In July 2008, my 88-year-old mother, two sisters and I took a pilgrimage to Lithuania to discover our family roots. Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and settled in New England. My mom and dad were born in this country, and when they met and married the Lithuanian family lineage carried on for another generation.
We arrived in Panevezys, knowing no one and with little information about what relatives, if any, still lived there. For many years, my mother corresponded with a cousin who’d been a pen friend since childhood. She sent a note to Emilija prior to our departure, telling her of our visit, but had not heard back. We didn’t know if she was still alive, lived at the same address, or had any interest in meeting her American relatives.
When Emiija’s grandson and his wife greeted us at the hotel, we knew we’d found our family. Between my mother’s Lithuanian and the couple’s English skills, we learned that Emilija had received the letter, and they had been waiting for us to arrive. There were big plans for the morning.
The next day, after an abundant meal at Emilja’s house, we visited the cemeteries where our relatives were buried. The drive took us far out into the Lithuanian countryside, behind churches and into farmlands and fields. Each cemetery was a beautiful tribute to life and death with amazing perennial gardens that burst with color surrounding handcrafted tombstones and crosses made of stone, marble, metal, and other materials.
Since my sisters and I could not speak Lithuanian, we paid homage with our gardening skills, pulling weeds from the flowerbeds knowing we had traveled thousands of miles and connected with family we never knew existed.
No matter where in the world they are nestled, cemeteries are the intersections of life and death. They provide a place for those of us among the living to reflect and remember, in whatever language, whether pausing at a tombstone or pulling weeds.