An excerpt from
White Field, Black Sheep
A Lithuanian-American Life
I Was the Child of Teepees
The markers of my childhood: the varnish factory looming like a giant domino against the sooty sky, the rat-infested coal yard north of the Burlington tracks, the pair of huge red Magikist lips jutting out and above the Eisenhower Expressway. Coming back from summer trips to Indiana, my sister and I would spot them and know we were home. They were a woman’s lips, curving gracefully at the edges. Set against the gray industrial landscape of northern Cicero, Illinois, they seemed to me heartbreakingly beautiful.
My mother, however, found them vulgar, symbolic of all the things wrong with this new country: plastic flowers, Hostess cupcakes, Barbie dolls. What she found offensive about the Magikist sign was not only the deliberate and ugly bigness of the lips, but also the provocative misspelling of the word. “It should be magic kissed, shouldn’t it?” she’d say every time we passed the sign. She disliked the loony orthography of American advertising, hated finding the s in ease arrogantly displaced by a z, as in the over-the-counter sleeping pill, Sleep-Eaze. (In our native Lithuanian there’s no mechanism for such an E-Z resettlement of morphemes.)
The Western Electric building on Cicero Avenue, just south of Cermak, formed another boundary marker. Driving home from the Lithuanian Center on Fifty-Seventh and Claremont, my father knew what was coming the moment its Disney-like spire loomed into sight. “Mes jau matom mūsų bokštą, my sister and I would singsong, repeating it over and over until we got home. Now we see our tower. Now we see our tower. We lived several blocks away in a two-story brownstone much like all of the other two-story brownstones on the street. Our landlady, Ponia Sereikienė, lived on the floor above us with Stanley, her balding middle-aged son. A huge stuffed eagle guarded the front landing to the apartment, its eyes an unnatural yellow, its wings outspread and claws sharp, ready to pounce on little girls who didn’t listen to landladies. You had to get past the ugly bird to get to the treasures in her flat—a risk worth taking, for inside her musty bedroom atop a big brown dresser lay a stack of splendid holy cards, two inches thick, edged with gold, depicting saints with haloes big as Frisbees. St. Therese, the Little Flower of Jesus, and St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost objects. Virgin Marys in all their various guises and several Sacred Heart of Jesuses. She even had the pope—her only pontiff—a hefty man wearing a little white beanie too small for his big head. And, of course, St. Casimir, our only Lithuanian saint—later withdrawn from the panoply, yet another loss in a long and seemingly inevitable string affecting our home country.
It was not only the inordinate beauty of the cards that took my breath away, but also the way they were acquired. At five, I had already been to several wakes—in this large, tight Lithuanian émigré community people were always dying. Mrs. Sereika, however, must have been to hundreds, and this fact alone was enough to give the cards exalted status.
My mother didn’t think much of the holy cards. “The Sereikas are different from us,” she explained patiently. “Lithuanian, yet not Lithuanian.” Ponia Sereikiene added Lithuanian endings to English words. She said “boysas” and “streetas” instead of berniukas and gatvė. My mother said this was because she had come to America many years ago for economic reasons and had forgotten how to speak the one true Lithuanian language properly: “She’s not D.P., like us.”
My parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later I learned that Displaced Person was the unofficial designation bestowed upon European refugees who had spent time in Ally-governed detention camps in Germany or Austria before being repatriated. Growing up in Cicero, though, I heard only D.P., or, more accurately, T.P.—both my parents pronounced the D as a T. In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who’d lived in tentlike dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.
For the most part, our teepee life was an ordinary, somewhat solitary endeavor. My father worked as a draftsman during the day and went to school at night to study engineering, a career he had little interest in and aptitude for. In Dusetos, he had been a teacher of Lithuanian. My mother cooked and sewed and read American decorating magazines and Lithuanian novels. At the University of Vilnius she’d written papers on the East Prussian poet Agnes Miegel, and had planned to write her thesis on Lithuanian elements in Miegel’s work when the war broke out and changed everything.
Several times a month my mother suffered from migraines so severe the least bit of light made her nauseous. I remember the orange plastic bucket propped up on a chair next to the bed where she lay moaning, clutching the once-cold washcloth in her hand. On the end table stood a mug of weak, lukewarm tea.
On those days my sister Rita and I would be carted off to our grandparents’ apartment across town, a place filled with magical things: a dried polished coconut as big as a little girl’s head—the first thing we ran to, petting its smooth dark brown surface—a box of seashells, a flowered tin of postcards from strange places like Florida, a blood-red rose forever preserved in a globe of water. “A crystal ball,” Rita would say. We would try to read the future.
