Published as “My Childhood Fish” in Under the Gum Tree . . . July 2019
Under the Gum Tree is a quarterly literary arts magazine that publishes creative nonfiction and visual art. I am so pleased that my writing found a home in their fine publication. You can order print or digital copies from their website.
This is a personal essay with reminiscences from an Estonian-American childhood lived during the Cold War, and how anchovy (or, preferably, marinated sprat) open-faced sandwiches came to carry unique significance . . .
Symbols of ethnic pride and resolve, these little fish sandwiches were traditionally curated and ubiquitous especially after ceremonies remembering Estonian independence . . . in the rooms of the Estonian Civic Club on Manhattan’s East 34thStreet, elder-ladies unfailingly set tables with white tablecloths, flowers, percolated coffee—hot, dark and strong—and always platters of these little fish sandwiches.
And how a refugee-mother’s own longing for a childhood fish (the Räim, a kind of Baltic herring) eventually became a mirror for her daughter’s personal longing . . .
My mother’s perch was lovingly made, the just-warm, salted, golden fillets arranged on a plate with twisted slices of lemon and fresh parsley sprigs.
Special Thanks to the IOTA Conference Online Course (2017), taught by American essayist, Sarah Einstein, for inspiring and leavening my creativity, leading to publication of both “My Childhood Fish” as well as the essay, “First Home.”
First Home by Kaja Weeks is an essay published by The Sandy River Review (University of Maine, Farmington) on its website in October 2018.
The piece reflects not only aspects of my own first home, but also of my childhood friend’s home “around the corner,” and each of my parents’ first homes in Estonia (from which they fled during its occupation in World War II)—including my mother’s home located near the historic childhood home of renowned Estonian poet, Lydia Koidula. Koidula was the author of the poignant poem, Meil Aiaäärne Tänavas—The Road Bordering our Yard, which is referenced in the essay.
One afternoon when I was five a taxi stopped in front of our small northern New Jersey house. A plump woman in a purple-red flowery dress pushed herself out. Thick stocking seams on her calves ran above sturdy black shoes. With a bulging purse and small suitcase she crossed stepping stones through a grassy yard right to the brick steps upon which I was sitting, just taking in summer. “You must be the little songbird,” she said. Not withstanding that she spoke in Estonian, something no one in the neighborhood besides our family spoke, I bolted inside and alerted my mother that a võõras naine (a stranger woman) was at our house.
Tädi (Aunt) Meeta had come to visit and, as far as I knew, I was meeting our one living relative. Whether the others were dead or not spoken of was a condition I was too young to understand. Tädi Meeta was my father’s sister and, being fifteen years his senior, the only one who was able to risk no peril when she told him, a volatile man, to “pipe down.” I liked her and was surprised to learn that she had a family back in Lake-in-the Hills, Illinois – so we had a little clump of living relatives, after all.
As I grew out of early childhood another relative took on life. She had always been present in our living room – a woman with serious gaze held in a small, lone photo frame. At some point I understood that she was my mother’s mother. And that she was alive. Somewhere — we couldn’t get there, nor she to us.
Miili was my grandmother, but even in absentia I didn’t have that relationship with her. Whenever my sister and I spoke of her out loud we used the term “your mother”—foremost, she was our mother’s missing mother. A hole existed. Something awful had happened that had swallowed up her mother and anything beyond the portrait was simply conveyed by silent watery eyes. Asking more hovered on forbidden, dangerous. She was in a place called Eesti (Estonia), from where my brothers and parents had fled from during war, and I knew what that was from an amalgam of stories, screams and shouts, lectures, ceremonies, songs and photos. Mostly, mother’s-mother was described as “left behind”; but then sometimes she had “stayed behind” because “she was waiting for Sass to come back.” Who was Sass? Why was it a mystery? Another void with centripetal force into which significant people had vanished.
Though I continued using the appellation “your mother,” I had also privately begun to claim Miili as my grandmother as soon as I understood that, rightfully, she was. I recreated her from the flimsiest Known, retrieved her with magical thinking. Like my mother and me, my grandmother had green eyes, and at eight I secretly determined that fact alone made us a trio of soul mates. But actual communication was sparse and letters from behind the Iron Curtain never came directly to our home. They were sent surreptitiously — routed to a place in New York City under a code name. One day a thin, onion skin air-mail envelope properly addressed to my mother arrived from Estonia to our front mailbox. She sat with the letter in her lap for a long time and quietly wept. Her mother, who twenty years earlier had, for “just a little while,” sent off her daughter from Pärnu pier amidst bombs and a burning coastline, who had said, “You go — I’ll wait for Sass,” had died. She never saw her daughter again. Sass never came back.
