Part I Old
family group, circa 1890, Karlis back row, second from right
aka "Velena Tarziers," the chess player, appears far left
on back row.
most of my youth, the family circle consisted of my father Karlis, my
mother Jüle, Grandmother until her death when I was about eight,
and the younger generation: Osvalds and Janis, Anna-Otilija, myself and
my little brother Peteris. And, of course, there was, or wasn’t,
our brother Karlis, who died of meningitis at age 12. Nobody mentioned
him after he was gone. Nobody spoke of Adolfs, either, who would have
been another little brother for me, except he died soon after birth.
Further out in the circle, on Father’s side we had several aunts
and an uncle, Janis. Janis ended up in the big city, Riga, first as a
tailor’s apprentice and then as master tailor. One of Father’s
sisters lived across the road from our farm, approximately half a kilometer
away. She was married but did not have any children. Peteris and I called
her “Berzinu Tante,” the Berzin Aunt. In good weather we fought
for the privilege of bringing over the daily newspaper, because we got
rewarded with a sugar cube.
Another Tarziers lived in Velena, some 30 km from our farm. His first
name was Karlis too, but we called him simply “Velena Tarziers.”
He was married with no children, and worked as parish school teacher and
organist at the Velena Lutheran church. His funeral service in 1918 caused
a small uproar in town. His pupils all showed up to carry the coffin to
the cemetery, a few city blocks away, for a proper Lutheran burial. A
good friend of his by the name of Jaunzems, who happened to be the presbyter
of the Baptist church, wanted to offer a eulogy, but the Lutheran pastor
refused permission. They nearly came to blows over the dead body, growing
riper by the minute in the summer heat. It was only after his pupils threatened
to take the coffin right over to the Baptist church that the pastor allowed
Jaunzems to speak. We gossiped about that for a long time.
Karlis Gruniers, Mother’s sister’s son, was pretty close to
us, godfather to Peteris and briefly my piano teacher. He was the only
male heir in that family. He desperately wanted to be a musician, but
his father groomed him to take over their farm instead. Their farm was
in Murani, so we called his mother the Murani Mama. Our parents grew up
in the same Pagasts, but we became estranged from them after our conversion
to the Baptists. They wanted little to do with us after that.
Grandmother was part of the picture during our early years. She outlived
Grandfather by many years. She was very nice, especially to Peteris. He
could almost always talk her into looking after the cattle, to do his
work, that is, so he could go play in the woods. She never did that for
me. She did chase Father off with her cane when he wanted to whip one
of us rascals. Emerging out of her room, she’d point her walking
stick at him: “Why don’t you leave the child alone!”
Father, a notch below God, backed right off when he found himself at the
wrong end of the old woman’s cane. We were a little ashamed at how
we used Grandmother to get away with our sins, but why complain? It worked.
She died in the summer of my eighth year and was buried in the black coffin
kept in the attic, near the chimney, made to order for her little body.
Janis Ozols was our maternal uncle. He too lived in Murani, with his other
married sister and her family, and made his living as a carpenter. During
winter he built furniture for our house and farm. Janis never married.
Mother used to sigh: “Jan, regarding marriage you are all talk and
no action.” He liked the two of us. He teased us, but it was a nice
teasing, not mean like Osvalds’. We pestered him constantly, so
he made all sorts of deals with us. One time he paid me five kopeks, big
money for me then, to run five times around the house in my bare feet.
His price for letting me use his handsaw was to hear me yell at the top
of my lungs—I guess he couldn’t think of a better task at
the moment. Peteris got one of his windmills for learning to read the
owl story. I learned to read without a fuss, and that’s why I didn’t
get my windmill.
Peteris: Uncle Janis was a real pal. He was always making
deals with me. He promised me five kopeks if I hopped on one foot five
times the length of the work room. The work room was the largest room
in the house. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in it. I never earned
the five kopeks. I think he just wanted me to get tired so I would stay
out of trouble. He gave me my trusty pocketknife. And he helped break
the stalemate between me and the hoot owl story, the hardest story in
the ABC’s book. Here is what happened:
He was busy doing some carpentry for us. I propped my chin on his work
bench and moped: “I hate that story. I hate hoot owls. I will never
learn to read it. That’s it—I don’t have to learn to
read. I can just be a carpenter like you.” The sudden decision gave
me a rush of relief. Down with the ABC’s.
But Uncle Janis had more faith in me than I did. I knew he was going to
say something important. Slowly he turned around, pulled the pipe out
of his mouth, and looked straight at me: “Know what, Peteris? When
you can read the whole story, from beginning to end, I will give you one
of my toy windmills. See? It makes woody noises when the wind turns it.”
I ran off into my room, crying hot tears. I so wanted the windmill, and
the story was so hard, the two were a world apart. But after I dried off
my face I really began to pay attention, and in a week or so I could read
the story. Nothing to it, really.
Uncle Janis did keep his promise. Windmill in hand, I ran out of the house.
I didn’t even say thank you. Yes, Uncle Janis was a real pal.
