My family and I were refugees from Soviet Russia’s invasion of my parents’ homeland Latvia. My heart goes out to all refugees, particularly those who have had to flee from Ukraine because of the invasion of their homeland. Very little has changed in the last 78 years. For that matter, too little has changed since the Bolshevik Revolution that happened in Russia in 1917. Different dictator, same brutality.
This poem, by Latvian poet, Velta Toma (1912 – 1999) speaks to the soul of a Latvian refugee. To refugees anywhere.
This diaspora happened in the same year Ms. Toma composed her poem.
Aiz manis tumsā zūd ceļi,
deg mājas, un sagrūst tilts.
un visi dzīvie kļūst veļi.
Kā vēju vajāta smilts
es klīstu pa svešām vietām
bez darba, dusas un cilts.
- Velta Toma, (1944)
The translation is my own.
Behind me, the road fades into darkness,
my home burns, the bridge collapses
And all we living become ghosts.
Like a wind-driven grain of sand
I drift through foreign lands
without work, without rest,without kin.
On May 18, 1980, after two months of earthquakes and steam blasts, Mt. St. Helens in Washington state, USA, erupted at 8:32 on a Sunday morning. The eruption spewed ash 80,000 feet (24 km; 15 mi) into the atmosphere. The eruption went on for nine hours and reduced the height of the mountain by 1400 ft. (426.72 m) The ash was deposited in over eleven states as well as parts of Canada. I was 156 miles (approx. 251 km) north of the mountain. Since it was the weekend, I was sleeping in and knew nothing of the eruption until much later. In my area, all we got was a light layer of ash on our cars. The mountain exploded laterally so Eastern Washington got the worst of it.
But this isn’t an article about the eruption, the lives it took, or the damage it did. I’ve blogged during other Mays but have never felt inspired to write about the eruption. It seemed that everybody already knew about what happened or if they didn’t would learn about it every year in the days leading up to the anniversary.
What inspired this post was a comment by someone on social media about Harry R. Truman who lived with St. Helens for 52 years during which time he owned and ran the Mt. St. Helens Lodge. When it became apparent that the volcano would erupt local officials tried to evacuate Harry. The old man refused to leave. He was one of the more than fifty people the eruption killed. The woman on social media called Harry a science denier. So, I have to defend Harry. He was a rascal and an independent old coot but even though I never knew him, I have no doubt that he never questioned that the volcano would erupt. The huge bulge in its north side would have been a major clue even if the earthquakes and steam eruptions hadn’t been.
Even though I’m only speculating, I can understand why Harry refused to leave his beloved mountain. He was 84 years old, twice divorced, and once widowed. He had only one child. He’d lead an unconventional, independent life. He was a WW 1 veteran having served in France. On the way to Europe, his troopship was sunk by a U boat. Later in life, he was a bootlegger, a poacher, and a thief who stole gravel from the Forest Service and fished on Native American land with a bogus license. He was never caught in any of these acts. Before moving to the mountain he ran a service station. Though he may have been a rogue, I seriously doubt that he was a fool.
I can’t blame Harry for not wanting to leave this gorgeous area or live to see the devastation he must have known the eruption would cause to the splendid place where he’d spent more than half his life there.
At his age what would Harry have done and where would he have gone if he left his home? Give up his cantankerous independence? Go to a nursing home? Become a burden on his only child? Sit around and rock, waiting to die? The mountain was his life. Better to make a spectacular exit than to give up the only life he’d known for fifty-two years.
I hope Harry was sitting on the porch of his lodge, drinking his favorite cocktail, whisky and Coke when the mountain blew.
(Thank you to my friend for allowing me to use her photos. She prefers to remain anonymous. You know who you are)
On May 4th, 1990 the Supreme Council of the Latvian SSR adopted a resolution “On the Restoration of the Independence of the Republic of Latvia”, turning a new white page in the history of Latvia. The White Tablecloth Festival celebrates the anniversary of Latvia’s renewed independence after decades under Soviet rule.
A clean new page is understandable but why a white tablecloth? The cloth was chosen as a symbol of national pride, unity, and self-confidence. On feast days tables are traditionally set with a white linen tablecloth. Latvian friends, neighbors, and families all over the world, those in Latvia and the Latvians of the Diaspora in their adopted homelands are encouraged to gather together as one family to celebrate Latvia’s renewed independence with reverence and joy.
The white tablecloth also symbolizes that Latvia’s break with the Soviet Union was achieved relatively peacefully through diplomacy with the occupying power.
