If I could ask you

A wonderful idea was given to me, as I explained my frustrations with hitting a dead end so close in my genealogy search. On my dad’s side I was able to trace back far and found all kinds of information about these people which gave me information as to who they were, why they were who they were. In my husband’s ancestry, on one side I traced back literally centuries when only 3 digits covered them…back to French nobility, and somewhere in between then and now, traced to Martin Luther. This was quite the shock to me. Somehow I never imagined his line travelling through someone with such faith and thoughts (for lack of better word and not meaning to sound demeaning to anyone I know in his family). I mean my husband and his family are not heathens! But somehow don’t seem to be well Martin Luther’s descendants by any stretch. Of course then again in his day I imagine he was seen as rebellious so maybe.?? At any rate on my mother’s side, my search has come to a slamming halt with my grandparents who came to America around 1909 (by the censuses) from Lithuania, then Russia. There have been various things told to me over the years from my mom, and my aunts and an uncle. Sadly they have all died. My curiosity was not what it is now and I regret that beyond words. I never knew either of these grandparents as they had died before my birth. I try to find out some things that were told to me to better understand who they were, how they lived, how they came together, what happened in their lifetime in Lithuania, why they fled (fled was always the word used), why my grandfather had done things he did, what their parents were like, where they were from physically and mentally, emotionally, siblings?. I wonder where in history they and their families were as far as the history of the area and the turbulent times in the Baltics- such an ever flowing pot of angst in much of history. At any rate this wonderful person asked me if I would consider to write them a letter asking the questions I am looking to understand.  While I respect this person as a blogger, an author, a person of many dimensions at that moment she became clearly another person, a human who understood the seeking I feel. SO this is the letter.

   Hmm I don’t even know what to call you really. I don’t know what you’d prefer. what you called your grandparents. I will wing it.

Dear Gramma and Grampa,

   I wish I had met you. I wish I had known your love and your wisdom.  Gramma, I have been told that you felt not intelligent because you were unschooled and simple minded. But from all I can gather, to have gone through all I was told you had, to have had so many children, to have lost one so early in her life so tragically and horrifically, you were a very strong woman who had wisdom  that you drew on in your very survival.

   I would start our conversation together with what happened to you both in terms of your deaths? I know Gramma, you died of pneumonia. But how you got so ill is something I wonder about. Were you ready when your time came? Grampa, what had you died of? Were you alone- either of you when you died? What was your say to day life like on the farm and before that in the town where you lived when you first came here? Grampa, how on earth did you find the money to buy the land, to build your home, how did you know how to build the family farmhouse?  What did you feel about your children? What did both of you feel? What was it like for you both in your lives here, understanding what you did of English? Grampa, how did you teach yourself the language before or on the journey here? Gramma, I can’t imagine how isolated you felt not knowing the language and I can’t imagine the courage it took to travel alone with your baby- or pregnant (seems to be conflicting stories as to when you gave birth to Aunt Mary, before the journey or during/). Tell me about that journey, about what it was like when de-boarded and how you were rejoined I have heard much about Grampa’s temper, about how you and the children were treated. SOme was very disturbing to me. What was it like for you. DId you know of how your daughters and sons felt? Did it matter to you? DId you intervene on their behalf? DId you protect them? What had you endured/ These are such personal things to ask. But I wonder about these questions. I wonder about your experiences in life. I know neither of you had an easy life.

