A conversation with the Luschas family

The Knights of Lithuania have surpassed their 100 year anniversary, but its membership keeps the organization young and vibrant. Take the Luschas family – active members of the K of L – their creative spirit and cando attitude is making Lithuania a household name throughout the United States.

Elaine and Alvin Luschas were born and raised in Mahanoy City, a small town in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region. They both attended St. George’s Lithuanian Roman Catholic parish school, where they were taught by the Sisters of St. Francis, Providence of God, a Lithuanian order from Pittsburgh, PA. Alvin, an attorney, has been practicing law for 39 years. Elaine is a retired mathematics teacher. One of their grown daughters, Christine, is an attorney, and the other, Carol, is a records clerk for the Clerk of Courts in Bloomsburg, PA. Almost a typical American family, except that their free time is spent on active Lithuanian cultural and artistic pursuits. Not only are they keeping Lithuanian traditions alive, but they are developing and sharing them with a wide American audience.

Knights of Lithuania Supreme Council President Regina Juška-Švoba talks with Elaine, Christine and Carol Luschas about their love of Lithuanian crafts, community, and their recent brush with fame – an appearance on the Martha Stewart Show.

When did your family join the Knights of Lithuania? Were you and your daughters Junior members or did you join as adults?

Elaine: Our entire family joined the Knights of Lithuania Anthracite Council #144 (K of L C-144) fourteen years ago. Carol and Christine were teenagers at the time, but they joined as adults.

Do you have relatives in Lithuania?

Elaine: Our great-grandparents on the Luschas side corresponded with relatives in the Vilkaviškis area until 1953. Shortly thereafter the family received word that our relatives were lost during one of Stalin’s final purges. Our entire family travelled to Lithuania with several K of L C-144 members in 2002. We toured for eight days and had a wonderful time. Carol returned for a visit in 2012; it is great to see firsthand Lithuania’s evolution into a vibrant, dynamic and prosperous country.

Do you speak Lithuanian at home? Have you taken Lithuanian language courses?

Elaine: Lithuanian was spoken by our grandparents. Unfortunately, the language was not passed down. Carol has a longstanding interest in the Lithuanian language. During the summer of 2006, Carol completed a threemonth Lithuanian language course at Indiana University Bloomington sponsored by BALSSI (Baltic Summer Studies Institute). Now we all turn to Carol to translate for us. Carol created the Lithuanian language link on the K of L C-144 website. See: http://kofl144. weebly.com and a Lithuanian Language group on Facebook. Although not perfect, it has been a great help in fostering the Lithuanian language among nonspeakers.

You and your family are active in organizing the Lithuanian Days in Frackville, PA. Is that a family project? How long have you been involved with Lithuanian Days?

Elaine: The Lithuanian Catholic Priests League started Lithuanian Days in 1914 at Lakeside Park, PA, and then moved to Lakewood Park in Barnesville, PA, in 1922. They cultivated the idea of a massive festival which rejoiced in life, family, community, and pride for their native land. K of L C-144 became the primary sponsor of Lithuanian Days in 1978. Lakewood Park closed in 1984 and the festival moved to various locales until it finally settled on the mall in Frackville, PA.

Our entire family has been involved in the Lithuanian Days since August, 2000. The Domalakes brothers – Larry, John and Paul – and their families are also very active in organizing the event, as well as other C-144 members and volunteers. Carol is in charge of advertising and PR. She does research and helps with the displays for the Heritage Room at Lithuanian Days and dresses in Lithuanian clothing. She also answers questions and gives tours. I create displays for the Heritage Room. Each year a different theme is chosen. The theme for this year – our 100 year celebration – is Amber. Pictures of past Lithuanian Days can be found at www.kofl144.weebly.com. We invite everyone to attend.

Our family also loves gardening. We grow cucumbers and dill for making dill pickles for the festival. We also help in the kitchen, preparing homemade dough for halushki and meat for the famous fried/steamed meat patties.

During Carol’s senior year of high school, she presented a report about Lithuanian Easter traditions and egg decorating. Lithuanian Easter eggs or “margučiai” can be decorated by two methods. Elaine was familiar with the wax method which she learned from her father. Her aunt, Sister Norberta, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis introduced her to etching, after giving her three etched eggs when she was a young girl. Elaine researched the art form and taught herself and then instructed both Christine and Carol in both techniques. Etching is not as common as the wax method, since it is more difficult to master and very time consuming; one egg takes several hours to complete. Christine has become the family’s “margučiai” expert. Her eggs are so masterfully etched that she sells them on an online shopping site Etsy. Her store is located here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/artbythedozen). Her work also caught the eye of the Queen of Crafts – Martha Stewart.

Untitled_Clipping_011916_011704_PMChristine: I had recently graduated from Duquesne Law School. In 2011, I was living in Pittsburgh and studying for the bar exam. I would etch eggs to relax. I also watched the Martha Stewart Show daily and managed my egg store on Etsy. I had just gotten the bar exam behind me, when I received an email from a producer of the Martha Stewart Show. She asked me if I would be interested in appearing on the show and demonstrate how to etch Easter eggs. Martha was preparing her Easter Egg episode and was looking for new crafts to learn and showcase. She had tried countless egg art techniques, but never learned to etch. My mom is also a huge Martha Stewart fan. I called her immediately, told her to sit down, and asked how would she like to attend an episode of the Martha Stewart Show. She got excited, but was totally unprepared for the rest of the story – that I would be a guest artist on the show!

