Julija & Algimantas GRIGONIS
As is true for most of us, the biggest influences in my life as an Australian born Lithuanian, were my parents Julija and Algimantas Grigonis.Most of my generation typically started school in Australia with no English but went on to become very articulate in English and to do well academically.
Mum and Dad's generation were all bilingual as a minimum, but many were multilingual before they even came to Australia with English becoming their 3rd, 4th or more language. Hearing a variety of languages from an early age may well have sparked my interest in later language study.Going to Lithuanian school on Saturdays at Lithuanian House was not always what we wanted to do as some of the classes were not easy and we needed help with homework which was often very hard especially for History as I struggled to understand what we had to read.
How Lithuanian grammar works did not fall into place for me until I started Latin in high school when it all became abundantly clear. I can still decline and conjugate much better in Latin than in Lithuanian, but I understand that this kind of thing is often typical of native speakers of almost any language when it comes to grammar.We had to catch two buses each way to Lithuanian school which was quite an undertaking back in the 1950s when I was only 9 and taking my sisters with me on the bus. Luckily, we sometimes had Mr Kubilius, Mr Pakalnis, or other Lithuanian drivers kind enough to let us out at Eastry Street past the actual bus stop and not always ask us to buy a ticket.
Dad had taken us the first couple of times to show us the way. After that we got used to the going back and forth.At some stage Dad bought a car and drove us there. I still often take the same route along Payneham and George Streets to Sydenham Road and Gray Street.
My family had little by way of material goods, but Dad was a good musician and we grew up with lots of books and music.Packages of books from Lithuania, especially from Senelis Matas Grigonis were special as were the postcards he sent. I still have several of mine on which he wrote poems and stories. His language was beautiful but then he was a known wordsmith with a lot of his work having been published in Lithuania. Dad told us a lot about him and we had books such as Žemuogėlės, Algimantelio Metai, volumes of children's poetry. Senelis Matas was Lithuania's first poet who wrote specifically for children. He wrote many letters and articles for magazines. I learned much more about his work as an adult but as a child I knew that Dad's Dad was someone special and that fostered my own interests in words, languages, translation and being a bookworm. At age six I decided I wanted to be a teacher and Senelis wrote that I had made a good choice. Although it did not come to pass I have always been interested in education and have pursued language studies along the way.
I finished Lithuanian school in 1962 and still have the certificate.Many of us still have friends from those days. We might not meet that often, but we remain friends.
I am also very glad to have had Ponia Jurgelionienė teach me how to weave and I still know how.Dad played music every day. He played violin, accordion, ocarina, mandolin but we mostly heard the accordion.
He also had a lot of records including Lithuanian 78s. Some are now collectors' items.We often stayed late after Lithuanian School on Saturdays as Dad played music for folk-dancing practice which I loved to watch.
I got to know the music and dances well but was never in the dancing group as we did not have tautiniai rubai/national dress.
Dad taught us songs at Lithuanian school and at home, which was not always fun, but I still remember most of the melodies if not all the words.It was also usually Dad who scolded us for not speaking Lithuanian at home. "Nesuprantų!" (I do not understand!)
We attended Vasario 16, Motinos Diena, Tremimo Minejimas, Tautos Šventė , Tevo Diena, Kariuomenės Švente and other events for many years. Some of the speeches were very long but we loved the 'meninė dalis' especially the dancing.Later on, we also joined ALSK Vytis and played basketball for quite a few years.
Volunteers took us to training and games as Dad did not have a car at the time.
Dad told us about living in Panevežys and his Dad being school principal at the various towns in which they had lived such as Rožalimas, Anykščiai and Panevežys. Today there are plaques on the walls of the houses indicating that Poet, Author, Teacher, Pedagogue Matas Grigonis had resided there and the dates.Dad hardly mentioned anything of his time as a Plechavičiukas. All we heard from him was that he was in and out of three armies within a year; Plechavicius for which he volunteered, German (conscripted) and Red (conscripted). He deserted the Red Army and never went back to Lithuania even when it was possible, as the Red authorities had long memories and he was sure that they would lock him up. That was really sad as he had left home for the war effort at age 16 and never saw his family again.
