LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 40, No.1 - Spring 1994
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester
Copyright © 1994 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
CASTLE ON THE HILL
When I was four, I was a princess in long golden curls, a dress of filmy georgette blue. I stood upon a stage and sang a ballad in praise of the white bird cherry tree. I explained how it withstood the seasons, fought rain and wind, yet triumphed in the spring. I played all parts, verse after verse, and basked in the applause. This is my earliest memory.
Melody and words still ring in my ear. "Oi tu ieva ievuže, ko nežydi žiemužę?" "Oh, my lovely bird cherry, why don't you blossom in winter?" I was singing in Lithuanian on the stage of St. Francis School in Minersville, Pennsylvania. The wonderfully creative Sisters if St. Casimir taught, rehearsed and prompted me, and the other children of our Lithuanian community, in song, dance and drama. Happy prisoners we, chained to a folkloric tradition of the past. In program after program, I'm sure we touched the hearts of parents and grandparents, yearning for the lost tėvynė (homeland).
When I was five, I was the selfsame princess, long golden curlsonly my dress had changed. "A blonde in yellow, that is like sunshine," announced my first grade teacher. Sister Stanisia. She convinced my mother that I would have to wear a long, yellow tafetta gown, ruffles on the bottom, pale green rosettes at the neckline, a broad satin sash. For a lady who was herself garbed in simple black and white, you can appreciate that she, as well as the other nuns, were outstanding dress designers for important stage productions. They brooked no contradiction so I still have a photograph of myself in this gown, a golden crown upon my head. Sad to say, I can't remember the details of my part in this production, but I've no doubt of its success.
The year was 1937. Not only was I blessed with stage successes in that first year of school, the classroom also produced my first love, a boy named Eddie with soulful brown eyes. Our love was beautiful but unspoken. Trouble and tears invaded my realm that same year when I couldn't duplicate the beautiful rounded "Palmer method" letter A that was required. It has taken me many years (probably fifty) to forgive my first grade teacher. Sister Stanisia, who did tap me on the fingers with her ruler for the poor penmanship. Didn't she know the princess she was grooming had an extra-sensitive soul? I can still feel the sting.
But in the main, life flowed happily in that three-storied, red bricked and many windowed building on the hill, known as St. Francis School. I prefer to think of it as my castle on the hill for many reasons. Windows sparkled. Highly polished wood shone. It could be seen from far away. Or could it be that it has loomed so large only with the distance of time? What matter?
It could well have been fashioned after the tower and castle of the Grand Duke Gediminas, built high on the hill in the 14th century, above what would become the city of Vilnius in Lithuania. We Lithuanians are people of tradition, so I noticed that my castle, like that of the Grand Duke's would become part of a larger compound. Across the street from the school was the vienuolynas or convent which housed all of my teachersSrs. Stanisia, Olga, Liliosa, Clemens, Andrea, Immaculata, and the rest whose names I have forgotten. Their formidable home, red brick trimmed in white, stands clearly etched in memory. Sacred and cool ground floor rooms, exhaled a scent of marble. Crucifixes graced each wall. Furnishings were sparse, except for one luxurythe piano, where I practiced daily until we could afford a piano at home.
Below the convent on the crest of the hill was our church in those days, a small frame building painted gray and white. Inside, soft, rich dark woods shone in subdued candlelight, redolent with incense. The main altar bore colorful and lifesize statues of St. Francis and the Apostles Peter and Paul. St. Anthony stood on the left. We prayed to him when we lost something. Further left was a special altar with a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary robed in blue. We schoolchildren brought seasonal offerings from our gardenspeonies, dahlias, sweet scented lilacs, bleeding heartsand layed them at her feet. During the month of May, we had "Gegužinės" or May services nightly. These devotions culminated on the last Sunday in May with a beautiful children's procession in which entire parish participated. Our own priests, as well as visiting clergy from neighboring Lithuanian parishes, led the way singing songs in praise of Marija and reciting her litany. We walked along the path from the church, scattering rose petals in our wake, until we reached an outdoor grotto and shrine, replicating the scene at Lourdes. Finally, we crowned Mary as Queen of heaven and earth. One year I had the honor to place the wreath of flowers upon her head.
