Circle games

Kids lined up in front of the great hall at the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp, Middle Island, NY, circa 1961

I’m the 8th from the left in the second row.
(To view larger image, click on the photo.)

I don’t know quite how they did it.

How did those struggling immigrants manage to pool their money to buy pieces of property in Long Island and elsewhere, and build, with their own hands, the structures that would house community events and celebrations for decades?

How did they manage to pack 50 or more Estonian-American kids ranging in age from 6 to 14 into a pair of two-room cabins and keep them amused and occupied for six weeks every July and August? How did they keep us speaking Estonian in spite of all the American influences bombarding us?

One answer is that there was a fierce sense of determination in our immigrant parents’ generation to keep the Estonian language and traditions alive  — as they were being wiped out in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic — and a burning hope that some day we would all move back to a free Estonia.

Many of our parents never lived to see the day in 1991 when the hated  Russian domination over their homeland was lifted and the immigrants were suddenly free to go back.  They had worked hard to keep their children as Estonian as possible, stretching hard-earned dollars to send us to Saturday schools to improve our grammar and learn our history.

Going home

Some  of our parents did move back to the Old Country. So have members of my generation, the sons and daughters of  the immigrants.  Estonia’s current president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, grew up in northern New Jersey not far from my home town, though I doubt that we ever met. Ilves was one of those who moved back. I’m one who didn’t.

As children we were taught the traditional Estonian songs and circle games of our parents’ generation. Circle  games are singing games played with participants standing in a circle, one or two in the middle choosing partners from the circle, or otherwise acting out parts of the song.  Americans have a few circle games too, such as “Ring Around the Rosy” and “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

The first  Estonian circle game many of us learned was probably “Kes aias”.  Children stand in a circle pretending to be rosebushes in a garden. One child in the center is a bee.  There are the words we sang:

 Kes aias, kes aias?

Mesilane aias.

Mis nimi, mis nimi?

(person’s name) tema nimi.

Käi läbi, käi läbi

Käi läbi roosipõõsaste

Ja otsi kohta kus sa saad

Ja lükka teine sisse.


Who’s in the garden?

Who’s in the garden?

A honeybee’s in the garden

What’s it’s name?

What’s it’s name?

(person’s name) is his or her* name

Go through

Go through

Go in and out the rosebushes

And find a place where you can

And push another to the center.
*Notice that the Estonian language does not use words
for “his” or “her”. Happily, it has an non-gender pronoun
“ta;” “tema” being its possessive and third-person form.
I love this peculiarity of Estonian and have long wished
that we could use ta to replace his and her in English. It
would have made my journalism career simpler.

Let’s say someone named Pat was slightly hurt in a car accident, but his or her car was totally destroyed. We don’t know whether Pat is male or female, so we need to waste time  making phone calls to see if we can find out whether Pat is a man or woman. We may not be able to get this information, because the police officer who filed the accident report is off-duty, and the editor is growling that it’s close to deadline.  It’s hard to fudge this in English. We can write “Pat Smith was slightly injured in a one-car accident on Dale Road yesterday evening, according to Smithville police. Smith’s car was totally destroyed. ”  But that’s too wordy.

Ta did it

If you work for a paper with a stylebook that insists you use Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. in front of a person’s last name, and you can’t find out Pat’s gender, you have a challenge. You work around this by writing   “Pat Smith was slightly injured in a one-car accident, but the car was totally destroyed” and the editor growls  that you failed to mention whether Pat is a he or a she.

How much simpler life would be if you could simply write “Pat Smith was slightly  injured in a one-car accident, but ta’s car was totaled. ”   Why does anyone need to know Pat’s gender, anyway?

Or, in another example, “Bill and Nancy need to take off ta’s shoes.”  There is no need for “his or her”, though it’s usually handled with the word “their” in Americanese, and “tema” in Estonian.

I’m going to start using ta in place of his or her on this blog, in the forlorn hope it will somehow catch on.

As usual, I’m wandering far off the original topic.

 Going in circles

Circle games were some of my favorite things about being raised Estonian. Another circle game we learned was “Üksinda, kõnnin ma” (All alone, I am walking). This one begins with a lone person walking around in the center of the circle, searching for a friend. When ta finds a friend among those around

the circle, ta pulls that person in  and they joyfully dance a polka measure together, that goes “Jah, jah, ja, sind tunnen ma, lähme veel kord tantsima. “ (Yes, yes, yes, I recognize you. Let’s go dancing once again.)

Many of the folk dances we learned at camp or Estonian school were also performed in circles.  One of the easiest was “Kalamees,” Fisherman.  I taught this to my daughter’s  Brownie troop for Thinking Day some years ago.

