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!



4 comments on “Circle games

  1. David Tedder says:

    Sorry, their mother’s name was Irmgard.

  2. David Tedder says:

    My father was Estonian and we lived next to the Lukmanns from the late 50’s to 1967. In fact, the Lukmann kids you’ve named were older siblings to my best childhood friend, Erik Lukmann, and their mother, Irmard, was my godmother. And just to throw in one more coincidence, I went to the Estonian camp 1967, ’68 and ’69. I found a picture of the 1967 group on the camp’s website, and spotted myself. What wonderful memories– and a small world!

    • David, did you also go to Suvekudu in 1966? That was my last year there, and I think I remember you. I’m about a year younger than Sylvia and Tommy. Also, an Estonian-American friend wanted me to ask you if you have a sister named Anne.
      Nice to hear from you!

      • David Tedder says:

        No, I did not go to Suvekodu in 1966, and I do not have a sister named Anne, sorry. I did find a picture of myself on the Estonian House website, however. If you go here: and scroll down to the bottom, right, you will see among the gallery of photos, a picture entitled “oli nii…”. Click on it and that chubby little kid seventh from the left, looking up, is me (that tall boy in the rear, right is Lempidu Sorra, now a prominent doctor in NYC). This photo was taken in in 1967, my first year. Thank you for bringing this back to the forefront of my memory. Nowadays I can recall only brief moments of what was three summers– 18 weeks– of my childhood. My dad was an immigrant, a war child from Haapsalu, and he didn’t live to see Estonia’s liberation. I do recall the campground was beautiful, particularly the surrounding woods and a field of wildflowers across the street.

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