sounds of ancestors once slipped from tongue to air—
ribbon-like, still unfurling.
On the edge of the sea
a silver shell holds thousands, singers who face
thousands more on a grassy gentle rise. All inhale.
Though the hour nears midnight
sun skims waters of the Baltic Sea,
flames in the tower-torch leap high.
The singing will not stop, Lee— lee— lo, the sounds form Leelo! Each ancient syllable earned with sweat and love.
A conductor, peering from within a laurel wreath
clasps his chest, lowers his head,
bows to the choir who has honored song.
The watchers become the singers,
the standing levitate,
the air is alive.
Swirling round, melodies rustle, loosen hair,
saying: we are a living sound—sing us speak us hear us.
Song-Mother’s voices—Hääli imedänne!
* Hääli imedänne – Means “magical voices” in old Estonian * Leelo – The old Estonian word meaning “song,” and the title of an actual song
Author’s Note: Voices is a poem from a chapbook manuscript (in progress) in which writings reflect both the trauma and beauty of Estonian culture and history as it rooted in my personal journey and identity.
Songs from my ancestral heritage have been a central part of my life. As a young child I was mesmerized by very old runic songs, called regilaulud—including shepherd’s calls (helletused). These came to me by way of the songstress Ellen Parve Valdsaar, an Estonian refugee whose magical interpretations left a lasting impression upon me. I also heard and sang much choral music, mostly in the a cappella tradition that allows voices to meld within wonderful, enlivening resonance. The poem, Voices, celebrates the height of such a continued tradition, the Estonian Song Festival, first begun in 1869. It is now held in Tallinn every five years and is designated a UNESCO “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Click here to hear a refrain from the song, “Leelo” (the old word for “song”) as sung at the 2014 Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn. (In “Leelo” composed by Mart Saar with text from traditional folkverse, the singers plead, “What are these reins, these ropes that bind us?” The antidote, they answer, is “Song! Song! Song!”)
Even as the child of Estonian refugees to America, I understood the transcendent qualities of this music rooted in antiquity. In the 1970’s, as a college music student, I created a small vocal ensemble named Kannel (Zither) which performed mostly traditional Estonian music. Today, I sing with the Baltimore-Washington Estonian Singers (BWES), including in our performance for the capital area’s 100th Anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.
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.
TheCoastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia) was first published by Bluestem Literary Magazine. In it I write about the mysterious effect of “knowing” a place in which one steps foot for the first time — in this instance, the reedy, flowering coastal meadows of Pärnu, my mother’s hometown by the sea. The place settles on me, “like linen upon an infant sung and rocked to sleep,” and I wonder, “Who slipped this place in me? Was it my choosing, or has it crept unknown?” These, I ponder, are markings of being “a refugee’s child — daughter of a true daughter of southwestern Estonia — who grew with her mother’s hollow in her heart.”
Below is my translation of Coastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia) into Estonian. I am grateful to Estonian-born philologist, journalist and poet Sirje Kiin for her kind fine-tuning.
Rannaniidud helgivad kuldselt,
lahutavad sinise vee sinisest taevast.
Paadi pea tungib
läbi rohekaslilla pilliroo.
Olen kodus. Ei iial siin elanud.
Kuidas on see paik saanud minu omaks,
nagu linane katte pandud mu peale,
kui imikul kellele hällis lauldakse?
Kes pani selle paiga salamahti minusse?
Kas valisin selle ise või hiilis ta mulle teadmatult?
Millal pani ta mu kiiresti hingama
ja kinkis siis rahustava ohke?
Olen pagulase tütar,
ustava Pärnumaa tütre-tütar,
laps kes kasvas
oma ema südamevaluga.
Igatsen seda rahustavat ohet,
mere äärse pilliroo sulgede sahinat,
meeles peetud helisid, kuldseid sahvatusi ,
neid aja ja ruumi vigureid.
