Names

March 16, 2016

MY GRANDMA HAS LIVED two lives. She’s lived one life here, in St. Louis, as my Grammie—feeding her grandchildren cucumbers dipped in sugar, taking her first driver’s ed class when she was seventy-two, yelling into the telephone to make sure her voice made it all the way to my house, bossing her daughter (my mother) around like she was still a teenager. Typical grandma stuff.

Then there’s her other life: the one which found her and her husband stealing from their home in Lithuania in the middle of the night, hoping to walk into Poland before anyone found them. This is the life in which she crawled on the under-girding of a steel bridge, while pregnant, prodding along a toddler ahead of her, trying to sneak across the Danube River to escape from Germany into Austria during WWII.

The time after that bridge crossing, and the successful navigation of Poland that preceded it, stretched into years of walking, refugee camps, and hiding; years of hunger and dirtiness, violence and tears. Those seemingly endless days of walking were often disrupted by soldiers, who herded the refugees up and drove them backward, erasing days of progress. There were gunfire battles to evade, bombing raids to hide from, hungry children to feed.

I have heard these stories only once, maybe twice, in my entire life. I heard them from my mother (the in-utero child during the bridge crossing) who sobbed through the tale. Too hard, too much pain. She wrung her hands together while she spoke, trying to quell embarrassment over her tears. She’s a strong woman, just like her mother; strong in a grand and resilient kind of way; strong in a way that invites success and survival.

My mother was born in an Austrian refugee camp, born in her family’s 10 x 10 foot space in a sprawling bunkhouse. There was never privacy. There were never enough resources to go around, but my mother watched Grammie grow extra food from seeds she had harvested or bartered for. She watched her sweep and look after their small family space to bring cleanliness and love into it. She made friends, only to watch some die from malnutrition. She watched the war unfold on the battered faces of new refugees stumbling into camp. She watched Grammie adeptly work the political system to find sponsors and benefactors to bring them to the United States. In 1950, ten years after fleeing their home, they began a slow, weeks-long boat ride across the Atlantic. It was a well-deserved reward for the persistence shown during the previous decade. As the ship drew into the bay and approached the Statue of Liberty, my mother’s only worldly possession—a ragged secondhand doll—fell into the Atlantic. She pleaded for my grandfather to persuade the crew to turn the boat around. “We won’t be going backward, kudikis, we won’t be going backward,” my grandfather hummed.

My grandmother’s surname is Bataitis. Grammie Bataitis, we call her. I never knew the woman from that first life she led. I only knew the quiet, aloof Grammie who shuffled around handing out cucumbers, speaking in a language I never learned. She spoke English to us grandchildren when she had to, but she preferred her native tongue. I don’t think she wanted us to know the other woman in her. She didn’t want us to know her stories. She didn’t even want to know them. So I only knew her first life from a child’s memory.

My mother remembers standing on Ellis Island, embarrassed and nervous, watching her mother argue the spelling of their name with an overworked desk clerk; watching her mother insist their name be correct. “B-A-T-A-I-T-I-S. I am Bataitis, I am not Battson. I am from my forebears, who suffered for me. You will not rewrite my history.” Even a child remembers the foolishness of ranting to a man who didn’t understand a word she said. “But,” my mother stammered as she told me the story, “maybe she wasn’t really talking to the desk clerk . . . maybe she was talking to me.”

I hold claim to part of this name. I was clearly mandated in my patriarchal blessing to find these names, to be responsible for them. Upholding our family’s name and honor was taught mightily to me as a child. Our family name was heralded at home; it always demanded respect, and always deserved it. I hold claim to the heritage she left me, and hold the responsibility that heritage made.

After my parents joined the Church, I was instilled with the passion of a new testimony. I soon reached my eighth birthday, and my baptism day. As I sat near the swimming pool that would be my baptismal font, my mother held my hands out and cupped them in hers. “You hold our ancestry inside your hands,” she said through tears. “You hold the names of all our past. People who have sacrificed to see you here, living in freedom, living with the true gospel.

“Hold another name, too. Hold the Savior’s name.” She closed my hands up in hers and pressed them against my chest. “Keep them here,” she said, tapping them. “Keep these names in your heart.”

Because of my Grammie, the name Bataitis has always sat on my shoulders, regularly reminding me that I am fortunate to be here, that I have a responsibility to take advantage of the moments before me. I’ve always felt the expectation to “do something” with myself. As a young girl, this mostly meant not doing anything embarrassing. As a teenager and in college, the expectation manifested itself in my studies, and in my drive to become involved in almost everything. As I became an adult, the significance of my baptism, and my mother’s words, started to sink in as well. The sacrifice the Savior made for me started to feel as real as my grandmother’s.

The sacrifices of my Grammie and the Savior are not comparable in scope or scale. But they have both driven me to be a better person, to make better choices. The Savior’s name is part of me now, just like Bataitis.

So many names. So many blessings. I have strength from Bataitis; I have tenderness from Sirken, my father’s name; I have honor and duty from Dorton, my married name. Those names, in turn, were formed from so many other names. I am created and shaped by names.

After my first son was born, my mother held him in her arms and whispered to him. “You are a Bataitis. You are the Lord’s.” Her tears fell on his face. He was now linked to the names and the stories that would become his own—to my grandmother on the bridge, to my baptism day, to the Savior in Gethsemane.

March 16, 2016

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