I find the role of first languages and how they continue to unfold in our lives to be fascinating. “The milk language” (Ghita El Khayat) is a beautiful metaphor for the way earliest sounds, rhymes and lullabies are conveyed from mother to infant and continues its influence long after.
I felt very grateful to have been invited to share poetry from my collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots—at VEMU, Museum of Estonians Abroad celebration of Estonian Mother Language Day (Emakeelepäev).
This day is a national holiday in Estonia, and a beautiful way to preserve and cherish the Estonian language.
The virtual event included wonderful presenters. Janika Oras, Senior Folklore Scholar of The Estonian Literary Museum gave a fascinating overview of regilaulud, Estonia’s ancient oral song and verse tradition, and talked about how their influence—especially maternal qualities and the presence of multiple realities—permeated poetry in the Mouth Quill collection.
Kaja Telmet and Inga Eichenbaum, of Toronto, each recited a poem from the collection and Kaja Telmet talked about her emotional connection and understanding of the collection from the perspective of one whose family, like mine, were World War II refugees from Estonia.
Triinu Villukas and Madli Oras, two young Estonians and singers currently living in Vienna, Austria, led everyone in regilaulu singing, including the song which inspired content in my poem, Mouth Quill. Piret Noorhani, VEMU’s chief archivist put together a wonderful, rich program and moderated throughout.
You can read an English translation of my remarks here.
Thousands of years after Baltic-Finnic peoples settled on and near the shores of the Baltic Sea, Veljo Tormis composed a song cycle, Forgotten Peoples, people on the verge of extinction and whose languages are spoken by a handful of people—Livonians, Votes, Izhorians, Ingrians, Vepsians and Karelians.
I loved writing the piece Estonian Music Week Sparks Reflections of Forgotten Peoples. It memorializes the first time I heard this magnificent music, which was thirty years ago in Berkeley, California, during The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s debut USA tour, with Tõnu Kaljuste conducting. I’m so pleased the article about my memories and its continued significance was published by the weekly newspaper, Eesti Elu, in December 2021 (Issue 50, p26.)
My writing was partly inspired by a recent VEMU (Toronto-based Museum of Estonians Abroad) virtual program led by VEMU’s chief archivist, Piret Noorhani, that featured a spectacular documentary by Collegium Musicale and their 3-year quest to sing the Tormis songs while visiting the people portrayed in Tormis’ music. Serendipitously, at about the same time as I saw Collegium Musicale’s documentary, I came across a home video which turned out to have a twenty minute excerpt of the concert I attended thirty years ago! From research, including tracking down the original US Tour agent for the concert, I realized that this concert tour was in all likelihood the first time Tormis’ masterpiece was performed in the United States.
I have since been able to make a digitized copy available to historic and musical organizations in North American and Estonia. I have also created a shorter (approx. 6.5 min) annotated version for you to enjoy.
“Midsummer Birches,” a poem from my collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots went live on June 24, 2021 as a choral pieces composed by Brigitte Doss-Johnson and sung by the virtual choir, Laulusild. A traditional old Estonian tune and words were woven with newly composed music set to my poetry. One piece is a celebration of Estonian Jaaniöö (Midsummer’s Eve) and Jaanipäev (Midsummer’s Day).
The English language poem begins by invoking Estonian traditions, referencing age-old verses and songs about this most important holiday: Jaaniööbirch leaves bitter-sweeten the air. A young man’s beloved rides his silk-tufted horse. Kaasike, kaasike, the refrain sounds. Trot with pride, mane bedecked with bangles.
The second poem and song is “The Rise,” which includes a recollection of my mother’s lullaby, an old Estonian song (Uni Tule), which I recall hearing as a very young child in America and realized later would have been sung by my grandmother in Estonia, who I never met. This motif is woven into newly composed music of the poem text . . . sleep mists its way from coastal stones crosses a thousand miles, fall upon my eye.
