Life on two planets

Have you ever felt as if you inhabited two vastly different planets at the same time?

That’s about what it felt like growing up in two separate cultures, speaking two languages, playing by two sets of rules.

The Estonian part of my childhood involved automatically demonstrating great respect to anyone older than me, making a slight curtsey when I was introduced to an older person, recognizing that teachers and older people were always right, and so on.  I was to call all adults Mr. or Mrs. (Härra and Proua), or Aunt or Uncle (Tädi and Onu) if they were family friends, even if they were not related to us. I was pretty good at that stuff, Little Miss Polite herself.

But I had to keep all this excruciating politeness a dark secret from my American classmates, who would have laughed until they were sick. The day someone in the school cafeteria told me I ate like a chipmunk, I realized it was time to develop a façade of slobbiness in order to fit in. I put my elbows in the table and struggled to chew with my mouth open, even though, somewhere, Miss Manners wept.

My finest moment as Miss Polite came when I accepted my high school diploma and, shaking hands with the superintendent of schools, automatically curtsied, unable to stop myself. I still hope nobody noticed.

You will be assimilated

I’ve often thought of myself as too Americanized to be very Estonian, but at the same time loaded with too many peculiarities marking me as the child of Estonian immigrants to be a normal, average American. I’m sure there are many of us who have felt this way, just as immigrants’ children from many nations feel divided between cultures. In some cases, partially Americanized kids are required by their parents to wear special clothing in school, visibly indicating that they are different. Some are barred from dating or speaking with the opposite sex. Some must study hard at all costs to escape getting beaten at home for bringing home a B on the report card.

Luckily, Estonian-American kids didn’t have to face the hurdle of ethnic clothing, except for my little misadventure with stumpy shoes. We also don’t look different physically from average Caucasian Americans, except that some of us are a bit blonder.  In those respects we’ve been able to assimilate into American life much more easily than immigrants of other races and skin hues.

At the same time, there are rarely more than a couple of Estonian-American kids attending the same public school, because there simply aren’t that many of us. I was the only one in my school, except for my younger brother and briefly a girl his age who was half Estonian. She went to a different high school. It would have been lovely if there had been a few more of us, just to spread the weirdness around a little.

It was not easy explaining to my few close friends that I spent hours every other Saturday at Estonian school in Paterson. Or that we spoke a different language at home.  Or that I couldn’t join Brownies or Junior Girl Scouts, because I was an Estonian Girl Guide with a blue uniform and a white neckerchief. I so envied the normal American girls who wore their brown or green scout uniforms to school one day a week.

My secret identity

I had two lives, my public striving-to-act-American one, and my secret Estonian one. The differences became harder to balance as I got into my teens. In public school, I was an incredibly shy goody-goody nerd.

In my secret life as an Estonian girl, I was kissing boys at summer camp by age 9 or 10, expanding my vocabulary of cuss words, sampling cigarettes, and getting sips of beer from the older kids. At age 14, in 1966, I was going to New York City alone, riding the subways to Greenwich Village in a fruitless effort to see real hippies, or otherwise exploring the city. By then I was hanging out with a group of Esto friends, drinking beer at a bar near the Estonian House that didn’t card us. In New Jersey, the legal drinking age was 21, 18 in New York. I doubt my American classmates were doing this sort of stuff yet.

In high school I starved all week, eating nothing but a bag of Fritos and an orange for lunch every day, in order to save bus fare for Friday-nighters at the Estonian House. There we practiced folk dancing, mingled and had fun.

On Monday mornings I, SuperEstoGirl, put on my disguise as a mild-mannered loser who never got asked to parties or dances, and slunk back to high school for another boring week. I kept my Estonian life strictly separate, because I didn’t want to get a reputation as a wild partier, even though I was about average for an Esto kid in the 1960s.

How many other children of immigrants possess secret identities, struggling to appear as normal as possible in school, while keeping their families happy by dressing and behaving according to their ethnic traditions? For some kids the challenges are far more difficult than they were for me. We’ve all read about parents who punish or even kill daughters for stepping outside their cultural boundaries. This is horrifying. If parents are so hell-bent on keeping their children insulated from American life, why come here in the first place?