I have to ask you about your lives in Lithuania, what was Russia at the time. By the censuses of the time in America, you referenced yourselves as Lithuanian. This (given the time) would seem that you were likely to have been sympathetic to independence of Lithuania. Tell me about that. We were told that Grampa was in the Russian army. WHat manner did you come into that service and when,? Were you involved in the conflict of 1905?  We were told that we’ve Jewish blood in us. Were either of you or your ancestors Jewish? Were you conscripted into the RUssian army? Had you left, being released from the army your contract fulfilled, or had you left before it was time/ What was the effect on your families during the time of grampa being in the Russian army. WHat was your rank and what were your duties? What were your feelings about  being in the Russian army/ What ran through your mind when you had to report to the draft board during WWI ?  We were told that you had to go into hiding before leaving/ Both of you? Where did you come up with the money for passage? Had you spent time in Scotland or England at any point- in the mines? WHat was it like in the mines here where you first worked? How had you become employed there? What had you done for a living in Lithuania or were you in the army for your entire adulthood there? What had your parents done to survive/ Were you as poor as we were told/ Gramma what was your maiden name there? You went with maiden name as Stank here- what you told your children. WHat was it? Were either of your families from Poland or had you always lived near Uzvarikai? Is that the correct village for  your residence before coming here/ Had you always lived near Krakes? Had your family stayed there in that region? Had your family come from the Krakes area or were either of your families transports over time? Who did you miss most after leaving there/ What was it about your homeland did you miss most/ Any traditions that you practiced here from there, or any that you missed? I was told that you did not practice your Jewish faith when you came here, fearing persecution here too. Was this what happened? I guess I have a whole host of questions depending on your faith when you were in Lithuania, and what you were raised in. Were your families loyal to the Lithuanians or had they persecuted them or the Jews- or been the recipients of such? Were you families farmers 9 as we were told) or had your families lived in a city/ Were they forced to displace in your lifetime or any of your ancestors? WHat do you know of your ancestry? What form of education had you or anyone in your family, or your ancestors had?

   WHy had you left Lithuania- specifically? Not the “for a better life” , what were you seeking or fleeing? Under what circumstance would you ever have considered going back to live? Was the reason you remained as aliens a political one or had you believed one day you would return ? Didn’t understand how? Or had you become naturalized?

   WHat did you think of your kids as adults? How did you handle Julia’s death? DId you blame anyone in particular? How do you remember that day?  (Julia at around 6-9 yrs old died when her dress caught on fire when the kids were playing tag with a lit cloth. At least that was what we were told.) Where is she buried? WHen Helen became ill did she share much with you? What happened to her husband/ Did he stay with her until she died/ When did you take in her son? Had she any other children? Was this child the one with a neurologic disease? Was his pneumonia related to Gramma developing pneumonia?

WHat was the treatment of Aunt Mary when she so briefly married the boy down the street? DO you have any regrets for sending her to Chicago/ Or had you sent her at all/ Did she leave home on her own then? How were accommodations and a job found for her? DId you know someone there? DId you stay in touch with her?

Were you in touch with your other children as they moved away/? Had they visited you or had you visited them? What were they all like as children and adults?

Had you ever thought of what you hoped for your children or grandchildren? Had you ever hoped they would meet your relatives/ Had you visited any relatives who may have immigrated here? WHo and where were they?  Had you wondered if any of your children or grandchildren would visit or move back to Lithuania? Had you hoped we would?

WHat was the most valuable thing you learned growing up? What were your parents like?  Were they still alive when you left LT? DId they know you were leaving ? What did they and any other of your family think about it?  What was the bravest strongest thing you ever saw your parents do?

What was the most endearing thing you saw eachother do? WHat was the kindest most  or the generous thing you ever did and saw eachother do? WHat made you the happiest in your lives? WHat was your greatest heartache? WHat would you have me know about the two of you? About life? About my mom?

DId I ask you what you thought of my dad? DId he talk with you before he asked mom to marry him? What was the sweetest thing you saw him do for her? What were you most proud of your children for? Of my mom? Of yourselves? of eachother?

WHat was it like for you emotionally hearing of WWI? Were you able to be in touch with anyone you knew still in Lithuania during that time?  WHat was your greatest fear of that time?

 WHat were you both like as children? DId you know each other then? Was there any fun to be had for children? Did you have siblings or cousins or neighbors to play with/ What did you play? What faith were you? Had you held your original faith -whatever it was- regardless of where you worshipped? Who was your role model, your hero , and why as you were growing up?

