By Ed Staskus
The first language I spoke was Lithuanian and until I started meeting other kids on the street it was the only language I spoke. All my first friends in Sudbury, Ontario, were other small change in the same boat, visiting my old country parents with their old country parents. When spring broke early my second year of life, I started meeting other children, boys and girls on the block of nine houses on our dead-end street.
They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. We spoke English on the street, which was how I picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion politics and popular culture. We didn’t know anything about those things, so we stuck to English.
My close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who I called Lele, lived a block away. She and I played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she saw me dragging my red fleece blanket behind me. When she tried to take it away and I resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting me on the arm. It was then squabbling and pushing started in earnest, all hell breaking loose.
Lele didn’t begin learning English until the first day she went to school.
“All my friends were Lithuanian during my childhood in Sudbury,” she said. “When I started kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English. Many people over my lifetime had a chuckle when I told them I was born in Canada, but English is my second language.”
Time is money is the watchword in the grown-up world, but time is candy is what works for many children. The young wife who lived next door to my parents had a daughter and they visited some afternoons. She always brought candy and while our mothers talked, Diana and I sat at the kitchen table with a paper bag of candy between us. Whenever one of us was ready for another piece, we jiggled the table vigorously before making a grab for the bag.
My parents an immigrant couple bought a house as soon as they could, the same as every other Lithuanian who ended up in Sudbury. They had three children inside of five years. They didn’t have a TV, but they had a telephone and a radio, as well as a washing machine and a fridge. They knew their neighbors, but all their close friends were other post-war DP’s, most of them working in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a city, but it was a company town first and foremost.
By 1950 it had long been associated with mining, smelting, and a broken-down landscape. The environment was said to be comparable to that of the moon. Decades of mining and smokestacks had acidified more than 7,000 lakes inside a circle of 10,000 square miles.
“I didn’t like Sudbury,” my mother said. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken as far as the eye could see.”
More than 50,000 acres of the hinterland were barren. Nothing grew there. Another 200,000 acres were semi-barren. There was substantial erosion everywhere. It wasn’t a wasteland, but it was a wasteland. All anyone had to do was walk up a rocky promontory and look around.
As early as the 1920s “The Hub of the North” was open roasting more than twice as much rock ore as any other smelting location in North America. The aftermath poisoned crops. The result made it one of the worst environments in Ontario. It blackened the native pink granite, turning the rose and white quartz black.
“My husband worked two weeks during the day and two weeks during the night,” my mother said. “He walked to work, except when it was too cold, and whoever had a car would pick him and others up. In the morning he left at seven in the morning and got home at seven at night. When he worked nights, he got home at seven in the morning. The kids and I would wait by the window for him to get back.”
Sudbury is in a basin. It is the third-largest impact crater on Earth. It was created about 200 million years ago when an enormous asteroid rocketed through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a blast. World-class deposits are found there and mined extensively.
The city’s reputation as a rocky badlands was known far and wide by the time Angele and Vytas Staskevicius got married in 1949 and bought their house on Stanley Street a year later. Despite the industrial blight of the past half-century, there was a growing working-class population. They were a part of that population. The newlyweds were two of the displaced willing to take whatever work was offered in return for getting out of the Old World.
“All our friends, the Zizai, Simkai, Bagdonai, all had children,” Angele said. “Since our living room was a little bigger than most, they often came over on Saturday nights. The men played bridge while we made dinner. The kids ran around, we drank, smoked, and danced. We put the kids away and talked all night.”
Whoever had the opportunity to get married got married as fast as they could. There wasn’t an overabundance of eligible women in Sudbury. Henry and Maryte Zizys saw each other three times before they got hitched. The Simkai and Bagdonai stretched it out for a few months. The married men drank at home. The single men drank in bars, usually with other single men.
The early Lithuanians who went to the New World weren’t Lithuanians, since the country didn’t exist at the time. It had once been its own empire but had since been taken over and was part of the Russian Empire. Many who fled to the United States were mistakenly documented as Polish, since there was a language ban in their homeland and scores of them spoke Polish as a second language.
The first Lithuanians in Canada were men who fought in the British Army against the Americans in the War of 1812. For the next 130 years most of those who left the Baltics and went to Canada did so for economic reasons. After World War Two they fled toil and trouble after the Soviet Union reincorporated Lithuania into its realm.
“All of us hated the Russians for what they did” my mother said.
The Russians deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps during and after the war. Sometimes they had their reasons. Other times the reason was slaphappy. The neighbors might have complained about you. The new Communist mayor might have taken a dislike to you. A cross-eyed apparatchik might have thought you were somebody else. It didn’t matter, because if you ended up in a boxcar going east, your future was over.
The house Vytas and Angele moved into was on a newer extension of Stanley Street north of Poplar Street. It wasn’t in any of the city’s touted neighborhoods, but Donovan was nearby, and so was Little Britain. Downtown was less than two miles to the east.
