The Christmas Letter – 2012

Posted December 12th, 2012

In the waning months of my “Year of Present Living” we finally got to Lithuania. Both of us acquired a whole bunch of new cousins in 2012, as well. That’s what happens when you shake those family trees with vigor and a little manic enthusiasm. Our dinner table, however, can always accommodate just one more chair… or three… or perhaps a dozen.

My Dear One and I and the Nemunas River near Balbieriskis, Lithuania

My Dear One and I and the Nemunas River near Balbieriskis, Lithuania

May 15th found us on an epic journey. My Tattooed Boy chauffeured us to Newark Airport—where we’d booked a flight on SAS to Vilnius via Copenhagen—so we didn’t have to pay the exorbitant long-term parking rates. After a couple of hours in Copenhagen we climbed on a tiny plane for the final hop. Once we collected the rental car—a vile vehicle, an Opel that seemed a relic of the Soviet era—we headed to Kaunas and the fabulous Nemunas Tour guest house. Our hosts George and Danutė are now cousins in affection if not in fact. The next morning I must have been dancing with joy at being in the land of cuckoos and storks, birch trees and truly great beer because I took a tumble on the post office steps in Kaunas Old Town and spent the rest of the vacation limping. I was, however, profoundly grateful that the shoes I brought were lace-up boots that provided terrific ankle support. Hardly a fashion plate on my best days, I must have looked like a bag lady in clodhoppers, hippie-era skirts and layers of jerseys, but what the heck.

Our travels took us from Kaunas south to Druskininkai, which is practically in Poland, northwest to the Curonian Spit and the glorious Baltic Sea, and finally to the capital Vilnius, from whence we returned to these shores once the ticket agent relieved us of a bottle of Lithuania’s best vodka—a gift from the cousins—because it was too alcoholic to export. In an x-ray the globular shape of the container revealed that the contents are 170-proof or whatever. We are guessing there was quite the party in the airport after work.

Sunset in Balbieriskis

Sunset in Balbieriskis

We have been corresponding with my Dear One’s maternal cousins for years, so the highlight of the trip, without question, was our reunion in the lovely village of Balbieriškis. This was where Bernice was born and where the ancestors are buried. So many of the clan were there! Before she immigrated in 1926, Bernice used to rock her niece cousin Bronė in her arms. Bronė clung to my hand for most of the evening, as though I were channeling Bernice’s spirit. It was wonderful to finally meet Bronė’s son Rimantas and his wife Angelė. Cousin Juozus, Broné’s brother, came too, along with more members of the next generation, Vitas and Beatrice. Vitas’ mother is Stefa, sister to Bronė and Juozus. There was an absolute feast—I can see that my Dear One is genetically predisposed to cooking delicious food in huge quantities—and many toasts. Many, many, many toasts. When at last we left, we drove home under a gilded sky gleaming with coral pink. Lithuania is way farther north than one might think, and “night” in May is more of a twilight interlude, with the sun setting well after 10:00 pm and returning around 4:00 am.

The weather could not have been better, just a single day of rain. The only bad heat blazed on the Tuesday we splashed in the chilly Baltic waves washing the sand and dunes in Juodkrantė on the Curonian Spit. The beach was deserted except for a man catching gar pike in the surf—and he packed up his fish, wife and toddler a few minutes after we arrived. While relaxing in Nida at the southern tip of the Spit, we visited the home author Thomas Mann built there. We also peered south-southwestward toward the border that separates Lithuania and that isolated piece of Russia that provides a port on the Baltic Sea. We tasted žuvis, hunks of the sweetest, most buttery smoked fish I will ever have in my life. An old woman sold it—fish, no doubt, she smoked herself—from a little stand by the side of the road. I only wish I knew who she is and how to get her to ship us a kilo or so on a regular basis.

koldunai, chives and sour cream

koldunai, chives and sour cream

Since our return my Dear One occasionally serves me “Lithuanian breakfast”: a plate of cucumber and tomato, pieces of his homemade farm cheese with the lightest drizzle of honey, and slices of pear or whatever fruit is in season. We miss other delicacies. I have found an adequate chewy rye bread but it just doesn’t measure up to Danutė’s recipe. Still we try to keep up. We made a few gallons of dill pickles and sauerkraut this fall with the beautiful and cheap vegetables they harvest at Lohr’s Orchards down the road. Our most signal accomplishment is the production of koldunai, a sort of Lithuanian ravioli. It took a few go-rounds to figure out the best recipe and the best way to handle the rolling and filling of the dough and cooking of the dumplings, but practice, you know, makes less incompetent. Nothing can replace the dumplings Bernice made when my Dear One was a tad, but ours are pretty darned good. Feel free to ask for the recipe.