I think having you in our lives as I was growing up would have had quite an impact on who and how I was. Mom tried to include her heritage and answered most questions. There were things she didn’t know. There were things she definitely felt conflicted about. One thing I can tell you though is that my mom didn’t have an easy life. She was a hard worker. a faithful wife, a devoted mother. She definitely had strong survival instincts. She was the most beautiful woman I ever knew. Her heart was so great. She was generous beyond what she had to give. She ran her own business, learning as an adult. She supported us solely after Dad died. No matter how she felt, she held her head up in front of us. Very stoic. She made us know that a woman could do what she needed to provide not only for herself , but for her family while seeing her son into college- with much help and support from my Dad’s sister advising Mom on what to do. Mom eventually owned our home outright- no more mortgage- not a common thing for a woman with children, especially children in jr high and high school. Mom never missed a single SUnday service. She learned to drive a car as an adult when I was graduated from high school She saw to it  that I went to nursing school. But she would have saw to it I went to college if I wanted. My aunt again helped her with details and applications and such. I do know that Mom loved you both. She knew just how hard life was for you Gramma. She didn’t tell us of everything of course. She did get more than you might have thought your child “saw” in what your daily life was like. Children are like that…watching, eyes, ears open, hearts beating, mind processing. Her heart broke for you in many ways.  Which I suppose brings me to what I wish I had knew of my own parents. There is much I didn’t know of them, what they thought along their lives way. Both Mom and Dad spoke some about the war times and about the depression, but as an adult there is more I wish I knew. We only recently found out some things we didn’t know about Dad’s experience in Europe during WWII. I wish I could have a conversation now with him about his service.  I wish I could have spoken with them both more about their lives. But Dad left us way too soon. I was still a child.  With Mom I have no excuses. In adulthood I did try to ask her about her life, but someof it made her uncomfortable- and while I think she wouldn’t feel I had, I did try to be respectful and not invasive. Man, imagine if I had asked the really hard things.lol

  I would have been a strange child in both of your views probably. I preferred any outdoor chores or activities over being inside- except for playing basketball- I loved it anywhere. I developed my love for that when we visited on my uncle’s farm and my cousin, Drue would get sent out to keep me occupied. Initailly my siblings would be there and his brother- but they soon left and Drue usually stayed with me. We talked just about everything and anything. he was so kind to me. As an adult you would have disapproved of many of my choices. In truth I can say that so do I- but you can’t go back. All in all I was so very fortunate that life has worked out as it has. Mom used to tell me during the hard times that it would all work out- somehow some way , it would all work out and I would live with whatever I did with whatever decision in life. She was right. Some of my decisions took an awful lot more to deal with than others. Some required much more strength to work through them. But another thing she and Daddy taught me was that hard work would not kill me. They knew because they both had done it. They worked hard. Dad had problems that carried over after the war. This made life difficult for him and for us, but more so for mom. It’s terrible what war does to men and women and children. It’s terrible that mankind never learns that enough to put an end to it.

   I love you as best anyone can love the grandparents they never knew. I am trying to know more about you and your lives. I am trying to understand the heritage of those who have come before me. I guess the most basic part of the puzzle would be to understand of Grampa’s time as a Russian soldier and about the religion that you believed in and practiced, the truth about why you had to flee. I ill not hang my head to know any of it. My life has been as fortunate as it is because of the efforts you took to come to this country. I am not saying I would not have been a  good person in a good life where you came from. But then depending on the details, Mom may not have survived long enough to marry and give me life- not to mention someone else would have been my dad. I won’t stop my searching. I hope I get to discover more of the answers. And I do know one day we will be together. Thank you- for all you did to bring up mom, to have made into who she was. While I felt closer to Dad growing up, it was really Mom who was my life’s greatest influence until I met my children.




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