Who do you think you are?
I am a bit of a genealogy addict. I don’t know if it is because as an estates lawyer, much of my working life is concerned with mapping out family trees, or if it is the inner detective in me, but I really love learning about family histories and listening to the stories that “add meat to the bones” of lives otherwise marked by basic records of birth, baptism, census, marriage and death.
It fascinates me how personality traits and talents can be seemingly passed down family lines “re-appearing” generations later. I love how life seems to come around in “circles” and how the rich tapestries of life experiences, the good and the bad, the light and the shade of the journey of our lives, can be woven together.
I am in Latvia at the moment, on what I am calling our family’s “trip of a lifetime”.
Both of my parents fled Latvia during WWII as young children. We have been back several times since then, both before and after the iron curtain fell. The last time for Craig and I, was in 2006 for a Narnia-like white Christmas, spent with my parents, my sister and her husband. We were kid free and focussed on the magic of the snow and not freezing in the -20C temps!
We have made this trip with both of our kids, Teja almost 11 years and Zigi 8 years old – to celebrate dad’s 80th birthday. We are staying on the outskirts of Cēsis in a summer house that belonged to my great grandparents.
We saw in the summer solstice, by making floral wreaths for the girls and oak leaf wreaths for the boys, from the flowers and oaks growing on the property. We nibbled on traditional caraway seed cheese, with pīrāgi (bacon filled buns) and cinnamon scrolls, we ate smoked pork and beautiful salads and washed it all down with a few of the local beers. We sang songs and danced. We stood by the fire as the sun set at 11pm leaving us in a twilight that continued until the day began to dawn again.
The highlight was mum taking us around the property – past the old well that has provided the coldest, clearest water to this household for centuries, to the birch tree grove planted to represent the family that once lived here and each of the bloodline generations that have returned to the property after Latvia regained independence. My great grandparents are represented by twin birches planted at the apex, my grandmother is to one side, with her two sisters by her side. My mum and her 5 siblings then follow, along with their cousins from my great aunts’ lines. My sister’s tree is now accompanied by trees for her two boys planted a few years ago when celebrating the house’s 100th year, and my tree now has two new saplings planted nearby to represent each of my children who have arrived to experience what my mum knew to be her holiday home. There we all stood amongst the birches knowing our connection to this land.
We then walked past several of the boundary oaks (there are over 50 of them!) planted by my great grandfather to the only remaining original apple tree, which still produces occasional fruit that forms part of the greater harvest taken in to make the most delicious apple juice that I have ever tasted.
We then circled back past the rose garden planted now by the owners who tend to this home as their own, whose flowers adorned our heads, full of perfume that near made us giddy.
Yesterday we walked from the homestead to the local graveyard to pay our respects to my mother’s paternal grandmother Mīlīte. On the first attempt to escape Latvia she was with my mum, her siblings (including her newborn brother) and their mother sitting on the back of a truck laden with logs and building materials. When the truck rolled over an embankment everyone was injured and taken to hospital. Some more badly than others.
Sadly, Mīlīte didn’t make it.
This terrible twist of fate meant that my grandfather was given leave to return home to bury his mother and look after this now paralysed wife, newborn son and 5 other children.
A few months later they made their second escape attempt, this time convincing my grandmother’s parents to join them. They walked out of Cēsis to Ugāle over 240km away taking a cart (where my grandmother lay), a cow (to provide milk for the new baby) and a pushbike in case errands needed to be made. The rest of the family walked. The oldest of the children was just 14, my mum and her twin sister, just 4 years old. They took the back streets and laneways for days on end. My mum recalls her grandmother being an excellent cook. She remembers that when food was scarce, she made bread from carrots dug up from fields and jam from nettles. Dark green jam on bright orange bread. My mum is the “MacGyver” in our family and a pretty darn good cook…perhaps this is where she inherited these traits…
Arriving in Ugāle, where they thought they might see out the war, they discovered my great aunt and her family had already fled, her abandoned home occupied by the German army. The realisation then hit, that they too had to leave the country, not just their home town. They travelled a short train trip to Ventspils where my mum’s family were allowed onto a boat taking wounded German soldiers back to Germany.
Ultimately some six years later, my great grandparents followed their younger daughter’s family to Canada. A swapped-out x-ray saw my grandfather deemed unacceptable for Canada and so the family was forever split. New x-rays proved my grandfather healthy and ultimately granted my grandparents and their family access to Australia, where they found work in Adelaide, the city they called their Australian home.
If they had stayed in Latvia their family (given their education and their wealth) would’ve likely been deported to Siberia by the Russians who ultimately occupied Latvia. I doubt my family would’ve survived. I would not exist, nor would my children.
