Ants On The Tracks

A focal part of my relationship with my niece and nephew is reading.

Sure, we do a lot of tickling, and kissing, and hugging, and chasing, and shoulder rides, and laughing.  There are water slide parks, and cheeseburgers, and train museums…and other things, too.

But, every time I visit them, I bring them each a book.  And, every time I put them to bed, we read.


So, it is no surprise that traveling with them involves books, too.

First, there is deciding which books they will bring on any given trip (they are allowed three each).

Then, at each gift store we visit for each train museum (our trips usually involve train museums), there is deciding if they will buy a book or a toy, and which one.  I love that they are completely torn by the decision: to them, a book is just as tempting as a toy.  It is so gratifying to see them struggle over whether they want a new book or a something that beeps and lights up and moves.  They fully understand the magic of books:  books are magic carpets that can take you to new and exiting lands where you’ll join new friends on an adventure of sorts.


Finally, there is the joy of reading the new books when we get back home, and, in a very real way, reliving the vacation a little bit.  The book becomes a special kind of magic carpet, that no only transports us to the places within its pages, but ALSO has the power to transport us back to our vacation.  It becomes a secret ticket that only has that power for us, the people who were on the original trip when the book was procured.

Last summer we went to the Wisconsin Dells, and visited two train museums.  We got the book, “Ants on the Tracks”.  Every time we read it, we of course visit the ants on the tracks.  But, we also get to remember the whole vacation: water slides, fudge, trains, pools, duck boats.  Go figure — all that in a book about ants on a track.

I am incredibly passionate about books.  And travel.  And spending time with my niece and nephew.  When all three of these activities marry, I am absolutely giddy with joy.

Lietuva Part III: The Surreal Highlights

  • Sitting in the Minister of Information’s office, being asked what I suggested his country do to gain admittance to the European Union.
  • Being left in The Colonel’s car in the middle of Soviet block housing for hours in the freezing cold while my Dad and The Colonel delivered care packages to people.
  • Pounding on my Dads’ aunt and uncle’s door unannounced at 1am, and staying up for four hours with them and their daughters as they prepared an impromptu family reunion party.
  • Hiking up to the top of a cobblestone path on a broken ankle to get a view of Vilnius, panorama-style.

In rereading this entry, and the previous entries about my trip, I’ve realized it may sound like I am whining.  Far from it.

This was an experience I am grateful for.  Traveling with my Dad to his homeland enabled me to understand him so much better.  Seeing the museums, eating the food, hearing the music, all rendered a terribly potent appreciation for my heritage far more than before.

Meeting the incredibly warm, hospitable, funny, and smart people has made me proud to be called Lithuanian.


Lietuva Part II: The Tale of The Vodka and The Ankle

The first time I went to Lithuania was ten years ago.  I bought my Dad a ticket for Christmas, and we made the trip in early spring.

My Dad greeted me at the airport in Vilnius, drunk, with a Colonel from the Lithuanian army who was somehow commandeered into becoming my Dad’s chauffeur.

me and dad in lithuania

I should back up and clarify a few things:

1)   My Dad went a few days early, since I had to work and was limited to a one-week vacation.  So, it was after several days of family reunion parties that he was meeting me at the airport.

2)   The fact that my Dad was inebriated when he met me wasn’t a big surprise.  First, see point 1 above.  Second, anyone who has met my Dad would smile and chuckle when I say that, even if there weren’t several days of family reunion parties involved.

3)   The fact that my Dad had somehow managed to get an official of the Lithuanian army to serve as his driver wasn’t shocking, either.  It’s not that my Dad has a crazy amount of clout.  He has a crazy amount of chutzpa, and a fair amount of luck.

The Colonel drove us to my Dads’ wifes’ cousin’s farm outside of Kaunas, where I was greeted with a warmth and enthusiasm that was touching.  And overwhelming.  The only English speaker was the eight-year-old, and she was also the only shy person in the whole family.  So, things were a little chaotic for my jet-lagged brain to process.  And even more so once the bottle of vodka was opened, the Euro-techno music started playing, and the dancing began.


I woke up the next morning not being able to see (my glasses were missing), with a broken ankle, severely hung over, with a camera full of great photos (mostly taken from the floor, I presume, after I had broken my ankle), and with no clue as to where my Dad was.

When my Dad returned from the store (The Colonel had taken him to get more beer), I asked to go to a doctor for my ankle.  This was the first of a series of repeated requests over the next few days, all of which were met with sympathy, and an alternative suggestion (we wrapped it in a bandage, rubbed it with ointment, went in search of a psychic healer – twice – and kept me pumped full of anti-inflammatories and pain killers).

After a hike to see the carp farm, the Colonel took my Dad and I to our new home: army barracks.

I should back up and clarify a few more things:

1)   Visiting a carp farm when one is hung over should be avoided at all costs.

2)   Walking through the muddy, uneven fields of a carp farm when one has a broken ankle should be avoided at all costs.

3)   Sleeping in the army barracks when one is a single, foreign woman should be avoided at all costs.

But hey, the best experiences are the ones that involve a little discomfort and misfortune..


Lietuva Part I: It’s In My Blood

My dad was born in Lithuania (Lietuva), and escaped with his family during World War II.  Although my dad sports a classic Chicago accent, his parents never learned English, and I spent many days of my childhood listening to the grown-ups speaking Lithuanian, while my sister and I ate Lithuanian food and were spoiled with wordless affection.


