Our family was quite poor so we lived with my paternal grandparents ’till I was six. My bedroom was just a small divan in the lounge room, whilst my parents and grandparents had a bedroom each. Grandma Ona and mama would take turns in the tiny kitchen to make mouthwatering traditional Lithuanian meals like cepelinai and koldūnai. The only job that tėtė (father) could get was as a shunter on the railways. So Ona looked after me whilst my parents went to work and put up with me whining, “When’s mama coming home?” umpteen times during the day. I’d start up as soon as mama left for work at the Adelaide market. Ona would try to distract me by singing songs like “Du Gaideliai” (Two Roosters) and “Klausė Žvirblis” (The Sparrow asked) and telling me that if I was a very, very good little girl, mama would bring me home a treat from the delicatessen where she worked. If I still sulked, she’d scold me and say that I had inherited my mother’s Samogitian stubbornness.
My grandmother had survived 2 World Wars and learnt by sheer necessity to be a frugal woman. She’d come from the small provincial town of Marijampolė where her father was a school teacher, but thought of himself as a famous writer. “Well, he was an Aušrininkas and book smuggler,” Ona would say. She’d save every bit of soap, then would boil it up in an ancient pot on the stove and then poured it into a long narrow cake tin that she’d greased with butter beforehand. When it had set, she’d get out a knife and cut it into square pieces. She’d make her own hand lotion by mixing lemon juice and glycerine that she kept in a bottle on the kitchen sink. Ann also made her own face cream. “I could have been Australia’s answer to Elizabeth Arden,” Ona would often tell us. After roast chicken for Sunday lunch, the carcass would be put in a pot the next day and made into soup with any leftover vegetables. All the vegetable and potato peelings went to feed her chooks. In one side of a kitchen drawer, there were bits of string, ribbon and safety pins. In another container sat all her buttons which I was allowed to play with and that’s the way I learnt to count.
If it was a rainy day, grandma would take out her old photos from Kaunas and as I sat on her knee, she would weave stories about the people in them. Instead of children’s stories, I grew up with tales of how far away the enemy lines were, what medals grandfather Marijonas got in the two wars and the story of her father Tomas Zickus who died in 1929, whilst performing an emergency appendectomy on himself in his Marijampolė house. That was the first time I’d heard grandma utter her greatest piece of advice: “Nuo durnumo nėra vaistų!” (There is no medicine for stupidity). I’d hear it often enough throughout my life.
Once I tried to dress up our big black tomcat “Vyrukas” (Little man) in my baby clothes, to take him for a leisurely stroll around the garden. Would any self-respecting tomcat co-operate with a headstrong three-year-old? As soon as I got his head through a lacy white dress, he lashed out. Within minutes my arms and legs were covered in long scratches. As Ona tenderly bathed my wounds, she’d say, “Ah, mano vaikeli, nuo durnumo nėra vaistų!” (Oh my child, there is no medicine for stupidity)
Another time I tried to drag out the semi wild kittens who’d been born under our water tank. You can guess what happened. I was covered in angry red scratches along my arms with a few bites as well. And what did Ona say? Yes, you guessed it! Her usual piece of advice.
When my parents had saved enough money, they bought a house a few streets away from my grandparents. I remember our Lithuanian relatives drive over to admire it. Mama made her famous Napoleonas cake to celebrate. Even though it was a sweltering summer’s day of 45°C, cups of black tea were duly served and a bottle of vodka stood ready for toasts. The house was in the style of a Californian bungalow, but unfortunately there was a small ugly shed at the back with a huge padlock that no one could open. The estate agent explained that he were still trying to locate all of the deceased owner’s keys. “No vorries mate,” tėtė replied airily in his heavily accented Australian. He’d quietly “borrowed” the bolt cutters from work that Friday night and was guessing that there might be some money hidden away in the shed. Mama wasn’t so sure. “O gal tenais padvokęs lavonas?” ( Maybe there’s a smelly dead body in there?) she ventured timidly.
Triumphantly tėtė cut the padlock and flung open the musty smelling shed for all to gaze upon. The mystery was finally solved; there were no dead bodies nor treasure, but unfortunately it was riddled with white ants! Those pests were all over South Australia.
“Po velnių!” tėtė shouted at the top of his voice. And that was the first time I learned to swear.