Dad was part of the group in Adelaide who started the local Lithuanian radio program. He worked on it for 15 years and created a complete archive of all the programs on tapes. After his death a selected few ended up in the Mortlock Library in South Australia while his lifelong friend Vytas Patupas sent the rest (over 700) to Martyno Mažvydo Biblioteka in Lietuva/Lithuania. I heard the late Gabrielius Žemkalnis mention that they were there during one of his programs in which he spoke about the Mazvydo library. Dad also sang in the choir for several years and was very involved with Adelaide's Lithuanian theatre group Vaidila, for which he prepared sound effects for many years.Mum's maiden name was Žiukelytė. She told us about being born in Žiukeliškes (there were so many Žiukeliai that there was even a village named after them!) and growing up in Dūsetos. When the lake froze over in winter she and her brothers watched horses in harness racing on the ice. That event happens every year on the first Saturday in February even now and is know as Sartai. Dusetos is on the shores of Sartu Ežeras/Lake Sartai.
Winters were very cold and Mum and her siblings had to cover up very well to prevent frostbite on the tips of their noses.We learned about her older sisters Karūte and Marytė, brothers Vladas and Rapolas plus sister Elenutė who had died at age 20 from TB. Among the few possessions Mum had brought all the way from Lithuania via Germany was a photo album which she showed us. We learned about the people in them and what our grandparents looked like. They both died just before WWII. During our childhood the names and faces were only in photos and we never knew if it would be possible to meet our extended family. We learned that Dusetos is in pretty countryside, very green and a lovely town. Mum went to live and work in Kaunas. She worked in a bookshop and devoured books all her life.
Mum was a member of Moterų Sėkcija for several years.One of my earliest memories of both Mum and Dad is from when we had moved from the city to Hillcrest. I was not quite four years old . Mum taught me how to dance Suktinis while singing Bitutė Pilkoji, plus Klumpakojis and its song, with Dad's accompaniment on the accordion.
We also knew songs like Ant kalno murai, Ant kalno karkliai siubavo long before singing them at school. Tautos Himnas was also in my head long before I really understood it but that happens with many songs and poems. When Dad took us for drives, we sang in the car. A favourite was Išėjo Tevelis į miška.
Childhood rhymes are still in my head eg. Lyja lietus per karaliaus pietus, Karalienė verkia, Karaliukai knarkia. (like It's raining, It's pouring).I tried hard to speak Lithuanian but it wasn't easy when English dominated at school and with neighbours. Plus when our brother Algiukas was little, those who supposedly 'know' advised that two languages in the home were delaying his speaking. English had to take priority which was very disappointing for Mum and Dad. We all know that "Bilingual is beautiful"! Ironically when Algis grew up he understood Lithuanian quite well. The psychologist's advice was wrong.
Reasonable proficiency in Lithuanian language was a huge help on my first trip to Europe in 1975 when I met Mum's brother Vladas in Munich and spoke Lithuanian with him and his friends. My German was limited. Uncle Vladas took me to Lietuva where I met many people who had till that time simply been faces in photos. Being able to communicate with them was wonderful and even though I made mistakes, Močiutė Jadvyga Grigonienė was amazed that I could speak the language at all. She also remarked that I spoke old fashioned Lithuanian as the language over there had changed over the previous 30 years.I am the only grandchild born in Australia who met Močiutė albeit for just 7 days. While I was there, Uncle Kastytis organised a phone call to Adelaide and Močiutė got to speak with Dad once again. Many years later Dad rang his brother Kastytis when Lithuania had regained independence in 1991.
I was so glad that I went to Lietuva back in 1975 and met so many members of the extended family on both sides. I made a few more trips too, the last one having been in 2000 so I must go again. Contact with relatives continues and quite a few are on Facebook!I will forever be grateful to Mum and Dad for telling us so much about their lives and families before they came to Australia. They fostered my love and interest in my Lithuanian heritage, language, history, people and our culture, including great food.
Happily, Mum was able to see her sister Marytė again after 49 years when my sister Dana took her to Lietuva in 1993.Much of my appreciation of being Lithuanian grew as I became an adult, but the seeds were sown right from the start as in the few examples I have outlined.
It is a major part of what makes me who I am.An Australian friend once told me that I was so lucky to have this special cultural identity with its traditions.
I know!AČIU MAMA IR TĖTĖ!