He was my granduncle. His parents, my mother's grandparents, had twelve children. Three died in infancy and nine survived - eight girls and he, the only boy. Then father drowned. Mother was left a widow, her youngest daughter only one and a half years old. Mother came from Mulgimaa. With hired hands and maids she kept the farm going and managed to bring up the children. Soon suitors were coming around to court the older girls. Once, the horse of one of the suitors was stolen. It was in winter, and the highroad passed near the farmhouse. Helene, the oldest sister, said she was going to marry the one she liked, even if he came leaning on a cane. She wedded Peterson the schoolmaster, who did walk with a cane. (Tending cattle as a child he had ridden a pig, had a bad fall and damaged his knee.) Peterson came from Kärla;
a graduate of Kaarma Teachers Seminary, he played the organ and worked to promote temperance. Their children were all stillborn and they later adopted a boy and a girl. The boy became a constable and is now in Australia; the girl married a machine operator and they bought a small homestead, which I have visited every summer since I was a child.
The second sister, Marta, also married a schoolmaster, but of a different sort, a free-willed man from around Põlva area. He bought a bookstore in Valga, and in 1905 told people at a meeting that it was unfair that the tsar's family had such an enormous income while so many people lived so poorly. Many anti-tsarists found refuge at his house. One night the house was surrounded, and Karlsson, the revolutionary who was hiding there, tossed his revolver into the soup cauldron, where it was not found. The schoolmaster and Karlsson were both arrested and sentenced to prison. On their way to Pihkva prison Karlsson jumped, in his underwear, out of the train window into the snow and managed to escape. The schoolmaster spent nine months in the prison. Secret messages were sent to the cell in a tin tube hidden in a milk can. Then one day the prison head came to the cell with the tube between his fingers and said: "Well, you guys are really tricky. And Raudsepp, congratulations. You just had a daughter."
That daughter was my mother.
Later on the couple had two more sons. One of them became a lawyer. He was drafted into the German army and ended up in America, where he died of cancer. The other son died of a burst appendix while still a student. The third sister, Minna, and the fifth one, Elfriede, went to Moscow to become nursemaids, and married there. The husbands of both were bank workers. In 1920, when their homeland became independent, the sisters opted for Estonian citizenship. Minna and Herbert had a daughter called Aino. They considered her to be in delicate health and would not let her exercise, or go to school alone. In summer she wore white dresses and walked with her parents. She was not allowed to play with other children, in order to avoid infections or learning bad words. Later she graduated from university, worked as a chemist, and remained a spinster. When she went on business trips, her mother went along and cooked for her. Then Herbert became slightly paralyzed. He slept poorly and insisted that Minna read books or just talk to him at night. Minna took care of her chickens, the greenhouse and their daughter during the day and read to her husband at night. A year and a half later she too was paralyzed, and died within two days. Herbert and Aino are still alive. Aino no longer goes to work, for her father will not stay at home if nobody is around. They are very poor and fight with the relatives. The fourth sister, Adele, married the son of a community elder who inherited his father's farm as well as his position. In 1918 he was among those Estonian and Latvian community elders whom the Germans took to Riga, demanding that they sign a document, which - on behalf of their nations - called for the restoration of former Russian administrative authority. As is well known, the elders refused to do so and came home. The couple had a son and a daughter. The elder later contracted consumption and died. Adele had to run the farm alone. All her sisters and their children came there summers, taking ham, eggs and apples back to town with them. The farm fell into debt and Adele sold it and bought a smaller one, Soonetu. It was managed by her son, who married a wealthy girl from Päpina, had a daughter and bought a tractor. When the war broke out a complaint was lodged that he had been hiding bandits in his loft, and the men from a Russian battalion, who had been attacked on the highway, came and shot him. After the war his wife and daughter went to Pärnu, where the mother worked in the cannery, built a house and educated her daughter, who is now an engineer. She is married (her husband is also an engineer) they have a son named Aivar and a car. Adele's daughter Helgi went with her family to Sweden in 1944. She works in a camera store with her husband, a philologist. When the war ended, Adele stayed alone on her farm. She invited my granduncle to come and live with her. There the two of them stayed until Adele fell ill, and moved to Pärnu, where she lived with her daughter-in-law until her death. The farm went to her son's daughter and her husband. They built a Finnish sauna, had a pond dug and they spend all their summers there.