Singers include individuals from North America, Japan, the Basque region of northern Spain, Malaysia, and Estonians from the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
The composer Brigitte Doss-Johnson has used the text from my poem The Rise (from the collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots) to create an cappella choral composition. The old runic song that was an inspiration for the poem is masterfully woven into an SATB setting. Fragments of the old runic song, Uni TuleLapse Silma Peale (Sleep, Come on the Child’s Eye), survived as early memories of my mother’s lullaby singing, which she would have learned from her own mother, born on the coast of Estonia in the 19th century. The Rise, along with the song Midsummer (from the poem Midsummer Birches) will be performed by a virtual choir.
An exciting new creative project has grown from from my collection Mouthquill—Poems with Ancestral Roots. Brigitte Doss-Johnson, composer and choral conductor, has set two poems to music. The compositions will be performed by a virtual choir.
The Poetry Box, publisher of my book, will host its monthly live Zoom Poetry Reading on Saturday, October 10, 2020, 4 PM Pacific, 7 PM Eastern. I look forward to joining readings of two other poets, Christopher Bogart and Joan Colby (read by Wendy Colby).
Please join me to hear Ancestral Journey—Beneath Ice Sheets, Old Tunes on Spruce, Seabrook Farms (1949), The Songstress and more.
The Poetry Box, a small independent publisher in Portland, Oregon, has done a beautiful job with my debut chapbook of poetry, ready now for pre-order here from my page on
their website. Please visit to see a description and early reviews.
. . . a haunting intertwining of world history and family history. ~ April Ossmann
The cover is a stunning photo of Estonian forest and sea by Michael Huang. I am so grateful for his gift to me for this collection.
The print edition is slated for September 30, 2020. At that point, you can also order the book from Amazon or from your favorite bookstores.
The term “mouth quill” (suude sulg) comes from ancient Estonian runic song and is seen as a singer’s magical tool. In a lovely verse known as The Village Tells Me, the singer says she has left home enchanting charms—her mouth quill and her tongue click—(keeleklõks). She bids her brothers to ride home with silver beaded horses to bring them to her so she can sing like birds.
When I was a young student, just starting college, I traveled to Finland to study and listen to rich Estonian field recordings of such music. In these last years, I feel so lucky to have been able to access notated music and even listen to oral history recordings on amazing online runic songs databases in Estonia. As I explored an arc of identity, many of these old songs inspired imagery and language in my poems, as did nature and historic events, both distant and more recent.
My chapbook of poetry is being published by The Poetry Box and is slated for release in September 2020! The lines below the photo are from the first poem, Ancestral Journey—Beneath Ice Sheets, which begins an imaginary exploration leading to the shores of Estonia. This poem is part of a trilogy, three poems that form the start, middle and end of the collection; the other two being Ancestral Journey—The Milky Way and Ancestral Journey—Helix.
I chose the satellite photo above to share this announcement as it so beautifully illustrates, by way of a (modern) snow line, the approximate glacier lines from 10,000 years ago! You can see Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and even the small island of Saaremaa in this aerial image. Long ago, glacial ice covered all. When the melting began, I imagine the long journey of our Finnic ancestors, leaving the Urals:
Some will be left in river-bends, some follow the reindeer north.
Some will look heavenward at traces of bird-flight, some walk a milky star-path westward.
The term Mouth Quill (collection title and title of an individual poem) is found in runo verse (regilaul)—the word translates to suudesulg and refers to “a singer’s magical tool.” Some of the 21 poems are inspired by themes found in ancient runo verses (with the original runo verses listed in Notes), others by Estonian music, language and historic events. My writing weaves those world views into a life born and lived in America, with deep ancestral roots.
Poet Deirdre Callanan describes Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots as “a dark crystal studded with light.”
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.
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.
At home my stroke-assaulted mother
you startle and confound me.
On my childhood bed
we eye each other.
Metallic ringing runs from your mouth.