The process from invitation to the day on the set went at a whirlwind pace. I had to submit a video of myself explaining how to etch eggs. This was to show that I could speak on camera. I needed to prepare eggs for display. They required a write-up of the etching process: from blowing out the egg, to dying it, and then etching a design onto it. I drove home to Bloomsburg to prepare with my family. I had to submit colors to Martha so she could choose what color egg to etch. I also submitted all of my designs so that Martha could select one she liked. Within two weeks we were on our way to New York City to practice on the Martha Stewart set. The day before the show, I met with Martha Stewart’s assistants and walked them through the egg dying and etching process. The next day, I was on the set, met Martha, and showed her my passion.

Martha was amazing. Her work is admired by my whole family. I could not believe that a craft I had cultivated since my teens was of interest to this extremely accomplished woman. At the same time, I knew the work I do with my family is unique and special. As nervous as I was, the fact that my mother, sister, and I have been showing our interests and art forms to people for years, made talking with Martha easy. Each step was second nature to me. I felt I was teaching a friend. Martha did a great job etching her first egg and even after the commercial break, she continued to etch. I gave her a few of my eggs, which she placed on her fireplace mantel that Easter. Meeting Martha Stewart and being able to share this Lithuanian art form with her and the TV world were some of the most rewarding experiences that my heritage has given back to me.

The exposure from the Martha Stewart Show was immense. For the past two years not only people in my hometown, but participants of craft shows that I attend recall the etched egg segment. People were not only interested in the technique, but also about the country where this technique originated. After being on TV I receive more and more questions about Lithuanian art, crafts, traditions, language, and history. That fact that people are genuinely interested in Lithuanian culture is amazing and wonderful.

I feel that every craft show I attend is an egg demonstration and lesson. From little kids standing and watching me to adults observing and remembering the same craft or something similar, I find I am always explaining the steps to etch an egg. I even taught my fiance and a best friend to scratch eggs. The more people who learn this Lithuanian tradition, the more awareness about Lithuania grows.

Have you and your family conducted any egg decorating demonstrations?

Elaine: Christine demonstrates her etched method at Lithuanian Days each year. The family put together a Lithuanian exhibit at the Schuylkill County Historical Society and presented a three part program for its opening; Christine did a demonstration for this event. Both Christine and I demonstrated at the International Folk Festival and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, PA. I taught etched egg classes at an “Egg Retreat” in the Poconos.

Christine, are your “margučiai” for sale? Where can our readers get them?

Christine: Yes, we do sell them. They sell best at the Lithuanian Days. We also go to various egg and ethnic festivals such as the St. Casimir’s Fair in Rockville, MD, the Lithuanian Festival in Baltimore, MD, the International Folk Festival in Pittsburgh, PA, and the Egg Eggstravaganza in Uniontown, PA. We have also sold eggs at the Lithuanian Dance Festival in 2012 in Boston. They have been sold on Etsy.com and EBay and at gift shops and several historical societies.

I was once asked to make 220 etched eggs as favors for a wedding held in New York in 2009. It took me an entire summer to complete them. I receive requests for margučiai eggs from all over the world. My most distant order came from Australia. Each egg is unique; like snowflakes, no two are the same. They are each individually signed and dated.

I heard you also make wheat straw ornaments? Do all three of you make the ornaments? How did you get involved with that project?

Carol: We began making straw ornaments in the fall of 1999. My mother Elaine is involved in a community project called “Treefest.” This is a large fund raiser for the local Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. One hundredfifty live trees are donated by local tree growers at Christmas, decorated with creative handmade decorations by community groups and then donated to needy families in the area for Christmas. There is a special show room of approximately 10 competitive trees. We decided to decorate a tree with Lithuanian ornaments and enter the competition. We did research and visited a little Lithuanian museum organized by the K of L C-144 (Anthracite Council) in the coal region, where we found beautiful examples of straw ornaments. At one Knights of Lithuania meeting we met straw artist Annie Morgalis. Using some of Annie’s examples and coming up with our own designs, we successfully created a stunning Lithuanian tree and managed to win first prize. Elaine and I create the straw ornaments, while Christine weaves straw birds that can hold decorated eggs.

What other talents do you possess?

Christine: I enjoy music and play the violin and clarinet. I also enjoy gourmet cooking, baking and creating handmade cards.

Carol: I’m learning Russian as well as Lithuanian. I also paint Byzantine icons, enjoy photography, cooking ethnic foods, and gardening. I have contributed articles to Schuylkill Plus Magazine on various Lithuanian cultural themes, like Lithuanian textiles, the Battle of Zalgiris, Lithuanian language and music, folk art, and Lithuanians in sports.

Elaine: I enjoy various types of needlework; over the years I have worked with counted cross stitch, needlepoint, felting, rug hooking, crocheting and knitting. My newest passion is spinning. I belong to the Spins and Needles Fiber Guild. Members of this group come to our Lithuanian Days to demonstrate spinning and weaving. Also, as you know my husband and I were born and raised in Mahanoy City. It is a melting pot of Eastern European immigrants. Our interest in our Lithuanian heritage led us to join the Mahanoy Area Historical Society. Last year we, together with three other members, co-authored a book, entitled Mahanoy Area Revisited (Arcadia Publishing, 2013) outlining the huge contribution Eastern European immigrants made to the cultural growth of this part of the United States.

Thank you Elaine, Christine and Carol for sharing your passion for Lithuanian crafts and traditions with our readers. We wish you great success in future. Your family is an inspiration to all of us!