The next child, the fifth, was my granduncle Johannes. The sixth child was Elfriede, who came back from Moscow after having opted for Estonian citizenship. Her husband worked at the Farmers' Bank, and later, during the Soviet period, at the State Bank. In 1949 he died of cancer. They had a son and a daughter. The son learned to do metal work, but later took to drink and was jailed for stealing firewood. He now does odd jobs, a hopeless alcoholic. His wife was a waitress in a café. Three years ago there was a story in the paper that their son Jüri, riding his motorcycle while drunk, had crashed into a shop window. I don't know anything more about him. Elfriede's daughter Veera worked in the EEKS insurance company, and later in the State Insurance Company, as an accountant. Elfriede died of cancer in 1960.
The next sister, Sophie, married an army physician. He was charged with misspending public money (it was said that the accusation was not without substance and that Sophie spent some of the money on her wardrobe and in furnishing their apartment), for which he was sent to the army medical service in the Far East. A daughter, Alice, was born to them there, and soon the physician died. Sophie came back to Estonia with her daugter; she ran a boarding house and worked as a nurse in a military hospital. In 1940 after the Soviet takeover she said she would not care for any lousy Russians, and did some knitting and sewing from her home instead. Alice became a doctor. She quarreled with her mother and defiantly went to Mustvee, where she gave care to the lousy Russians. In 1948 she treated someone wanted by the authorities; it came out, and she was locked up until 1955 in a prison camp in Komi, where she ended up a camp physician. On returning, she went to Saaremaa, adopted two children and raised them. At about seventy-five, her mother Sophie became somewhat simple-minded, stopped cursing the government, looked after a neighbor's children and made delicious apple pies. One time she asked the children to play nicely while she rested a little. She lay down on the sofa and died.
The next sister, Salme, had an affair during World War I in Tallinn with a Russian pilot who had a black moustache, played the guitar and sang love ballads. The pilot went to the front, was taken prisoner by the Germans and disappeared at the time of the revolution. Salme worked all her life as a bookkeeper in Tallinn, sharing an apartment in Nõmme suburb with another woman. As they grew older, they started getting on each other's nerves, and finally Salme's roommate, on her son's invitation, went to live with him in Australia. She wrote very long homesick letters to Salme, while Salme complained she didn't know how to live alone. She bought a Spitz but, for lack of exercise and too much food, the dog developed asthma and died. Soon the old woman died as well and after a lot of back and forth her apartment went to Alice's stepson who had been registered as a permanent resident there, even though he actually lived in a student hostel. His young wife (both of them students at the Technical College) lived in another student hostel and their year-old daughter lived with her grandmother in Kuusalu. The youngest of the sisters, Linda, lived with my grandparents in Valga where she graduated from secondary school and married the cousin of the same Karlsson who had thrown his revolver into the soup and escaped from the Pihkva train. They lived in Latvia, Germany, Holland and finally in Korea where the husband was a representative for a British company. Then the war came and no one has heard of them since. They had a daughter named Iris and a son named Benno. Somebody who came back from Siberia told us that someone had told him of knowing a red-haired woman named Iris who said she had relatives in Estonia named Raudsepp. Iris indeed had red hair but whether her Raudsepps were our family is doubtful. In any case it can be assumed that Linda is no longer alive.
Granduncle Johannes outlived all his sisters. He never married. My grandmother told me he once had had a sweetheart, a girl working as a private tutor in St. Petersburg. Once, Johannes received a letter. He always read his letters after supper. This letter was from his girlfriend, and she asked him to meet her that day at the railway station. But the train had already gone through the town during the day. The girl went on to Viljandi and Johannes remained a bachelor.
He studied in Voltvet to become a gamekeeper, it was said, but he never worked as one. I think he just could not resist the appeal of city life. He took a job in the post-office, and went for walks along the banks of the Emajõgi carrying a silver-knobbed monogrammed walking stick. During the Estonian War of Independence, his colleagues went to the front, and so did he. He was assigned to the armored train Captain Irv and worked as a cook or a kitchen helper. He was never interested in politics. When my grandmother and grandfather moved to Tartu, he went to live with them, cutting firewood and tending the stoves.
Then war came again. My grandparents had to leave their house and Johannes went to live in the country, first with Helene and then with Adele whose son had been shot in 1941. At Helene's they said he had showed no fear when the war front reached the village; he helped round up the frightened cattle and drove them to the woods, he berated German soldiers in German for looting the beehives, calmed the women and children who were hiding in a potato cellar, telling them that the artillery shots were passing over the village and there was no danger of being hit.
