“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

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