Had we been able to read the past, perhaps we’d have seen our grandmother not as a mere old woman who spoke German to the shopkeepers in Cicero, but as a bajoraitė, the daughter of aristocratic landowners, sitting at the baby grand piano in the parlor of the manor at Varniai, executing, with a certain luminous precision, the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. Her roots extended back to Prussia, the area Eliot alludes to in The Wasteland: Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch. At some point the family migrated eastward, settling in the Lowlands of Lithuania, the region known as Zemaitija. Lowlanders have a reputation for being opinionated and stubborn, idiosyncratic in both speech and action. My sister and I would laugh at the way my grandmother mispronounced the Lithuanian word for potato: “It’s bulvė, not bulbė, grandma.”
Weekends were sometimes punctuated by visits from my parents’ friends, engineers who wanted to be writers, writers who worked for Campbell Soup. I remember the tall frosted glasses, the tang of ginger ale, which my father let me sip—the closest we ever came to pop in our house. That strange word haiboliukas (little highball) filtered through the air, the diminutive “iukas” added on, I realize today, to disguise the nondiminutive size of the drinks. The women, glamorous with their red lipstick, drank too, though perhaps more slowly, gracefully flicking their cigarettes between sips. The ashes drifted, like dirty snow, into large, oddly shaped ceramic ashtrays.
Perhaps some drank because it’s what their fathers did, and their grandfathers before them, finding refuge from the cold Lithuanian nights. The Russian overlords ignored the whiskey—a drunken serf was a manageable serf. Others drank because they were geniuses, their squelched talent too great a burden to bear in this heathen country. That’s why Algimantas Mackus drank. His unornamented poems were a disturbance, a violation of proper themes and traditional rhythms. His thin black book of poems about the death of Antanas Škėma, the best modern Lithuanian writer living in exile, was titled Chapel B. I was afraid to touch this Lithuanian book with the English name, afraid that if I did, I, too, would soon end up in Chapel B. And then there was Viktoras Petravicius, whose paintings were displayed in a museum in Paris, who now painted on trees and walls and stone.
My mother’s explanations about my father’s drinking contradict each other, depending on her mood or frame of mind. “Your father never really had a problem. Everyone drank in those days. Certainly everyone in our crowd,” she’d say. Or, “Oh, I suffered with your father. How I suffered. He’d have too much to drink and then he’d start putting me down, calling me a snob. And then there were those times he’d pass out on the steps and I’d have to drag him in.”
Lately I have been talking to my mother about the past, sharing with her these excerpts I jot down and assemble, then reassemble, as if they were pieces of amber forming one of those mosaics of countryside scenes found in Lithuanian living rooms (though not, my mother would be quick to add, our living room.) “How do you remember all of this?” she asks. But in truth, my memories of early childhood, of life before English, are few. The therapists with whom I have worked over the years have encouraged me to examine this stage of my life, though only the psychoanalyst pushed for a thorough investigation. He viewed with detached suspicion the claim that mine is a memory geared toward detail, that actual narrative eludes me in therapy as it does in fiction writing. I told him what the novelist Lore Segal had said in a writing workshop I’d attended as an M.A. student—my stories “worked” although nothing much happened in them.
“Life isn’t fiction,” Dr. G. explained slowly and patiently, as if my problem was not depression, but active psychosis, an inability to distinguish reality from fantasy.
We tried, Dr. G. and I, to uncover those early events that might have had a bearing on my life at twenty-three. I would close my eyes and think really hard, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she wants to go back to Kansas. And then, when I opened my eyes, I would always come up with the same memories, three in all, distinct and crystalline as snowflakes.
In one we are riding, my mother, sister, and I, on the Cicero Avenue bus. We’re heading south, perhaps to Alden’s to shop for those things not important enough to necessitate a trip downtown. We probably will not buy much. We never do. Not clothes, since she sews those for us herself. Shoes, maybe? How I want that shiny patent leather pair at Florsheim, but they aren’t practical, which means they cost too much. My mother is holding my chubby little hand while my sister sits twirling a hank of hair around her finger over and over again, a habit that worries our mother. If we behave well, my mother will reward us with Chunkies. I almost always choose the gold-wrapped one, more for its pretty gilded wrapper than for the almonds inside. An old man steps onto the bus. His hair is gray and matted, matching his clothes. He mumbles to himself as he counts out the change. Worst of all, he smells. No, worst of all, according to my mother, is that he is not wearing any socks. She points this out to us in Lithuanian, and I know from the tone of her voice that she is going to do something embarrassing. When it is time to get off, she takes a dollar bill, our Chunky money, out of her big black purse and slips it, almost imperceptibly, into the old man’s hand.
In another it’s Christmas Eve. I am three years old, and know enough about Santa Claus, or Kalėdų Senelis, to be practicing the poem Meskiukas Rudnosiukas, the Little Bear with the Brown Nose, for weeks. At approximately seven, the doorbell rings. Kalėdų Senelis! My parents seem surprisingly relaxed in his bright red and white presence, as if he were just the milkman stopping by. When he takes a seat on the sofa, however, I notice that under his fluffy white beard, he bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Skruodys, my best friend Daina’s father—the same gray bushy eyebrows, the same large brown eyes. I stumble through the poem.