I first saw Johannes (though he had seen me as a baby in Tartu) on Adele's farm. They both worked on a collective farm but Johannes didn't do much. He complained his feet were hurting, went around in laceless military boots and grew a beard. The calves from the collective farm were kept in Adele's barn and she tended to them. Johannes helped her and cut firewood. The first thing I saw when I arrived there was a large round cone of firewood like a haystack. This pile was Johannes' work. Women and children were not allowed to take wood from the pile for he was afraid they would knock it down. But anyway neither Adele nor my mother would have dared to climb the garden ladder to the top of the pile. Johannes cut the logs using a measuring stick; all the pieces were exactly the same length. Tending the heating stoves was also something which he alone did, because women might have cracked them with too much heat or they might waste firewood. Or so he said. As they grew older, both Johannes and Adele went nearly deaf, so they preferred talking to the animals. Animals never answer back which would mean straining to hear them. Adele talked to the calves and Johannes to the cat and the geese. All his conversations were more like criticism and began with "Wait, wait …". Then the cat was scolded for being too lazy to catch mice and for destroying birds' nests, and the geese for being bad-tempered and making a mess by the front steps. Johannes never went anywhere and believed nothing people were telling him about the world: neither the fact that Tartu now reached out beyond the Maarjamõisa hospitals, nor that the river had been dammed. "This can't be," he would say, "they'd never dam the river in haymaking season." And that was that. Later he took a trip to Tartu and saw for himself that the town had grown. It made him less doubting. It might be that he would not have been so skeptical, had anyone explained things to him, but that would have meant shouting in his ear.
Johannes had his own eating utensils: a plate, a glass for tea, a knife, fork, and spoon. This is my clearest memory of him. The bottom of the plate had lost its glazing so the earthenware color was showed through; the knife was worn down to half its length and so were the teeth of the fork. All of this was because Johannes ate slowly and methodically, and scraped the plate clean of any last traces of food. My mother could not stand this plate scraping but fortunately it took Johannes over an hour to finish eating so people who found it getting on their nerves could finish up quickly and leave. It was not necessary to wait on Johannes in order to wash up his things, for after he had scraped his plate completely clean he rinsed it himself. It was worse in the evenings. Johannes' ingrained habit was to have tea after the day's work was done. But his day never ended until ten or eleven. I usually fell asleep to the tinkling of his teaspoon - he stirred his sugar for a quarter of an hour - but my mother complained that this sugar stirring and slurping of tea kept her from sleeping until midnight. Johannes was nearly deaf and so could not hear the sounds that he or the others were making.
After he finished his tea he picked up a newspaper, but as the day's activities and the tea had taken a lot of time, he could never finish reading it and put the paper aside until a more convenient time (which usually never came). The unfinished papers collected in a large stack, neatly folded and piled. No one was allowed to touch them. But as women often needed paper - for where else could one get paper at that time - now and then they took older newspapers from under Johannes' pile. I don't recall him ever noticing them disappear. Perhaps he just pretended not to notice.
We stayed two summers with Adele and Johannes. Then some relatives of Adele's husband, who had been accused of owning too much land and forced off their farm, moved into the back room of the house. There was no room for us and we spent our summers with other relatives. We hardly ever saw Johannes, save at his sisters' funerals in Tartu where he would stand beside the grave, tall and thin, his white beard blowing in the wind.
Two years later Adele died and was buried beside her husband. Several relatives and neighbors and a former farmhand attended the funeral dinner. Everyone tried to recall if they had ever heard an angry word from the dead aunt. But no one could. Adele, it appeared, had never spoken in anger in all her life. During the dinner, a story was told which I had not heard before. Adele's son died when a woman of their own village, whose daughter he had rejected, filed a complaint against him to the Russian authorities and they killed him. Later, when the Germans arrived, Adele and her daughter-in-law were summoned to the Self-Defense Command and asked if they knew anything about it. Adele said that even if she knew anything she would not tell them, for more than enough blood had already been shed and nothing would bring back her son.