If one brings a family here so the kids can attend American public schools, one can’t expect those children to remain permanently immune to outside influences. I’m not saying that American culture is without flaws; there are plenty of things I’d like to see changed here if I could wave a magic wand. I’d love to see less violent television and movies, fewer video games, less material spoiling of children. And I wish there was a serious nationwide effort to eliminate the vicious bullying that too often makes school a nightmare for some kids. I’ve been there.

Victim of ignorance

Perhaps my worst experience as an immigrants’ child was in third grade. My mother came to a parent-teacher conference, during which she attempted to explain to the ignorant old bat who taught our class that we were Estonians. For some reason the teacher concluded that we were Russians, even though my mother tried patiently to explain that we were not. But to the teacher, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, therefore we were Russians and godless Communists, and therefore Enemies of America.

From then on, that horrible hag singled me out and picked on me every way she could. She looked hard for ways to criticize me. I remember one day she asked the class to name all the root vegetables. I raised my hand, was called on, and said “Parsnip.”  She loudly told me there was no such thing, that I meant parsley, and she implied that I was very stupid. When I tried to write a poem about a bird, she loudly criticized it in front of the class (which backfired on her because it made me determined to write poetry. Ultimately I ended up giving poetry readings in college, getting a few things published in tiny literary magazines at college, and selling two poems to Cosmopolitan magazine years ago. So there, Miss M.)

The rotten teacher made me the class scapegoat, and the following year she  kicked me out of the school harmonica band on a pretext, in front of all the other kids. Her treatment led to my getting picked on by the meaner kids in the school, and this bullying lasted all the way to my senior year in high school. There were times I considered suicide because of it, but I was determined not to give my tormentors the satisfaction. The bullying was not related to my secret life as an Estonian, even though it started with the fact of being Estonian. Heaven help me if my schoolmates had ever found out about that.

I was never allowed to fight or talk back, because I was supposed to be Miss Polite Little Estonian, and when I wept about it to my mother, she told me that they were just jealous because I was smart. Hold your head up high and rise above it, she said. Not good advice. She or my dad should have shown me how to talk back and encouraged me to make fun of them on the playground. But that solution would not have been acceptable to my parents, nor would it have occurred to them. Good Esto kids did NOT talk back to anyone, ever.

Instead, I grew up wary and distrustful of people, even among my Esto peers. When one of the most attractive boys in high school asked me out, I refused, because I was sure he was doing it to make fun of me, and that if I said yes, others around me would burst out laughing. It didn’t enter my head that as a relative newcomer to town, he didn’t know about my history as a scapegoat, and just wanted to ask me on a date. (Sorry, Peter S. )

How many of you, dear readers, have stories or anecdotes about your life on two different ethnic planets? If you’d like to share them, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.


Struggling to turn American

I dreaded my mother’s visits to our school.

Normal American moms were a common sight at Pines Lake Elementary School. They came for teacher conferences and volunteered in classrooms back in the day when the majority of moms didn’t go to work.

Much as I loved Mama, around 4th or 5th grade I grew deeply embarrassed by her clothes, which positively screamed “I am an immigrant from someplace weird,  and not your normal American mom.”

That headscarf she wore, for example. She called it a babushka, the Russian word for grandmother.  It was a big square cotton scarf, folded in half diagonally, the ends tied under her chin, and the other corner resting  on her back.  You know, the Eastern European peasant look. Mama wore scarves outdoors most of the time, except in summer. I didn’t know anybody else at school whose mother wore a scarf like that.

The scarf wouldn’t have stuck out too much in Paterson, the nearby city where we lived until I was in first grade. Our old neighborhood was full of women who were recent immigrants. I remember seeing them hang  laundry and  converse over backyard fences in other languages, probably German, Dutch or Polish.  Our landlord, who lived upstairs from us, was Polish.  My mother fit in fairly well there, since she was fluent in German and knew some Polish, but my family moved to the suburbs for better schools and a bit of yard around the house.

