My paternal grandparents immigrated to America in the early 1900s, leaving behind Lithuania and the Communist Revolution. My grandma Anna immediately embraced her new country, anglicizing her name and struggling to learn English. She worked at a steel factory, and after Grandpa Charlie died in January 1929, she continued to work there as the sole support for her five children.
The kids all spoke Lithuanian at home. My dad was shocked on his first day of school when he couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying. There weren’t special classes for kids who were learning English as a second language. You were just expected to pick it up however you could.
When the grandkids would visit Grandma Anna, we’d eventually exhaust our interest in our games and be drawn into the adults’ conversation. It was always a pretty equal mix of English and Lithuanian, and we kids had learned to follow the conversation by listening for keywords.
The maternal side of my family first arrived in America around 1550, back when New York was called New Amsterdam. They hailed from the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and England, and settled first in New York and New Jersey, then moved into some of the newer territories of Virginia and Kentucky.
By the time my mom was born in 1925, the family had lived in central Kentucky for many generations. The family made their living as tobacco farmers, and some did quite well in that line of work. Some of my ancestors were well-respected members of their communities, while others were scoundrels who were shot dead on the front steps of a Baptist church. It takes all kinds to make up a family, and mine is no different.
In 1994 I married a handsome man from Ukraine. He had arrived in America only three years earlier at the time when the Russian coup attempt was in the news. It wasn’t until the plane landed in New York that he was able to relax and take a deep breath. He became a citizen in 1998, in much the same way my grandparents did.
When he calls his family in Ukraine, I listen just as I listened at my Grandma Anna’s house. The sounds of the Russian language are similar to that of the Lithuanian language, and it’s a soothing sound to me.
We’ve blended our American and Ukrainian household very nicely after all these years, but it always surprises me how the little things are what trigger the biggest reactions in our quest to understand the other’s culture. When I mentioned wanting to plant a blue Spruce, my husband rejected the idea, saying they reminded him of cemeteries, where the tree was usually seen in Ukraine. For me, it reminded me of my childhood home, where a blue Spruce grew to enormous size in the front yard.
Hopefully, we’ll continue to discover new things about each other and the way we do things for a long time to come. As we do, it’s reassuring to know that we both come from families who love us and want the best for us, no matter what language was spoken at home, or what countries produced us.