In those days, our songs might be in Latin or Lithuanian. Our prayers, Tėve mūsų (Our Father), Sveika Marija (Hail Mary), often said in the mystery of the rosary, were always in Lithuanian. Sometimes, we recited long litanies to the saints, sang the responses to the High Mass. Whatever form, there was a specific ritual in song and prayer that ushered in both life and death. Drawing us to all forms of worship was one distinctive voice, that stirred immediate recognition. This was our beloved liuttle church bell, mūsų varpeliai, as my grandmother would say in a delicious diminutive. We all knew whether the bells signalled a wedding, a funeral, vespers or mass. High praise for the bellringer's art since our little bells competed with 22 other churches in our hamlet at the time. But we never failed to recognize our own.
To the right of our church was the klebonija or rectory, where the pastor and his curates reigned and oversaw parish business. Occasionally, a visiting Franciscan Friar would come for a stay of several weeks and the church would then be said to be having a "mission". This mission concerned only the darkest Africa of our souls, and not any foreign land. It might be the closest thing in the Catholic church to a revival meeting, because the visiting missionary was usually a powerful and charismatic speaker. Many of us enjoyed the fire and brimstone, the tears and confession that might follow.
Our favorite visiting priest was Father Gerald, tall, dark and handsome. My girl friends and I trembled with illicit passion and never missed a sermon. Since this was a love that dared not speak its name, we sighed and blushed and tittered. One day my heart stopped when Father Gerald appeared on the doorsteps of our house. I hid in the kitchen until I realized he had come to visit my pious and housebound grandmother. I managed to appear, casually I hoped, and sat spellbound and openmouthed. The spell was broken, my hopes shattered, when Father Gerald asked me "Wouldn't you like to be a nun someday?" He only wanted to recruit me as a "Bride of Christ". I had no such intention or vocation.
As a matter of fact, I had been leading an appalling double life ever since I was seven and Sister Olga was my third grade teacher. It was in that year that the Catholic Church considered we had reached the "age of reason," and could study the Cathechism in preparation for the Sacraments of Confession and First Communion. None of the other "firsts" like memorization of the times tables of the mysteries of long division caused me any concern. Sister Olga was an excellent and compassionate teacher. I hoped never to fail her.
Yet, how heavily the "Confession of Sins" weighed on my frail shoulders. I spent a sleepless and soul-searching night, deciding what to do. I could not possibly confess my actual sins to the priest. I can no longer remember which or how many of the seven deadly sins I had committed by the tender age of seven. All I do know is that I made up a list of what I considered innocuous "venial" sins and recited them to the priest. I was well aware of the consequences of my action. I would be lying in confession, taking Holy Communion in the state of sin. Each time I would go to confession or communion in the future, I would be compounding sacrilege upon sacrilege. There was no question that this would lead to eternal damnation. Still, I chose this path. I felt there might be one way out.
I had always been impressed by hearing our nuns read us the stories of the lives of the saints. I was particularly fond of the martyrs, like St. Catherine, who were tortured and died for their faith. I understood that no matter how sinful their lives had been, the slate would be wiped clean in the end, were they to affirm their faith and die by persecution. Maybe I could be a heroine and a martyr someday too. So I hoped.\
It is hard to imagine these days how religion, its language, rituals and consequences permeated our daily lives. For example, I never learned the Lithuanian word for "hello," labas, until a few years ago. In my elementary school days, the proper greeting which we used was Garbė Jėzui Kristui (Praised be Jesus Christ). The response was Per amžius. Amen (For ever. Amen). If we ever spoke of a person who had died, we always attached the word Amžiną atilsį... (Eternal rest...) immediately after their names. This was the beginning of the prayer for the dead.
