Portrait - January, 2007

In response to a few requests for pictures of my father I have put together a very brief assortment of photos of him at various stages in his life with a short commentary/explanation of them. In writing this I’m embarrassed by how little I actually know about his early life (i.e before I was born) – he was a reticent man, especially about his own accomplishments and life. On my first trip to Latvia back in 1998 I was able (with great difficulty) to convince him to take a few days away from the farm and show me and my youngest, Tālis, where he was born and grew up. Without that trip this entry would be very short indeed. As it is, in writing it has grown much longer than originally intended. I’ll understand if you just surf down to the thumbnails and look at the pictures.

He was born in 1921 in Eleja, Latvia, a small farming community near the Lithuanian border, the eldest son of a new landowner. The Latvian government was then reforming land ownership after 500+ years of occupation by Germans and Russians, and was breaking up the old German gentry estates as well as distributing more marginal land to those who were landless, in parcels averaging 15 hectares (37 acres), a suitable size for a subsistence family farm in those pre-tractor days.

His childhood, as far as he told us, was a fairly typical one for the time – as a boy he had many chores to do on the farm, including herding the family pigs in the forest. The time spent herding to him was his favourite time, no other responsibilities or adults supervising him, so long as he brought all the pigs home in the evening his day was his own. He learned how to fish without a pole (tickling their stomaches until you could get your hands around them and throw them ashore, or else snaring them with a wire loop), create whistles from willow branches in the spring, playing cards (hand-made) with the neighbour’s son on a tree stump. It was a care-free but frugal life, he remembered getting his first new shoes (for school), didn’t get a bike until he was 16, but this frugality stood him well in later life as a refugee and new immigrant, although he never could understand my spend-thrift ways.

He attended the local primary school, then attended an agricultural high-school in Mežotne as a boarding student, there not being enough children in the vicinity to support a local high school and no school buses yet available to transport students daily the 30 or so miles to the school. I know that he enjoyed learning new things and ideas (as he did all his life) and he told me about his frustration in not being able to convince his father, a farmer of the old school, to try these new ideas out. As a kid I have fond memories of driving with my family through the Ontario countryside – he would point out all the well-run farms, little realising he would end up his life fulfilling his dream to be a farmer.

During the German occupation of Latvia (after a year of Russian occupation – I’ll tell more about that in the next posting when I do a “Short History of Latvia” entry) he was drafted (an illegal draft according to the Geneva conventions, BTW) into the German Air Force Auxiliary and was posted at various airfields around Latvia, mainly operating an anti-aircraft gun, and towards the end of the war, during the winter of 1944/45, was withdrawn along with most of the German military, ending up the war in Denmark, where he and his fellow draftees “lost” their German uniforms and joined the rest of the mass of refugees in Germany. The rest of his family remained in Latvia, he never saw his parents again.

Men’s choir, Germany, 1946

He ended up in a refugee camp in north Germany near Flensburg where there were approximately 20,000 other Latvian refugees. There wasn’t a lot to do in the camps, no real jobs to be had, so educational and cultural activities were how many spent their days, my father included – the picture above is of him singing in a men’s ensemble in the camps (he’s in the second row, middle). This was also where he first met my mother, who was living there with her family, and eventually they were engaged. Getting a wedding ring was a problem, there was no money, and you couldn’t buy a ready-made gold ring, you had to supply your own gold. As far as I know, for the first and only time in his life my father turned to the black market and started smuggling, of all things, herring. Latvians love herring, and Flensburg, being near the sea, had herring to spare. He would buy a load of herring (what exactly constitutes a load of herring is beyond me, I assume a barrel of salted herring), smuggle it by train through the British and French zones to the American controlled southern part of Germany, where Latvians were dying for herring, and trade the load for old gold watches. Once he had enough watches he was able to trade them in to a jeweler for their wedding rings.

Wedding day, 1949

By this point my mother’s family had emigrated to England, he followed, and in 1949 they were married. My sister, Ilze, was born at Christmas the same year, I was born 4 years later in 1953, at which point we were living not far from London. He always complained that the English had horrible food, you couldn’t find sour cream, rye bread or mushrooms anywhere (and they are staples of the Latvian diet), so he started growing his own mushrooms. Unfortunately they became insect infested, and, since money was scarce, he made his own bug-repellent – soak cigarette butts over night in water to get the nicotine, then spray it on the mushrooms, the nicotine kills off the insects. There is a family legend that at some point the mushrooms weren’t rinsed enough before cooking and we all got ill. Years later, as a boy in Canada, I discovered a technical manual in the basement on raising poultry, and there was a well-thumbed section entitled “Sexing Your Chicks”. I, of course, being a pre-pubescent boy, giggled mightily at this, until my father explained that he had worked on a poultry farm in England checking each new-born chick to see if it would be a hen or a rooster. It’s not as easy as you might think. In search of a better life we emigrated to Canada in 1954, arriving by boat just after my first birthday in May.