Stumpy shoes with laces

In addition to the scarf, Mother always wore a dress or a dark skirt and a pullover, with  Hush Puppies shoes on her feet.  Usually she sewed the skirts herself. I never saw her in slacks until I was in college. Outside the house, she often wore stumpy leather shoes that laced up the front, with thick heels like the ones worn by nuns and old ladies.

Worse yet, she insisted that I wear similar stumpy shoes that laced up the front, only mine had a lower heel. She found them in some unimaginable shoe  store that seemed to specialize in ugly footwear. The shoes she picked out for me were, she said, of  good quality, good for my feet,  and would last a long time. (She was right about that last part, as I’ll explain.)

Normal American girls at school wore black patent maryjane shoes, penny loafers or something along those lines. Maybe kids somewhere in Estonia wore stumpy shoes that laced, but I attended school in Wayne, New Jersey, less than 20 miles from New York City, and I would almost rather have died than be seen wearing those shoes in public.

I was bullied and scapegoated at school, and knew for certain that wearing those shoes would make me even more of a target for mockery.  For the first time in my life, I objected to an order from my mother.

Wear them or else

The way my brother and I were raised, an Estonian kid didn’t ever argue back to parents or elders. Mother had no idea how much I suffered in school, nor did I dare tell her. She would have tied on her headscarf and marched to the school principal to complain, like she did when I was in third grade.  And later I would have felt repercussions from the other kids.

My mom’s response to my objections was “too bad” or whatever the equivalent Estonian phrase was.  She pointed out again that the shoes were expensive and of good  quality, so I had to wear them.

At this point, I felt I had little choice: wear the dratted shoes and be jeered at by classmates, or get sneaky. I got sneaky.

Every school morning in fifth grade I clomped out of the house in stumpy shoes, down the path through the woods to school. Once I was out of my mother’s sight, I put down the horrible big briefcase she forced me to carry, and took out a pair of tan canvas Kedettes, a slightly dressier version of Keds sneakers that she let me wear in the summer. I changed shoes in the woods every day, reversing the process  going home. It was not possible for me to petition for shoes like the other girls wore. We didn’t have the money, and that was that.

After a summer of blessed release from the obligation of wearing stumpy shoes, I started sixth grade, and somehow was allowed to acquire a pair of loafers. I wore them to school constantly. Mama complained that I never wore those nice, good quality stumpy shoes any more, even though they looked practically as good as new — as though they had never been worn!  I quietly said they were ugly and out of style. Unfortunately they still fit me, because I didn’t grow much.

Lime green stumpy shoes

Mom’s response was to buy a bottle of shoe dye in a particularly noxious shade of lime green, and paint the shoes to jazz them up. Now they looked more modern, and I could wear them in style, she said,  flourishing them in front of my horrified eyes.

Back I went to subtle resistance, smuggling loafers out of the house and switching shoes on the way to school. If life was tough in elementary school, it was nothing compared to the adolescent hormone hell of junior high school.

Around that time my mother started suffering intense back pain and headaches, thought to be arthritis. In consequence, she stopped supervising our before-school routine. Ever the opportunist, I ditched the Green Horrors in the closet, and wore my loafers every day.

I used to nurture a secret grudge against a pair of much-older second cousins, Inge and Olga,  who lived in a nearby town, because their mother gave me their hand-me-down clothes. Not only were the clothes at least eight years out of style, but some of them looked downright  awful to me. I particularly loathed a dark green plaid dress that  was too big for me and featured a small rhinestone poodle on a white collar. Then there were dirndl dresses.

How to look like a yodeling contestant

Dirndls, which are worn in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, have a white blouse with a wide neckline and puffy short sleeves, with a wideish black cummerbund sort of thing and a colorful skirt trimmed with rick-rack ribbon in contrasting colors. When I wore one, I looked like I was headed to a yodeling competition, definitely not like the Normal American Kid I yearned to be.  Those dirndls were meant for kids of average size, but I was small and skinny so they hung on me like flour sacks. Mother and Aunt Hilda thought I looked adorable in them, naturally.