Short for Aleksander, Sass was my mother’s brother. Gradually my mother opened up about him and others. Their youth in the beautiful seaside town, Pärnu, had been cherished and I hungered for stories; listened, asked questions, wrote into notebooks. It was as if I was plucking her family one by one from where they had been sucked, a dark vortex that had pulled everything under– mother, brother, aunts, cousins and schoolmates never to be touched again; cobblestone streets and tall converging Linden boughs in a town of allées, white beaches – land she loved — never to be seen. Instead, the terror from cattle-cars of people roaring toward deadly Gulags brandished the air.
Sass was snatched midsummer, 1941, when Soviet Russian soldiers took 10,000 people — in one night. Even into old age my mother was never able to shake a trance-like state over it. When, unable any longer to bear the image of my uncle’s remains for eternity under boundless, unidentified Siberian north, I finally asked straight-out, “Where was he taken?” she could only whisper, “I don’t know – somewhere far away in Russia.” “I’m going to find out,” I promised and, unbelievably, I did.
It’s 2016. My mother, too, is gone. With an Estonian film crew I am being interviewed by Williams College students for their class, “Documenting Stories of Escape and Survival.” I am to tell of the effects of Totalitarian regimes, of being American-born to my war refugee parents. One hour has stretched to two. I’ve already sung ancient bird-like melodies and wept through the “Singing Revolution” that helped restore Estonia’s independence after fifty years, squirmed over questions on my odd “double life.” Now I’m sweating. My head feels crushed by chaotic, dissonant sounds – souls crying, shrieking. My finger rests on an aerial photo that, to my utter astonishment, I uncovered from Russian news days earlier. It is a massive sinkhole. Unearthly, its copper-colored sloping pit with a black center presently grows over a buried salt mine in Solikamsk — north of Perm (the famous archipelago of gulags that Solzhenitsyn endured), in Solikamsk — the very place where Sass perished. My voice hardens. Pressurized, it pitches higher, matching the resonance of shrieking souls.
“I don’t wish harm to the people there now,” I hear myself say, “but I wish for this sinkhole to keep growing and growing, swallow up all the earth in that region. Completely. Return it to its primordial state and wipe out all the evil man did here. Nature’s revenge. Karma.”
It’s my revenge. I have never heard myself speak like this. But I realize the picture of the sinkhole is a huge eye. The eye of God. Of the missing God, and this is the moment of telling.
The Voyage of Mariel and Luna is a creative non-fiction essay about my musical work related to children with autism and their parents. It illustrates the delicate nature of the opening phase. As well, it shows how much a parent’s personal history, including culture and so-called “ghosts in the nursery,” must be taken into account.
The Voyage of Mariel and Luna was first published by The New Directions Journal in 2015.
“Mama was seven months pregnant when they made that crazy trip, squeezed onto one of those shrimp boats – her, Papi and my grandmother and twenty others. They almost didn’t make it. Huge dark waves, like they’d never seen, rolled over the boat. I was born in Key West, the U. S. of A., two months later.”
“Huh,” I manage. I realize I’m squinting at her, trying to figure out what this has to do with her daughter, as in my question, “Your daughter’s name is Luna?”
“I’m named after the Mariel Boatlift. Well, for the original port they left from, but you probably know it from the Boatlift,” Mariel adds. “And for the good part, freedom, before they knew Marielitos would be like a scarlet letter M,” she huffs.
“Huh,” I say again, wondering if the mom has attention deficit issues and is going to ramble around a family history. We now have 30 minutes left for this important meeting about background and of her daughter, the reason for our meeting. I only know that she is four, “hardly talks, but loves music.”
Mariel is very pretty, and I am mesmerized watching her face as she talks. A long-haired brunette, with olive eyes, she sways rhythmically from the shoulders up when she articulates. But a sadness. Mariel … boatlift … she must be Cuban.
At that moment she says, “I’m Cuban-American.” She stops and I’m about to move the discussion, interesting as it is, back to her daughter, when Mariel, drops her eyelids and says with a low voice, “A child of,” and here she heavily taps her palms on the table, accentuating the words, “Cuban exiles.” When she opens her eyelids, her eyes are moist and her glossed lips are pressed shut.