Except for social media I’ve been out of touch with my local Latvian community. I’m not even sure if they’ve adopted the White Tablecloth Festival. I learned about it just the other day when a friend in Ohio shared photos of her Latvian community’s celebration of this anniversary.
It’s about time more attention was paid to this important holiday which usually gets little notice compared to Latvia’s original Independence Day. November 18th has been celebrated by Latvian exiles in their new countries. During the years of Soviet occupation, such a celebration was illegal in Latvia.
Whenever Latvians gather to celebrate there is always lots of food. On this special occasion in Cleveland, there were also speeches (hardly a unique occurrence) recitations of poetry, shared memories, and stories about what it means to be a Latvian. They also saw a video about the dedication of a monument to a Latvian freedom activist who died shortly before renewed independence became a reality.
The day before the party participants were invited to bring heirloom tablecloths that were handmade by their mothers and grandmothers to be displayed on the walls of the Latvian Center.
Of course, human nature being what it is, especially Latvian human nature, not everyone is eager to embrace the White Tablecloth Festival. Some people think it’s silly because white tablecloths are used for every celebration that involves feasting (all of them) Others prefer the name Renewal of Independence Day. I think White Tablecloth Festival is more of an attention grabber.
Whatever it’s called, May 4th is a day to celebrate the restorations of freedom.
As we celebrate we are all hoping that there will soon be a day for Ukraine to celebrate renewed peace and freedom.
To clarify any misunderstanding. I am not collecting money for Ukraine. I prefer to leave that to long-established and respected organizations such as CARE, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, and other charities. The donations are compensation for me for my work on the blog, researching, writing, and illustrating. I apologize for not making this clear.
We’ve had the third coldest April in forty-five years in my little corner of the world. The thirteenth coldest since records have been kept. On the fourteenth snow came down thick and fast for maybe a half-hour. It even stuck to the grass. Then it was over as if it had never happened. Usually, the Pacific’s breath keeps our climate mild, even in mid-winter but this isn’t the first time it snowed in May.
We’re all hoping that May will be more like the month described in John Milton’s poem.
Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.
Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,
Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcom thee, and wish thee long.
Happy May Day!
In 1889 labor activists turned May Day turned into Labor Day in some parts of the world to commemorate the Haymarket riot in Chicago. It was a terrible event but I wish they’d left the joyous celebration of Floralia, to honor Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers alone, and been content to commemorate workers on the first Monday in September. I guess American influence has its limits.
May first was once considered to be the beginning of summer. A time to dance around the May Pole and for children to surprise friends by bringing them flower baskets, leaving them at the door or hanging them on the doorknob, knocking or ringing the bell, and running away. What a lovely surprise for the recipient.
Writing doldrums can show up for any number of reasons. Sometimes because I have no idea what to write next. Sometimes because I have too many ideas and it’s hard to decide which one to work on next. Sometimes because I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read anything I write, not even the people who follow my blog.
My current issue that’s stymying me is having too many works in progress (WIPs) I have a magpie mind. I like the next shiny new thing. The next story or essay idea that I want to work on at the cost of other projects that are waiting to be completed. Too often I love my stories too much to want to let them go. I get persnickety and no matter how many times I’ve been over a manuscript, I keep finding new errors. I could go on editing forever.
My three weightiest WIPs are my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart; a collection of essays from Come, Follow My Blog, titled, Latvian Lore, and a second collection of blog essays titled, Latvia, Despite the Soviets.
Even though none of these books is finished, a friend, who is also my writing mentor, has been helping me design covers for them. Colleen loves designing covers and has experience creating designs for many of her own traditionally published books. She loves helping people. She hasn’t said so but perhaps she also eagerly helps design covers for my self-published books in hopes of inspiring me to finish the darn things.
I thought A Home for an Exile’s Heart, my novel about Līvija Galiņa, a Latvian refugee who, with her family, flees her homeland when the Soviet army invades in 1944 and finds a new home and a new love-interest, former fighter pilot, Cameron Quinn in Seattle in 1952 was finished. I re-read the last chapter and decided that I don’t like it. Re-writing it has proven to be more of a hassle than I expected. Too sweet. It needed a touch of tartness. Just because it’s Christmas Eve doesn’t mean characters can put aside such strong emotions as jealousy and resentment. Yet, I don’t want to be heavy-handed. It’s a sticky wicket.
Latvian Lore is a collection of Latvian myths and traditions. The problem with that one is not having enough essays published in my blog to make a decent-sized book. I need to write and research more. There’s so much information to include that it’s hard to know what to include and what to leave out. I might even include family recipes. All that is to be decided later.
