It was a Saturday afternoon and I was visiting. I asked my father, “What would you like to do now?”
He said, “We can do anything. We are free people.”
I heard him say these words many times. We can do anything. We are free people.
Always with a smile and it always made me laugh with happiness.
I think he appreciated his freedoms every day.
He was born when Lithuania was ruled by the Russian czar. His father was forced to serve in the czar’s army. My father‘s first memory was when he was three years old, traveling home in a troika from Russia after one of his father’s military assignments. This is a troika.
The czar ruled Lithuania with a crushing iron fist.
There was a brief breath of freedom in Lithuania after the Russian revolution set them free. Then the Nazis brutally invaded and occupied Lithuania, taking over every aspect of life. Then the Soviets vanquished them and took control.
The Soviets despised freedom. Books were banned. The Lithuanian language in school, the national anthem, newspapers, public gatherings, religion – all banned. Most importantly, freedom of thought and freedom of expression – banned.
Obedience was harshly enforced. Disobedience swiftly and brutally punished. Deportations of family and friends to Siberian concentration death camps were daily.
My father’s outspoken brother was taken to a Soviet jail cell and tortured for three months.
My father had strong nationalistic political opinions. He loved Lithuania with all his heart. When he heard the Soviets were coming for him next, he packed up my mother and their infant daughter and, with only a couple of small suitcases, he left everything behind and reluctantly fled the country he so loved.
From the moment he stepped foot on American soil on Ellis Island, he breathed deeply of the freedom here. He never took it for granted. He was filled with appreciation and enjoyment of America’s freedom. He relished it so fully, that anyone around him couldn’t help but experience the joy of it.
And, whenever I asked him, “So what do you want to do now?” he would get a look of pleasure. I knew what he was going to say. We were free to decide in that moment. We could do anything we wanted. And we could breathe deep of the freedom to do it.
So, even the smallest of things became grand pleasures. Eating a bagel on a Sunday morning. Listening to a piece of classical music. Walking and talking (we did a lot of that). Riding our bikes on the boardwalk at the beach. Planting flowers. Ice skating on the lake. Drinking home-made brandy (lethal) by the fire and watching the dancing flames. Sitting on the porch on a summer evening listening to the crickets at night (a favorite).
Every moment filled with the fresh breath of freedom.
The last time I saw him, we were enjoying a rambling conversation when he looked out the window. It was night and snow had just started to fall. He said, “Come over here. Let’s watch the snow.” I sat close next to him with his arm around me, and we watched the miracle. Each lovely snow flake gracefully descending from the sky.
It was enough to be together. It was enough to be free.
I woke up this beautiful Spring Saturday morning to the sound of a bird symphony and the scent of jasmine through the window, and I thought, “What do I want to do today?”
And then I smiled. I can do anything. We are free people.