White Field, Black Sheep

Two Excerpts:

• I Was The Child of Teepees
Favorite Child

Daiva Markelis

[From a work in progress, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Childhood. Parts of the memoir have been published in Women and Language, Writing on the Edge, and The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine. —JDK ]

I Was The Child of Teepees


n 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.

Our grandparents' apartment was a place filled with magical things: a dried coconut as big as a little girl's head, a blood red rose in a globe of water.

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.

She takes a dollar bill, our Chunky money, out of her big black purse and slips it into the old man's hand.

“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.

My theory is that children who make the transition from one language to another lose memories in the passage.

“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.


“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 Sao Paolo, 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.”


Favorite Child


y sister Rita used to go around telling people she was adopted. She explained it this way: “There are hundreds of photographs of baby Daiva, but there are practically none of me.” When she was ten, she searched through drawers of family papers for her birth certificate, which my mother had somehow misplaced. Mine, however, was there. The missing certificate was the ultimate proof that she was not the real child of my parents.

There was a deep rivalry between us, a rivalry not uncommon in sisters so close in age—a rivalry exacerbated by the fact that I was, in fact, the favorite, a status conferred upon me at least in part by an accident of nature—I was the oldest child and had the personality that often accompanies the first-born. No Cicero Public Library librarians turned up at our door asking what I had done with the entire series of Let's Learn about Europe books, checked out the previous year. No irate Sisters of St. Casimir called my mother demanding that I replace the inked-in B+'s on my report card with the original C's. Rita set pigeon traps and brought home stray cats which she tried to hypnotize. Her best friends throughout grade school were boys.

From the beginning I did not want her there, intruding upon my perfect life. My mother tells me that on Rita's first birthday, when the guests were in the living room eating her cake, and her presents were stacked on the coffee table, I stole into the bedroom and climbed into the crib with a pencil with a sharp lead point and attempted to poke out her eyes. Her screams brought forth my horrified mother and saved my sister from certain blindness.

From the beginning I did not want her there, intruding upon my perfect life.

When I was five and Rita three, I told her I knew all about Pukas, the large black feathery creature that lived in our bedroom closet. Pukas— fluff in Lithuanian —had no arms, I explained.

“No mouth, either,” I continued, as Rita listened slack-jawed.

“He does have eyes, but they're hidden somewhere beneath all of those feathers, so you don't know when he's looking at you.”

“How does Pukas get about?” my sister continued nervously.

“That's a very good question,” I said. “He has claws like a chicken, only smaller. He has tiny chicken feet.”

My animosity towards my sister began to dissolve as I realized she could be a useful ally in the ongoing battle against the enemy, in this case, as in most childhood instances, the parents. We both shared the same objectives–more television time, increased allowances, a puppy.

“Other kids are making fun of us because we only get to watch an hour of TV a week,” I announced one evening over dinner.

“Yeah, other kids are making fun of us,” Rita added.

“Please pass the salt, Aldona,” my father said.

I realized that a change in tactics was quickly called for:

“The nuns told us that television is important to our becoming real Americans.”

“Yeah. They said that.”

My father put down his forkful of sauerkraut.

“We are real Americans. What the hell you talkin' about?”

The idea of the allowance was an especially sore point with my father.

“Let me get this straight. We feed you, put the clothes on your backs, and a roof over your heads, and now we have to pay you for this great privilege? It seems to me that you should be paying us!”

There was no way around the “allowance,” which had a life of its own in our community, creating a domino effect: one Lithuanian child began to receive an allowance, then another, and another. My parents were one of the last to give in, protesting that such things were unheard of in Lithuania . They were only somewhat appeased when they realized that allowances had to be earned. We could wash dishes and scour the tub and rake the leaves in the yard. Had the law allowed it, my father would have had my sister and me digging ditches and changing the oil in his car.

We had better luck with our request for a puppy. What helped our cause was that back in Lithuania my mother's family had owned a black, short-haired dachshund named Druzoc, “friend” in Russian. We had seen several photographs of the dignified Druzoc, had been enchanted with his long thin nose, his perpetually alert expression. We had heard of his tragic demise, how the rat poison laid out by the neighbors was never touched by its wily targets. (Years later, my mother changed the story and claimed that the neighbors, envious people, had deliberately poisoned their beloved dachshund.)

“A puppy would pay homage to the memory of Druzoc,” I said.

“And protect our family from intruders,” Rita added.

And thus it was that Nika, a short-haired, short-tempered dachshund, brown as a squirrel where Druzoc had been a glossy black, entered our lives.

In most cases, naming a family pet is a pleasant activity. Some parents even cede the task to their children. In our family, the process was akin to negotiating Middle East peace. My father argued that on the Lithuanian farm dogs sometimes didn't have names. My sister and I hoped for something dramatic and glamorous, Ramune, perhaps, daisy in English. My mother, as usual, got her way. She had a talent, a kind of sleight-of-hand that I am still not quite able to fully apprehend, of convincing people that they had an equal voice in a decision at hand, when, in reality, the final say had belonged to her from the very beginning. We'd be at the bakery, selecting the pie for Saturday evening dessert. My sister might suggest blueberry, I might ask for apple. My mother would nod her head and smile: Blueberry and apple are both fine choices, but what about peach? Have we given a serious thought to peach?

“Wouldn't it be fun to name the dog after a real person?” my mother announced.

My sister and I eyed each other warily, afraid that we would have to start calling the dog Aldona.

