THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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By Boris Vytautas Bakunas
It was bitterly cold in Kaunas that December of 2003 during my first visit to the land of my ancestors. Driven by gusts of bone-chilling wind, I sought warmth inside a delicatessen just off Laisves Aleja.
The old woman stood so close to the door that I nearly crashed into her. Snow swirled in behind me like a white cape, sending its flakes towards the last-minute Christmas shoppers inside. Several cast glances at me, and seeing nothing unusual, turned away.
I could barely hear the muttering, hushed tones the old woman spoke...She was so small that I had to bend my head to see her. A frayed white headscarf tightly hugged a wrinkled face – a face battered by at least 70 years of hard living.
Her lips were moving in cadence with her head, which bobbed up and down ever so slightly as if she were saying her rosary. But there were no beads in the cupped hands that stretched towards me. It was then that I understood she was begging.
I had seen beggars before. I remember one legless beggar sitting in child’s little red, steel wagon in front of a dime store in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood where my family moved just as soon as my grandfather found work in the steel mills. No matter how poor we were, my mother always found a quarter to give him, and he always greeted her gleefully when he saw her coming his way.
I fumbled through my pockets finding only a few litai. The old woman took them. Then she humbly clasped my hands in hers. Her hands were old and gnarled like the roots of an ancient oak clutching the earth.
“Dekuj, dekuj,” she muttered, her head bowing in gratitude. “For what?" I wondered. “A few litai?”
A wave of anxiety swept through me. You know that sinking feeling which calls up a memory flash so brief that you forget the details, and all you are left with is cold dread.
I feverishly searched my pockets again. Empty.
“Wait here,” I said. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.
I skidded across the icy street to a bankomat and got – I don’t know how much – maybe sixty dollars worth of litai.
Then I rushed back. Would the old woman still be there when I got back?
I shoved a crumpled ball of paper money into her hands. As she began unwrapping it, I tried to leave. But a hand tore into my sleeve. All I remember were the tears running in rivulets down her wrinkled face and the words “Dekuj, dekuj” and something about how she and her daughter who was ill would have heat this month and could celebrate a real Christmas.
“Ner už ką,” I blubbered. “It’s nothing, nothing really.”
The living room of my cousins’ apartment was decked with a feast you’d expect to find on a luxury liner. Though far from rich, they had spared no expense to greet their relative from abroad. My aged aunt, the youngest sister of my dead father, marveled that I had not forgotten my native tongue. Toast followed toast. Laughter rung out like the sound of Christmas bells and chimes.
I laughed, too. But my thoughts were elsewhere. I had come to Lithuania bearing the ashes of my mother, in fulfillment of her wish to be buried in her beloved Kaunas. And now I thought of my last days with her and the gifts she had given me.
The gift of her labor, the seemingly endless of hours of toil she spent working in factories for a pittance during our first decade in America.
The gift of her words, the words she spoke to me just before I started school, telling me that if I worked hard one day I would work in an office or maybe even be a teacher myself..
And I remember her gift of compassion. No matter what our circumstances, she always managed to have something left over to give to others -- a donation to a charity, a Sunday offering to the Church, and always a quarter to every beggar she saw.
I have seen beggars wherever I’ve been. I have seen lame beggars, beggars without legs, beggars with bent backs. I’ve seen young beggars barely out of their teen-aged years, their arms pitted with scabs and their hands swollen from drugs. I’ve seen healthy, strong beggars. And beggars who smelled a saloon.
I have heard people say, “Don’t give him a cent. He’s healthy. He’s strong. Why doesn’t he find a job and work like the rest of us?”
“He’ll just waste it all on drink.”
And I remember my mother’s words, “How sad it is that the only joy some men can find in life comes in a bottle.”
And now I remember the old woman with the frayed white headscarf in Kaunas during the winter of 2003 muttering “Dekuj, dekuj” and weeping, and I remember thinking of her sick daughter. Did they have their real Christmas in a warm apartment that year? I hope so. Was it their last Christmas? I hope not. Oh God, I hope not.
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