Wow. This woman has a history, and it’s really effected her. I didn’t know from the files. Her last name is Ryan, and this isn’t Little Havana, it’s a huge house in horsey-set Potomac, Maryland. She probably doesn’t think I have a clue to what her emotional voice and her sudden tears are alluding. But I do. I’m also the child of exiles, ones who fled a communist regime. Ok, I’m a lot older – her Boatlift was in the 1980’s I think, while my parents fled after WWII from a place where there were no palm trees, more like northern spruce, and the waves crashing over the fishing boats were in the Baltic Sea. But if her married name is “Ryan,” and she is the child of Cuban exiles, I know the kind of fierce roots entangled therein.
I inhale deeply and look into her eyes. “Mariel, of the Cuban port and Boatlift, you have a complicated background.”
There is a lengthy, white-noise silence. The fridge hums, the espresso maker hisses. Then Mariel smiles weakly, tears roll and she shakes her head. “Yeah … I’m sorry. You must think I’m crazy going off like this.”
“No,” I start to say I actually understand something specifically about this, but decide it would just blur things for her. “I can see, it’s complicated … and emotional. I think maybe we should schedule some extra time to do this.”
“You think?” she bursts into real laughter. “Luna will be home from school soon, too.”
This isn’t how I planned to meet Luna. As practitioner using a developmental frame of music, I like to first process the family and child’s background and then return to use it in a natural play setting assessment that, unlike many other rigid evaluations, strives to help the child to her best functioning while we’re “playing music together.” But we’ve barely gotten to her name!
“It all started because you asked me about Luna. And, see, I chose her name so that it would be connected to my Cuba-ness, and she was born on the night of a beautiful new moon. Even Ronald, my husband, agreed it would be nice for her to have something from her heritage, as he puts it, seeing as I have no connection any more – I left the fold, left the fight.”
Mariel revs up again. I let her go. There is no time to salvage my envisioned meeting, and, fundamentally, this is in sync with the way I had been trained by Drs. Greenspan and Wieder – the centrality of family in working with the children – all these details will meld and shape how we work. As well, they emphasized sensitivity to mental health issues and clearly, Mariel, wound so tight, will need her own supportive measures.
“After my son died,” she starts and my head flings up from the notebook in which I was jotting. She had a son who died? My mouth drops but no sound emerges, and Mariel keeps going.
“Jorges died in a car crash when he was sixteen,” she speaks now in monotone. My thoughts immediately go to the god-awful spring season of proms when so many young people, full of life to the brim, risk their lives. “It was prom week,” she confirms.
“Now Jorges, he was Cuban. Gorgeous kid,” she weeps. “Spoke Spanish at home with Gustavo and me, with his Abuela. An amazing Latin percussionist, my boy – soulful and so alive. We lived in Miami. We had a whole community. We ate, drank, the kids played, families politicked together.”
I am about to ask what kinds of games they played as kids because it’s one way to connect adults to their child selves and I can adapt just about anything with singing. But Mariel goes on, “ He loved plantanos maduros and Abuela’s arroz con pollo. Luna – this never passes her lips. Potomac Pizza for the Ryans,” she chokes.
“I left,” she shrugs. “I was heartbroken. I didn’t know how I could live. I got divorced, came to Washington, got a job.”
This was not going to a good place, I knew. She left “the community” and now she was married to a Dr. Ronald Ryan — no naming of a child “Luna” would be enough to sustain those deep connections.
“They said I stopped being Cuban – my mother, my sister, my relatives, even friends. Even now, my sister criticizes me for not teaching Luna Spanish. Does she care,” Mariel’s eyes were livid, “that I can’t teach Luna to speak in any language?!”
The big hallway clock strikes on the quarter hour and a little girl with a long dark brown ponytail bursts through the front door. A uniformed woman waves through the crack and slips away anonymously. The girl runs into the kitchen where we are seated.
“Hi sweetheart,” Mariel gets up, seeming to want to hug her, but the girl zooms past and runs circles around the big table in the adjoining dining room. “Luna! Come say hello to our visitor,” her mother directs.
I know this isn’t going to happen and I ache for both of them. Next time, I will encourage mom to playfully block Luna’s way, not corral her but with her arms wide open so Luna will have a reason to interact. Luna likes to run – that’s good – we can chase, we can block, we can dodge, we can join her by singing to her pace. Mariel is rhythmic — I know that from her flowing shoulder and head movements. She appreciates vibrant sound and beat, I know from Jorges’ dazzling Latin percussion.
I know that as much as her life in the present is with Dr. Ryan in Potomac outside of Washington, DC, her broken roots are Cuban-American. I’ll find some songs she may have known and put them to her own remembered games to share with her child.
