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Family Bonds

The Unexpected Message

It’s late on a Friday night in November, 2015. I’m sitting on my own in a hotel room in Melbourne. I’m meeting up with some colleagues tomorrow, and they want to keep in touch using messenger on Facebook. I really only use Facebook to keep in touch with my son and his family who live overseas in Denmark; I haven’t gotten around to joining messenger.

Oh, well, I think to myself, time to join. So, I do. But when I check it out, I discover a message from June, 2015, and now it’s November, 2015. How strange! I wonder who it’s from. I open it and discover it’s from someone in London looking for their Lithuanian relatives in Australia. I think to myself, Oh my God! That could be me! I read it and immediately I know that this person is looking for me. I can’t quite believe what I’m reading, but I know instantly that I’m the relative they’re looking for, all this time.

You see, my father was Lithuanian, and he came to Australia from Lithuania in 1938. He followed his father who came in 1930 to start a new life for his family. Unfortunately, the war started and no one else in the family was able to come out. And they never did. Over the years, my dad kept in touch with his family, till something happened between him and his younger brother when I was in my twenties, and then they lost touch. So I knew I had relatives in Lithuania but didn’t know who they were or where they were.

Back to the message…

I’m so excited! I’ve always wanted to search for my relatives, but it has seemed too difficult. I quickly type a message back to say that I’m the person they’re looking for. And then, to my surprise, I get back a message confirming that we truly are related. Attached to the message is a picture of my mum, my dad, my grandfather, me as a three-year-old, and my brother as a two-year-old on my mother’s lap—the very same photo that I also have at my home in Perth. It’s now that the tears start running down my cheeks. I’m overwhelmed with emotion. After all these years, I’m about to discover and learn about my Lithuanian relatives. And that’s what happens.

I learn that my father’s brother passed away in Lithuania in May, 2015. When my first and second cousins went to clear out his flat, they found lots of letters and photos from my father, things that my uncle had kept since 1938, and that’s how they found me. And—most incredible of all—less than a year later, after many long Skype calls, I’m on a plane travelling to Lithuania with my partner to meet my relatives and to spend an amazing week with them.

As I get off the plane at the airport, there is a strong sense of anticipation and excitement. I have been thinking about this moment for a long time. So many thoughts are rushing through my brain: will I be able to find my relatives in the crowded airport; will I recognise them when I actually see them for the first time in person; will we all get along; what will it be like spending time with them…. and there are and so many different emotions: I’m excited, a bit anxious, but most of all I’m so happy that this day has finally arrived. I’m not sure what to expect, but I have a strong sense of belonging and a feeling of coming home…. and then I see them….. and to my surprise, what I notice first of all is how different they look from how I imagined them to be. My first cousin is quite tall and her daughter, my second cousin is small, about my height. Something that was never obvious from our Skype calls. We hug and there are tears of joy as we start our journey of getting to know each other better.

During our week in Lithuania, we stay in Utena, where my first cousin lives with her husband. Utena is about 90 km from the capital, Vilnius. It’s a picturesque town built around a lake and surrounded by forest. Lithuania is well known for its many lakes and beautiful forests. We see a great deal of the countryside as we travel around by car. We also visit some of the well known landmarks such as the historic Hill of Crosses and the beautiful old town of Vilnius.

We visit the old timber farm house where my father grew up as a young boy, which is now in ruins. It’s hard to believe that my father and his family used to live there. It’s such a small building. We visit my relatives’ graves which are beautifully maintained. But, most importantly of all, I learn so much more about my father from his letters to his mother and younger brother, about who he was in his early years. My first cousin is the principal of a secondary college and spoke enough English to be able to translate these letters from Lithuanian into English for me. I discover how courageous my father was to travel to Australia on his own to meet his father as a young 24-year-old with no money and no English, leaving his family behind. I learn about all the amazing first-time experiences he had on the long six-week journey on the ship to Australia: his delight at discovering sugar cubes, his confusion when confronted with all the different knives and forks on the tables at meal times, and his shock when he saw all of the young women wearing short skirts and dancing with strangers, just to name a few! And I learn a lot about me and who I am…. that strong desire that I have to be the best I can be and to persevere in the face of adversity. These are some of the incredible gifts my dad has given me that I really hadn’t realised before or appreciated.

At the end of our stay we attend my second cousin’s wedding. It’s a fascinating experience to be at a wedding where nearly everyone speaks Lithuanian and only a few speak English…. and for those who do, they switch back and forth so easily. We experience some of the Lithuanian wedding traditions many of which date back hundreds of years to pagan times. One of traditions was for the bride and groom to drink water and to eat salt and bread as soon as they entered the reception hall. These are the symbols of joy, tears and work, the three elements of a life together. Another was for all of the guests to stand together in a circle and pass around a light given to the bride and groom by both sets of parents. And the journey of discovery continues as my relatives and I continue to get to know each other. And this is all because I made a decision to join messenger! I’m so thankful to my second cousin who was curious enough to reach out and discover me, and I’m so thankful that I made the decision to check out an unexpected message.

So, I ask you, have you ever been faced with an opportunity where you’ve had to make a decision whether to explore an opportunity or let it go? I believe that all opportunities are worth exploring, as you don’t know where they might lead you.

Our life’s journey really is a series of opportunities. It’s up to us to decide whether we open the door or not.