After A Home for an Exile’s Heart, the project that’s closest to completion is Latvia, Despite the Soviets, a memoir about a trip I took to Latvia for a Song and Dance Festival when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Some of the chapters are essays from Come, Follow My Blog, the rest is new material. I’ve also included chapters
to give my memoir historical context that some people may not be familiar with. I need to read my manuscript from start to finish to decide what needs rewriting, revising, and if I need to add new material. It is emotionally difficult material to write about. I need a break from it before continuing.
So what did I do? I started a new story. Flash fiction that I want to submit to a literary magazine. Caw! Caw! Shiny new object! Let me add it to my collection of WIPs.
It’s been a month since Russia’s savage, brutal invasion of Ukraine. It strikes close to home because of Latvia’s history of invasion by the Soviet Union and nearly fifty years of occupation. And because Latvia also shares a border with Russia. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia is a member of both NATO and the European Union. It’s the same with the other Baltic States, Estonia and Lithuania. If Ukraine falls none of the countries in Eastern Europe can feel safe. Maybe not even the rest of Europe.
All our hearts are broken. We can all too easily imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents went through the same thing. We were robbed of our country and families who were unable to flee or who thought the Red Army would soon be driven out by the World War II Allies. Those who succeeded in escaping expected to be able to go back. They were mistaken. Nobody wanted to prolong the war.
I feel compelled to check on President Zelensky and to see how the Ukrainian people’s fierce resistance is going. I cry for them every day. So do many of my Latvian friends. Music tugs at our heartstrings, as music is meant to do.
This video shows a concert for Ukraine’s freedom that was held in Rīga, Latvia during the early days of the invasion. The song is called, “For the Country of My Birth” composed by a popular Latvian composer, Raimonds Pauls. Lyrics by Jānis Peters.
This song debuted in 1973 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first National Latvian Song and Dance Festival.
The lyrics reference the year 1905 when Russian army troops opened fire on demonstrators in Rīga killing seventy-three and injuring two hundred people.
The translation is my own. To me, the castle of light symbolizes hope.
Then came the fifth year, rain of blood fell
Destroying the tallest trees.
Let's become soldiers, our song will sow a storm.
Forever a castle of light rejoices from the hill.
This is not a lesson on how to do a genealogical search but the following information about Latvian names may be helpful in your search. Today’s post is longer than usual as the subject of Latvian names is pretty complicated. Don’t let that discourage you.
When Latvians emigrated to other countries, either they or immigration officials might have Anglicized their names. Some people, like my father, lopped a syllable or two off the family name long before he had to flee his homeland.
Today a woman from Australia was looking for relatives in Latvia and not having much luck. She had only a few names to go by. One of the people she was looking for was named Helmut. That’s an anglicized spelling. In his homeland, his name would be spelled, Helmuts.
The Latvian alphabet does not include the letter “W.” If you’re looking for someone with “W” in their name, try substituting “V.”
Men’s names, both first and last, have “-s,” “-is,” “-š,” or “-iš” as suffixes.
Women’s names, first and last, end with “-a” or “-e.” If she is using her father or husband’s name the suffix of her last name assumes the feminine ending. Which noun becomes the suffix depends on the spelling of the last name. If a last name ends with “-s” or “-š” the feminine suffix becomes an “-a.” Mr. Kalns’ wife or daughter’s last name is spelled Mrs. Kalna.
If the man’s last name ends in “-is” or “-iš” the feminine version of the name ends with an “e.” On the other hand, if the man’s last name ends with “-is” or “-iš” his wife or daughter’s last name is spelled with an “e” at the end. Mr. Cālītis’s daughter would be Miss. Cālīte. Latvians have no equivalent to Ms.
This is not a hard and fast rule regarding suffixes. Sometimes both the man and woman’s last name ends with a vowel as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Timma.
Letters in the Latvian language have only one pronunciation, unless they are modified by a diacritical mark, which makes them critical (!) Search engines and genealogy sites may not find the correct name if the diacritical mark is missing. This is where Google comes in handy if you don’t have a keyboard with that function. Google has a version for the Latvian language, Google.lv. There’s a tiny icon of a keyboard in the search window, click on that and a larger version pops up which includes diacritical marks, click on the mark you need and the correct letter will show up in the search window. However, if the next letter in the word does not have a mark, be sure to close out the keyboard or you’ll get the wrong letter. The letters on the virtual keyboard are not in the same as on your real keyboard so it will take a bit of searching to find the right one.
