Ancient Stories

 Far-fetched? Of course. But old perspectives may hold some wisdom…

An interesting article came over my horizon recently regarding family trees and ancestors. It was written in Lithuanian by Algirdas Urbanavičius, who has evidently delved into this field. He writes that not very long ago, people were more in tune with their origins than we are today. According to the author, people were familiar with their ancestry up to seven generations back, because it was important to know what you might inherit. Citizens of yesteryear realized that nothing is random, relatives are not just a bloodline, but various characteristics passed down from generation to generation. Thus before marrying, they would want to discover as much as possible about the family they were joining, so they could foresee the family‘s destiny and what their children were likely to bring into the world.

Apparently, old Sanskrit teachings, the Vedas, tell us that we are the first generation; our parents are the second generation. They influence us most strongly through their personal example. They provide the model of family relationships; a daughter will model after her mother, a son after his father. Even subconsciously they mimic their parents‘ behaviour. Parents also influence their children‘s world view. Children inherit habits, lifestyle, manner of speaking, emotional expression and physical attributes. According to this theory, the most dominant characteristics are passed down, thus each generation is ever more intelligent, skilled and able to improve. Children do not necessarily inherit their parents‘ actual talents, but the parents can create a beneficial environment for them to flourish.

The third generation is two grandfathers and two grandmothers. This theory postulates that we inherit creativity, intellect, initiative, interpersonal skills and outlook from them; most often grandfathers pass these on to granddaughters, grandmothers to grandsons. Illnesses may also be inherited from grandparents, but parents are also responsible for providing a healthy environment and good habits. These teachings also parse the types of qualities that are passed down from paternal and maternal grandparents, for example the paternal grandfather passes down creativity and energy; paternal grandmother – worldview and material values; the maternal grandfather – interaction and relationship skills. Arguably the star of the foursome is the maternal grandmother – she is the keeper of motherhood and family relationships, passes on intuition, emotions and feelings, our connection to home, homeland and homestead (namai, tėvynė and tėviškė).

This is the scary part: it is very important for grandparents to be virtuous, to pass on virtuous values to their grandchildren. If the grandparents are “complicated“ people having negative traits, it is likely that their grandchildren will take on that negativity.

The fourth generation – great-grandparents – are eight ancestors. From them we inherit feelings of harmony with the world, appreciation of beauty, morality and the ability to love. The fifth generation is the keystone of the family. From it proceed the highest virtues or the darkest sins. The generations become more nebulous the further we go back: the sixth generations consists of 32 ancestors – from them we get genetic harmony or disharmony, balance or imbalance, lightness or darkness of spirit. The Vedas say that symbolically these ancestors are like our 32 teeth – the upper jaw representing the father‘s family, the lower – the mother‘s ancestors, reflecting their strength, purity, or early decay. The seventh generation consists of 64 ancestors. Misfortune and violence in this generation can influence the destiny of its descendants, despite their best efforts to avoid them.

What can we do with this information besides relegating it to the realm of mythology or astrology? Urbanavicius says that although we have no influence whatsoever on the behaviour of our ancestors, it is simply important to know this and not blame ourselves, for example, for our children being good or bad, for difficulties in creating harmonious relationships or achieving spiritual growth. Sounds like a wonderful excuse. However there is merit to tracking genetic health tendencies, because as we know, there are some diseases that can be avoided or at least mitigated by practicing or rejecting certain habits.

It would be fascinating to find out about our earlier ancestors, but as children of immigrants, many of us do not have at hand the means to gather the threads of our connections without on-site research. The lesson: interrogate your elders while you can!

New Year, New Plans

Thank you to Peg for sharing her experience and giving us concrete information about directions we can take to start a family tree or story. Inspiring ideas and concrete decisions to be made. Sharing like this is an excellent way to motivate and to teach others!

It’s true that the DNA aspect of genealogy can be limited in some ways. As children of immigrants, we may know the names of and have even met our relatives, as I have, and so I was not completely surprised that my DNA test showed me as 99% Lithuanian. And although the services provided through sites such as Ancestry can reveal relatives we did not previously know, there is also the possibility of being queried by people who have no connection to our relatives. I was recently questioned by someone who thinks we are related, but none of the names, places or dates match at all.

What does knowing my ethnicity give me? Proof – possibly, but there are currently all kinds of doubts being cast upon the testing and its accuracy.  (By the way, no one in our generation – dragged to Saturday school and folk-dancing, forbidden from dating “others” and scolded for not speaking Lithuanian – truly had much doubt as to our ethnic background.) Possibly more useful is the analysis showing predisposition to certain diseases, but there again, it may be solid evidence only in some cases, and how useful is it in reality? How can you prepare? Fodder for dinner conversations – do we want to know, or not, and how much?