Stanley Street started at Elm Street where there was a drug store, tobacconist, five-and-dime, fruit market, bakery and butcher shop, restaurants, a liquor store, and the Regent movie theater. The railcars were being replaced by busses and the tracks asphalted over. The other end of Stanley Street dead-ended at a sheer rock face on top of which were railroad tracks. The Canadian Pacific ran day and night hauling ore. When the train wailed, we wailed right back.
My mother and her friends shopped on Elm Street. When I was still a toddler, I rode in a baby carriage. After my brother and sister were born, they rode in the carriage. I didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.
“He was unhappy about it,” Angele said. “I told him he was a big boy now and had to walk to help his brother and sister, but he still didn’t like it. He made a sour face.”
My father spread topsoil in the front yard of our new house and threw down grass seed. The backyard was forty feet deep but sandy and grass wouldn’t grow. He built a fence around it to discourage us from climbing the rocky rounded hill over which the railroad tracks curved west.
Even though children imitate their elders, they don’t always listen to them.
“We always told the kids they weren’t allowed to climb the rock hills,” said Angele. “One day I couldn’t find Edvardas. He wasn’t in the house or in the yard or anywhere on our part of the street. I called and called for him. When he didn’t answer, all I could do was wait outside. When he finally came home, he had pebbles in his pockets. Where have you been? I asked him.”
“I was looking for gold, mama,” I said, handing my mother pebbles that had a glint of shine. “I found some and brought them back for you.”
Our house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at through the middle of the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact of decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees not being logged for the fires, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and our street.
“We had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a nice living room,” said Angele. “Upstairs was a half bath and two rooms We rented those rooms. We usually rented to women or a couple who were new to Sudbury. Where they took a bath, I don’t know. We charged $11.00 a week for a room and saved all the money we got. Right before we left for America, my husband was able to buy a used car.”
When Bruno and Ingrid Hauck came to Sudbury from Germany, they rented a room for several years. “She watched the kids sometimes, so Vytas and I could go to the Regency to see a movie,” said Angele. They saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” We saw “Lady and the Tramp” and fell in love with the movies.
When I was four my parents had a New Year’s Eve party at our house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment my mother cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.
“I had to lay down and didn’t see New Year’s Day,” she said, disappointed.
When she woke up my father and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, and wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. We all went to church there once a month when the visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. My brother, sister, and I sat for free. Piety and silence were mandatory.
“I was just in my twenties, but in one of Rimas’s plays I was the mother of a dying partisan,” Angele said. “I made myself cry by thinking about the time I cut my eye.”
September through November are cold, December through February are freezing, and March into mid-May are cold in Sudbury. The first snow by and large falls in October, but it can show up as early as September. The season’s last snow comes and goes in April, although May sometimes sees a late icy shower. There are never any flurries in June, July, and August.
My father learned to ice skate and taught us on a rink in the front yard. He hosed water out on the lawn on bitter cold days where it started freezing in minutes. When it was frozen hard as rock, we laced up our skates and went skating. Whenever all the kids on the block joined in it got pell-mell fast. My two friends from across the street and I dazzled the girls with our figure 8s.
In the 1950s in Sudbury sulfur dioxide formed a permanent, opaque, cloud-like formation across the horizon as seen from a distance. There was lead nickel arsenic and God knows what else in it. The ground-level pollution wasn’t as bad, a gray haze, but was worse on some days than others.
When it got worse, my father built an igloo for us to play in.
It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 4 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, he made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.
As long as there was daylight there were daylong Eskimos in the igloo.
Our furnace in the basement ran on coal. It was delivered once a week by truck, the coal man filling up the bin in the basement down a chute. Every morning my father shoveled coal into it, lit the fire, and stoked the coal. At night either my mother or he banked the furnace, salvaging unburned coal and putting the ashes in bags. They saved some in a container on the front porch for the steps whenever they got iced over.
My mother told us to never go in the basement. She didn’t invent a Babadook in the basement, but she didn’t want us down there messing around. One day I started down the stairs to see what my dad exactly did every morning. I tripped over my own feet and tumbled the rest of the way down. I was back on my feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though I was unhurt.
The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. We were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators. It was the basement all over again.
“I didn’t have to worry about Richardas and Rita, they were too small, but Edvardas was always trying to climb up on the radiator in the living room. I told him he was going to fall off and one Sunday night, while I was cooking, he fell off and broke his collarbone, although he didn’t cry when it happened. He seemed more surprised than anything else.”
For the rest of the next week, my arm in a sling, my mother fed me my favorite food every morning, fried eggs on toast. I was the envy of my sidekicks on the street, the two Canadian boys from whom I had learned most of my English. After finishing their pancakes or porridge, they ran to our back porch and watched me through our kitchen window go one-handed at my sunny side up breakfast.
I always saluted my pals with half a piece of gooey toast before getting back to business.
Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.