Wailing not at gods
but from some crucible of the gods.
From those Northlands
winds blow low and rise, they ripen.
Your incantation pelts the room,
the color of blue sorrow.
One river, two rivers, three rivers, more.
My voice fails. I fear to go there
and utter nothing.
I offer recorded purity,
nuns singing 9th century Christian chant:
Gloria, laus, et honor tibi sit Rex Christe, Redemptor.
Isn’t this your God?
No! You smack the sounding device
and, though words have eluded you for months,
deep-throated, you decree,
“This is false death!”
and renew your endless spell.
We are so far from singing together.
I don’t know how to join you:
my mouth quill has stilled.
Oh, Mesi Marja-memmekene, Honey Mama-berry, Emakene hellekene, my Mother my dear. Äiu, äiu,äiu, once you charmed me to slumber
on silken nets in this space of braided hair.
* Mouth quill – “Suude sulg,” is a singer’s magic tool, and is found in Estonian mythic lore and runic verses
The poem Mouth Quill by Kaja Weeks was reviewed on New Pages as part of its coverage of The Sugar House Review issue in which it appeared. Mouth Quill was cited as succeeding in being “concentrated language striving to be music,” and with the description, “Carefully placed alliteration, assonance, and other literary devices create a fascinating and aurally pleasing poem.”
Author’s Note: Mouth Quill 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.
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.
I was uniquely inspired reading the novel Quarry by M. A. Fuller. Not only did its psychological character portraits pull deeply, but there were wonderful Finno-Ugric connections here — hers: having Finnish/Sami history and identity central to the plot; mine: being tied to Estonian culture, who are kinfolk to Finns. I was moved to read along with my copy of the ancient Finnish verses known as Kalevala (similar to the Estonian Kalevipoeg)! And all of her story unfolds, path by path, with its impact upon those in North America which made it personally even more relevant. It is a magnificent book, as you can read below and on reviews by Kirkus and others online.
Here is my brief review as it appeared on Amazon on July 15, 2017.
QUARRY: Mystical yet Deeply Grounded — Beautiful and Brilliant
QUARRY is is a truly captivating novel by Meredith Ann Fuller that has as its main character a girl/young woman who is psychologically haunted and creatively invested by immigrant legacies. Fuller draws vividly from the tumultuous history of North American Finns, their ancient cultural roots, the nightmarish lure of return of some to Karelia and subsequent betrayal by Stalin in the early twentieth century. All of this, with an added splash of Irish-American history, spills over into the life of Rose, who we meet as a traumatically-blinded child. With the help of a therapist, she recovers her sight, only to struggle mightily with what she must face internally.
Rose’s search for self and cohesion forces her to reach not only inward but back into inter-generational history. Fuller’s writing really shines here as she weaves in the spirits, spells, animals and magic that abound deep in Finnish, especially Sami, roots. As a reader familiar with the ancient Finnish epic, Kalevala, I found these connections authentic and mesmerizing. (The reviewer’s attached photo shows Fuller’s novel resting on an edition of Kalevala verses.)
As only a talented writer can do, Fuller leads us from Rose and her family’s journey to ones that hold broader truths, including the well of strength that can come from our roots even as we struggle with their impact. Furthermore, copious artistic illustrations throughout the book are so stunning they inspire like visual-poetic gems.
The author, illustrator (primarily Joan Anderson with others), and Mountain Water Press are to be commended for this sensitive, beautiful and brilliant book.
Sounds with the Young(Upton Street, NW, circa 2001) arose from my time at the Levine School in Music in Washington, DC., a large community music school that serves infants through adults.
The poem opens with the building’s architectural beauty, something that likely deserves a work of its own. An elegant Spanish style revival, it was built in 1906-07 to house the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. Specific requirements – high, dry, apart from magnetic disturbances – helped launch its site on a steep hill upon a rocky foundation.