But why so many circles? I imagine they symbolize continuity, a way of life that inherently changes very little over the years. Spring comes, and crops are planted. Summer begins, and so does hay-making. Crops grow, and in the early autumn they are harvested. Winter looms, and people retreat indoors to read, to weave,  to repair fishing nets and farm implements.

Different nations may invade and conquer, but the Estonian people, who call themselves Maarahvas (Earth’s people) quietly maintain their traditions, their songs and their dances through the cycles of the seasons.  They leave, and then they come back.

Regarding the photo:

I can recognize less than half the kids in the camp photo.

Fifth from the left, second row is Merike Kammar, 7th from the left is Kati Saksniit, I’m next to Kati. Then a girl on my right named Tiina, Anne Hirs, Katrin Poola, Ines Lukmann, Sylvia Lukmann, Evi Fry and Karin Lukmann complete the second row.  In the first row, second from the left is Jaan Kuuse, 6th from the left might be Tommy Lukmann, last one on the right is my brother Pete.  Recognize someone? Let me know!



Suvekodu memories, continued

Erwin Pari of Tartu, Estonia, read the previous post about Estonian Children’s Summer Camp and offered a few comments.  Erwin was one of the very first group of campers at Suvekodu, some time in the late 1950s.

He recalls “Õhtupalve ” (Evening prayer), the closing song sung at campfires, with having slightly different words than I included yesterday:

Nüüd uni tule rutuga, et magama ma jääks
ja kata oma kätega, et värimus* must läeks.

Olin täna parem kui olin eile.

Olen homme parem kui olin täna”

Now dreams, come quickly so I can go to sleep
and cover with your hands, that (tiredness?) from me will depart
I was better today than I was yesterday.
I will be better tomorrow than I was today.
     * this must be a typo for väsimus – tiredness.
I think he is correct. I didn’t recall the exact words when I was writing, but  did an internet search, found them on an Estonian web site and lifted them verbatim, (Latin: word for word) into my post. Maybe there are other versions. Does anyone else remember a different version sung at camp?
Erwin also sent a photo of that first group of campers. Pastor Henn Hendrikson, who was camp administrator for many years, is at the far left.  Erwin is the second from the right in the striped T-shirt. Does anyone else recognize themselves in this digitally re-done photo?
Click on the photo to see an enlarged version.
If you would like to share your camp memories or photos, please contact me through this blog and I’ll try to include as many as I can. I’ll have to dig up some of my old photos too.
Pia Laupa Stegers, another former Suvekodu camper, says the person who made us watch the snake devour the frog was Pastor Hendrikson. This was an incident I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post. I thought it was Raivo Tars, one of the former counselors.  Was it one of them, or someone else?  Somebody must remember.

May daylilies

It looks and feels like July in Central Maryland, but it’s only the beginning of June.  Not surprisingly, this year’s unusually early spring has given way to an early summer.

A lot of things are blooming far earlier than what I used to consider normal. The semi-wild orange daylilies have been blooming for a couple of weeks, as have the hybridized  Stella D’oro daylilies. Deer come in the early, early morning hours to nibble the tender daylily buds.

Euell Gibbons, the late author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and promoter of eating food found in the wild, was a big fan of daylily buds, and wrote of dipping them in batter and frying them. Back in my hippie days in the 1970s, I experimented  with gathering and cooking wild plants, using his books as a guide. Among many other wild foods, I tried daylily buds, but they weren’t anything special as far as I recall.

Daylilies, called Hemerocallis from the Greek words for “day” and “beauty,”  are native to Korea, Japan and China, where the flowers and buds are consumed in dishes such as daylily soup, hot and sour soup, Mu Shu pork and Buddha’s delight.

Our familiar wild tawny daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, grows in many of our 50 states and is sometimes considered invasive and a nuisance.

Daylilies = summer

As a kid in New Jersey I always thought of daylilies as summer flowers,  raising their bright orange petals up like miniature Fourth-of-July fireworks. Daylilies  meant dusty summer roadsides, walking barefoot, stopping to catch a breath in the cool blue-green shade of fully leafed trees.  Not May flowers. There’s something odd going on when daylilies bloom in mid-May.

Daylilies in bloom spelled July and the start of Estonian summer camp on Long Island, tucked among the sandy pines and farms of Middle Island.

I started going to Eesti Laste Suvekodu (Estonian Children’s Summer Home) when I was seven, usually for a single week, sometimes two, because that’s all my parents could afford. They needed a mental health break from the perennial squabbling between my younger brother and myself. When he was old enough, he went to camp too. My parents must have celebrated their freedom.