Señora Santana comes to mind … Señora Santana por qué llora el niño?
Señora Santana, why does the child cry? For an apple that has been lost. I will give you one, I will give you two One for the child, one for you. I don’t want one, don’t want two I want the one I lost.
I know she is heartbroken over two children – one she lost at sixteen, and one who she cannot reach at four. But with her love and yearning, her child’s desires, and my knowledge from today, crammed as full as that Cuban shrimp boat, this will be the start of another new voyage – of Mariel, Luna and me.
A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice is a lyrical essay with themes of autism in the young and stroke in the elderly. It tells a story of how each was able to use singing when wordlessness compounded their lives and reveals my journey with them.
A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice by Kaja Weeks was first published by The Potomac Review, A Literary Arts Quarterly in 2015. I am very pleased and proud that the journal nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize.
The silver swan, who living had no note, when death approached unlocked her silent throat; Leaning her breast against the reedy shore, thus sung her first and last, and sung no more. Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes; More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.
I am so pleased that this essay was published by Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts, and Humanities, Winter 2017. Ars Medica is the only medical literary journal in Canada, and one of a handful of such journals in the world. Click here to read the full piece at Ars Medica or The Silver Swan and Her Stroke_Kaja Weeks_Ars Medica_2017 to read in PDF format.
The Silver Swan and Her Stroke: First Songs as Last Songs
By Kaja Weeks
This is a view of a massive stroke followed by rare communications through singing and vocalization between an elegant lady born by the Baltic Sea almost 100 years ago and her daughter (the author). A reflective true account with story-like narration, it conveys the intersection of a musically rhythmic but “pitch deaf” mother and classically-trained singer daughter at their final crossroads. The stunning scene of hearing her mother, unable to speak, but singing “with full power and nuance, like a glorious Wagnerian soprano,” has the author first considering the extraordinary plasticity of the brain, and then, as a daughter, the poignant meaning of her mother’s sounds, who like the “Silver Swan,” sung her first and last, and sung no more.”
How did I ever survive the night with that little boy . . . heavy metal braces on his legs, brace on his back, tethered to his crib, crying, crying for his mother, crying for his life, I think. All I had, at 18, was nauseating fear. How could they have left me to keep this Changeling, thisfragile, alien-like being?
Sweating, my haunches gripped a wooden chair in the glow of his night-light. He whimpered and I sang, my voice creaky. What else, what other paltry thing, could I have done? He seemed to find moments of peace in my fearful singing, but mostly his agony prevailed and I wanted no part of it. Back on campus I sobbed with relief and vowed never to subject myself to such a thing again.
Yet decades later, week after week I have welcomed multiply-impaired children — developmentally, emotionally, physically, sometimes with braces and all – into a small clinic room, and like with that first little boy, I am singing. Years of training under the architects of the developmental approach known as “Floortime,” in which warm, child-led relationships form foundations, provided understanding of emotional, cognitive and sensory aspects critical to healthy growth. Musical elements, such as tempo, rhythmic steadiness or surprise, and the color of my voice provide powerful tools, but the child’s uniqueness shines through relational tactics, and I am able to integrate singing at the core of playful, hopeful intervention.
But the journey, sparked with the first little boy, who in a moment of desperate fear I had regarded as nearly alien, like a changeling, had all started in music school with Madame Lorrain. Althea Lorrain — tall, handsome, regal in stance. She had steel blue eyes, so intense, she could possess anyone with her gaze. Her face was scarred, framed by silver hair pulled back and knotted high on the crown. I was petrified of her. Yet she became central to a journey that began as if on opaque water where, though life teems below, only a dark surface is revealed. It changed everything about my rigid, fearful responses to children with disabilities, allowed me to truly consider them, and to find their strength and beauty despite great challenges. To convey her influence, one needs to understand more about this extraordinary woman.
She was my teacher for an esoteric class, Foreign Language Diction for Singers. We sight-read French, German, Italian and Latin passages from arias, lieder, and choral works, transforming – right in the moment — odd little symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet into a stream of perfectly spoken language. It was extraordinarily demanding, but perfection was her standard.
