THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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My first meeting with my family in Lithuania
- we had been searching for 90 years
By KR Slade
It's Saturday, 28 May 2005, 6pm, in Lithuania. I've just returned to my room in the capital city, Vilnius, from my nine-hour day-trip to Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. Kaunas had been the capital of the first Republic of Lithuania, during the inter-world-wars period, and is 90+ percent ethnic-Lithuanian -- compared to 60 percent in Vilnius. Lithuania is, now and since 1990, in its ‘third’ republic, again free, after its second -- and fake --‘Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic’, when it was occupied and annexed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Kaunas is called ‘the heart of Lithuania’, especially by the people of Kaunas. Today is a very special day for my family in Lithuania: the fifth anniversary of the death of our family’s Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius.
I exited the mini-bus (CDN$5) on ‘Savonariu (i.e., 'Volunteers' -- named for those who fought against the invading Nazis, or Soviets, or Poles) Prospect’ in downtown Kaunas, after the 1.25 hour trip, which is 1.5 hours by any other kind of vehicle. The mini-bus does not leave Vilnius on any ‘Western’ schedule, other than 'when it is full' with its maximum of eight passengers, or sooner if everyone waiting too-long complains. The driver will stop anywhere a passenger wants. There is a debate as to whether this bus service is legal. I was passenger number eight, so we left in one minute.
My Lithuanian language must be getting better, because upon arriving in down-town Kaunas, the bus driver understood where I ultimately wanted to go, and he told me to take a trolley-bus when he dropped me off. I asked a man at a trolley-stop how to get to the cathedral; but it was his 11-year-old son who became very proud (in front of his father and two younger brothers), because it was only he who could help me in English. Since 1990 independence, English replaced Russian that is taught in schools from first grade.
I got off the trolley-bus (CDN$.45) after I saw Laisves (i.e., ‘Freedom’) Street. I remembered being lost on that wide pedestrian-only street on both of my two previous, cold and rainy day-trips in the last year, to Kaunas.
I arrived early enough to while-away an hour on this summer-like day, with a salad and Coca-Cola (total: CDN$5) at a sidewalk café on the pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets of the nearly-empty Old City. The vegetable salad with milky dressing was good; I’m getting used to the standard room-temperature cola. A group of a dozen foreign tourists arrived, quickly gave up trying to understand the Lithuanian-only menu, began yelling into the basement dinning room for a waitress, ordered beers, and seemed surprised when the 20-year-old waitress completely understood their own second-language English.
I arrived fifteen minutes early at the Basilian-style cathedral; it’s only 400 years old, but it appears 1,000 years older because of its style of architecture, reminiscent of the time of St. Basil The Great, a Father and Doctor of the Church, most revered here in Eastern Europe. I entered and watched a child’s baptism ceremony at the front alter while I walked the length of a side aisle to the private chapel-room. Here, in this Gothic-style quiet area of his cathedral, Cardinal Sladkevicius is buried in the floor.
In a few minutes, about three-dozen relatives, and spouses, some with their small children, had gathered. I had never met any of them.
However, I had extensive research information from my previous seventeen months in Lithuania. Fr. Peternal of Vilnius had helped me for the previous eight months. We obtained the help of Fr. Klimas at the church in the village (i.e., Zasliai -- Guronys) where my family had lived for the last 300 years. Irena, Director of the Cardinal Sladkevicius Museum in Kaunas and author of two biographies of the Cardinal, provided documents. Antanas Paulauskas, author of the unpublished family-genealogy manuscript, wrote a letter to family members to introduce me. A couple of English-speaking cousins, one in London and another in Kaunas, had e-mailed me. Cousin Lina and her husband Marius had telephoned me and introduced me to the no-cost Skype computer telephony so that we could have several more long-distance conversations; and most importantly to tell me that the family’s private commemoration was on Saturday, not on Sunday (that was the public commemoration). Otherwise, I would have arrived a day late, and never met the family. However, I was slightly uncomfortable because some of the family knew me, but I did not know any of them.
In the chapel of this cathedral, after some time for reflection by our family, the very pleasant and jovial Prelate Vincentas Jalinskas entered, summoned us to him to stand around the Cardinal’s tomb, and he sang a cappella some hymns, interspersed with his personal recollections of the Cardinal, whom he knew well, and then greeted every one of us individually. The Prelate walked to the opened door, shook the hand of each of us, and told each of us, in Lithuanian, “Be careful of this step-down, here” as we re-entered the main part of the cathedral where a wedding was now taking place. If not only from the mid-day sunlight streaming blazingly through the ancient windows, perhaps more from exiting our transcendental experience, his caution was to be appreciated, as he well-knew that we all now were walking-on-air.