I think Peg is right that collecting material for the family story is most important: this is what we would like to preserve for the next generation, to find and mark our place in history, in a sense. Every family has a story. And displaced families especially need some sort of anchor in a mixed society here in North America. So, back to the box. It does now have files named according to family branches. As soon as I declutter the sewing paraphernalia that’s currently on my office futon, I will bring it out and aim for chronology. And inspired by Peg, I will begin to compile my family history. I must remember – it does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize contender. My notes and my thoughts in my own handwriting will be more revealing as to who I am.

You never know what you’ll find in your Box! This was my baby tag.

Logic dictates that I begin my story with my parents’ arrival in Canada, as it is easier than trying to go backward from there, for now. A future visit to Lithuania and the tiny cemetery that my grandparents are buried in by the old homestead, while it is still standing, is in my plan for Part Two.

I invite you to tell your story, or the story of your efforts, here and now, for others to read and be inspired. Give us even just a few comments to egg us on…

Come forth!

Readers and relatives – come forth! 

The time has come to confess. Writing a blog is much more difficult than one might think. It can also be quite boring if no one provides feedback. Throwing your thoughts out into the ether is easy enough, but realizing that they linger there, lonely and cold, can be a deterrent to sending any further envoys. I can see both sides of the equation and provide a multitude of excuses for both readers and potential respondents, because I am guilty of using them myself: summer, laziness, other projects, work, family, travel.

The lesson is: never give up. As in any project, initial enthusiasm may wane if no relatives respond to a Facebook page you have set up to unite them and make your plans accessible. Have I actually contacted some or any of them to tell them clearly what my expectations are? As in any form of teamwork, I am responsible for providing some leadership, guidelines and examples.

Bertha Mikenas - in Southern Ontario tobacco field

My sister’s sister-in-law Birute Mikenas on her parents’ tobacco farm in Tillsonburg, Ontario

Even while a project simmers on a back burner, inspiration may come in strange and unsolicited ways. Research on an article for Lithuanian Heritage Magazine about Lithuanian tobacco farmers in Southern Ontario renewed my interest in refining information about my own ties to that area – I spent most summers of my early youth there with an aunt and uncle. When someone mentions Delhi, it creates an immediate understanding of a whole other lifestyle than I knew in the city. It evokes seeing vast fields of giant-leaved tobacco plants, the unforgettable smell of tobacco drying in kilns, and praying for rain, but please – no hail…

This in turn encourages me to write down the names of the people I knew, talk to others who knew them, tell their story before it’s too late. Many of our elders are gone, so we rely on cousins and old acquaintances to help remember or connect the sketches of our past. Why is it important? Most likely because our true roots are overseas, and we have little or no “proof” of it in our hands, as do some of our friends whose families handed down homesteads and histories in what seems to be the here and now as opposed to a distant, foreign past. We lack a real connection with it, unless our parents made supreme efforts to educate us about that past and gave us opportunities to go back there.

The question then is — why do we search for our roots? Why is it important? I offer this as a starting point for a discussion. In my view, for children of immigrants living in a country of immigrants it is particularly meaningful to have a sense of connection to something more permanent than ourselves, something unique. The desire for permanence may be particularly important to the children of refugees. A person born and raised in Lithuania does not have to prove they are Lithuanian – it’s inherent, like the colour of their eyes. In Canada, Lithuanians are judged by whether or not they speak Lithuanian and how well, which wave of immigration they hail from, and how they are connected to the Community. We strive to display or explain our heritage and our interest in it. Why? One reason may be a need to portray our uniqueness in a giant mosaic of ethnicities, or – in a mass of average Canadians (if there is such a group, referred to in the US as “Middle America”).

Finally, and mostly, defining our connections with our family network and history can give us and our children a satisfying context and a sense of inclusion in a vast anonymous world.

 

 

 

 

 

Mousing Around for Details

Bring out the pipe, the hat with earflaps, and be a Sherlock!

At some point, the photos and documents your have in your family records and memorabilia box may not be enough. You know where your parents lived, that is – wherever you grew up. Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Boston… You have pictures of some relatives, sufficient information for a good start on a Family Tree. The wheels have begun turning in your head and you realize that you want to know the whole family story from as far back as possible. No one else in the family is as excited as you are, because a) they’re too young, or b) they’re lazy, or c) they don’t know how to go about it. Apparently, you can hire someone to do this, but it’s much more fun to do it yourself, because it’s interesting and educational detective work (also known as research). All you need is your computer (and mouse, if you still use one)!

For example, you may have met or heard of cousins, as I have, with whom you can compare family trees, but the connection is not crystal-clear. From our latest conversations, I now know that the cousins in question found relatives in a town called Rokiškis. Contacting them would be the simplest way to discover how our fathers are related. You may also write to the local museum (find it on the city‘s website) to ask for a link to any available archives. Official archive services (archyvai.lt) may require an application form and a fee. Cemetery records are available via the internet, however the date of death is usually required, as I found out from my query to a cemetery in Kaunas.