Once Mother became ill, I was no longer forced to wear the poodle dress or the dratted dirndls.  I picked out a few things that seemed  less weird than the others, and made do with those. In 7th grade my classmates wore wraparound skirts, Madras plaid shirts, nylons and black t-strap shoes with pointy toes. In my hand-me-downs I still looked odd, but not quite as odd. Then  I inherited some clothes from my Estonian friend Kati, who was a year older. Her clothes weren’t out of date, to my vast relief.

To be fair, Mama wasn’t any happier among those normal American housewives than I was among their kids.  Most of the neighborhood women had high school diplomas or beauty school certificates, while she was one of the first women to study law at Estonia’s prestigious Tartu University before the war intervened.  Her father had a law degree from the same university, and her grandfather was a professor of theology there.  My mother was cultured, highly intelligent, and spoke four languages fluently. She was bored out of her mind in our community, longing to live in a city where she could visit the opera or ballet, and discourse with other educated people.

There were a couple of German neighbors she befriended gratefully, and she had Estonian friends who lived in other towns. However my father wouldn’t allow her to learn to drive, so the only times she got out of the house were for the weekly grocery trip on Saturdays, or accompanying us to Estonian school and church, rarely to visit friends.  Mama could have been one of the first female lawyers in Estonia, but she was stuck, carless, in suburbia. I’m sure this played a part in the deep depression she endured until  her death in 1975, when she was 54 and I was 23.

Trying to keep us Estonian

I understand now why she made me dress like an Estonian school kid, and why she forced me to bring the teacher a bouquet of flowers from the garden on the first day of school every year, like kids did in Estonia.  She wanted to keep me as Estonian as possible, in case Estonia regained its freedom from the Soviet Union and we could go home.  But my parents didn’t realize that the Estonia they left during the war no longer existed. Estonia changed with the times too.

Immigrant parents the world over want to teach their children their old ways, just in case they someday can go home. And like me, first-generation kids born in the new country get caught trying to balance between two worlds — their parents’ old world, and the contemporary world around them. It’s a struggle for everyone involved.  Especially if your family’s from a tiny country practically nobody ever heard of, and there aren’t other kids like you so you can stick together.

Women don’t drive cars – or do they?

The Old World-New World struggles in my family weren’t limited to clothes. I was never allowed to speak English at home until I went to college.  Worse, my father refused to let me learn to drive, because women weren’t supposed to drive cars. I got a boyfriend to teach me secretly and take me to get my license. Even though my father found out, there was nothing he could do about it after the fact. I’d become an expert at sneakiness with those ghastly green shoes.   Sneakiness to some, self-preservation to others.

I wasn’t supposed to go to college because there wasn’t enough money, and males went before females. I was supposed to live at home and work at some retail job while my younger brother went to college, only it didn’t work out that way. My  grades were good enough to earn me a full scholarship to Northeastern University, and a partial scholarship to American University. My father, however, wanted me to attend Paterson State Teachers College  (now called William Paterson University) because it was cheap, and because I could walk there from our house. This way he could save the cost of room and board, and avoid buying me a used car. Since my second cousins went there and became teachers, Paterson State was considered acceptable.

The application to Paterson State mysteriously disappeared into my school locker  and wasn’t unearthed until the application deadline had passed. Oops, I said innocently.

In addition to the scholarships, I was accepted at the new Livingston College  that was part of Rutgers University. My father grudgingly borrowed the money from my godfather, and I was free at last, free to try to become a normal American college student.

A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.

A Vegetarian Estonian

Trying to cook traditional Estonian dishes is a challenge if you’re a vegetarian.

Since we gave up eating meat a few years ago, I’ve come to realize that Estonian holiday meals are a problem. A traditional Estonian Christmas Eve dinner, for example, features roast pork, sauerkraut, potatoes and blood sausage, accompanied by lingonberrry jam. Take away the meat, and there’s not much left. Moreover, the sauerkraut is cooked with lots of fatty pork for that special flavor. None of us will eat blood sausage, fortunately, but I’ve been trying to develop a menu that includes some of the dishes and accommodates the three vegetarians.

Our older daughter has been a vegetarian for 16 years. Her younger sister still eats meat. I often make Indian, Chinese and Italian-style dishes that are okay with everybody. But dealing with holiday meals is a challenge.