We all gathered in front of the cathedral for a few minutes, and then about thirty family members drove a short distance to a tiny chapel in a nearby neighbourhood for Mass, with two priests and two folk musicians. Father Alfonsas Bulota was the personal secretary to the Cardinal, and Fr. Virginijus Lenktaitis also knew His Eminence well. After the mass, we walked through the garden behind the chapel to a sit-down lunch gathering at the priest's house, where individuals shared their reminiscences about their uncle/cousin/friend, whom everyone calls 'His Eminence'. I did not understand what anyone was saying, but I could easily understand the fondness of their memories and their profound respect and admiration for our cardinal. The earlier sombre faces of the men and the tears of the women, at the cathedral and the mass, now turned to smiles and laughter.
Janina (the daughter of a brother of the Cardinal), who cared for His Eminence during his last three years’ battle with two cancers, and who took care of me throughout this day (although she doesn't speak any English!) arranged a ride for me back to Vilnius, with two non-English-speaking relatives. Five minutes into the drive, we discovered that Dr. N’s wife, Milda, and I could communicate in French.
Of course, we had to stop for ‘cepelini’, ten minutes out of Kaunas. Cepelini is a favourite Lithuanian ethnic food made from grated potatoes packed around a meatball, usually made of pork, served warm, with a light cheesy sauce. It has a nickname, ‘Zeppelin’ because it is the plate-size oblong shape of a dirigible aircraft. This restaurant is well-known for good ethnic food, and I enjoyed it in the leisurely atmosphere of the garden terrace and watching the children in the playground.
Between our translations of Lithuanian and French, I thought of how I had enjoyed myself so very much this day and how I hoped to have other family gatherings this coming summer. I am fortunate to be related to such nice people; there are twice as many more family members to meet here in Lithuania; there are more in London, the Americas, etc. In addition, there will be my Lithuanian grandmother’s family yet to discover.
One day meeting some of my family, a first meeting since my grandparents left Lithuania ninety years ago; total cost: CDN$10.45; total satisfaction: yes.
A few weeks later, I would find myself in a small village, 20 km from Kaunas, spending the weekend at Janina’s farm. The 24th of June is St. John’s Day, the biggest holiday in Lithuania, and Janina’s name-day, as well as her birthday. St. John’s Day has been celebrated in Lithuania for a thousand years before Christianity arrived here in the fourteenth century; pagans knew that it’s the shortest night of the year.
I became more acquainted with her son, daughter and husband and their 4 year-old, as well as Fr. Bulota, other family, and some family friends. Remembering names and relationships is going to be a temporary challenge. I remember the name of one of the three dogs, but not the cat; maybe there are no names for the five goats, twenty turkeys, four ducks, two roosters, and whatever number of chickens. The bull in the next pasture does not appear to be especially friendly. I rode a bicycle for the first time in 30 years, but only for 3,000 meters to the village store for ice-cream. I enjoyed the farm’s swimming hole. The food brought back forgotten memories of my grandmother’s cooking; the names of many foods here do not have English translations.
The Cardinal's garden-table, now on a farm
The first of our gatherings was out-of-doors, in the yard, around a weathered table, the Lithuanian variety of a picnic-table, of an ethnic design but not otherwise special. The first night was rainy, we ate inside, and afterwards I was shown some family photos of His Eminence. One photo showed the Cardinal in his garden, in his later years: sitting at the same table. Suddenly that table became to me, as it is to everyone who knows, very special. In addition, the photos are kept in the bookcase wall unit, not so special a piece of furniture, except that from the photos it is evident that this bookcase also was his. Now that soviet-era contemporary-design bookcase acquires a very historic provenance. I learned more about his forced and long ‘internal exile’ under the Soviet Regime, when he had been appointed by Pope John XXIII to be a bishop. There were the facts of his life-long suffering from a childhood disease, caused by poor diet from poverty. And, there were the many stories, from his almost eighty years, of interpretations of what he liked and what he did not especially like, and some of these interpretations are for only us ever to know.
I expect to be returning soon to the village to take advantage of my open invitation there. There are many more family, living and past, to get to know. There are more villages to visit. This story does not seem to be going to have an end any time soon...
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