My mother explained that back in Lithuania she and her friends had given each other nicknames, shortened forms of their first names with the addition of the letter K at the end. There had been a Duka and an Ika. There had been a Nika as well, though she had emigrated not to the U.S. like the others, but to England , and was never heard from again.

“I kind of like the sound of Nika,” my mother said. “What about you?”

Nika grew up an anxious, unpredictable dog, scared of the wind and alarm clocks, yet fearlessly attacking dogs twice her size. One of her more perplexing quirks was her aversion to men. We'd know the gender of people at the door by the sounds that Nika made: defiant growls when the visitor was male, barely audible whimpers when the visitor was a female, confused little barks when both sexes were present.

There were two exceptions to Nika's misandry. She loved our dad in the inexplicable way that young women sometimes idolize men who greet their affection with casual indifference.

And she adored our piano teacher, Vladas Jakubenas. When he appeared Saturday afternoons with his bottle-thick glasses, Nika would orbit the living room in little circles of rapture. Perhaps she sensed that here was a man who truly loved dogs. He and his wife owned two Maltese terriers, which they treated like the children they never had.

In Lithuania Jakubenas had been a well-known composer; his lush symphonic pieces had been performed at the Vilnius Philharmonic. My mother revered him. She called him “professor,” and always offered him refreshment, cookies perhaps, and a cup of coffee.

Here in the United States he'd been reduced to giving piano lessons to ungrateful Lithuanian children who mangled Pop Goes the Weasel and called him Mister Magoo behind his back.

I dipped the spaghetti in and out of the pot, slowly, like a washerwoman doing laundry.

Not that I was one of those children. I practiced the piano every day, an hour, willingly. Rita practiced under duress. My mother would plead. My mother would threaten. My mother would revoke privileges: “No television during the week.”

“You mean you're going to take away the whole whopping hour that we now get?” Rita answered.

She would sit at the piano, grimacing, fidgeting, playing with Nika. “An hour a day,” my mother begged. “That's all I ask.” Then, “Half an hour a day. That's all I ask.” Finally, “Twenty minutes a day.” Rita conceded, though sometimes the twenty minutes a day would be clustered into one long marathon session on Friday evening.

For a long time, I was the better player, the one asked to perform in front of company. Then, one year, an earthquake hit my sheltered little world, registering a 4.5 on the scale of human disappointments. She surpassed me. I had probably sensed it happening, but had ignored the warning signs: the increasing practice times, the pieces she was given. While she had always been a tall, large-boned girl, she now seemed positively Amazonian. Her large hands stretched across the keyboard.

It was a difficult lesson—that great talent and a little work outweigh a little talent and a lot of work, at least in some areas of life. It was the first time she had excelled at something I did not, a fact I did not take lightly. I began to pick fights, telling her that she had been adopted: “Ma and daddy should have taken you back a long time ago. Returned you as defective goods.” I made fun of her height. “We'll have to lock her up,” I told my mother in my sister's hearing. “She must not be seen by others.”

That year Rita moved up to the top of the lineup in Jakubenas' annual piano recital at the Lithuanian Youth Center, playing the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata Appassionata. (I was stuck with Debussy's “Water Reflections.”) After the concert my mother revealed to me that she had known of Rita's extraordinary talent all along, knew it from the beginning, from Rita's difficult birth.

“I knew that Rita would be a star. That's why I gave her a name that would work just as well in English as in Lithuanian.”

Although I hardly considered Rita's admirable showing in one recital as evidence of future renown, I was still resentful.

“Well, what did you have in mind for me?” I asked.

“You? You will marry a professor, a wealthy professor, and spend your time traveling and reading good books.”

My mother's belief that I would marry a wealthy professor left me woefully unprepared for the practical realities of life. While other Lithuanian mothers carefully instructed their daughters in the basics of cooking and baking, my mother shooed me out of the kitchen.

“She'll learn when she has to,” she'd tell my dad, who felt that there was something terribly wrong with this arrangement, though he himself couldn't mash a potato.

My ineptitude came to the fore most clearly the day my mother had an unexpected library board meeting and Rita was practicing with the high school orchestra. My mother had prepared spaghetti sauce beforehand and had measured out enough pasta for the meal. The sauce had to be heated up, the spaghetti cooked. Heating the meat was easy compared to the process involved with the spaghetti. I let the water boil, as my mother had instructed, then dipped the spaghetti in and out of the pot, slowly, like a washerwoman doing laundry in an old-fashioned tub. I did this for ten minutes.

“Maybe it's supposed to taste that way,” I said to my father, commenting on the crunchiness.

“Maybe,” said my father.

My sister did not become a star, and I didn't marry a wealthy professor. My first husband was a mechanical engineer with a drinking problem. Fortunately, he loved to cook. I cleaned the house and did the laundry and always washed the dishes. At times I was tempted to try a little culinary experimentation and could concoct what I thought was a suitable meal. My ex objected to my presence in the kitchen, confirming my suspicions that cooking could be a battleground for issues much deeper than whether there was enough salt in the stew. He resented my attempt at apple dumplings. He disapproved of the way I made Swedish meatballs.

“Firmer. You have to make them firmer,” he'd say, grabbing the meat from my hand, rolling it into angry little balls.

He'd sigh in disgust. “Your mother never taught you anything.”

Which is not, strictly speaking, true.

My mother taught me how to make birds, graceful cranes, from little pieces of paper. She taught me to recite from memory, with perfect Lithuanian precision, all twelve verses of the children's classic “Meskiukas Rudnosiukas.” She tried to teach me that haste makes waste, and to look before I leapt, but some lessons are harder than others to learn.