stained-glass window in the reading room at the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton

stained-glass window in the reading room at the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton

Genealogical pursuits did not end with our departure from Lithuania—where we left 300 Litas (about $100) with the archives in Vilnius. The staff researcher was not encouraging—or terribly pleasant. If she can track ancestors based on the information we left, we’ll hear something in 2013. Maybe. Our efforts stateside were more productive and a circuitous route to a nephew’s wedding in August led to happy results. First stop was the Scranton, PA, area to visit Wyoming Seminary where Granny, my Dad’s mom, went to school in 1910. We also collected some documents connected to Dan’s people, who were all Scranton folk. At the magnificent Albright Memorial Library we photocopied articles about the 1914 Diamond Mine disaster that claimed the life of Dan’s grandfather and great-uncle. From there it was on to New York State where we dug into Granny’s family a little further. In loading all this new information into the Family Tree program, I discovered previously unknown relatives descended from my father’s mother’s father. Then more surprises: Tom, a delightful gentleman who attended a talk I gave at Edenwald Retirement Community, put me in touch with his former wife and her siblings—my unknown third cousins! And the divine Tessie at St. Alphonsus Lithuanian Church in Baltimore delved into records and unearthed marriages, births, baptisms and deaths for the family of my Dear One’s father’s mother. We just wish we had been able to take all that information with us to Vilnius.

What’s with the rest of the family? My Dear One’s grandson Miles graduated Indiana University of Pennsylvania two days before we left for Lithuania. He was regal in cap-and-gown and we are so proud of him. Miles’ sister Alice graduated high school and is now thriving at York College. The day after we got home from Lithuania there was a celebration of both triumphs, which we attended a little bleary-eyed. Jay is still working at the B&O American Brasserie; it appears that his restaurant work is supporting a fledgling career as a rock critic. Another writer! Oh, and the nephew who got married at the end of our meandering trip to New Hampshire? My brother Jim’s baby, Young James, wed his longtime sweetheart Katie atop a very steep hillside out in the wilds of Merrimack County. It was a sweltering Saturday and a rollicking good time—and I made it back home just in time to resume teaching at MICA the following Monday.

We are keeping with the letter’s theme for this year’s Christmas quotation. In 1996, The Baltimore Sun published Diane Scharper’s remembrance of Lithuanian Christmas traditions. Here is an excerpt:


After Christmas dinner, my grandmother sings Lithuanian folk songs. The adults, meanwhile sip “virytos,”
an amber-colored Lithuanian beverage.One literally sips virytos since in addition to honey, cinnamon,
cloves, ginger and nutmeg, virytos contains 190-proof grain alcohol…

My mother and father, my aunts and uncles, my five cousins and I have just finished a Christmas dinner,
which…always includes several Lithuanian foods such as wild mushrooms, marinated herring,
“kugeles” or potato pudding, poppy-seed bread, “koseliens” or jellied pigs’ feet,
Lithuanian sausage and “krustais” or cookies for dessert.

In the old country, my grandmother tells us, the big meal occurs on Christmas Eve.
It is a meatless meal and consists of 12 dishes (for the 12 apostles).
The dishes sit on a spotless white tablecloth (symbolic of the white altar cloth…),
decorated with candles and fir boughs.
Live flowers are considered inappropriate to the spirit of the season.
A handful of hay is spread evenly on the tablecloth to remind people that Jesus…was born in a stable.
After dinner, some of the hay is used to tell fortunes…

At dinner, I try to eat a little of everything, not because I want to, but because it is bad luck not to…

I do not realize this at the time, but one day memories… will be all that I have
of my grandmother, my uncle, my mother and the Christmas dinners we shared many years ago.

 

A toast to memories and we wish you Linksmų Kalėdų, Merry Christmas, and all good things in the New Year

All Our Love.

10 December: Just as we had completed this letter and were getting ready to send it out, we were sorrowed to hear that our much-loved Whitey died from lung cancer. Whitey and my Dear One’s daughter Michele were together for as long as we can remember. Our family will be a little smaller this year and we will miss him deeply.

Whitey at Tydings Park, Havre de Grace, Maryland, 4 October 2009

Whitey at Tydings Park, Havre de Grace, Maryland, 4 October 2009



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