Updated: Nov 30, 2021
So, this morning while taking my son to school I had a sort of unbelievable realisation. I’m half Lithuanian!
Growing up as American, my mother’s blue-blood, Mayflower roots seemed to be what was celebrated. My grandfather (on her side) even created a very impressive family tree to remind future generations of the Very Important People from whence we came. Powerful Kings, founders of American towns, Indian-fighters (and killers) and Presidents.
Meanwhile, my father’s Jewish ancestry seemed to be hidden, largely erased. My memory as a young girl is that my mother’s family did not welcome him to the family with open arms; but rather the opposite. His belief was that he was unwelcome and his insecurity around them was palpable. I still remember the awkwardness of family gatherings, and my opinion is that this was a contributing factor to a marriage that, for all kinds of reasons, wouldn’t last.
As a child growing up, I carried this shame like a weight. Anything I could do to seem more like my mother’s side and less like my father’s, I did. I even starved myself for 7 years in an adolescent bid to ‘fit in’ (okay, there was a little more to it than that).
All this to say that my father never once mentioned he is actually 100% Lithuanian by blood. Sure, I knew about his Jewish roots, but even as a child the ambivalence around the identification with the religion, cultural heritage and ancestral information was hard to grasp.
His family on both maternal and paternal sides landed in America by boat as foreigners in Ellis Island; knowing no-one, not speaking the language, fleeing from Russian oppression. They were the real heroes.
Yet instead of being embraced by ‘the land of the free’, they were shipped off to Baltimore to be with ‘their people’, the thousands of other Jews looking for a safe haven and a fresh start. I’m only now unpacking the trauma that my grandparents (and parents) carried. My grandfather, an alcoholic taxi driver; my grandmother, the clever seller of shoes who kissed too wet.
I’m very grateful for this moment of waking up to the memories of the people that create a part of me that has largely been missing, for waking up to who I really am.