I will never forget our class, suspended in fear, when she asked poor Andy Taylor, a hulk of a boy from Alabama to read a Latin verse. From the top of the terraced lecture hall Andy’s resounding voice fell in waves, “Glow-reee-ah eeen egg-shell-seees day-oh-uu.” (That was supposed to be “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”) Madame Lorrain’s figure expanded like a balloon as she drew in her breath at this. I don’t recall how many times Andy tried, with corrections about mouth and jaw, lips and tongue. But suddenly, Madame Lorrain, in her long tweed skirt, leapt up the wide steps and ended in front of Andy with her two fingers in his mouth! “Here!” she said, “Do you not feel ziss?” Her fingers jabbed the roof of his mouth. Andy turned moon pale, eyes frozen – keeping his mouth ajar so as not to accidently bite Madame Lorrain.
I perfected the International Phonetic Alphabet and planned never to make a mistake or be alone in her presence. One winter evening I stood upon a balcony overlooking the iron gates of Campus Drive. I inhaled the chilly air with a kind of melancholy that infused my college years. Silently, in darkness, a figure slid next to me. All breath stilled in my throat as I recognized Madame Lorrain.
First, a polite inquiry about class, but then her request that I recite something! Dazed, cogent thoughts unreachable, a sound-image of Madame Lorrain formed – the way she opened every single class with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in German – words from the magnificent choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. So, like her, I raised one outstretched arm, streamed a dark, low voice and gave it all I had, my best diction and intonation: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium.” But that was it — that’s all I could remember! So, I repeated it, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium.” With gravitas, I turned to her. She was caressing her face between the palms of her hands, “Ach!” she murmured with a satisfied quiver.
But, it was a bait and switch. For immediately, she seized me, lamented about a young child who was multiply-, severely-handicapped. “The parents are exhausted from constant care and most urgently require a time out.” Her hand touched my arm. “I am certain you would be a good caregiver for him.”
Why me? Did she intuit some untapped compassion? Had she sensed my own vulnerabilities? I never knew, but from weakness, fleeting imagined compassion and sheer fear of her, I capitulated immediately. That is how I came to spend one of the most terrifying but heart-wrenching nights of my life. I didn’t understand it then, but once the parents walked out and as I felt utterly powerless in front of that crib, I nearly negated this small child’s humanity in order to bear my own agony, for I identified him as an “other.” In my eyes a boy, most likely with severe multiple sclerosis, became a “wounded creature” of whom I was terrified, in actuality because I couldn’t reach him – a terrible warped circle of thinking/feeling. It is not altogether surprising, in that light, to see how alien, other-worldly, changeling myths could arise as primitive states of mind. This insight into a liability of human nature begs to be countered by strong, comprehensive support – emotional, educational, economic and spiritual — for parents and caregivers of children with severe challenges. Broadly, it is also true in particular developing societies and cultures where systemic societal disregard for children with special needs still prevails. The journey of change is practical, but also one of the mind and heart.
Madame Lorrain had understood the significance of the respite-mission, and for me it became a kind of insemination, dropped deep for gradual activation. Life forces came to mingle fatefully and a journey mapped: that first child with his unforgettable, heart-wrenching suffering; then the slow heat of shame over my primitive revulsions; realizations that a musical gift I had, especially if backed by training, could possibly be life-altering; finding mercy, empathy and true connections with the children; sustaining courage, compassion.
Then, there were more revelations about Madame, who actually turned out to be a Baroness. I found out that she bore many more horrific scars, not only on her face, but all over her back as well. In fact, Althea Lorrain, Austrian by birth, had been a young woman in the French Resistance during World War II. Arrested by Nazis, she had been severely tortured. But her moral and courageous undercover pursuits saved countless lives.
Given her history, I came to understand something profound. Each time she had so soberly proclaimed in German, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken”(Joy, bright spark of the divine) we became onlookers to her defiance in the face of defeat, witnesses to her hurling transcendent light right back into darkness. She pulled me in toward the light. And as anchored delusions of “fragile aliens” – like the subconscious myths of changeling-children – dissipated, my personal sung Odes-of-Joy rose, dove into opaque waters, but rose again. They were imperfect, but resilient even in fear.
Today, decades after my first seminal encounter, I practice in a music room under the wings of interdisciplinary pediatric therapists. A girl — speech slurred, her shaking limbs held in braces – can be found reaching toward my lips. They are open in loving song.
* Changelings are tied historically and in folklore to a widespread belief that a previously healthy child is snatched by other-worldly spirits and, in their place, is left a sickly, deformed or incessantly crying child. These desperate illusions are thought to have justified maltreatment, death and coping with maternal post-natal depression.
Changeling and the Baroness by Kaja Weeks was first published by Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine in Fall 2016. Intima is one of a handful of literary journals dedicated to interdisciplinary themes of writing and healing. It is affiliated with the Narrative Medicine program of Columbia University.