The relatives discussed what they should do with Johannes. His hearing had become poorer, his feet had become even worse, and since the couple in the back room had gotten back their farm, Johannes would be quite alone at Soonetu, which no one dared risk. There was no one, though, who was able or willing to take him in - so a nursing home was the only option. The collective helped find a place for him in Kastre. Johannes left what money he had saved for his funeral from his twenty-rouble pension, and an album of photos with us for safekeeping, presented me with his silver-knobbed walking stick, gave instructions as to how he wanted to be dressed in the coffin, and left for Kastre. When there, he soon switched to a place in a nursing home in Tartu. There he lived and even found an old colleague from the post office, and sometimes visited my parents, with whom he had coffee, smoked a Belomor and chatted, which meant that they had to shout in his ear whatever news they thought he might find interesting. He promised to come over to my place to see little Mait, and my wife and I promised to visit him at the nursing home. But after that, my aunt came over and told us Johannes was ill. My wife was taking her examinations while I looked after our son and did some translation. My mother and aunt went to see Johannes. He was in pain but his appetite was good. He wanted to know if our Mait was a lively child, and asked for a Russian language dictionary. The next night, the day before Christmas, he died. It was bladder cancer. A nurse washed and dressed him in the old suit he had worn on his walks around town. My aunt took a new navy blue suit down there, paid the nurse five roubles, and the woman dressed Johannes again. It was over the holidays and the funeral could not be arranged quickly, but as the weather was cold, the dead body could wait and so Johannes was not buried until nine days later, in the new year. It was a windless day and the graveyard was covered in deep snow. Johannes' grave was in the family burial plot where his parents, his sisters and a brother who had died in infancy, as well as Elfriede and Sophie, had been buried. The gravedigger said there was no vacant space and Johannes would have to be interred on top of an older burial. So his grave was over his mother who had died fifty years earlier. I looked down into it to see if a bone or a piece of coffin board was showing but I didn't see anything. Maybe the gravediggers had picked out the old bones (a skull might possibly be sold to medical students) or the grave was not dug exactly over the older one so that Johannes' and his mother's bones were not united as they had been before his birth although it was nice to imagine the union of the mother and son down there under the earth.
It was a religious service. My aunt had asked the minister to be brief, but he seemed offended and said he would do as prescribed by the order of service and went on for half an hour about the life of Johannes Rebane who had been a quiet and industrious man, always caring of his kin, and enduring uncomplainingly the blows that fate had dealt him, etc. etc. The relatives and Johannes' roommates from the nursing home, two old gents, one on crutches, a former nurse practitioner - he had helped Johannes die (everyone needs someone to bring them into this world and someone to send them off) - stood in the chill and waited for the minister to say "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes…" And I was thinking that Johannes was the last of his family and now we will never have the chance to find out about their childhood, how they lived when young, or how they felt and thought or what they did eighty, seventy, sixty, fifty, forty…years ago. I never asked about these things when the time was suitable, I didn't know how, nor would they have known how to answer, because what interested me most was too basic to put into words; it was the spirit or flavor of the time which depends on all things, just as all things depend on it, and which you can't put a finger on. I could try to put it together from pieces and reminiscences, like the fact that Johannes never worked as a gamekeeper, or the way he piled firewood or melted his sugar, or >from his things like the silver-knobbed walking stick which was now mine, but so many memories and things would be missing that the picture would be without life. The past was sealed and I would never learn if, how and why it had been better or worse, happier, gentler or gloomier, more humane, forgiving, or more ruthless than our time. I thought that all my writing was indeed also a revolt against time, an attempt to anchor some passing pictures within the current, but to what purpose? The air, the spirit in which we live and which in fact is our time, can never be arrested - time was the flow itself and anchoring a flow is as absurd as capturing a spring in a bathtub, or the wind in a box.
Then the minister said: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life..." An unshaven, slightly drunk gravedigger had already handed him a battered aluminum plate full of earth. We all threw our three handfuls of earth into the grave and said goodbye to the minister.
The two old men from the nursing home started hobbling away (the place was not far from the graveyard). My mother approached the man on crutches and they shook hands, Alice and Helene's son-in-law did the same. Most of those who had attended the funeral were leaving. We had laid a small table for the funeral dinner at our house. I stopped for a moment wondering whether I should go back and speak to that nurse practitioner but for some reason I took the easy way and went with the relatives.
It was quiet, and the snow lay thick and white on the trees, although it was turning foggy and you could feel a thaw in the air. I looked back. The trees, the earth and the sky were vanishing in the twilight, and in the frosty white mist you could see two dark figures moving along the road: the nurse practitioner on his crutches and Johannes' roommate. Suddenly I felt sorry I had not gone and said goodbye to the nurse practitioner. He had held Johannes' hand when he was dying and so for some moments had been closer to him than any other person, indeed had been for him the only real person in the world. Just as his mother had been when he was born, and near whose bones his worn-out body now lay.
This all was something great and symbolic, something that meant a circle was closing. I knew all this, but could not feel it, even though I should have felt this way. It was all there: birth, death, a snowy twilight, the silence, and a minister reciting bible verses some of which were indeed quite beautiful and profound. Johannes was beside his mother and both of them were back again in Mother Earth. I thought about it all but the only thing I felt was the cold numbing my toes, my empty stomach and shame for not feeling anything else and for not having shaken hands with the two old men, for I am the way I am and I do not know how, or cannot, or do not want to do anything to be different.
1973 Translation by Inna Feldbach and Alan Trei