Two years ago I found a recipe for meatless mushroom strudel that makes a nice main dish for Christmas Even though it’s not Estonian, it goes with the (meatless) sauerkraut and potatoes.  I still make a small amount of roast pork for the younger daughter and any guests who are not of the vegetarian persuasion.

Thanksgiving is a whole other story. I’m not even sure my immigrant family celebrated it until I was around 12, when my mother decided to give it a try. It was not a big deal to us.

I’ve never cooked anything Estonian on Thanksgiving – only American dishes. Some Estonian-American friends make a pot of sauerkraut to serve alongside the turkey and other fixings, but I feel there’s enough to do without adding another item to the menu. As for the vegetarian aspect, we’ve experimented with the tofu turkeys and the Quorn turkeys, and frankly I can’t stand them.

So I’ve been cruising the internet searching for something that would make a festive but meatless main dish, without being extremely complicated. Stuffed acorn squash seems to be the answer.

The vegetarian Reuben

During my quest I made a fabulous discovery — Vegetarian Reuben sandwiches. It’s been ages since I had a decent Reuben, the kind you get in New York City and parts of New Jersey. Marylanders for the most part are clueless about them. Needless to say, my Estonian immigrant parents never heard of things like Reubens, pastrami or corned beef, and as a result I was unacquainted with them until I was in my 20s. I never knew what a bagel was either, until I got to college.

The best Reubens I knew were from the late, lamented Hockey’s Deli on Albany Street in New Brunswick, NJ, back before that block was urbanly renewed into a big chain hotel a few decades ago. Believe me, this was not an improvement. Many wonderful little ethnic eateries and bookstores in New Brunswick vanished as the result of redevelopment. The town used to teem with Hungarian restaurants, but I think they’re all gone. In the 70s or 80s there was an influx of refugees from Lebanon who contributed their Middle Eastern dishes to the local dining scene. Gone. Now there are expensive places with bland corporate menus, and one holdout, Doll’s, which was relocated to make room for another of New Brunswick’s multitude of parking garages. My daughter still drops in at Doll’s when she’s in town.

Here is the Vegetarian Reuben, adapted to reduce some of the calories:

Rye bread
Reduced fat Swiss cheese
Sauerkraut (preferable the kind that comes refrigerated in plastic bags)
Butter (I use a spread made with butter and olive oil – easier to spread and less cholesterol)
Homemade Russian dressing

Drain the sauerkraut well and warm it a bit in the microwave.
Butter one side of a slice of rye and put it butter side down in a frying pan. Top with cheese, some sauerkraut, more cheese, and another slice of bread. Butter the top slice and start cooking over medium heat. Push it down with a spatula and flip over to brown the other side. Serve hot with Russian dressing on the side for dipping.

Russian Dressing (this is an amalgam of several recipes)

Mix together
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A few dashes of paprika
A few dashes of celery seed or celery salt

I made this last week. My daughters swooned.

But getting back to the issue of finding vegetarian Estonian recipes, I learned that during the Soviet occupation, meat was extremely difficult to find. When Estonia regained its freedom in 1991, my aunt and cousin told me they hadn’t eaten it in a very long time. So what did they cook in its place? Surely there must be a variety of meatless dishes that Estonians relied on during those long years.

Estonian peasant food

In the 19th century, meat was a rare delicacy for the typical Estonian peasant, according to Silvia Kalvik, who published a cookbook called (translated) Estonian Cuisine in 1981. In the 1800s, she writes, the main meal of the peasants consisted of porridge or soup, usually barley soup. It was served with bread and, if available, salted herring. Other typical soups were based on beans, peas, lentils, cabbage and fish. During the summers, milk soup was frequently served.

While the Estonian pea soup my mother made always included a ham bone, it seems to me that one could find fairly balanced vegetarian dishes among these older traditional foods. Sour milk, milk curds and roasted meal made from a combination of grains and pulses (beans, peas, lentils) were other protein sources in the peasant diet.

