Sunday, August 14, 2011
Day 29. Atop the Hill of Three Crosses
There is a back path of wooden planks, which cuts alongside the river Neris, and spirals up to the grassy peak of the Hill of Three Crosses.
If you’re prepared to take this treacherous route, tripping and stumbling over rotted boards and branches, you are rewarded with your own section of solitude- isolated from the hordes of Russians, Poles and Western tourists who hike up the opposing side of the hill every day for the view.
The ulterior pathway comes equipped with human headspace. Out of the crevasse of computer life, away from the businesses of supermarket shopping, landlords and all other forms of daily modern labour, the hill unwinds into a peaceful shroud of pines and Baltic bird-life.
As the wilderness engulfed me, I could feel the last four months begin to unfurl. Now that this space was here, and I was away from everyday stresses which reached out to woe me- deadlines, faultlines, lifelines- now retrospect was opening up in my weary head like an acid trip.
The rain was dripping gently, constant, almost tropically. The trees, likewise, posted a canopy of umbrellas, not unlike a wetland rainforest. I ventured through this jungle, lost almost in a stream of subconscious.
With thoughts otherwise occupied, I failed to notice: I was suddenly standing on the edge of the apex, the Three Crosses to my side.
The city of Vilnius lay gracefully below- an aging Lithuanian beauty, decked out in all her exotic finery, and sprawled lazily in the grey day upon her brass bed of histories, mysteries and time. How much this old lady had been through!
The green domes of the Orthodox Church glinted out in the distance. Gedimino’s Castle cast her rigid shadow over the bubbling Neris. The television tower spurted from the ground like a syringe on the backdrop. And closer, a spiky sea of steeples rose from out of the outcrop of Baroque architecture, communist blocks, and Old Town abodes.
She had been good to me, this lovely lady, this Vilnius.
But I was leaving her all the same.
Peering out over the panorama, still emersed in the solitude, I began to realise how needless, pointless and petty all my modern stresses were.
In a seamless segueway, thoughts began to drift toward a different old Lithuanian lady, one who too, like me, had left the lanes of Vilnius, though long ago, and not entirely by choice.
In the 1940s, my grandmother spent days hiding in the forest, bunking on a blanket, alongside her husband, my grandfather, as the soviets rounded up and deported her neighbours to Siberia. She was forbidden from attending her studies once the Nazis rolled in- an SS guard had towered outside her faculty, clutching a machine-gun, for anyone who tried to argue. She bore two children, my uncle and my aunt, who were forced into the whirlwind of wartime displacement as she was. Clutching her kleine kinder under her arms, along with whatever possessions she could carry, she was forced to flee her home country, alone. She never saw her parents again. Like a lost soul, separated from her husband, she trekked her way through the train lines, to Germany, by the war’s end. She walked by and through blazes of gunfire, burnt bodies in totalled towns. She slept in train stations, in mossy bunkers, in blasted-out barns, her suitcase acting as an occasional cradle for her baby. She gave life to a third child, who would have been the sibling closest to my mother’s age. Due to neglect by staff in a Naples hospital, the baby succumbed to a fever and passed away.
Though this is, of course, a grotesquely short and straggly summary, it’s just to give you an idea.
My grandmother stands as one of the world’s great survivors. A boat person who made it to Australia in 1949, with her life, her husband and her two children in tow.
She settled down as a teacher, in Sale, Victoria, where her fourth child was born: a pretty girl (who would become, among many other prosperous things, my mother).
Now 91 years old, my grandmother resides in a Sydney nursing home. Here she reads, reflects, relearns languages, and watches as Crimson Rosellas and Rainbow Lorikeets feed from birdseed on her balcony. Her husband has long since died. Her eldest son, living in Melbourne, turns 70 this year.
In 25-odd years, I have never heard my grandmother whisper a negative word about life.
The optimism imbued within her has been the biggest inspiration of my time. Through everything that went to pass within her days: As a wartime refugee, to a migrant, to a published Australian writer. Through everything she saw, read, loved, lost, grieved for, longed for, fought for and forgot: she’s always radiated the light of an essential faith in humankind. She recently sent me an email, in regards to the tsunami in Japan. Within it was a mention, in a fleeting sentence, which one was left to think of for days, about the absolute fragility of human existence.
Without boundaries of class or wealth, the beggars, the boat people, the blind or the bankers- we all are of this same broken breed.
This is one thing she has taught me.
As I wrote this entry, sitting, huddled against a birch tree (ants crawling up my leg!) atop the Hill of Three Crosses, life suddenly made a heap of instant sense.
In the dedication page of her book, Elena’s Journey, (which was written and published in both Lithuanian and English- her third language, of about five) it reads:
to my Grandchildren.
All her struggles brought us into existence, and allowed us to grow up in the free world of Australia.
As I prepared myself to replicate a version of her feat: leaving from Lithuania, off toward a modern Germany, the irony was inescapable.
Though I had no firm grasp of where my life was leading, I would be travelling in the comfort of today’s transport (yeh, well, Ryanair…) with a certainty of a bed and a friendly face at the other end.
In other words: the exact same trip, but the complete opposite.
Now I get ready to retrace her steps, at least, figuratively, and in a different dimension. In gratitude and thanks for all I’ve seen, in some ways I've been living the free life she could never stick around for, out here in Lithuania.
I descended the Hill of Three Crosses, stumbling back down the same soggy path- with no more stress for what’s to come, and only hope imprinted on my brow.