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.