Delving into archival websites such as birth/death records and immigration is not simple. There are a great number of websites, and one needs a substantial amount of time and patience to find what you need. However the journey can be fascinating. If you are interested in dog-paddling through the internet, www.cyndislist.com has a comprehensive list of worldwide genealogy sites, (Lithuanians are not featured prominently). The site www.dpcamps.org gives a vast list of sites which require some navigation skills, but I found nothing relating to the DP camp my parents were in (Regensburg), which I will pursue further. However I did find a concise history of DP‘s by Mel Jay at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lithuanian-Diaspora-A-History-of-WW-2-Lithuanian-Displaced-Persons, with suggested reading, and an article from „Lituanus“ by Linas Saldukas titled „Culture in Adversity: the Lithuanian DP experience“. These are the things that distract me from my task, but they‘re so interesting…

If time is limited, your first line of questioning should be directed at any and all existing relatives. Write to them, call them, ask for photos, dates of birth, marriage, death. BEFORE IT‘S TOO LATE!

My grandparents’ homestead in Kalniečiai, 1938 (Rokiškis area)

Also, you can launch a second line of attack: today I created a Facebook page to reach out to relatives who are already on FB or have emails. Anyone can be invited, but the page is „secret“, that is – only invited members can see it. I kept thinking about the best way to reach out to relatives in Europe, South America and here in North America, and decided to jump in. I put up a photo of our grandparents‘ homestead, and I hope to get some responses. At least it will be something interesting to read on FB…

 

But seriously…

A new year – and with it, fresh resolve to get organized!…

Your papers and photos are collected (hopefully in some kind of order that is clear to you), and you are ready to take your next step. What will it be? This depends on several factors. You need to ask yourself, and perhaps your family, a few questions. First of all, what is your goal?

This is actually the key question for the entire exercise, which will require a real time commitment. Why are you doing this? If you have very few relatives – or none, you may want to find some. It’s very exciting to discover new “people”, someone who is connected to you through your ancestors. An example is my third cousin in Pennsylvania, who connects me to an earlier historical time than the post-war DP story that I knew about from my parents. There was in fact a pre-war exodus of Lithuanians who left their country to make a better living working in the mines in Pennsylvania. To have actual cousins emerging from that era is fascinating. It means I am connected to more than just my parents, my sister, and their immediate families. I am part of a clan.

Because of our background as children of DP’s, many of us may feel that we don’t have a concrete sense of place or history. I would like to follow the thread of belonging not just for myself, but for my children and their children. In our “later” years, it seems, we tend look for those threads and find meaning in them. Laying out the thread and weaving it together makes us feel part of a larger, more important, more meaningful tapestry.

So as we delve into our family ties, we need to decide whether we want to set up a) a family tree, b) a family history, c) a network of living relatives, or maybe – all of the above. Probably the simplest approach is to start with the family tree.

A sample family tree template

For a family tree alone, you can use a template (www.familytreetemplates.net), which is quite straightforward. Most allow entries for family member names, surnames, dates of birth and death, with a variety of layouts diagramatically showing relationships. These are not the same as genealogical programs.

Programs provide more features. A Lithuanian-language website that I found (although it may be dated) http://www.polia.info/Genealogija/Programos.htm outlines a number of genealogical programs. The best seems to be http://www.myheritage.com/genealogy, which allows you to create a family tree on the internet, or download the Family Tree Builder http://www.myheritage.com/family-tree-builder. It is free, and supports Lithuanian language for names and surnames with our specific diacriticals (special signs on letters such as š, č, etc.). These would be important even for non-Lithuanian speakers, because correct diacriticals make the names authentic. Other features are error recognition (warnings when dates do not align, for example), and search tools.

The family tree is a good starting point, because it does not require any more information than name/surname, relationship, date of birth and date of death. Simple. What if you don’t know these dates (or can’t remember them, or… can’t find the scrap you wrote them on)? Maybe there is a photo of grandfather’s headstone somewhere in the pile. Especially in the early post-war decades, they were often sent to us by relatives in Lithuania, together with the ghastly shots of everyone with sadder than usual faces standing around the open coffin of the deceased. If there is no photo of the headstone showing d.o.b. and d.o.d., contact the cemetery (e.g., St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery, Mississauga). If there are no relatives you can contact in Lithuania to find out where someone is buried, a search may be possible through the municipality. For example, there is a listing of cemeteries in Kaunas and contact information for each. I was informed by one cemetery office there that queries must include the year of death, name and surname is not enough.

Turning your attention to your genealogical tasks for just half an hour a day or even an hour every few days will bring you satisfying results – and there’s no exam!