I remember my father telling me that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was once the greatest country in Europe, extending from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. It was in the fifteenth century—but I was too young to understand that. One Sunday when I was twelve, at my grandparents' church in Southfield, he bought me a little gold pin with the American flag flying opposite the Lithuanian tricolor. He told me that the colors of the Lithuanian flag—geltona, žalia, raudona—represent Lithuania's golden fields, its forests, and the blood that has been shed for the Fatherland. It doesn't sound so melodramatic in Lithuanian. I had always been aware of my heritage on both sides of the family, but from that day I began to identify myself as being something other than American.
Even before I left for Sochi, Lietuvos Rytas television journalist Rita Stankevičiūtė contacted me to ask if I'd mind giving an interview. Of course I never mind the chance to promote my skiers, and I quickly agreed. And then she asked me, "Do you speak Lithuanian?" Sure I said, I just can't write very well.
Off to Sochi we went, and up to Rosa Khutor on a sloppy Tuesday morning to watch the women's giant slalom. Rita found me after the race, pointed a camera in my face, and asked me if I was ready. The fruits of that interview appeared in a segment titled "Olympic Fever."
After the interview, I told Rita, still speaking Lithuanian, "I'm so embarrassed for my Lithuanian. You know, I really learned it from the kids."
In Sochi, we measured everything in hot dogs. The concessions inside the Olympic venues were limited, to say the least, and the hot dogs were the most appealing. A “classic” hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise was 150 rubles. The specialty hot dogs, which included the “Brooklyn,” covered in melted cheese product and bits of bacon, and the “Manhattan” with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, as well as fried onion bits and pickles, cost 200 rubles. Because it's extremely difficult to comprehend that an American hot dog covered with baked beans (the “Boston”) could cost over $6 in Russia, we simply ignored the conversion rate and measured the world in specialty hot dogs.
My parents taught me how to ski. We spent many winter weekends on the slopes of Northern Michigan, went to Colorado every spring, and I loved to watch ski racing in the Olympics. I remember Tommy Moe’s gold medal in the men’s downhill in Lillehammer (I was teaching a young cousin how to ski that day), but I don’t remember the first Olympics I watched—like skiing, it is something I’ve just always done.
Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. In this interview, she speaks about discovering her Litvak heritage and her connection to the future of Lithuania.
I stood in front of Union Station with my "Lietuva" duffel bag on my back, my foul weather gear hung neatly on a hanger thrown over my shoulder, feeling like a seasoned veteran. Sure, I had never done the Chicago Yacht Club's annual Race to Mackinac, but I had just sailed up Lake Huron. I was experienced.
That evening at dinner, I regaled my cousins with stories of sailing under star-filled skies and searching for wind in the fog. And, I answered as nonchalantly as I could the most commonly asked questions, "How did you get on this boat?"
It was a hot Saturday morning; I was dressed in an official Detroit Tigers polo shirt and matching baseball cap as I headed out to my boat. I had gotten the call only a week earlier to join the crew of Chico 2 for the 88th Port Huron to Mackinac Race hosted by the Bayview Yacht Club and sponsored by Bell's Beer. Yes, the race came with all the Oberon you could drink!
The boat is a 1D35, a fast boat designed especially for racing. (I sail on one in San Francisco called Alpha Puppy.) It's got a sparse cabin, but I was happy to hear that one of my crewmates had gotten the head (toilet) working just for me—I'm the first girl ever to race on Chico 2. As per tradition, the four professional sports teams in Detroit drew boats to represent them in the race and the Tigers drew us, which explained my unorthodox sailing outfit.
Just before 10:00 am, we pulled our docklines and eased our way toward St. Clair river. The mood in downtown Port Huron was light and fun with over 200 boats flying their colors, all crew on deck, waving to the massive crowds. As we paraded past the Port Huron Yacht Club, an announcer called out the names and skippers of all the boats. It was quite a sight to be in the middle of so many sailboats, all going the same way for the same purpose: to race as fast as they could up the 230 nautical miles of Lake Huron to Mackinac Island.
With a month on Lake Charlevoix doing little else besides sailing under my belt, I thought I was ready for the San Francisco Bay. After all, it does get pretty windy on the main basin. I found out quickly that on the Bay, sailing is the easy part, and racing is a whole other day at sea.
Thinking that it would be hard to find a boat in need of sailors, I put my name on every crew list in San Francisco. Barely 48 hours went by before I got my first phone call. Within a week, I had a choice of boats. Early one Saturday morning, I took the bus across town to the South Beach harbor where I was a last-minute addition to the crew on Akyla—it means Shark in Russian. The boat is aptly named, because five minutes after I stepped aboard, I felt like I had been thrown to the sharks, all my skills in doubt. What little I knew about sailboat racing—Tuesday nights in Boyne City followed by cheeseburgers and beers at the BRI—did not prepare me for the level of intensity involved in sailing on Akyla in the Champion of Champions race on the San Francisco Bay. I thought I was pretty fluent in the parts of a sailboat, until now. Moments after we shoved off, there were commands being shouted—fortunately not all at me—that may as well have been in Russian. I mean, what's a cunningham, a vang, or a running backstay? I couldn't have told you then, but I can tell you now, they all change the shape of the sail, though on a level that was far beyond my understanding.
It was a blustery day on the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix for the annual Ironworks Regatta. Sailing from Boyne City to East Jordan brought the boats with their spinnakers across the lake in front of our house around 3:00 pm. With the nice northerly wind at our backs, we decided to join them. We hadn't raised our spinnaker in almost two seasons, but what the heck, we got it out of the garage and gave it a try.
There was some debate between my dad and I about how exactly we should rig the sail. We own a beautiful symmetrical spinnaker custom-made for us by Yager Sails & Canvas in Spokane, WA. A Christmas gift for my dad from my brothers and I, its panels are yellow, green, and red, the colors of the Lithuanian flag. Traditionally we have sailed the spinnaker in pretty much the same style that my family does anything else: We bought it, hoisted it up, and figured the rest out later. My dad pointed the boat down-lake to run with the wind and cut the motor while I grabbed the sail bag and crawled up to the bow. I pulled the sail out of the bag (up to this point it had never occurred to any of us that there is a correct way to pack a spinnaker to guarantee it will deploy without getting tangled). Since we don't have a spinnaker pole, one way we've tried to rig it is by tying a short line to one of the clews like a tackline and tying the other end to the pulpit rail, with both sheets tied to the other clew. (Yes, we were trying to make an asymmetrical spinnaker out of a symmetrical spinnaker.) However, I decided to raise the sail before tying that little line on, or even passing the sheets back to my dad at the tiller. I just attached the halyard and hoisted the sail into the heavens. Panic ensued. Let's call this, Launch Number One.
It is a luxury for most people to quit their job and spend a summer on the lake reading, writing, painting, and of course, honing their sailing skills. Indeed, I count myself among those people—but that is exactly what I'm doing this summer.
It was a calm afternoon when I arrived at my family's cottage on Lake Charlevoix in Northern Michigan. Without any wind to tempt me towards the water, I spent the time unpacking and setting up my workspace. The next morning was equally calm, and so after fixing a hearty Sunday breakfast, I sat myself down in front of the computer, anxious to start crossing things off my To Do list.
It wasn't long before the American flags that line the shore up and down the lake stood erect in a brisk breeze, drawing my gaze away from the computer and out the windows toward the little Victoria 18 tied to a buoy just beyond the drop-off.