When my mother was a young girl growing up during the late 1920s and early 1930s she lived in Eesti, a free land, dotted with islands, its northern coastline a curly ribbon on the Gulf of Finland. Western Estonia opens to the Baltic Sea. Her seaside hometown, Pärnu, on its own glittering inlet of the softest white sand beaches, murmurs with endless surf, coastal pinewoods-and- meadows. The harbor, a longtime merchant port, and famous restorative spas have always infused a cosmopolitan air, too. There is a saying, “If you let Pärnu, with its sun and sea breezes, into your system, your cloud of worries will waft away,” and certainly my mother’s forehead would always smooth out even as she sighed and spoke of her “good growing years” there.
There is a photo of my mother and her cousin, Helga, who visited from inland in the summers. They are both wearing stylish casual, fitted dresses, mother’s coiffure flapper-like wavy, a small white sailor hat perched on Helga’s head. They are sitting fountain-side at the famous Pärnu Mudbaths and Spa. It’s an elegant neo-classical building co-designed by the renowned architect Olav Siinmaa with whom Mother was soon to get her first job. She was sixteen, still innocent, unknowing of all the horrors that war, deadly occupations, fleeing and life’s turns would bring.
But this was around the time she acquired the silver brooch, which I now hold in my hand. The year is 2016, mother’s earthly life is past and I have so little, really, to connect to the person she once was. Though she raised me and lived well into her nineties, I felt as if I was continually seeking her core – so ephemeral. It’s as if her historic destiny endowed cloaks of spectacular resolve and stoic endurance (in a crisis she once declared, “I am the keeper of my own soul,” when I proposed help) and tactics worthy of an institution for preserving the dignity and culture of her lost world. But it snatched away the budding young girl who had once loved her life in a simple, seaside town in a free land; Even from inside, where we get to create and hold our woven selves, I sensed a lost space where it should be. I am haunted by and grieving of that loss for her, probably wishing to protect both of us from what followed, its inter-generational rubble. Sparsely told stories from her childhood and youth are well-guarded in my mind, enhanced over the years with scarce photos and then with world-wide-web image searches, scouring of maps, finally visiting myself and walking the ground she walked, breathing that highly oxygen-rich sea air – trying to re-create a world with a legacy that holds the pearls of mother.
Her brooch is not domed or smooth, but a special “Pärnu-style” flat cast with a jagged coastline shape and interior adorned by flower motifs – one for which the city was already a unique site of creation in the previous century. I only remember from her that it was a gift, possibly from her godmother for her “Kaubanduskooli” (Business Trade High School) graduation from which she landed the coveted city hall position with architect Siinmaa. It must have been a cherished item. Not that many years later, the autumn she fled, the second Soviet onslaught had breeched the border, while retreating Nazis blew up myriad buildings and bridges. Pärnu was burning, lit from above with pale columns of aerial bombings; flames raced along crowns of coastal trees. In the space where her high school had stood, ruins smoldered. Leaving her homeland forever, she carried that brooch with her few belongings. Decades later she quietly gave it to my then teenage daughter.
Now I hold this brooch that I’ve taken to the jeweler to be cleaned, polished, and the clasp repaired, secretly restoring it for my daughter’s approaching wedding. It was completely darkened when I brought it in, but when I retrieved it the jeweler was smiling with pride. He had worked hard to clean all the tiny crevices. “It’s silver,” he said with delight. Sitting on my bed, I turn the gleaming piece over in my hand. My mothers initials (as I have always known them) have always been visible in what I recognize as my father’s scratchy, invasive style, one that he enacted with all my things, as well – possessions possessed. But now I notice something that eluded my eye before, something revealed by removing the shades of time. Delicate lines form a year and shape letters. It takes me a moment to place them, and then I am flooded with sadness and joy: “SK” – my mother’s maiden monogram! Along this untarnished silver I rub my finger on such tiny lines, attach, and hold SK, born in a free land by the sea.