Seeking Connections

I had no idea growing up that my heritage was somewhat rare. We lived in a small neighborhood in the Cleveland, Ohio area, and our street was mostly populated by people from far-away places, like the family down the street from Australia, or with "funny" last names--the Depompeis, the Spagnolis, and the Szokans, to name a few. To me, that was normal. When we visited my mom's extensive gang of relatives in other parts of town, they often spoke a different language, switching between that and English. Every so often I'd hear my name or the names of my siblings interspersed with this odd but beautiful language that they spoke among themselves.

Dad hanging out with the nieghbors, Bedford, Ohio

Dad hanging out with the neighbors, Bedford, Ohio

I was a little surprised, then, when at the tender age of eight we moved to Dallas, Texas, and the kids at school had never heard of "Lithuania." Granted, Lithuania had been under Soviet occupation since 1940, but still! That was where my family came from. I was half-Lithuanian. Half something that didn't seem to exist in this Texas city.

At our house in Dallas, 1960's

At our house in Dallas, 1960's

The culture of our neighborhood and school in Dallas was actually what was rather foreign to me. The kids were very homogenous in so very many ways: all very white, mostly all Protestant, staunchly Republican (at the age of eight!!!), some were even still fighting the Civil War ("Yankee, go home!"), and they were a little bit snooty about where one bought one's clothes.

I made better friends with the beautiful half-Mexican girl a few houses down, the Jewish girl on the next street, the really smart geeky kids, and the pre-goth girl with her Adams Family doctor parents and spooky dark two-story house.

But we had no relatives in Texas. No more big family picnics, no more listening to that beautiful Lithuanian speech, no more being admonished by my many aunts and great-aunts that I eat like a bird. So for the rest of my growing up years, I was seeking some sort of connection with some sort of people, which much to my delight I found when the hippies came along.

With fellow Lithuanian-Americans at Camp Dainava 1992

With fellow Lithuanian-Americans at Camp Dainava 1992

Fast forward a few decades to when I moved to Chicago to go to art school. I also started taking Lithuanian language classes at a Lithuanian Saturday school. My teacher was an art historian from Šiauliai, Lithuania, and there were several other adult students in the class, most of whom were half-Lithuanian like me. We had a music teacher from Vilnius, and he had quite a few Lithuanian friends, including a very handsome tenor from the Lithuanian opera. We all partied together from time to time. I had found my peeps! Artists on the one hand and Lithuanian-Americans on the other. It was such an awesome feeling of finding where I belonged.

While I was in school there, my mom and I attended Camp Dainava, Lithuanian camp in Michigan, where we studied the language and schmoozed with other Lithuanian-Americans. The music teacher from Chicago was there, and taught us to sing Lithuanian songs. I learned to dance Lithuanian folk dances, and got to polka in the evenings with the beautiful young Lithuanian Brazilian boys who were to head abroad soon. We all gathered around the flag in the evenings to sing the Lithuanian National Anthem, eat meals together, and cheer watching the Lithuanian basketball team win the Gold Medal at the Olympics. What a hoot!

When I graduated from art school the next summer, my mom gave me the best gift of my life: a two-month trip to Lithuania! I got to meet my grandfather's last living sister and lots of cousins, some of whom I stayed with during the first month in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Rumsiskes.

Meeting my relatives in Lithuania 1993

Meeting my relatives in Lithuania 1993

During the second month, I stayed in a dorm at an educational institute where I continued to study Lithuanian. When I wasn't in classes or traveling around Lithuania with my teacher or relatives, I wandered around the old town of Vilnius on my own. On two separate occasions, I ran into each of the Lithuanian Brazilian boys I had met in Michigan. And I got to know another tenor at the Lithuanian opera, where my cousin Regina taught voice.

There are only about 4 million Lithuanians in the world: about 2.5 million in Lithuania itself and another 1 million plus who emigrated to other parts of the planet: about 0.06% of the world population. From this rare heritage, I found connection: in Ohio, Chicago, Michigan, Canada, and in Lithuania itself. It is that connection that compels me to seek out more about my Lithuanian ancestry.