Hemp seed recipes

Estonians also used to eat hemp seeds, though not in the 20th century. My mother’s very old Estonian cookbook includes a recipe for pirukad (pierogies) filled with mashed hemp seed, which they called kanep (derived from the word cannabis). Mashed hemp seed, which probably resembled peanut butter, was also spread on bread and baked in pies. I doubt that their hemp, which was grown primarily in eastern and southern Estonia, contained enough THC to get anyone high. There were other foods prepared with hemp seed.

“Hemp seed milk was a milk substitute poured on soups or served with porridges when the cows were not in milk, ” Kalvik writes.

Obviously I’m not going to start making Estonian hemp seed dishes, because the stuff remains illegal in most states. If the laws change and people begin growing low-THC hemp to make rope and fabric, it would be interesting to try out some of those hemp seed-based peasant foods and find out what they were like.

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.

The teeth of winter

Whenever there was a gloriously spring-like day in February or March during my childhood, and I sped out to play in short sleeves, my mother grimly followed me, carrying an outer garment and offering her usual warning:

“Suve silmad, talve hambad.” 

Translated, the Estonian words mean: “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter.”

By extension it means that no matter how beautiful and warmly enticing the weather might appear, you can’t trust it. If you run around without a jacket you will catch a chill and eventually get a bad cold or even pneumonia. And then you’ll be sorry.

Oh, how I dreaded hearing those four words. It meant I had to stop whatever I was doing, cease  from enjoying the feel of sunlight and air on my bare arms, and put on a bulky jacket in front of all the kids in the neighborhood. Everyone else was outdoors without jackets or hats, and I felt like an idiot.

As I got older I patiently explained to Mom that the northern climate of Estonia , where she grew up, was nothing like that of New Jersey. It was like talking to a stone.  Pointless.  Sensible people did not run around outdoors without jackets until spring had definitely arrived with a long stretch of reliably warm weather.  In Estonia, the thaws didn’t begin until late April or May.

The day might  smile on you with the lovely eyes of summer, but it could bite  with the ferocious teeth of a winter wolf,  if you didn’t take precautions.

To be fair, Mother was a child in a world without antibiotics or other amenities of modern medicine. Back in those days, catching  a bad cold could be fatal.  She told me she came close to dying from an agonizing middle ear infection when she was very young, maybe 4.  Penicillin was discovered in 1928, when she was eight years old.

Although I don’t remember a time when antibiotic medicines were unavailable, there were other illnesses in my youth that threatened children as well as adults.  In the year I was born,  1952, there were  58,000 new cases of polio reported in the United States. Parents lived in terror of polio, which killed or crippled many victims for life.  In 1955, the introduction of the Salk polio vaccine was the first sign of hope that the virus might be some day be conquered. The Sabin oral polio vaccine, licensed in 1962, offered an even better chance of immunizing children against this dreaded disease.

I barely remember lining up at school to receive doses of oral vaccine on a sugar cube when I was 10 or 11. Three separate  doses were required to provide immunity in 95 percent of those receiving it.  What a tremendous relief that must have been for our parents’ generation.

In those days, kids still ran the risks of catching what were considered the usual childhood diseases, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Smallpox had been virtually eradicated, with the last  outbreak in the U.S. having occurred in Texas in 1949. With measles, you were supposed to stay in a darkened room and not expose the eyes to sunlight. If you had the mumps, you’d be unable to eat pickles until it was over because your throat was so sore.  And chickenpox was miserably itchy.

There was also a milder childhood illness called German measles (Rubella) that reached pandemic levels in the early 1960s in the U.S. and Europe. Because it was known to cause severe birth defects and miscarriages, mothers brought their daughters to visit a child with German measles and drink from the same glass. They hoped the girls would catch the disease and become immune to it, eliminating the risk of catching it years later when they might be pregnant. My mother took me to a neighbor child’s house to catch German measles this way.

Our mothers were thankful when we recovered from measles, mumps, chicken pox and German measles unscathed.  All these diseases carried secondary risks. Measles, chickenpox and German measles could cause serious hearing impairment, and mumps could leave a boy sterile, lead to pancreatitis or meningoencephalitis, or infect a girl’s ovaries.

