Farm Girl

By Ed Staskus

   When my mother Angele was born it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the next month and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze again there would be acres of ice rink. It froze and everybody went skating.

   “I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija, near Gizai,” said Angele. It was mid-January 1928.

   Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north and Poland to the south. The region’s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania in the early 20th century was almost half what it was in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.

   “My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. I had four brothers and a sister. I was so happy when my sister was born. We lived on a small farm. It was three or four miles from Marijampole.”

   Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918. Speaking Lithuanian was forbidden, but they did it anyway. Reading Lithuanian books was forbidden but they read them anyway. Many of them ended up in Russian prisons, where they spoke Lithuanian among themselves.

   Their farm was 10-some acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were nearby. Small woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, lots of chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. He rented croplands from a childless widow. The ground was devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.

   Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It had long since been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming. Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.

   “My mother was tall and thin.,” Angele said. “She was pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.” Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Five of them survived World War Two, the forty-six-year subsequent Soviet occupation that happened next, and lived to see Lithuania regain its independence.

   Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas and my other older brother Bronius would invite their friends, and all the girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.

   Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prevalent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world.

   “She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.” When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.

   “Irena and I went to a school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.” The family farm wasn’t far from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest of Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the largest city, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.

   “Even though my father did everything, we all had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched a horse and took the beets to Marijampole.”

   The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was an attic for storage and for smoking pork. “We had a barn, but we had another small house, too, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed and split their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.” A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the house fireplace to the barn. Still and all, all winter long the young men gathered their blankets and warmed them up at the fireplace before going to bed. In deep winter in the Baltics the nights are 16 hours long. The stars twinkle but they are icy.

   Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are longer. They are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from mid-December to mid-March.

   “We had a dog, in a dog house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis in Lithuanian means beware or watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up at night, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though. They were only for the outside.” Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long. Whenever they could they snuck into the small, heated barn and slept under the blankets next to the two brothers.

   The family knew everybody in their neck of the woods. Everybody was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance. “Whenever my mother made potato pancakes, she would give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.

   After her mother got sick, from about the time she was ten years old, Angele did the cooking for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day. She washed the pots and pans and dishes and utensils twice a day.

   Justinas was apprenticed to a tailor, and learning the trade, but joined the army in the late 1930s. Every country cousin knew war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one. He didn’t know his horse was going to be useless in the coming war.

   When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by armor and an air force, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war feeding his horse, and sewing and mending clothes, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.

   A woman whose husband had died and who lived nearby helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made a half-dozen loaves at a time, kneading up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been left burning for several hours. They kept the coals pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side. “We always had bread. We always had tea and sometimes coffee. When times were hard we collected herbs and had herbal tea.”

   The house did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink with a pump handle in the kitchen. “The outside well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.” In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it crashed to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The cats didn’t leave the small barn for weeks. The well froze. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 throughout the Baltics were severely frostbitten, losing fingers and toes.

   When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium in Kaunas, but returned home soon afterwards. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she became run down and became bedridden. Jonas built an addition with a window, putting down rough planks over the packed dirt floor. He moved a free-standing cast iron furnace into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed facing the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.

   Angele’s father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas, my baby brothers.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai and didn’t waste any time proposing.

   “Gizai was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy at the coffee shop there.”

   Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy as a horse. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay. “My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”

   It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and a picture of her mother. She set off on foot in the morning for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and pregnant with a fourth. She could use a hand around the house.

   “I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alytus, but I had to go,” Angele said

   Even though two German army groups smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from a slave labor camp in Siberia for nearly fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife wasn’t in Lithuania anymore. She had fled post-war Europe. She was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.

   Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took Angele most of the day to walk there. She passed a prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. One of them asked her for bread but she turned her head away. His war had amounted to little and ended in nothing. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was close to setting. 

   “I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.” When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my parent now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning it was an Indian summer.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


3 thoughts on “Farm Girl”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s