We arrived at our host family’s farm outside Brampton (Latvian friends of the family who had been in Canada since 1949) on a Friday, my father walked into town on the Saturday, got a job as a painter, started work on the Monday, and from then until his retirement 32 years later never spent a day unemployed. A year later we moved to Toronto. He worked hard all those years, eventually becoming a first-class stationary engineer, and ended up managing the power plants at Seiberling Rubber and Goodyear Tire.

After retiring in 1986 he spent a lot of time fixing up the family cottage in north Burlington, but once the Soviet Union started to collapse and it became possible for us to regain ownership of my mother’s family estate in Latvia he was ready to go, for the last 15 years they have spent over half the year in Latvia restoring the family farm, and spend winter in Canada.

After 55 years of marriage….

Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of them on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated here in Latvia, those photos are in Burlington, but this one of them with my daughter Ieva was taken around the time of their 55th anniversary.

Viesturs men’s choir

He was a life-long singer, and especially loved to sing with others in various ensembles and choirs. He had a love for men’s choirs, the sound of a good male choir was a special treat to him. For close to 30 years he sang in the men’s choir pictured above, for many of those years served as it’s president, and was especially proud when I joined him in the choir after my voice stabilised, both of us singing tenor.

Christmas carols with the family

But any chance to sing with others, whether at parties, by a campfire or in the car on long drives with the family, was not to be missed. A family tradition on Christmas Eve, after church and a huge meal, but before the gifts are opened, is for everyone to sing Christmas carols. Of course, the kids, while young, all clamor for the singing to end so that they can get to the gifts, however as they get older the time spent caroling increases, much to the adults amusement. At his wake, my sister’s son Žanis gave a moving farewell speech on behalf of all the grandchildren and requested that we sing my father’s favourite Christmas carol. He would have appreciated that.

His last choir, January, 2007

His last choir was a family ensemble of 22 singers my wife Dace put together for Žanis’s wedding in January of this year. My father was at first unwilling to participate, saying his singing days were over, however we were able to convince him to join in as this would be his last choir and what better way to end his choir years then by singing at his own grandson’s wedding.

Latvian Song Festival, Toronto, 1964

Latvians have a long tradition of Song Festivals, where choirs from all over the country participate. The tradition started back in 1873, a festival is held every 4 or 5 years, and the final concert when all the choirs join in is a musical spectacle not to be missed, the mass choir having over 10,000 singers. With the emigration of over 100,000 Latvians (out of a population just over 2 million at the time) to the west at the end of the war the tradition was rekindled in Canada as well as the other countries where they ended up. From 1962 on my father was the chairman of the festival in Canada, finally “retiring” in 1992 as he was spending so much of his time in Latvia. During that time there were 5 festivals. The biggest of them was in 1970, the massed choir concert in Maple Leaf Gardens had around 1000 singers, roughly 10,000 people attended the festival from all over the free world. One of the festival traditions is the parade to the concert itself, and in the picture above you can see him proudly leading the parade in 1964. Even with his responsibilities during the festival he made a point of joining the men’s choir portion of the concert.

Mičkēni, 1994

I’ll devote an entire posting to the family estate in Latvia where he spent the best part of his last 15 years. The picture above was taken in 1994 as work in restoring the main residence was under way.

Instruction in the proper use of a scythe, 1998

Of course, one of the responsibilities of a grandfather is the education and training of their grandchildren. Here we see him in 1998 teaching Tālis how to properly use a scythe. In the picture below, taken in 1996, he is checking up on how well Žanis is tilling the garden.

Tilling the garden, 1996

Admiring the forest, Mičkēni, 2006

Roughly 1/4 of the farm is devoted to forest, and after he stopped working the land itself (we rented it out to a neighbour) he spent most his energy on the forests and derived much pleasure from his daily walks through them.

Playing cards, specifically “zolīte”

He loved to play cards and was very good at it. He could analyze a round in “zolīte” until the rest of us would beg to get on with the game. In 1980 his younger brother Mārtiņš came to Canada for his first visit and we took him to my in-law’s farm outside London, Ontario, and had a family showdown – my father-in-law on the left, my uncle Mārtiņš in the middle, my wife Dace on the right. I was also playing but was taking the picture at the time. I can’t remember who ultimately won, either my father-in-law or my father, in any case I didn’t or would have remembered it.

Proud grandfather

And he was a proud grandfather needless to say.

The last 2 pictures were taken in 1989 at a family event – the kids discovered that your voice sounds like Mickey Mouse if you inhale the helium in the balloons, and granddad surprised everyone by trying it himself. The last is probably my favourite picture of him.

Huffing helium

Mickey Mouse grandad, 1989

If you have stuck it out until this point, congratulations and thanks. I hadn’t intended for it to be so long, I was just going to post a few pictures….

You can contact me at ed.smits@gmail.com or feel free to post a comment

PS: If you had issues at first with getting the full size pictures from the thumbnails please do a refresh and try again, there was some problem with the posting and I have reloaded the pictures. Thanks to Abbas for pointing this out.

