I Was The Child of Teepees

Daiva Markelis

 

In the geography of childhood the boundaries of the world extend to what memory can easily contain — the signs, trees, and buildings that mark the world as neighborhood. Like the pair of huge red Magikist lips jutting out and above the Eisenhower expressway. My sister and I would see them on summer trips back from Indiana 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 found them vulgar, emblematic of 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 "mis-spelling" of the word. "It should be 'magic-kissed,' shouldn't it?" she'd ask me for years every time we passed the sign. She disliked the loony orthography of American advertising, hated finding in the word "ease," for example, the "s" arrogantly displaced by a "z," as in the over-the-counter sleeping pill, Sleep-Eaze. There is no mechanism in Lithuanian to allow for this 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 57th and Claremont, my father knew what was coming the moment its Disney-like spire loomed into sight. "Mes jau matom musu boksta," 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 from that tower in a two-story brownstone much like all of the other two-story brownstones on the street. Our landlady, Pone Sereikiene, lived on the floor above us with Stanley, her balding middle-aged son. A huge stuffed eagle guarded the landing up to the apartment, its eyes an unnatural yellow, its wings outspread, its 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. There was St. Teresa, the Little Flower of Jesus, and St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost objects. And St. Casimir, our only Lithuanian saint, later withdrawn from the panoply, the loss just another in a long and seemingly inevitable string affecting our country. She had Virgin Marys in all their various guises and several Sacred Heart of Jesuses. She even had the Pope — her only pontiff — a well-fed looking man wearing a little white beanie too small for his big head.

My mother didn't think much of the holy cards. "The Sereikas are different from us," she explained patiently. "Lithuanian, yet not Lithuanian." Pone Sereikiene added Lithuanian endings to English words. She said "boysas" and "streetas" instead of "berniukas" and "gatve." 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 tent-like 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, 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 poetess Agnes Miegel, had planned to write her thesis on Lithuanian elements in Miegel's work until 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 and I would be carted off to our grandparents' apartment across town, a place filled with magical things: a dried 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 an old woman who spoke German to the shopkeepers in Cicero, but as a bajoraite, 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 Waste Land: 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 bulve, not bulbe, 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 taste 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 non-diminutive size of the drinks. The women, glamorous with their red lipstick, drank too, though perhaps more slowly, gracefully flicking their cigarettes in between sips. The ashes drifted, like dirty snow, into large, oddly-shaped ceramic ashtrays.

Some drank because it's what their fathers did, and their grandfathers before them, finding refuge from the cold dark Lithuanian nights. The Russian overlords ignored the whiskey — a drunken serf was a manageable serf. Others drank because they were geniuses, their 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 Skema, 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 Viktoras Petravicius, whose paintings were displayed in a museum in Paris, and who painted on trees and walls and stone — that's why he drank.

My mother's explanations about my father's drinking contradict each other, depending on her mood, her frame of mind: "Your father never really had a problem. Everyone drank in those days. Certainly everyone in our crowd." Other times: "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, which 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 own). How do you remember all of this? she asks. But 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 concentrate real 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, disparate as snowflakes.

We are riding, my mother, sister, and I, on the Cicero Avenue bus, going 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. Shoes. 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 fidgeting, twirling a hank of hair around her finger over and over again, a habit she has picked up that worries my mother. If we behave well, my mother will reward us with Chunkies, asking us whether we prefer a silver-wrapped Chunky or a gold. I almost always choose the gold, more for the pretty gilded wrapper than for the almonds inside. An old man steps into 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.

Another memory: Christmas Eve. I am three years old, and know enough about Santa Claus, or Kaledu Senelis, to be both worried and excited; in order to receive a gift, I will have to recite a poem. I have been practicing "Meskiukas Rudnosiukas," the Little Bear with the Brown Nose, for weeks. At approximately seven, the doorbell rings. Kaledu Senelis! My parents are surprisingly relaxed about his sudden appearance, as if he were some ordinary being, the milkman, for instance. When he takes a seat on the sofa, I realize that, underneath 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. This evokes complex feelings of confusion and mistrust — 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 is a memory of my grandmother sitting in front of the television, her hands folded on her heavy lap. My sister and I are growing tired of this program, the heavy men taking turns releasing the big black ball, trying to knock down the funny-looking white plastic bottles. "Mociute," we say, "can we watch cartoons?" But it is two in the afternoon, and there are no cartoons. And she is explaining the game to us, again, and we tell her that we know, yes, we understand. And then she is silent for a very long time. I sense that there is something wrong, there is something "off" about the picture, 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," my friend S. tells me. "Another manifestation of your obsessive-compulsive disorder."