I think it is because of this time that I don’t flinch when I find myself spending hours surrounded by people speaking to each other in languages I can’t comprehend.  I have become pretty adept at following conversations through body language, tone, and facial expressions.  Sure, understanding the words is a plus.  But it’s often not needed.

I recently heard Ruta Sepetys speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and I was blown away.  Let me say, first, that I think the whole audience was in awe of this dynamic woman.  But, on a personal level, she shares my relationship with Lithuania.  She, too, is the daughter of immigrants.  She, too, had family who was displaced, exiled, and killed in the war and post-war.  And, she, too, grew up not speaking the language, but being surrounded by its music.

between shades of grey

After her speech, I immediately downloaded her book, Between Shades of Gray, and devoured it.  It is an important story for me, for my family, and for Lithuania.  But, it is also an important story for all of us to be reminded that there were atrocities committed in World War II beyond those horrors architected by Hitler.

Though the eyes of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941, Sepetys reminds us that Stalin has even more blood on his hands.

We’ll Always Have Machu Picchu

I love my dad, but we don’t have a whole lot in common.

My dad was born in Lithuania before WWII.  During the war his family escaped via France and Canada to the USA.  They settled in Chicago, which has a pretty large Lithuanian community.

He joined the army.  After he married my mom he was stationed in North Carolina and Texas.  Then, he was sent to Vietnam.  And, I have great photos of him and my mom having a rendezvous in Hawaii while he was there.

After my parents were divorced he did some work for the army in Madagascar and Lithuania.

Once we were in high school, he would take my sister and me to Jamaica or Mexico for our annual vacations with him.  Today, he and his wife, Stase, still love taking trips to Mexico and Jamaica.

There is a lot more to my dad outside of his travel biography, but I really don’t know that much about it.  And, if you asked him about me, I am not sure he would be able to tell you very much.

But, one thing we have always been able to connect on is traveling.  When my sister and I were little, my dad used to take us on vacations every Christmas, Spring Break and summer.  We would go to places like the Wisconsin Dells, Indiana Dunes, Jamaica, Mexico.  Almost all of our joint memories involve traveling.  One of our favorite stories is the time we rented a car in Mexico, and it ran out of gas in the jungle and we had to hitch a ride into town with a truck, my sister and I smashed in the cab, and my dad standing on the bumper, hanging onto a chain.

Now that I can take him places, we have gone to Lithuania, St Petersburg, Moscow, Estonia, South Carolina, Colorado and Peru.  He gets so excited to see all these new places, and I love being able to give him those experiences.

The nice thing about traveling is that we have plenty to talk about without ever running out of topics:  the new food we are trying, the music around us, etc. etc. etc.  We can relax in each other’s company, and enjoy the moment, without feeling awkward that outside of the love we have for each other, we really don’t have a lot in common.  We have travel, and that’s enough.

Books In Flight: Our Common Ground

I was a bitchy teenage daughter to my mom. I think back on my behavior now, and cringe.  At times, I was argumentative to the point of being down right hostile.

The two of us battled on a daily basis (on the days, of course, that she was in town and wasn’t traveling).

But, we had one common ground, an area that was neutral territory, that we could talk about without causing any friction: reading.

And, because my mom traveled so often, she would feed our shared addiction with a continuous supply of books she had purchased at the airport and read on her latest flights.  My bookshelves are full of these books from her, books she would hand to me after she finished them.  We would talk about them with warmth, and without any fear of tripping each other’s sensitive emotional landmines.

We read all kinds of these books, but the most common were: Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum and John Grisham.

To this day, when I go into an airport bookstore, these memories make me smile.  And, that smile is especially bittersweet if there is a new book from one of these authors, since I know if my mom were still alive she would have already beaten me to buying and reading it, and would be waiting for me to finish it so we could talk about it.

My Mom Died While Traveling

I know that’s a shocking title, but it’s the truth.  And it conveys how pervasive travel really is throughout my life (and was through hers).  But, the odd truth is that she died on a work trip, as did her dad.  Even odder, he was traveling from Chicago to California, and she was traveling from California to Chicago.  Live by the sword, die by the sword, so to speak.

My mom was born in Washington D.C., where her dad worked for the Truman administration.  My grandfather used to travel to San Francisco every month,  and once or twice his whole family joined him there.  He died when she was 10, and her mom moved the family to Europe (Italy and Switzerland) for a year.

When they got back stateside, they moved to Chicago, where my grandmother remarried.

My mom went onto college in D.C., and then moved to North Carolina and Texas with my dad after they were married (he was in the army).  When he was deployed to Vietnam, she moved them back to Chicago.

After my parents divorced, we moved with our mom to Arizona, and then California.  We went on lots of trips to places like Hawaii, New York, and more than a few national parks.

My mom’s job was crazy high-travel, mostly back and forth from LA to Chicago.  My sister and I used to joke that she had a second secret family there :).  But, after years of giving her a hard time about her frequent trips to Chicago, they became a blessing.  My sister and I had each moved there after college, and it was so awesome that our mom was out and able to visit with us a couple of times a month!

Weirdly enough, she was in Chicago when she died.  As sad as the whole experience was for us, the silver lining was that she was in Chicago since we could be with her for the whole process of the bypass surgery, recovery, stroke, life support, etc.  And it meant we could bury her in Chicago.  I mean, sure, we could have moved her body if she had died at home in LA, but I don’t think we would have thought about it.   As it was, we buried her in Skokie, and go visit her regularly.  If she hadn’t been traveling at the time of her death, we couldn’t do that.  After giving her such grief for her trips to Chicago, I couldn’t be more grateful for them now.