Robert: In my mind, our family circle divided into two
camps. Peteris and I were the kids, close in age and pals in mischief
making. Osvalds and Janis, so much older, belonged with the adults. Osvalds
especially was grouchy and mean, as grownup as they got. Anna-Otilija
occupied a special place, sandwiched between two older and two younger
brothers. She never got whipped like we did, since Mother, with her soft
heart, was in charge of keeping her in line. Father never touched Anna-Otilija.
She helped Mother cook the small mountains of potatoes and cabbages needed
to feed the workers, but she was spared farm labor.
Peteris: Robert was “half good” to me.
Robert: I have to set something straight here. Peteris
was always blaming me for his mischief. He always managed to wiggle out
of trouble by claiming, innocent-like, that whatever it was, was my fault.
I got really angry, but it didn’t do much good. He was the family
darling. Grandmother, especially, always stood up for him.
Peteris: Robert poked fun at me, made me take the rap
when it was his fault, and ratted on me. He accused me of hiding behind
Grandmother’s skirts. He made fun of me because I called the cellar
pabrabs—the word was pagrabs. I loved Robert in spite of everything—as
a pal in troublemaking, there was no match for him. One time I really
got in big trouble with Osvalds. I swiped a bunch of his good white paper
and some of his lovely red ink, because I wanted to draw like him. I topped
off the inkwell with water, which of course ruined the ink. When Osvalds
walked in from school, he promptly chased me down, found the ink and the
paper in my room, and gave me a spanking I never forgot.
Jule Tarziers, circa 1922
steam engine safety valve, officially a responsibility of Osvald’s,
gave us a way to get back at him. It
was meant to melt and release
steam if the burner became overheated, putting out the fire in the burner
and preventing an explosion in the boiler. At some point in the history
of the machine, someone had allowed the water level to drop too low, allowing
it to overheat, partially melting down the valve. A replacement from England
cost a fortune, so we made do with what we had. The valve would ooze as
pressure mounted, and Osvalds’ job was to keep an eye on it. Our
special trick was to wait until he was holed up in his room, studying
for the Gymnazia (high school) exam. We would run in through the quiet
house, shouting, Osvald, dampin noba cula!—the belly button is oozing!
Osvalds would drop pen and paper and gallop to the threshing room, while
Peteris and I took off in the other direction as fast as we could—our
bottoms knew his hand very intimately. We pestered him in this way, like
horseflies, quite a few times. The civil war between younger and older
ceased only when he left Druviena to attend the Courland agricultural
Peteris: To this day I can't understand why adults—Osvalds,
nearly twenty years old, was a grownup in my eyes—took such pleasure
in duping children. I wonder if he was jealous, because we did get favored
treatment from our elders, especially Grandmother. But back then I felt
like the Biblical Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers. In Osvalds
defense, I must say that he really wanted to learn and better himself.
He never followed a plow in the field. He really wasn’t born to
be a tiller—he’d rather play the clarinet or paint one of
Janis, second son in our family, was nice and easy going. He never mistreated
us, and he even protected us from Osvalds. One of my earliest memories
dates back to 1905, when I was two. The Cossacks came through our area,
passing by the farm on the main road. Fascinated by their horses and uniforms
and supreme self-confidence, I headed out to see them, but to my amazement
Janis, my 14-year-old brother, ran in the opposite direction to hide in
the Rija, the threshing barn. I saw Janis as a bold grownup who feared
no one, but on that occasion he scurried off like a rabbit.
I loved Janis. He always knew where to find Mizers, our tomcat. He knew
how to hunt down hares and wild pigs with his shotgun. In early spring,
when the clover began to come out, Janis taught us that the hares came
out of the woods at dusk to feed on the young clover. He never came back
without a couple of hares for the table. We took advantage of Janis when
he lay down on the grass for his midday nap in the summer—we would
crawl all over him and even sit on his belly.
Robert: Janis loved to play with my brother Peteris.
Sometimes Janis would let Peteris sit on his stomach when he was lying
in bed and bounce him up and down on his belly with laughter. He never
did that with me. Janis wanted to see to Peteris’s education after
Father died, but the war got in the way. I never got the feeling that
Osvalds liked us in the same way. I don’t think he hated us, but
we disturbed his studies.
Peteris: Osvalds would never let us crawl on him. He
studied a lot—he passed the state exam, the equivalent of today’s
college level courses. He even studied Latin. He had his own room full
of books, in Latin, German, French, and Russian, the Latvian state language
at that time. He should have attended the university, but higher studies
were quite beyond the reach of a farm family.
We followed Janis around like shadows. One time we saw him grab the shotgun
and set out on a squirrel hunt. We begged to go, but he turned us down.
So we ran ahead of him in the woods, quiet-like so he wouldn’t notice
us. We got to the “high hill,” as we called the elevation
near the woods, hoping to spy on him. We thought we were invisible for
sure, but Janis called, “Boys, you here?” and asked us if
we’d seen squirrels. He asked us to help, instead of scolding us
for tailling him! So we got to go hunting for squirrels too. That’s
the kind of brother he was.
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