The lady mentioned above was also looking for a relative whose name was Jacob. That’s an Anglicized spelling. The correct Latvian spelling is “Jēkabs” because in our language a “c” is never pronounced as if it were a “k.” The name Veronica is spelled, Veronika. A name like Veronica would be simple to change but figuring out the Latvian spelling of a name like Jacob can be a puzzler. If you don’t know the correct spelling of the name you’re looking for check an online Latvian Name Day calendar. You may have to go through all 365 days to find the right one.
Diminutives can also complicate your search. The suffix “-īte,” (pronounced “ee-teh”) is used with feminine nouns (all nouns have gender-specific suffixes) to show affection or small size. As Latvians say, “The smaller, the dearer.” Usually, such endings are not used for women’s first names. Except that sometimes they are.
Mārīte is the diminutive for the name Māra and is generally used as an endearment by family and friends, whether the female in question is a woman the size of a female sumo wrestler or girl, a tiny elfin creature. But some parents give their daughter the name Mārīte as her legal name, a permanent term of endearment. The diminutive for a woman named Sarma is Sarmīte. Both are used as legal first names. If you know of a relative named Sarmīte but can’t find her in any database with that name, try looking for Sarma instead. Bitīte in Latvian means “little bee” but I know of no woman named Bite (bee) That doesn’t mean some woman isn’t out there whose moniker is Bite.
Men’s first names can also be turned into diminutives but I’ve never known of a man with a diminutive as his first name. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
The Latvian alphabet that is currently used is based on Latin orthography. However, if you’re searching for pre-1922 records they could well be written in German orthography which was used at the time.
Not confused enough? The Latgallain (Latgale) dialect will remedy that. The Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais is from Latgale (Latgola) In standard Latvian, her last name would be spelled Apaļais. Unfortunately, I can’t offer much help if you’re looking for someone with roots in Latgale. Try to find someone from the region to help you, perhaps someone in a local library or on a Latgaliešu (Latgalian) social media group.
I hope I’ve succeeded in making your search for Latvian ancestors a little less confusing.
Bizdings is not a plural word. In Latvian plural suffixes are often the letter “i.” Zirgs, is a horse. Zirgi are two or more horses. But some plural words do end with an “s.” Māja is the word for house. Two houses are mājas. “Let’s go home is, “iesim mājās.” A diacritical mark is necessary on each letter “A” to indicate “to home.”
Galva is the Latvian word for head.
Galvā, with the diacritical mark, means in the head. Or on the head.
Bizdings is exactly what it sounds like and is pronounced pretty much the same in English as in Latvian.
Bizdings galvā something buzzing and dinging in the head. In other words, a ding-a-ling. Nutty. A bit cracked.
I thought of the phrase bizdings galvā today because I was being stalked on a social media platform by a woman who had a headful of buzzy-ding-a-lings. She wanted to talk. She wanted to make friends. Even though I might chat with someone on the elevator or in the checkout line at the grocery store, I have little interest in talking to strangers. So we didn’t talk.
Ms. Bizdings and I had been friends for quite a while. I don’t remember for how long. She never posts anything that I’ve seen. She never comments on my posts. She wanted to talk one other time, a year, maybe two years ago. Or longer, for all I know. That’s how much she cared about being friends. Today she must have been off her meds.
Today the Bizdings woman didn’t give up so easily. When I asked what she wanted to talk about, she said she wanted to talk about “life.” I told her I’m not good at talking to strangers, that she should get to know me first by chatting on messenger. That wasn’t good enough for her. She called twice. I declined both calls. I told her she was being pushy. I had to translate the word, “uzbāzīga.” She agreed but kept persisting.
We’ve talked before, she claimed. Don’t you remember? No, because we’ve never talked. Oh, yes we have, she insisted. We talked about your novel. It’s about a pilot. Yes, there is a pilot in A Home for an Exile’s Heart, but my novel is not about him. He’s the love interest of my protagonist, a widowed Latvian refugee. That information is available on Twitter and in several Latvian Facebook groups. What must have seemed like the clincher, to prove we’d talked, she said she’d told me about the Latvian tradition of giving bouquets consisting of an odd number of flowers. Bouquets with even numbers of blossoms are only for funerals. Why she thought that was relevant to anything, I don’t know.
After admitting that she’s pushy, she gave me the thumbs up. I gave her the thumbs down. She thought that was rude. I unfriended her. Thank goodness she lives on the other side of the world.
