Tarzier Memoirs

Part I   Old Latvia



I was born July 9, 1903, in the homestead of Predeli, in the Druviena civil parish or Pagasts as it is called in Latvian.* The nest was full when I hatched: Grandmother, Father, Mother, four older brothers, one older sister, and various uncles and aunts. I would never lack for company. I was a farmer’s son, not especially lucky nor rich, but I didn’t know any better—who cares, I felt like a newly-minted kopek. I knew every cranny, bog, rock, and tree of the Predeli farmland. I knew where swifts made their clay nests and which starling house was occupied at the moment, and which trees the sparrows liked best. I owned the world.

When I was six weeks old, the family got ready to give me religion. They loaded up the droshka for the trip to the Lutheran church in Tirza, a few kilometers from our farm. Karlis Gruniers, some sort of uncle twice removed, came along as godfather. A nasty bug came along with the official welcome into the Lutheran church. Mother was no longer nursing me, supposedly because I had a mouth infection. She had brought along a bottle of fresh milk from the farm to feed me through the day and into the evening. But as they entered the vestry, the bottle fell on the floor and broke. So much for my lunch.

After the ceremony, the christening party naturally had to go down the hill to a pub to celebrate. To keep me quiet, they fed me milk bought at the inn. Maybe it was spoiled, in those days before refrigeration. At any rate, I was close to death until fall. Everybody expected me to die—it was only a matter of time. But when Mother came in after a day of threshing grain and leaned over the crib, my little body still emitted signs of life. Father then sent my big brother Osvalds to Ranka, about 12 kilometers from our home, to consult the apothecary, who served as doctor for the countryside. In those days, the apothecary mixed up his medication from various powders and potions in large glass jars. He gave Osvalds a gray colored powder, to be mixed with milk and fed to me. To everyone’s delight, an hour after receiving the medication I opened mouth and eyes and from that moment on recovered steadily. I have never been seriously ill in my life since.**

Milk straight from the cow was one of the pleasures of my childhood. It didn’t take much begging--Father would look up from the pail and point the udder toward my mouth and give me a squirt of sweet, warm milk. I also drank the cream that rose to the top of the pitcher. We had never seen a big city, but we didn’t need to. We were happy in the Predeli land.

One time I gashed my hand cutting bamboo. I needed a fishing pole to catch fish like my brothers, so I took a knife from Father’s tool chest and snuck over to the bamboo clump behind the ponds. Well, the bamboo was tough and slippery, and the knife very sharp. I squeezed the cut as hard as I could—I thought my body was going to empty out like a punctured balloon—and ran off to hide in the woods, feeling stupid and afraid of the spanking I deserved. When it got dark, I curled up in the hole of a dead tree trunk for warmth. I watched owls fly over the field, and the trees above me looked like black ghosts. I shivered and gritted my teeth, tears and snot drying to a crust on my face, while people called my name. Our dog Mizers was the one who sniffed me out. It was good to come home to a hot supper. They were glad I was alive after all! They wrapped me in blankets to carry me home. Mother gave me a cup of steaming hot chocolate, bandaged my hand, and forgot to scold me for having caused so much trouble.

* Peteris, or Pedro Tarsier, died in Brazil,June 9, 1972, a month short of his 69th birthday.

**This theme, the child that is given up for dead only to recover almost miraculously by last-minute intervention, is a recurring theme in family lore. I heard two different stories about an early illness that nearly took my life. Only a few months old, I was at death’s door from diarrhea and dehydration. Mother had surrendered her baby to God and wrapped me in a clean blanket to die in peace. Next day, she told me, I bounced back good as new, thanks to prayers and faith. My father Pedro (the Peteris who wrote this piece) remembered a different version of the story: when Mother gave up on me, he sought help at the local pharmacy, bought medication, and saved my life. Robert tells essentially the same tale about Janis, his eldest son—see story in Part III, Building a Family—MT


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