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Barbara Chepaitis: “Somehow, it was in my blood”

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Posted July 4, 2012 in Articles

My Father. Credit: Barbara Cepaitis

Litsmeet.co.uk proudly presents an American writer, author of several books Barbara Chepaitis whose Lithuanian roots inspire her life and oeuvre.

B.Chepaitis on her background:

My father’s family came to the US to avoid war – so my mother told me. Neither my father nor his family spoke much about Lithuania (the Old Country, they called it), and so I was surprised many years later to find that much of the sensibility of old customs still infused his life, and my own. For instance, my father was an environmentalist before there was such a word, always taking part in groups who worked to preserve forest lands. And somehow, I learned that it was good to walk around my yard before I mowed it, in order to make sure there were no snakes or frogs lingering there that might be hurt. Much later, when I was doing research for my novel, The Amber, I learned that farmers in Lithuania were told to go through their fields before they plowed, for the same reason. Somehow, it was in my blood.

My father was also a man who loved to read, and whose own father was a translator before he died. I’m sure that encouraged me in a love of the written word, and I started writing when I was quite young. I wrote my second grade class Christmas play, which was about the animals being able to talk on that special night – something I also later found out was part of Lithuanian folklore.

Another unusual connection I had with Lithuania has to do with bees. Three times in my life I’d been badly stung after running into swarms of bees, and when I told a friend about it, he said, “It’s your ancestors.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he explained that Lithuania had a bee mythology, with a bee god and goddess. It seemed to me my ancestors were asking me to write about that part of my heritage, and after one more incident where a swarm of honeybees took up lodging in the walls of my house, I began a book titled The Amber, which is about a man who sold his soul to the devil in Lithuania thousands of years ago, and is trying to get it back. His meeting with a Lithuanian-American woman, the descendant of the woman he sold his soul for, puts both characters on a search to relearn their own past, and what it means to them.

This book allowed me to explore the rich history and spiritual traditions of my own ancestral home, and it was a real pleasure to do so. I’m in the process of seeking a publisher for that particular novel, and hoping the little bees who pushed me to write it will buzz gently in an editor’s ear to find this book a good home.

When I’m not writing, I also teach. I’m faculty director for the fiction component of an MFA program in creative writing, at Western State College of Colorado. I love my interaction with the students, who all have a deep commitment to their art. I find that teaching is a good balance to writing, putting me in touch with real people, but also giving me plenty of time to play with my imaginary friends.

FATHER FOOD


Father’s Day isn’t really as simple as all the commercials make it seem. Fathers, and our relationship with them, is complex, because it’s a father’s job to teach you how to interact with the world – no easy task. And so, on Father’s Day this year, I’ll give you just one question to think about: What food did your father feed you, and what he was teaching you with it? Really. Think about it.

As I said last week, food is a language, expressing life philosophies, the story of the heart, the nature of the soul. In my family, since my mother (Italian) and my father (Lithuanian) came from very different cultures, the food they spoke with used different languages, each one delivering its own particular sermon.

My mother’s food appeared on the table effortlessly and in abundance, carrying the subtext that love was something given freely, no strings attached, and there would always be more than enough to go around. But I had to work for the food my father gave me. I had to demonstrate skill and courage to get it.

He taught me how to gently lift the spine from a trout, and how to crack a lobster. He brought home snapping turtles, pheasant, deer, and more, all of which had to be prepped before it was cooked. And it was my father who taught me how to eat a clam.

He did that at polka hops, held at the Polish Sportsman’s club on summer Sunday afternoons, where groups of beer-jolly men and their families would Roll Out the Barrel, as a shrill whistle periodically announced one more keg of beer kicked under. Women with beefy arms from the Polish and Italian churches cooked infinite piles of pierogies, sausage with pepper and onion, hot dogs, and barbecued chicken. It all tasted wonderful, but the best treat was the raw bar, where my father and his cronies would shuck about an ocean of clams.

I was the only one of my siblings interested in this strange ritual, and I’m guessing that was more about wanting my father’s attention than love of raw clams. After all, I was only about 7, and I don’t even know if kids are supposed to eat raw clams. Then again, not much of what we ate growing up would meet FDA approval. We consumed vast quantities of raw meatballs, and sometimes went right from playing with our pet turtle, Myrtle, to eating turtle soup caught from the river. Without washing our hands.

As the youngest child, I wanted to prove myself, and the raw bar seemed like a good testing ground. I can still remember my father placing the recalcitrant beast in my hand, teaching me how to hold the knife tucked close in my palm, then press it against the hard, closed lips of the shell – just enough to open it, and not enough to cut myself. That little push was riddled with tension, taking place under the watchful eyes of my father and all his mostly unshaven friends.

My success was greeted with murmurs of approval, but another test remained. A slathering of horseradish and ketchup was applied, and when I slurped it down without gasp or flinch, open admiration was my reward.

Thus my father taught me the discipline it takes to get at the sweetest meat of what’s wild.

Yes, he might have been saying, the world does lay a lot of clams at your feet, but you only get to taste them through skill, patience, and personal risk. That lesson has been incredibly valuable in my writing profession, and in my personal life.

And in an essential way, he was also teaching me about himself, because while my mother’s interior life was as accessible as the food on her table, my father was a closed kind of man. He tended to brood. He was often silent and, I think, shy. He didn’t reveal himself easily, but getting to know him had its own rewards. And though he was an educated man, he understood the nature of wildness. It’s abundant. It’s full of good stuff, and infinitely variable. And it’s not always kind, pleasant, or clean.

My father died more than 30 years ago, after a stroke that left him without the ability to make words. I think of him often. Of what he did and didn’t teach me. I think of the gifts he gave me just because of who he was, and the ways he came up short. Sometimes I’m still angry at him for what he couldn’t give. Many times I realize how immeasurably fortunate I am for what he could.

And very often, when I think of him, I see myself standing by his side, coming about up to his waist as he put his large hand over mine, showing me how to open a clam. His expression solemn, his large hand gentle, he taught me not only the nature of risk, but that I was capable of meeting it.

Okay, Daddy. Okay.

Your wildest daughter is thinking of you today. Missing you. Still willing to scold you for what you got wrong. Still very grateful for what you got right.

As for the rest of you, dear readers, go and consider what your father fed you, about what it meant. And honor that, in whatever way seems right to you.

BARBARA CHEPAITIS

This essay was originally published on 16 June 2012. Please visit Barbara Chepaitis’ website for full article

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