This is what happens when we put ourselves out there on social media. I want people to read my book so I’m going to keep putting myself out there in hopes of attracting an audience.
I didn’t make a friend, but I got a blog post out of it. That’s something.
The colorful folk costumes most Latvians are familiar with may seem to have been around forever, but they actually date back only as far as the 19th Century.
Photos of archaeological folk costumes were used with permission from the Latvian National Cultural Center.
These are the garments worn by the peoples from the various tribes that came together to form modern Latvia. The folk costumes, decorations, and jewelry were recreated from fragments found in archeological digs. The clothing shown here is very similar to that worn by other Nordic people.
The word Nordic derives from “nord” meaning “north,” which would include the people of Northern Europe who live along the Baltic Sea.
I love the subtle colors of these costumes, especially the different shades of blue.
Map of Latvia’s different regions.
The woman’s wool cloak is decorated with braided bands and fringe around the edges. She’s wearing a narrow belt that’s the precursor of elaborately woven modern belts of the 19th Century. On her belt, she is wearing small chains that hold tools, such as keys, sewing needles, and amulets. Modesty required that married women keep their hair covered. Rings were made of bronze or an alloy of lead and tin.
The information from the Cultural Center doesn’t specify how the blue color was achieved. However, it was most likely woad, Isatis tinctoria, which was used throughout Europe until the 17th Century. Crafters in our century also use dye from the Isatis tinctoria plant.
Decorations on men’s clothing are minimal, except for embroidery at the neckline which is fastened with the same style horseshoe-shaped brooch. He’s wearing a leather belt with a tooled scabbard for his dagger.
Children were adorned with more jewelry and their clothes were more elaborately decorated than clothes for adults.
The mantle is studded with woven-in bronze studs. The linen shirt and wool shawl are fastened with horseshoe-shaped brooches, a design that is still used in Latvian jewelry. Her torc necklace is decorated with metal tassels that are used to this day in Latvian jewelry design. My mother once has a silver bracelet like the headband the model is wearing.
Unmarried women wear headbands or coronets of flowers, metal, or fabric that are embroidered and decorated with beads and crystals. Each region has its own characteristic designs.
The outfit consists of a shirt, trousers, tunic, and cloak. In the days before buttons brooches were used to fasten garments. The warrior’s status in society was indicated by his weapons–helmet, sword, and shield.
The Fourteenth Century brought many changes to clothing. The mantle is more ornately woven of wool and linen in more intricate patterns and decorated with fringes and fiber tassels, instead of metal ones. The bracelets are more delicate. The coronet is decorated with yellow glass beads.
Love at first sight, followed by happily ever after, is a popular trope in romance novels but is it something that can only happen in fiction?
The two main characters, a World War II Latvian refugee and an American fighter pilot, in my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart fall in love at the first touch of their hands as they gaze into each other’s eyes and sparks fly. My Latvian beta reader thought that was unrealistic. In fiction, it happens all the time but can it happen in real life? I told my reader my favorite anecdote about a true life love at first sight story. This is how I remember hearing it so my words may not be exact but the facts are.
Internationally famous Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was being interviewed on a radio show about his marriage to opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya.
Host: “Mr. Rostropovich, I understand that you and your wife married a week after you first met.”
Rostropovich: “Yes. It was a big mistake.”
Host, taken aback, stammers, “A m-mistake?”
Rostropovich: “Yes. We wasted a whole week.”
I love this story. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were married for fifty-two years, until his death. Though it may be rare, love at first sight, followed by a happily ever after does happen in real life.
Most of the time, it seems to me, a declaration of love can be premature. Some guy I once dated said that he loved me way too soon. I was not enchanted or bowled over. I said that he hardly knew me so how could he possibly love me? We hadn’t had any deep discussions or revelations of the secrets of our hearts. But he kept on declaring his love. Ove and over and over. Bleh. Maybe if he’d been the right guy I’d have been more receptive, even delighted. My advice, don’t date someone just because you’re lonely, bored, or depressed. Under such circumstances a “happily ever after” ain’t likely. If you meet a gem like Rostropovich or Vishnevskaya, go for it. Don’t settle for a rhinestone.
How do the love birds in my novel know they’ve found someone they can love forever? There’s an immediate sense of familiarity as if they’ve known each other forever. During their first evening together, they spend hours just talking. They open their hearts, tell each other things they’ve never told anyone else, things that reveal character.
As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It certainly can’t in a novel, so it doesn’t in A Home for an Exile’s Heart.