By the time my kids arrived in the 1980s, there were vaccines for measles, mumps and German measles, usually administered as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot.  However, they didn’t  escape chickenpox, for which a vaccine was not  introduced until the mid-1990s.  They had to take the usual oatmeal baths to relieve  the itching. I remember Hayley  returning to school before her spots faded, in order to be in the second-grade play.  She performed as a leopard in a brown and yellow spotted costume, with real spots on her face and hands.

I have chickenpox on my mind lately, because of the real possibility that the dormant varicella-zoster virus can re-awaken and cause the painful condition called shingles. My husband had a mild case of it last year, and my brother and elderly aunt suffered badly  from it the previous year. In some cases it can be sheer agony. I’m planning to be vaccinated against it in a few weeks when I turn 60.


Turning back to the “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter” proverb, I think I did everything I could to taunt Fate as a teenager, as teenagers are wont to do. We were lucky to live near a lake that froze solid for  three months every winter, and ice skating was a popular wintertime activity. My dad taught me to skate when I was 8 years old. While  not destined to be a great skater due to wobbly ankles, I spent countless hours on the ice.

In junior high school, I raced home to change into skating clothes, grab my skates and walk to the lake almost every winter day. My skating outfit was my mother’s nightmare – a very short skirt, tights, and a heavy knit sweater over a lighter shirt.  It didn’t even faintly resemble  what she considered adequate winter outerwear.

Mother’s idea of proper winter outer garb included a heavy fur or fake-fur coat like you see on Russian women in old pictures. You looked like a cross between a bear and a small mountain in it. You would also wear thick boots, heavy mittens, a fur hat and a wool scarf wound around your neck, partly covering the face.  I wouldn’t have been caught dead dressed like that, winter or no winter.  And definitely not for skating.

We had long, serious winters back in the 1960s, with lots of snow. In my teens  I used to go out on the lake, skating for three hours or longer, taking breaks to warm frozen fingers at the bonfire on the snowy beach. Finally I’d go home around 8 p.m., thaw out my feet and hands, eat a bite of dinner, tackle homework and fall into bed. It was always a sad day when the weather began to warm and the lake ice developed cracks that made skating unsafe.

Just before my senior year of high school we moved to another part of town that lacked a lake, but to our joy featured a nice little swamp tucked back in the woods. Not many people skated there because the place was out of the way and there wasn’t room to play ice hockey.  My brother and I used to tear through the swamp like maniacs on skates, zigzagging in and out through the trees, grabbing hold of a tree trunk and spinning around it until we were dizzy.

I can’t believe how little the cold bothered me as a teenager. When I walked to the bus stop in high school on cold winter mornings with temperatures hovering at 9 degrees or so,  I usually wore a school jacket that barely reached my hips, a skirt as short as I dared, barelegged, or wearing knee socks or thin nylon stockings.  I could not do this today.

Girls did not wear pants to school during my school years. It was strictly forbidden, although in elementary school there was one exception: we could wear them to school and from school if there was, say, three feet of snow on the ground. We had to sit down and take off those pants as soon as we got inside the classroom.  We only put them on again just before dismissal. We didn’t wear them during recess, even though we played outdoors in almost every kind of weather.

I remember going out on a playground covered with  a foot of slush and snow, wading through this glorious mess with my classmates. We slipped down the icy slide and swung on the swings until the teacher’s whistle called us in to  take off our boots and coats. Our shoes and socks were soaked through, but they usually dried before the school day was over.

My daughters never had outdoor recess at their Maryland elementary school if it rained or snowed. Of course if we receive a dusting of snow, the entire Washington, DC region goes into Full Winter Panic Mode, with numerous school closings and late openings or early dismissals for all Federal government employees, of which we have many.

Most school systems started allowing girls to wear pants in 1970, the year after I graduated.  Now kids get away with wearing nearly everything, and the teachers and principal are grateful that the kids aren’t bare naked.

By the time I had children of my own, I too followed them around with sweaters or light jackets on mild winter days.  I’d mumble “Suve silmad, talve hambad” under my breath like a magical incantation. And my non-Estonian speaking, wholly American daughters replied, “Huh?”