"Perhaps I'm just bitter," I answer.

Others — white-bread Americans like S. — have more. They've always had more. When I was growing up they had more toys. They had more television time, higher allowances. In high school they had better, more expensive clothes. Today, they have more memories, an unbroken line in English. Although there is nothing in the literature to support this theory, that children who make the transition from one language to another lose memories in the passage, I am not entirely convinced. 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 Four. A cold January morning. The snow promised for Christmas is compensating for its broken pledge by making its way down 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. When the balls have morphed into boulders, my mother places one atop another, then carefully lifts the third to its prominent position.

We go inside for the requisite snowman accessories — round black button eyes, a carrot for a nose. We look for a hat.

"How about this old beret?" my mother asks.

"Snowmen don't wear berets," my sister answers with scorn and suggests my father's favorite fedora.

"Men's hats are expensive. We can't afford a new one."

Rita is about to start crying when my mother remembers the orange pail. We crown the snowman with the plastic bucket. Worn upside down, it looks like a very practical fez.

The next morning we rise early, eager to go outside, to admire the previous day's work. Instead of being greeted by the sight of our smiling Turkish Frosty, however, we find him dismembered, his frozen remains scattered about the yard, the decapitated head lying a few feet away from the shattered torso.

"Who could have done this?" my sister and I ask.

Who but Pone Sereikiene?

My mother runs upstairs. "They're only children," we hear her say in Lithuanian.

That evening over dinner my mother recounts the day's events in a carefully controlled tone of voice.

"Time to move," says my father, in between bites of stuffed cabbage.

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 is not just fun and games — we are helping the 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 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 pastes a sheet in upside down. "Look what you've done," I say. Then, turning to my mother, "She's ruined everything."

How do you remember all of this?

My mother and I are sitting in the living room of her Oak Lawn condominium. A black and white triptych of bare-breasted, big-hipped women with garlands in their hair, dancing, hangs on the same wall as a large oil of the crucified Christ, his face an immense 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 mood.

"I walked down to the cemetery yesterday to see your father," my mother is telling 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 a couple of hours 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, from nothing to not-so-bad to serious.

A few days ago, I took her to Christ Hospital for an MRI.

"We're looking for the Imagining Center ," she told me.

"You mean Imaging Center," I said.

"Uh-huh."

"Can you help us find the Imagining Center," my mother asked a young nurse.

"You mean the Imaging Center."

"That's what I said. The Imagining Center."

I head home to Berwyn laden with gifts — a book on Baltic mythology, a graceful ceramic bowl the color of wheat, an amber ring too small for my fingers, an ailing wisteria. The idea that I will one day lose my mother, that the day is closer than either of us will care to admit, fills me with the kind of sadness I have not felt in a long time. I try to imagine a life without her, without the delicate intimacy we have built up over the years, one sometimes strained by silly arguments, more often strengthened by my mother's stories and jokes, by her unbridled confidence in whatever I choose to undertake.

Driving north on Pulaski I pass the large wooden Indian standing atop what is now a vision center. Like Christ the Redeemer looking out over the landscape of Rio de Janeiro, the Indian protects the surrounding area, at least that's what I used to think. His is a much smaller territory, Chicago's South Side streets filled with Poles, Lithuanians, Irish, and, now, increasingly, Mexicans. He holds one hand up in a brave salute. He has been here forever.

"How," my sister would say when we passed him.

"How," I would answer.

My mother found the Indian, naked from the waist up, extremely vulgar.

On Cicero Avenue I pass the Western Electric Tower, my tower, our tower. The surrounding buildings, which once made up the Hawthorne Works complex, have been torn down. In their place stands a strip mall with an Omni Superstore and a Jennifer Sofabeds. A little further north the Acapulco School educates a new generation of drivers. The laundry-mat is now a lave rapido. One rarely sees signs saying "Se Habla Espanol" — it is clear to everybody that everybody speaks Spanish here.

Banners running up and down Cermak Avenue proclaim the following: "Cicero — Great Roman Orator. Proud of our History." No great rhetoric has emerged from this town. Unless one counts the B-girls at the Show of Shows, or the touts at Sportsman's Park. No, Cicero has produced no Cicero. As I make a right on Oak Park Avenue, I think of what my first words in English may have been. Green stamps is a contender, as is shut up. Walking down the streets you could hear, at any time of the day, parents telling children to shut up, and husbands telling wives to shut up, and children telling other children to shut up.

