentieth century, Schika, then a conscript in the Czar’s army, took part in skirmishes with Austro-Hungarian units and was eventually taken prisoner. It’s unclear what exactly Shika was forced to do, but years afterward, after having something to drink, he liked to boast how good the Austrian women were to him. Fastovites shook their heads with skepticism upon hearing this: Schika had the reputation of being the least attractive man in town. In some respects, life went downhill for Schika after he was set free.
When Schika returned home, he courted and married my grandmother’s older sister Schprinza. Together they had two children: a boy and a girl. To support his family, Schika opened a housewares store. The business was good, but Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s was not friendly to private enterprise. Schika’s store was expropriated by the communists and he was arrested and jailed for five years in Kharkiv (then the capital of Ukraine). The incarceration scarred and scared Schika. Even if he had money, he would never show it. He ran a frugal household, but his house was never closed to family and friends. Meanwhile, the store remained open, as they say, under new management. More than sixty years later, locals still call it “Schika’s,” even though he’s gone and there is nothing there to indicate his connection.
When Schika and Schprinza grew old and frail, they moved to Leningrad to stay with their daughter. In the life of the old, living with children was the natural order of things; there were no nursing homes and assisted-living programs then.
Schika became King Lear when his wife Schprinza passed away. It’s not that Schika was treated like royalty when she was alive. Tensions between the couple and their children, expressed mostly through petty and bizarre acts, propagated and split the extended family. On her last visit to Leningrad, my grandmother was refused entry by Schprinza’s daughter. The grandmother had to threaten legal action in order to see her sister. Despite of all this, there was still some affection left for the old couple. When Schika was left alone, that quickly evaporated.
Schika was not debauched like King Lear with his hundred knights, but then again he didn’t stay in a palace. His daughter’s family huddled in a one-bedroom apartment, which was a typical living arrangement in real-estate starved Leningrad. One day, for reasons unknown, Schika’s daughter sent Schika away from her home to live with her brother. Schika, at first, was happy, hoping that he would be treated better at his son’s place. Schika’s son was a warm, kind person, but he had his own family to think about. There, Schika felt even more miserable than before. The moment came when he had enough of his children. So my great-uncle did something King Lear would have done under the circumstances: He went on to the heath.
Schika took a train back to Ukraine where he lived most of his life and where many members of his extended family still resided. He visited them one by one, staying from one week to a few months, on average. His visits always ended in the same, sad way. Schika’s host would beseech the next relative in line to take Schika. My cousin remembers Schika foraging food from the refrigerator and taking off in the middle of the night. Sometimes, he would return on his own; other times, the police would bring him back. He was not in the best mental shape. When Schika ran out of relatives — or rather, relatives who would let him stay — he returned to Leningrad. He died soon after.
I told my kids about King Lear and Great-Uncle Schika, and they were outraged by Schika’s treatment. They would have taken care of him, they insisted. They would put him up — if not in their own bedrooms, then in the living room. Be it as it may, the old have options today. They don’t have to depend on the kindness of the young.