20 January 2018
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The beggar woman
of Kaunas

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.

Category : Featured black / Health & wellbeing

  • Dear Boris…I was very touched by your story! You are a wonderful man and I am proud to be one of your many facebook friends. Your story brought tears to my eyes. There are so many needy people out there and so few really see these folks..I don't think they want to, but you prove there are still good people in this world! Dotty Alikonis-Kotchian

    October 12 2015
    • l.virginija

      Borisai, Tavo publikaciją perskaičiau kelis kartus. Pirmąjį kartą tik permečiau akimis, kadangi sudomino puikios Kauno nuotraukos: soboras, Laisvės al. Kažkodėl negalėjau pamiršti to straipsnio ir vėl sugrįžau. Jaučiuosi ne kaip, jog taip ilgai nepasakiau Tau, koks geras, jaudinantis Tavo rašinys. Žinai, mūsų visų pasaulis būtų nuostabus ir žmonės jame būtų laimingi,jeigu bent kas trečias žmogus turėtų tokią širdį ir gebėtų matyti bei jausti tai ką jauti ir matai Tu. Dėkoju už pasakojimą ir labai tikiu, jog jis privertė susimąstyti ne vieną jį skaičiųsįjį. Geros ir dosnios Tau ateities!

      August 06 2013

      • But for the grace of God, there go any one of us! I agree with Ramute, I wish there were more people like you Boris! Beautifully written, down to earth, inspirational. Aciu Boriseli for taking us back to Lithuania with you!

        July 21 2013
        • charles ashman

          We have many beggars and homeless in our neighborhood. At times we've had unwanted guests living 20' from our bedroom window. In summer they might have long loud discussions long into the night. That, is in the past now. When I pass a beggar that I see every day I ask him "how's it goin?" and usually get a positive response from my unexpected question. Now, I usually have a few dollar bills in my jacket pocket and when the spirit moves me I pull a couple out and surprise him. we are both happy for a moment. This doesn't feel like charity to me, more I feel like I am in the stream like just another fish….

          July 07 2013
          • Lois Kirkey

            Boris has written a touching story about the city of the birth of my great grandfather, Louis Cohen. Likened to a conditioned stimulus/conditioned response, he had something for every beggar who crossed his path. However, the wizened old woman in his native land really touched a nerve deep inside him. He saw how the need to beg for sustenance was urgent and critically demanding in that old woman, more so than all the others. Boris tried not to judge those beggars; he simply gave them the sorely-needed quarter or Lithuanian coin, without questioning whether it was for drink, drug, or food. I have enjoyed reading this account, very much.

            July 05 2013
            • Boris Bakunas

              Thank you, Ramute!

              It warmed my heart to read your comment, Ramute. Thank you.

              July 04 2013

              • written with such compassion. Wish there were more like you. It's ironic when you are told not to donate to the needy as if these people deliberately created their own bad circumstances. Any one of us at any stage in our lives can find our selves financially destitute through no fault of our own, What about Governments who determine Policy to favor one class of individuals over another. I could say so much more, but my words would be wasted on many. When I know I have given aid to a needy individual, I know I have done something kind. Without judgement.

                July 04 2013

                • An emotional and heartfelt commentary on a group in society, that is many times ignored. My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Boris Vytautas Bakunas, your mother has taught you well.

                  Many of your articles serve as an inspiration on how we should treat our fellow man.

                  July 04 2013
                  • Geno

                    What a touching story. This could become a Christmastime standard.

                    July 03 2013

                    • Dekuj Boris, A well written,heart-warming story .

                      July 03 2013


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