"Shud up, shud up, shud up," my mother used to say. "I'm so tired of shud up."

 

Mongrel Tongue


My Mother as a Young Woman

My mother's English was always better than my father's. It was a point of pride. My father earned more money at the engineering firm where both worked, he as an engineer, she as a draftswoman. His sense of direction was keener. He may have even spoken Lithuanian with more precision and finesse (though this was a matter of ongoing debate), coming as he did from the Aukstaitija region of the country. But she, my mother, spoke the better English.

My father conceded this point, somewhat reluctantly, arguing that my mother was more fluent because she talked more. She was always talking, talking, talking, blurting out whatever was on her mind. Like most Lithuanian women.

"I'm just naturally gifted when it comes to languages," my mother would answer.

And who could argue? Her German was even better than her English, her French passable, her Russian enough to allow her to read the simpler poems of Pushkin.

What she failed to mention in these conversations, however, were her early advantages, the good schools and the expensive books and the maid that freed my mother from household chores. Her father was the principal of a prestigious private high school in Kaunas. The artifacts of my mother's life attest to privilege: an emerald necklace lost while playing in the woods of Marijampole when she was nine; shoes the color of cherries bought on a trip to Stockholm; Agatha Christie paperbacks read at night with the flashlight beneath her blanket, on constant watch for my grandmother, who believed that a good night's sleep was vital for mental health and the proper regulation of the menses.

My father's parents were subsistence farmers, living from day to day on potatoes, apples, and mushrooms, harvesting wheat when the summers obliged. Politically the family leaned to the left — my father's father read the Social Democrat and frequently praised the revolution, walking around the little house singing the Marseillaise in broken, perverted French. The neighboring farmers called him a bolshevik, though my father suspects that this had less to do with political beliefs than with the fact that his father rarely went to church and often appeared at the dinner table having forgotten to remove his cap — both clear signifiers of advanced and irreparable bolshevism.

English wasn't even an option for my father in the two-room wooden school house on Kazys Buga Street in Dusetos, now a shoe repair shop.

Another reason my mother spoke the better English was that she wasn't afraid of questioning the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. It takes a certain sense of entitlement to expect — demand — clarification in a country whose language and customs are not your own. She asked gas station attendants to explain the difference between juncture and junction. She asked the grocer why milk was labeled homogenized when it was obvious that all milk was the same. She asked me the meaning of posh and petulant and vitriol, and what a prosthetic device was.

Once, walking down Rush Street, on the way to I don't know where — what could we have been doing walking down the seedy part of Rush Street together — she pointed to a sign: "What does that mean?"

"What?"

"Peep show," she said slowly, loud enough so that several people turned their heads.

I didn't know what to say. How to translate peep show?

Several years ago, on a flight to Washington, D.C. where I was to make a presentation at my first major conference, my mother nudged me as I was proofing my paper. She pointed to a word in the Glamour I had bought at the airport.

"What does this mean?"

"What?"

"Dildo."

"I'm not going to explain this to you just right now, mother."

"Perhaps I can ask that nice young steward."

"Mom!"

"I'm just kidding."

Although my mother's English was better than my father's, she spoke to my sister and me in Lithuanian when we were girls. She did this not only at home, but in public — in stores, on the street — oblivious to the occasional stares we received from strangers. In this she was different from my father, who insisted on English in the presence of non-Lithuanians. Once, on a vacation to the Grand Canyon, looking through the stand-up binoculars where for a dime (back then) you could watch for a minute or two the very crevices at the bottom, I called to my sister Rita to come look: ateik, ateik.

"Vee cow-moon-ick-ate in English," my father said.

"Are you ashamed of your heritage?" I asked him, in Lithuanian.

"Ah you ashamed of yo con-tree?" he shot back.

I mentioned an Ann Landers column about taking pride in speaking one's native language. My father, who read and admired Ann Landers, was nonetheless adamant: Vee cow-moon-ick-ate in English.

The irony, of course, was that my father's vocal, overly enunciated English marked him as a foreigner in a way that a quiet, natural Lithuanian would not have. He plowed ahead, oblivious to articles, ignoring the dangers lurking in prepositional phrases. When my American friends would visit, my father would greet them with "How you do?" How you do, Lisa? Say, Tom, how you do? After one too many How you dos, I couldn't take it anymore. I began to yell: "It's not How you do? It's How do you do? How do you do, dad? How do you do?"