As part of the children's choir of our school, we had to sing all the funeral masses. There were many elderly in our parish, so funerals were a weekly affair. When I sang Dies irae, dies illa..., I had no idea that the Latin words meant "Day of judgment, day of wrath...," but I certainly felt it.
But not all activities of our church and school were frightful and serious. Since our Lithuanian community's social life centered around the church, I cannot fail to mention the wonderful church bazaarssteaming with ethnic food and colored by handcrafts. One year this event so touched my heart, I can recall the details to this day. My parents had bought a raffle ticket. When the wheel spun round, they had a winning number. They hadn't had many winning numbers in those depression years. My father's mine at Oak Hill worked only a few days a week. The large basket of food which was to be their prize would have been most welcome. Instead, I saw my father quietly approach our pastor. Father Klevinskas. I couldn't hear what he said, but when he returned to us, he handed me an exact replica of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's sidekickCharlie McCarthy. The doll was taller than I was. I had been hoping for this prize, secretly I thought. And so for our kind pastor who made the exchange, and for my parents who read the heart of a little girl so many years ago, I'd like to say:
"Už tą tai tau ačiū tariu, lai Dievulis laimina!"
"Thank you for that, and may the good Lord bless you!"
My last year in my castle on the hill was truly wondrous. I was in the eighth grade and had been chosen for the lead in our school's year end production. The year was 1945. World War II was ending. We were all in a celebratory mood. The nuns had decided on an original and gala version of the Cinderella story. I was to be Pelenė or Cinderella in our Lithuanian operetta, chosen not so much for my voice as for the fact that I could memorize the long script and do justice to the pronunciation.
Somehow, our clever teachers managed to work all the grades into the script with music and song. I remember first graders as squeaking little mice, after the midnight transformation of the horses. Fourth graders entertained the prince with Lithuanian folk dances at the ball. Eighth graders as courtiers and their ladies gracefully waltzed away the night.
With the Lithuanian penchant for sadness, our opening scene was quite in order. I sat at the hearth in my shabbiest dress, my golden locks covered with a faded scarf and sang an old folksong: "Kada noriu verkiu, kad noriu dainuoju, nuo sunkių darbelių nepasiliuosuoju." This meant something like: "Sometimes I cry, sometimes I sing, but I can't seem to escape all my hard work and troubles." At another point, I recall my best friend Bette, who played the piano accompaniment, nodding to me to begin a poignant solo. The melody was from the Spanish song La Paloma (The Dove), but somehow the text was transformed into a Lithuanian Cinderella's plea for the bird to fly to the heavens to the girl's dead mother for help. Enter the fairy godmother and so on. When I think of it today, I am thoroughly amazed at the creative and eclectic mix that emerged. Thanks to our dedicated nuns, endearing perfectionists all, the endless hours of afterschool practice seem worth it, even today.
Since this was to be a spectacle as well as a musical, the ladies of the parish spent hours at their sewing machines. Sister Clemens brought my mother her designer sketch for Cinderella's ball gown. No expense was to be spared, so mano močiutė (my grandma) reached into the depths of her ample bosom, where she kept her savings in a worn leather purse. My mother hired a seamstress because she didn't feel up to the job. Together, we spend countless hours searching what we then called the "dry goods" stores. Our town had only a few stores, so we travelled by bus to Pottsville, the county seat. Finally, we came up with the yards and yards of white satin, silk netting, stiff buckram, and other essentials of the dressmakers art.
I can still hear hear the "oohs and aahs" when the curtain opened on the last act of our production. I was standing on a raised platform at the doorway to the ballroom, holding out the billowing white satin ball gown. Pink silk rosettes tied with blue satin bows decorated the rounded neckline, puffed sleeves and endless flounces. I was indeed a Lithuanian princess in my castle on the hill.