Camp was sponsored by the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in the U.S., and took place for six weeks in July and August every summer. We were required to speak only Estonian at camp, and to take part in Lutheran church services there every Sunday. We had morning calisthenics, swimming, sports and lessons in Estonian language, history, folk songs and folk dancing.  Though I disliked folk dancing at the time because I was usually stuck with one of the awkward boys, I can remember the dance steps and the music on the record player and the smooth tiled floor of the Suur Saal (Great Hall).

 Scavenger hunts

We put on plays, had athletic competitions, and had vast and memorable all-day team scavenger hunts, borrowing pigs or cows from neighboring farmers to score the ultimate number of points. The year I was 13, I suddenly  keeled over with pain in the middle of  an exciting scavenger hunt, and wound up having my appendix removed that night. I was upset about missing the rest of the scavenger hunt and being stuck in a New York City hospital for 10 precious days of summer. I suppose now the doctor takes the thing out and they boot you out the door the same day.

Every Saturday there was a big bonfire for campers and our visitors, and we gathered around  for an evening of songs and funny skits. I don’t remember the skits now, but I remember the sparks flying high into the night sky, the scent of wood  smoke, the joy of singing together with our faces lit by firelight.

And when the fire was dying down, came  the hypnotic closing song. We all joined hands and swayed side to side singing this lullaby:

Uni tule rutuga et magama ma jääks.
Ka kata silmad kätega, et väsimus must läeks.
Olen homme parem kui olin eile.
Olen homme parem kui olin täna.” 

(Dreams, come quickly now so I can fall asleep.
I cover my eyes with my hands, so tiredness may go away.
I will be better tomorrow than I was yesterday.
I will be better tomorrow than I was today.)

Stuff we learned at camp

I learned so many useful things at camp. During the group hike back from a North Shore beach, out of view of the counselors, a friend offered me my first lit cigarette. I was 12,  and was I ever nauseous afterward. I learned that some of our counselors  purchased beer, vodka and other amenities and sometimes shared them with older campers. I had my first kiss, and later practiced making out with various boys when I was 12 or 13, although I was known as a shy goody-goody back at school.  I learned dirty jokes and the racy lyrics to some Estonian folk songs from our counselors. And I learned to cuss gloriously in English from the New York City kids, who were way more sophisticated than their sheltered suburban counterparts.

After returning from camp one summer — I must have been 9 or 10 — I proudly demonstrated my new collection of four-letter words to the neighborhood kids, most of whom were a couple of years younger.  Their mothers promptly informed me that I should have my mouth washed out with soap, and forbade their children to play with me or my brother, because we were Bad Influences.

During camp, we  mastered practical jokes such as short-sheeting beds or hiding a harmless snake in a counselor’s bunk.  Some of us learned to run very fast after trying these things.  We older girls stayed up late at night reading romance magazines out loud, or making up scary stories about a mysterious Black Cabin said to be in the woods. One summer we terrorized the little boys with a tale about a fictitious bloodsucking moth called the Orange Mooom (with three o’s) that would one day fly into their cabin, bringing doom.

Tower of bees

Once we made a tower of bees. One morning at breakfast, kids began catching the bees that buzzed around the mess hall between plastic juice glasses. It was tricky, but we succeeded in making a nice apartment tower of nine or ten furious bees trapped in a similar number of tumblers. Too bad for the poor kids who had KP duty that day, because they had to separate the glasses and dodge the bees.

During our rare free time, I rambled around the camp property alone, looking up wildflowers in a little pocket guide. I identified orange butterfly weed, Queen Ann’s Lace, chicory and many other familiar summer flowers.  I taught my friends to peel and chew on the roots of sassafras saplings for the taste of root beer, and we were always hunting for frogs to be our pets.

Still vivid in my mind is the time one girl’s pet frog was caught and slowly swallowed by a garter snake. Ignoring Ines’s tears and pleadings to rescue the frog, one of the counselors instructed us to watch nature in action, even pointing out how the hapless creature’s front feet, the last part swallowed, were clasped as if in prayer. It was a horrible experience.

 Change comes to Estonian camp

The Long Island Estonian community still owns the campsite and hosts a number of events there, including a sports competition and summer solstice bonfire this coming weekend. Part of me is tempted to go back and see the place again, but in addition to being an awful drive, the Suvekodu has inevitably changed over the past 50-some years.  They stopped holding summer camp for a while, but then it was revived due to popular demand from a new generation of Estonian-American parents with camp memories of their own. I wonder if today’s campers manage to get away with the stuff we did. I certainly hope so.

Where there were once deep pine and oak woods and strawberry farms surrounding our camp, friends tell me it is now surrounded on all sides by suburban development. It’s no longer an isolated  island of  carefree Estonian kids in a setting of rural beauty, except in our fragile memories.

I don’t think I can bear going back and witnessing the changes there.  There’s far too much change taking place in the world, particularly all the shifts and alterations in climate patterns that are bringing us daylilies as May flowers.