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“the best laid plans o’ mice and men aft gang agley” – Robbie Burns

Well, here I am in Latvia, however unfortunately things don’t always work out the way you want them to….

The original plan was quite simple – finish my career at EMC in Burlington around noon on Friday, Aug. 10th, spend the afternoon entertaining colleagues on the porch at the bar, then pack like mad over the weekend, finish off all the final things I had forgotten to do over the summer that absolutely had to be done before I left for good, then fly out Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 14, with everything taken care of. I would then spend a few days with my wife and children in Rīga, the capital city, before going out to my family’s farm near Valmiera to spend the rest of August visiting with my parents who spend 6 months of the year there and winter in Canada. Trust the Fates to throw a monkey-wrench into my plans.

On the Friday morning, my last day at EMC and working in Canada, I received a phone call in the middle of the night telling me that my father, 86 years old and still a man “outstanding in his field” (a farmer joke), had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital in Latvia. At first things seemed to be reasonably OK, he was responsive and joking with my kids although paralized on his left side, however his condition soon took a turn for the worse, and for the next few days he was unresponsive and needed help with his breathing. Since I was already flying out in a few days I made no change in flight plans but hoped that he would hang on at least until I got there at mid-week, however he passed away quietly around noon local time (7 hours ahead of EST, 10 hours PST) on the 14th, the day I was flying out.

I wish I had been able to spend some time with him before he passed away – his hearing was quite bad this last year and so he didn’t like to talk on the phone but kept telling me that we’d discuss all that when I got out here in August, however I am grateful that his death was quick and relatively painless, and saved him from what would probably have been an unbearable paralysis – none of us can imagine him as a good patient, he just wasn’t that type of man. I’ll write more about him and his life in future postings, he was quite an amazing man (although we had our many differences) and had a number of lives, the final “life” being his last 15 years as a farmer in Latvia, something he had never expected.

His funeral was held on Wednesday, Aug. 22 in Valmiera. I’ve included some photos with explanations.

Preparing for the funeral:

Sewing the linen sheet

My sister, Ilze, is finishing the ends of the linen sheet that will cover our father in the coffin. We had hoped that we would have time to make his coffin ourselves out of our own material, he and I had often talked about this, especially after he made a beautiful coffin for our youngest son when he died, however this is something that needed to be done beforehand and we didn’t have time. The best we could do was to use wood from our own forest for the benches my son Tālis and I made for the wake.

Making benches

At the cemetary:

Pine path

Funeral traditions are different in Latvia. Here you see my eldest son and my uncle laying out a path from the chapel to the grave using pine branches from our own forests. The grave is hand dug, no machinery involved, and although we didn’t dig it our selves we did fill it in afterwards, each man in the family pitching in to help out.

Filling in the grave

The family

The wake:

Wake 1

Wake 2

In the background in both shots you can see some of the buildings on the farm, which I’ll write about more in the next blogs. Much like the Irish, Latvians celebrate a life rather than mourn it at the wake. We ate and drank (lots of cold beer, it was a blazing hot day), sang songs, listened to speeches (not many) etc. all in all a good party, my father would have enjoyed it. I’m including a shot of our good friend Krissy who catered the wake – she runs the only mobile banquet truck between the Czech Republic and Sweden, specialising in “craft” catering to on-location film shoots. BBQ ribs, grilled salmon, needless to say we ate well, but the surprise highlight of the meal was the dessert – her take on a traditional Latvian pudding called ‘buberts’ – a cross between custard and tapioca, served cold, with a healthy dollop of tart red-currant juice on top, amazingly refreshing and for almost everyone at the wake a reminder of their childhood a la Proust’s madelaines, comfort food at it’s best.

Krissy

We were also exceedingly priviledged in having another good friend, Laima, who was able to fly in from Bremen to serve at the funeral itself (she’s an ordained church deacon) and spend a few days with us. She lived at my parents house in Toronto 40 years ago while attending graduate school and my parents jokingly called her their step-daughter. Her friendship and fellowship at this time meant a lot to us, and her service at the grave was both simple and honest, exactly what was needed. Many thanks to both our friends.

The loneliness of the long-distance deacon…

My father loved to sing, sang in choirs all his life, especially men’s choirs. When I was 16 and my voice had finally stabilised he proudly started me on the same path, joining his men’s choir. His last choir was a family ensemble of 22 people my wife Dace put together for our nephew’s wedding in January of this year – my father said this would be his last choir, and so it was. Among our guests was a distant cousin and 4 other men who sing in a very good men’s ensemble. They sang both at the graveside while we were filling in the grave as well as at the wake. At one point they couldn’t resist and had to try out the acoustics in the barn, and were very impressed.

Testing the acoustics

And finally, after the guests had left, the grandchildren continued the wake. From the left – my daughter Ieva, my sister’s son Žanis, my sons Mārtiņš and Tālis.

The wake continues

You can contact me at ed.smits@gmail.com or feel free to post a comment