As we stood by Mīlīte’s grave yesterday, we let her know that her grandchild, great grandchild and great great grandchildren had returned to visit her from Australia to a now free Latvia. Her gravestone crafted by the one of the family members who now keep the house from which she fled.
On this trip, my maternal family’s history is coming alive and is being woven back into a tapestry that began here generations ago. A sip of apple juice, a drink of cold fresh water from underground waters that run deep, weaving oak leaf wreaths from oaks once planted as saplings. All of it now more meaningful. All of it now completing loops of tapestry, circles of life.
Have you discovered yet who you are and where you came from?
6 comments on “Who do you think you are?”
Such a remarkable story of resilience, love for family and fight for freedom and a new life…thankyou so much for sharing Zinta…amazing x
Thanks Allayne for reading and for your always lovely feedback! It has surely been a trip of a lifetime for us!
Wow Zinta – this is so emotional and stirring. I know I am who I am, directly because of my parent’s influence, but they in turn were influenced by brave choices their own parents made, and indeed their grandparents who chose to send their children away from the squalor of the Birmingham slums. It’s just so sobering to know that we are free right now, with the gift of great education and living in this special country, due to the sacrificial choices that were made by those who went before us. Of course this is all very real and very raw to me at the moment as I still well up whenever I think of everything my wonderful dad did for me. But what I want to remind you is, amongst all of this, that you are giving your own children the most precious and incredible experience in this trip. You are connecting them to something bigger than themselves and this is something that will impact them forever. So just remember that on the long, horrific plane flight home xoxoxo
Barb – thank you for taking the time to read and send me your thoughts! As we sat and at a picnic amongst the family birch tree grove today I was so utterly thankful for this wonderful experience. I will never forget it, nor will our kids. It IS far bigger than us and we know how blessed we are to experience it with my parents. The dreaded flights will not erase the memories I am sure!
Wow what a remarkable family history you have. How absolutely wonderful this family trip of a lifetime must be!
My family ancestry is from all four corners of the UK, and Ireland. Lots of Irish blood equals a good sense of humour, my 99 year old great aunt Louisa would say. My Cornish ancestry is where our family’s strong Christian heritage lies. On my last trip home I was touched to be given my great grandmother’s Clara’s teaching Bible.
My middle name is Marshall which is a family middle name, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and it is from Fife here in Scotland. It is believed some of my Marshall ancestors were constables of Dunottar Castle in Aberdeenshire. I now have two Fife names as our surname Beveridge is a Fife name too.
To my mind Bruce’s family tree is much more fascinating. Through his mother’s side he is 21st generation descendant of the Scottish King Robert the Bruce! My Bruce is Bruce Robert, named after this great King. Fortunately for Bruce another family member has done all the diligent detective work to claim this fact. From Kent we relocated to Scotland in 2006 which was the 700th anniversary of when Robert the Bruce became King. Bruce is immensely proud of his famous Scottish roots, so we were bound to live here in bonnie Scotland at some time. Twelve years on we do still feel so at home here and connected to Scotland, Land of the Brave.
What I find even more fascinating is Bruce’s Jewish ancestry. His maternal great grandfather Frederick was Austrian Jew and moved to London shortly before the outbreak of WW1. It is through him that we were able to move to the UK on a UK ancestry visa as Bruce’s grandmother was born here, before moving to Australia aged only 18 months old. Knowledge of this side of Bruce’s family history is still a bit sketchy. Sharing your family’s amazing story has inspired us to dig a bit deeper into Frederick Haas’ story, to find out how exactly and why he came to make his life here in the UK and then in Australia.
We do feel truly grateful for Bruce’s family history as it has given us the opportunity to live and experience another part of the world and to do so much travel, soaking up lots of history and culture which we never tire of and which is a lot easier to do from here than from Australia. Incidentally it is 20 years last weekend since we moved over here.
Speaking of travel we’ve yet to visit Latvia but we would so love to. We almost did back in 2004 when I very nearly booked the wrong hotel! Not just in the wrong city, but wrong country! Oh dear! This tells me though we are definitely meant to visit Latvia. 🙂
To finish a little Scottish Gaelic for you –
Lean air adhart a ‘faighinn tlachd às na seallaidhean inntinneach agus na blasan tlachdmhor air an turas shònraichte seo de theaghlaichean. Agus fuirich sàbhailte cuideachd.
Continue to enjoy the fascinating sights and delightful tastes on this special family trip. And stay safe too.
Hello Diana! Sorry for my slow response! We have been on the slow crawl back to Australia – landing finally on Saturday night! It certainly has been a trip of a lifetime! Full of wonderful family discoveries and time spent creating memories that will never be forgotten! Lovely to hear about your own family history and connection to Scotland – WOW! I hope you find out more from your further investigations! You really must visit Latvia – it is a beautiful part of the world (even if I am a bit biased!) Thank you for your lovely Gaelic wishes!!
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