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?