My dad was born in Lithuania (Lietuva), and escaped with his family during World War II. Although my dad sports a classic Chicago accent, his parents never learned English, and I spent many days of my childhood listening to the grown-ups speaking Lithuanian, while my sister and I ate Lithuanian food and were spoiled with wordless affection.
I think it is because of this time that I don’t flinch when I find myself spending hours surrounded by people speaking to each other in languages I can’t comprehend. I have become pretty adept at following conversations through body language, tone, and facial expressions. Sure, understanding the words is a plus. But it’s often not needed.
I heard Ruta Sepetys speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and I was blown away. Let me say, first, that I think the whole audience was in awe of this dynamic woman. But, on a personal level, she shares my relationship with Lithuania. She, too, is the daughter of immigrants. She, too, had family who was displaced, exiled, and killed in the war and post-war. And, she, too, grew up not speaking the language, but being surrounded by its music.
After her speech, I immediately downloaded her book, Between Shades of Gray, and devoured it. It is an important story for me, for my family, and for Lithuania. But, it is also an important story for all of us to be reminded that there were atrocities committed in World War II beyond those horrors architected by Hitler.
Though the eyes of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941, Sepetys reminds us that Stalin has even more blood on his hands.
The first time I went to Lithuania was ten years ago. I bought my Dad a ticket for Christmas, and we made the trip in early spring.
My Dad greeted me at the airport in Vilnius, drunk, with a Colonel from the Lithuanian army who was somehow commandeered into becoming my Dad’s chauffeur.
I should back up and clarify a few things:
1) My Dad went a few days early, since I had to work and was limited to a one-week vacation. So, it was after several days of family reunion parties that he was meeting me at the airport.
2) The fact that my Dad was inebriated when he met me wasn’t a big surprise. First, see point 1 above. Second, anyone who has met my Dad would smile and chuckle when I say that, even if there weren’t several days of family reunion parties involved.
3) The fact that my Dad had somehow managed to get an official of the Lithuanian army to serve as his driver wasn’t shocking, either. It’s not that my Dad has a crazy amount of clout. He has a crazy amount of chutzpa, and a fair amount of luck.
The Colonel drove us to my Dads’ wife’s cousin’s farm outside of Kaunas, where I was greeted with a warmth and enthusiasm that was touching. And overwhelming. The only English speaker was the eight-year-old, and she was also the only shy person in the whole family. So, things were a little chaotic for my jet-lagged brain to process. And even more so once the bottle of vodka was opened, the Euro-techno music started playing, and the dancing began.
I woke up the next morning not being able to see (my glasses were missing), with a broken ankle, severely hung over, with a camera full of great photos (mostly taken from the floor, I presume, after I had broken my ankle), and with no clue as to where my Dad was.
When my Dad returned from the store (The Colonel had taken him to get more beer), I asked to go to a doctor for my ankle. This was the first of a series of repeated requests over the next few days, all of which were met with sympathy, and an alternative suggestion (we wrapped it in a bandage, rubbed it with ointment, went in search of a psychic healer – twice – and kept me pumped full of anti-inflammatories and pain killers).
After a hike to see the carp farm, the Colonel took my Dad and I to our new home: army barracks.
I should back up and clarify a few more things:
1) Visiting a carp farm when one is hung over should be avoided at all costs.
2) Walking through the muddy, uneven fields of a carp farm when one has a broken ankle should be avoided at all costs.
3) Sleeping in the army barracks when one is a single, foreign woman should be avoided at all costs.
But hey, the best experiences are often the ones that involve a little discomfort and misfortune…
Some of the surreal highlights include:
Sitting in the Minister of Information’s office, being asked what I suggested his country do to gain admittance to the European Union.
Being left in The Colonel’s car in the middle of Soviet block housing for hours in the freezing cold while my Dad and The Colonel delivered care packages to people.
Pounding on my Dads’ aunt and uncle’s door unannounced at 1am, and staying up for four hours with them and their daughters as they prepared an impromptu family reunion party.
Hiking up to the top of a cobblestone path on a broken ankle to get a view of Vilnius, panorama-style.
In rereading this entry, and the previous entries about my trip, I’ve realized it may sound like I am whining. Far from it.
This was an experience I am grateful for. Traveling with my Dad to his homeland enabled me to understand him so much better. Seeing the museums, eating the food, hearing the music, all rendered a terribly potent appreciation for my heritage far more than before.
Meeting the incredibly warm, hospitable, funny, and smart people has made me proud to be called Lithuanian.