Although my mother spoke the better English and was not afraid to ask the meanings of words she didn't know, she often insisted on her own interpretations, shrugging away my corrections with a wave of her hand.

"I almost married a business mongrel," she once told me.

"You mean business mogul."

"I could have lived in the lab of luxury."

I envisioned a large white room where well-heeled women mixed vials of precious oils to create Chanel No. 5, where men wearing Armani ties peered under microscopes to examine the inner workings of expensive Swiss watches.

My mother and I are sitting in Jedi's Garden, a restaurant near the Oak Lawn hospital where she has been a regular visitor for the past six months. We switch from English to Lithuanian, interspersing words from one language into another as thoughtlessly as a child baking a cake from two different recipes.

"How are you, mama?"

"My wanes hurt," she tells me, flexing her arm.

"Your John Waynes?"

"The nurse took some blood."

She barely touches her rosemary chicken, plays with the carrots in her vegetable medley.

"Valgyk," I say.

She doesn't eat, but finishes her glass of red wine.

"Another one?"

"No. I don't want people to think I'm some kind of a slush."

As she sees her life closing in on her, her appetite disappearing with each diminishing white cell, my eighty-four year old mother relies on memories of the past to keep her grounded in the living. She talks about her mother, whose first language had been Polish, the mother tongue of the Lithuanian nobility. She'd perfected her already fluent Russian in St. Petersburg, where she studied physics and geography. It was at the university, a meeting of the young Lithuanian Socialist League — St. Petersburg Chapter — that she met her future husband, my grandfather, the oldest son of wealthy farmers.

My mother talks about the handsome Frenchman.

"Did I ever tell you the story of the handsome Frenchman?"

"You mean the handsome Frenchman who left his beautiful French girlfriend for plain ol' Aldona Markelis?"

"Yes, that handsome Frenchman. The girlfriend, she really was very beautiful. But also very angry."

"How angry was she, mom?"

"She was so angry she hit me with a shoe."

Most of all, however, she talks about my father, whom she met at a party of raucous Lithuanians on the south side of Chicago in the mid 1950's. She was walking around with a glass of wine in her hand, reciting a poem: "Burn me, like a witch, burn me in blazing fire…" — by the revolutionary Lithuanian poet Salomeja Neris.

My father took one look at my mother holding her wine glass as if it were the torch on the Statue of Liberty and fell in love.

It took my mother longer to see the light.

"He's short," were the first words my grandmother uttered when my mother brought him home to meet the family.

But my father bought my mother flowers, and he owned a car, and, besides, at thirty-seven she was not getting any younger.

They never would have met in Lithuania. Or, if by some capricious accident of destiny they had, my mother would have fled to Kaunas at the sight of my grandfather shoveling hog manure, of my grandmother with her babushka muttering from her tattered little book of prayers.

Reading was my parents' strongest bond, the milky glue that helped cement their sometimes tenuous allegiance. They disagreed on money and the principles of child rearing. My father would withdraw into himself, closing like a fist; my mother would cry. Evenings, their bedroom door half-open, I would hear voices falling and rising, the rhythmic ta-da, ta-da of Lithuanian sentences, followed sometimes by extended silence, sometimes by laughter.

The waitress comes to check on us.

"Can I take that for you, hon?"

"No. But I would like a dog bag."

The waitress smiles.

"I wish I had a camera with me," my mother says.

"Why?"

"To take a photograph of your laugh."

In a minute they're chatting away as if they're soul-mates. My mother tells the waitress that she's from Lithuania. The waitress compliments her English and soon discovers that my mother's English was always better than my father's.

"Does anyone ever ask for a cat bag?" my mother wants to know, a reasonable request "because cats need goodies too."

The waitress, who owns a tabby, concurs, but adds that cats are more selective: "Dogs, you can give them anything."

"Yes, dogs are like that," adds my mother. "Our dachshund, Nika, we named her after Nikita Khrushchev, she once grabbed a frozen steak out of the refrigerator when no one was looking."

As my mother pays the bill, the waitress says goodbye.

"Sudiev," my mother answers. Then: "Aufwiedersehen." Finally, for good measure: "Au revoir."

"Have a nice day," I wave.

My words feel flat and lifeless, my farewell as uninspiring as a sack of Lithuanian potatoes.



From the book White Field, Black Sheep
© 2010 Daiva Markelis
University of Chicago Press

Daiva Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can't quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that animated her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir — a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Markelis teaches at Eastern Illinois University and can be reached at dmmarkelis AT eiu.edu. Please click on the book cover at the top of the page to order.


Share/Bookmark

back to