Years later I will ponder the brazenness of Lithuanian Santa Clauses. Not content to merely take their place in a child’s imagination by climbing down the chimney, they show up at the door, ring the bell, and invite themselves in.
The last memory is of my grandmother sitting in front of the television, hands folded on her heavy lap. My sister and I are growing tired of this program, heavy men taking turns trying to knock down the funny-looking white plastic bottles with a big black ball. “Močiute,” we say, “can we watch cartoons?” But it is two in the afternoon, and there are no cartoons. Grandmother starts explaining the game to us, again, and we tell her that we know, yes, we understand. She just sits there, staring at us. And in that silence I sense there is something wrong, something “off,” like lipstick just a shade too orange, like a doily moved an inch and a half from the center of a table.
Writing, pen on paper, slowly and clumsily, like a child climbing a hill, I find memories rising to the edge of consciousness in a way they never seemed to in therapy. Two others have recently broken through the surface, bringing the total number to five.
“This is ridiculous, this numbering of recollections,” a friend tells me. “Another manifestation of your obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
“Perhaps I’m just bitter,” I answer.
Others—white-bread Americans like this friend—have more. They’ve always had more. When I was growing up they had more toys, more television time, higher allowances. In high school they had better, more expensive clothes. And today, they have more memories, an unbroken line in English. Perhaps all children who make the transition from one language to another lose memories in the passage. Thinking back in English on that part of childhood lived solely in Lithuanian, I feel that I should have amassed a broader repertoire than this.
Memory Number Four.
A cold January morning. The snow promised for Christmas is compensating for its broken pledge by falling in flakes as large as butterflies. Early afternoon finds us out in the yard, my mother in jeans and a parka, my sister and me in snowsuits and woolen mittens. Sculpting the snow into little balls is tougher than it seems—it dissolves in our hands if packed too light, but breaks under the pressure of a firmer touch. The real work, however, comes in pushing the bunched and hardening snow around the yard.
We go inside for the requisite black buttons and carrot. We look for a hat.
“How about this old beret?” my mother asks.
“Snowmen don’t wear berets,” my sister says with scorn and suggests my father’s favorite fedora.
She is about to start crying when my mother remembers the orange pail, the one beside her bed in case a migraine ambushes her. We crown the snowman with a plastic fez. We’re thrilled with our Turkish Frosty, but the next morning we rise early to find him decapitated and dismembered, his frozen remains scattered about the yard. We stand at the window, wordless.
Memory Number Five.
I am sitting at the kitchen table with my sister, pasting sheets of Green Stamps into a booklet as our mother supervises from her post at the sink. Watching the pages fill up, the booklet swell, we bask in the intensely pleasurable knowledge that what we are doing isn’t just fun and games—we are helping our family. Soon, very soon, next week perhaps, we will walk down to the S&H redemption center on Cermak Avenue where my mother will sift through the catalogue, then decide to get the toaster (or is it the Libby drinking glasses?) against the better judgment of my sister and me, who make a strong case for the ceramic cow-shaped creamer.
Sometimes we must tear the stamped sheets apart and then piece them back together, must complete the inch at the bottom of the page with a single row of stamps. Once, my sister pasted a sheet in upside down. “Look what you’ve done,” I cried. “She’s ruined everything, Ma.”
How do you remember all of this?
My mother and I are sitting in her condominium in south suburban Oak Lawn. A black-and-white triptych of bare-breasted, big-hipped women dancing with garlands in their hair hangs on the same wall as a large oil of the crucified Christ. I note his face is the shade of a bruised apple.
I am here because my mother is, in her own words, “in bad emotional shape.” When this happens I come over and we drink coffee and eat cheesecake. I tell her stories. I count my memories. We discuss the probable causes of her melancholy.
“I walked down to the cemetery yesterday to see your father,” she tells me. “They locked me in.”
“Who locked you in?”
“The cemetery people. They locked me in. I was there a couple of hours and didn’t notice that the sun was setting.”
“Ma, why do you need to spend so much time in the cemetery?”
“They must lock the entrance gates at five. I walked over to the main office, but no one was there.”
My mother’s ongoing dissatisfaction with the management of St. Casimir’s Lithuanian Cemetery is mingled with her own sense of guilt at having chosen what she calls the “wrong” section of the cemetery in which to bury my father. The location, she claims, is not central. When I point out that the central locations are all occupied, that all that are left are the peripheries, she replies that, well, then, another periphery, away from the traffic of Pulaski Avenue, would have been better. She talks about moving my father’s grave to a more auspicious and accessible part of the cemetery, where the newer, more modern lots are located.
Her concern about my father’s grave has to do at least in part with her own anxieties. She is eighty-three years old and sick, though how sick the doctors can’t seem to agree on: the news keeps changing.
A few days ago, I took her for an MRI.
“We’re looking for the Imagining Center,” she stopped a young nurse.
“You mean the Imaging Center.”
“That’s what I said. The Imagining Center.”