A Mother’s Voice

If I close my eyes, I see an overwhelmed little girl, hair dishevelled, sitting on the floor, in the middle of a messy bedroom. From the great distance of time, I hear the all-knowing voice of the mother, echoing across the years. “Start with what you know. The rest will come.” With Silvia’s precious tin, I sit at my kitchen table, listening to the voice of my mother. I have photographs without names or dates, postcards without return addresses and an internet search, revealing a truncated family tree. Nothing more, but enough to start, not knowing what will follow.

Returning to Silvia’s genealogical record, I begin to construct meaning from the smallest details. I weave names, dates and locations together in an attempt to recreate a family. I sit at the table, quietly breathing life into lives long gone, until they resemble people I can recognize. They begin to pull out chairs and sit around tables, pick up spoons, and eat simple meals. They sing songs and dance and laugh and fall in love. At night they marvel at the stars and snuggle under blankets to dream their complicated dreams. They cry and become angry and walk away. Then someone slams a door. Pages are marked in books and set aside. They write letters. The rain falls on an upturned face, and they lose mittens in the snow. They bump into chairs, run down streets, and walk at the edge of the sea. They stand and gaze out a window, and make plans for the future.

But futures are uncertain, especially those that navigate a dramatically changing world. Silvia’s great-grandparents would have remembered the German ruled feudal system in Estonia, upended by Russian occupation. Her grandparents, would live in an Estonia, that had moved toward industrialization, but a modernity in which a Russian cultural model was vigilantly imposed upon the people. These Russian restrictions on Estonian language and culture, provoked a burgeoning intellectual movement that began to cultivate a sense of national and cultural identity, growing into a powerful, undeniable force as Sivlia’s parents, Juhan and Johanna reached adulthood.

Silvia’s parents would have met in this heady, shifting atmosphere of old traditions and new possibilities. In their mid-twenties, they married and established a life together in the city of Paide, close to Johanna’s parents, Mart and Liso Glaase, and all that was familiar to Johanna’s childhood.

This newly formed family celebrated the birth of their first child, a son, Johann, born in April of 1914, three short months before a gunshot changed the world. Johann was but a small babe in Johanna’s arms, when the arms of war were picked up, spreading east and west, engulfing a continent, a world. Still under Russian occupation, Estonian men of Juhan’s age were conscripted to join the growing Russian forces.

With the men away, Johanna was surely grateful to be near her mother, Liso, especially as she anticipated the birth of her second son, Olaf, born in September 1915. The bond of eldest daughter and mother became stronger in their care for young children, and their daily work of preparing meals from reduced rations or planting a garden with expectations of bounty. As war dug in over an entire continent and families grieved the loss of those they loved, Johanna and Liso, familiar with the hardships of occupation, would have known their futures held bleak days to come. But hovering on their doorstep was an unforeseen loss. With the coming of spring, baby Olaf died.

At eight months of age, little Olaf had been crawling underfoot, sitting on a soft rug, knocking over his older brother’s building blocks. His personality revealed as he played and explored in his small but expanding world. Liso had started to feed him little treats from her kitchen, wiping his sticky face and hands, teaching him clapping games with rhyme and song. Johanna, his mother. Oh, Johanna. Her voice was the lullaby that closed his thinly veiled eyes in sleep. Her kiss his delight, her delight. Her entire being had nurtured his growth. With empty arms, her grief would ache through long nights, returning abruptly, the dread greeting of the morning.  

With the pangs of remembrance, and the seeming finality of a date on the calendar revisited, Johanna soon finds herself expecting another child, and with her realization of pregnancy, the fighting of the world reaches Estonian soil. Hand-stitched baby bonnets, embroidered gowns and tiny folded blankets are readied in preparation, while Russian forces clash with an advancing German army. As Johanna’s movements became more awkward and cumbersome, and the winter nights became longer and colder, fear would sit at Johanna’s hearth and gather around her table, disrupting her uneasy sleep.  

In the coldest month of a monumental winter, Russian troops are retreating from Estonia and the incoming Germans, as Liso sits at the side of Johanna’s bed, wiping her brow, and soothing her through the contractions of labor. Silvia is born on Sunday, February 17, 1918 the same day a committee is formed to draft a declaration of independence. In less than a week, Silvia will be nestled near her mother as the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia is read from the balcony of the Endla Theatre, declaring Estonia an independent republic.

The Estonian army will fight for independence the entirety of Silvia’s infancy. As Silvia crawls beneath the feet of Johanna and Liso, the boots of Russia and Germany will leave Estonia; the fighting of a world will cease, the recognition of an Estonian nation complete, as Silvia takes her first awkward steps.

The changes brought by independence, will move the family to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. Here by the sea, a five-year old Silvia will greet her younger brother Rein to the nursery, soon followed by Silvia’s only sister, Maret born in 1925. Silvia, at seven years of age, must have greeted a new baby to the house with especial delight, like a doll come to life. But the two years following Maret’s birth, held moments that would need to last a lifetime. They were the last years Silvia spent with her mother. Johanna died when Silvia was nine.

My own daughter is eight, still a young girl, playing with dolls and stuffed animals, making mud pies and grass soup, believing in fairies. As I watch my daughter navigate her day, I wonder how she could manage without a mother. I think of all the unknowns she has yet to face and the boundless loss that would trail her life. Johanna, familiar with the pain of loss, would have known the dark world approaching her children, as she was taking leave of it.

Nine years old, the spring ephemerals in bloom and the summer warmth ahead, Silvia is in the garden or reading a book beneath an apple tree. She is walking with her young siblings. Their chubby fingers reaching for the outstretched hand of their big sister. Silvia, now navigating a motherless world, sleeping with dreams of her mother’s face, as her mother’s voice grows fainter. Silvia’s first connection, her first love, her mother, now gone.

Not many months pass before another Johanna steps into Silvia’s life. Juhan marries Johanna Narma (Sanders). Soon after, another baby, Juri is born to the reconfigured family. This new mother, a new Johanna, runs the household and regulates routines. She lays out the presents and celebrates the birthdays and holidays of the family. She will be responsible for guiding Silvia through the complexities of early adulthood, and comforting Silvia, at sixteen, when her Grandmother, Liso dies. This Johanna holds her family close when troops return to Estonia, and will struggle as a single parent when her husband, Silvia’s father, is taken away by the Soviets. She will feel the fear and the worry as she watches the children, now grown, flee their country. For nearly two decades she will be a mother to Silvia. Johanna’s death, unknown to Silvia, for nearly fifty years, comes soon after Soviet occupation.

Later, while searching a digital archive, the face of Silvia’s stepmother is revealed on my screen with the single click of a button. There Johanna stolidly stands, in fading sepia, holding her infant son, Juri to her cheek, a look of maternal love in her gaze. I look into the soft roundness of her face, hoping she gave her love to Silvia: hoping her influence was nurturing and her voice was strong enough to follow Silvia through her long life with encouragement. But my hopes cannot be realized with a photograph or a genealogical record.

Only an outline of names and dates and the conflicts of war have told us this story of women: seen like shadows, flitting across the walls in a room lit by fire. To find Silvia’s story, I must follow the marks made by men, but the women continue to murmur. Their voices still heard, faintly speaking.

Johanna Narma (Sander) full image.

Creative Commons photograph, from the archive of the Eesti Rahva Museum

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4 thoughts on “A Mother’s Voice

  1. I’m sitting with you at the table! Oh you bring such a vibrant glow to Sylvia! And her Mother!
    Can barely wait for the next chapter!

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