The low, Mission-style tile roof became a “hat” for the “Lady on the Hill” in the poem. The idea of a welcoming lady must have subconsciously resonated from the idea of a universal Mother Goose as I thought of the children in my poem.
My colleagues brought music to life for young children in infinitely imaginative ways. One was Mara Bershad, who taught in the Washington area for decades before her too early demise. A musician, harpsichordist, and dancer she spun experiences for children from classical music, traditional songs, movement and artful collaboration that left us speechless with delight.
Sounds with the Young by Kaja Weeks was first published in District Lines: An Anthology of Original Local Work, V. 4 (Politics and Prose) in 2017.
Sounds with the Young (Upton Street, NW, circa 2001)
The music school sits like a lady on a hill,
with a red tile roof for a hat and
light stucco dress,
Spanish revival style, por favor. Carved limestone surrounds her entry.
Splayed stairs, up this way or that,
invite the affair of the day.
Singing four-year olds peal inside,
festive as nothing else you could imagine.
Today she has chosen Respighi and
Mara, curved-back like a cat,
pulls scarves along the floor and
suddenly twirls them high in the air.
Max stares and then lifts his arm
with his blue chiffon rising before Agnes,
light-footed as Mara, swipes it away.
Her giggles pounce – staccato as celesta
in The Pines of Rome.
Corinne, born in Gabon and raised on drums,
rolls her fingers and slaps her hands. Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! Reese and Chloé sound thunder from their hides, Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! But no tremors could disturb this building,
reborn from the Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory, 1907!
Solid as the rock she stands on. Roll on sounds!
Close by, Ming leads babies to sway.
Cries and gurgles in soft laps,
lullaby waltzes hummed and sung — Buy some Coulter’s candy. Next door a glossy petite gamelan jingles
and Indonesian shadow puppets dance while
Monica’s kids cluster in the hallway –
they can’t wait to sing like rain, jump puddles,
freeze mid-air to her piano sounds
that seem to spin them and stop them
like magical notes –
Zeke, Liam and resting-tone Lee.
Upstairs the serious folks have begun
to practice and play.
The old Russian pianist with a black pipe
demands perfection from her charges,
and Charles’ deep baritone voice
falls from windows and floats down
the wide green lawn toward Rock Creek.
At noon Sally, reciting summer camp to-do,
and Vera and I walk the shaded path
to Howard Law School cafeteria
where round tables with bud vases,
warm southern cooking and cool lemonade await.
The ceiling is high, murmurs alive.
We release our sighs into them,
trade quips and tales and sometimes
laugh so hard our bellies hurt –
before we head back for more blooming music
with the lady on the hill.
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.
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 Wedding of Salme was first published by Fickle Muses: Journal of Mythic Poetry and Fiction
About the Poem …
The Wedding of Salme is derived from one of the most ancient surviving Estonian myths, Starbride (Tähemõrsja) and recreated with my personal twist of longing by entering the imagined space –“I did whisper, hidden in time.” A characteristic of my writing often is that the past, even very distant past, fluidly interlaces the present or future.
There are many versions of this beautiful myth to be found in Estonian sources. While they all tell the same basic story, the verse expressions of the runic verses (regilaul) show rich regional variety and it was a thrill to research beyond my own basic knowledge when I began creating an interpretation in my own words. I loved knowing how ancient the origins were — over a thousand years or more — reciting the beautiful sounds aloud, and cherishing the early oral preservation that spoke of people’s hopes, wishes, and understanding of their world.
Estonian runic verses are highly stylized in meter and other literary qualities. Although it wasn’t possible to re-create all of that, I wanted to pay homage to some of the rhetorical characteristics, such as alliteration (the same sound at the beginning of words, e.g. “So Salme in silk and Star a-shimmering”); assonance (repeated vowel sounds, e.g. “moist with morning fog”); and parallelism (repeating ideas in a symmetrical way, e.g. “the tiny treasure, a chilly shell.”) all framed within a rhythmic, prosodic style.
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.
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.