In my jewelry box, next to the silver and gems, is a little grey stone with a hole. I found it on the beach at Anna Maria when I was a kid, what seems like a lifetime ago, when my mother and I would drive down to stay with my grand-uncle at his winter house. Finding a rock on the beach is hardly unusual. But I remember it because he told me: a rock with a hole is good luck, you keep that. Somehow I did, all this time. It’s nothing remarkable, a smooth grey stone with one hole worn all the way through and several others pitted in the surface. But it was lucky. My uncle said so, and I loved him and believed the things he told me. Somehow I managed to keep from misplacing it, all of this time. I never asked why hole-stones were lucky. Some things just are. You don’t have to know why, as long as you know.
My maternal family, which is all I’ve got, is Estonian. Very Estonian. As Estonian as you can get after naturalizing in America. Depending on which grandparent you count it from, I’m either the second or third generation off the boat. I’m sure there are convoluted grandmother’s-second-cousin-by-marriage names for these relationships, but we’re big on simplicity, so all I knew was that there were a mess of awesome old people, Aunt Her and Uncle Him, with lilting accents and goofy senses of humor, who’d been Born There but Couldn’t Go Back. Superstition, sterling silver, and plenty of dessert. Kurat! There were cousins my own age, and aunts and uncles in my mother’s generation, but somehow I got along best with the old folks. I was shy and small and quiet, and they were gentle with me, drawing me out carefully until I’d let them see who I really was, and welcoming it when I did.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned things in any detail: the red revolution, the brief period of nationalism, the escape from Soviet occupation with little more than the clothes on their backs. I wish I knew the stories better; some were serious, some were funny, some were sad. My aunts and uncles told their stories with a mix of humor and sorrow in that peculiar way which I am learning is just an Estonian thing, this deep drive to find the humor in a situation and burst yourself at it, because it’s better to be laughing than crying. We elbow each other and giggle at funerals; we crack jokes in hospital rooms; we are a combination of wary and amused, because the two constants in life are that things go wrong, and things are funny. There’s about fifteen hundred years of history backing this: when your tribe gets conquered, invaded, overtaken, converted, subverted, silenced, and annexed by every hopped-up tsar or warlord to come down the pike, it learns how to maintain a sense of self. Don’t let the bastards get you down, the jokes remind us, and laugh it off when they try. Laugh at them behind their backs.
Lately I have been reading about Estonian mythology, tradition, superstition; I wonder what’s survived all this way, from Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from Neolithic settlements all the way to modern times. As it turns out, quite a bit.
My grandmother was superstitious: no shoes on the table, no open umbrellas in the house, no walking under a ladder. All of those are ordinary enough here, I suppose; if she found a good superstition she’d add it to the collection. Why not? Knock on wood, salt over the shoulder, and a “god willing” tacked onto the end of hopes and plans although she, like me, was about as religious as a doorstop. Why? Who knows. She just was.
I can’t remember her swearing in English more than once or twice, in moments of great distress, but she swore in Estonian almost constantly. Her one Estonian word, guttural, with the full accent she’d lost when she learned English at the age of five. Kurat! As a kid I tried to write it down and I think I came up with ‘Guddaght,’ which is about how I remember it sounding, with the rolled r. I asked her what it meant once, that word you always say, Grandma: she paused a moment then told me, dismissively, “It means” – quick glance away, what to tell the kid – “go run in the woods.” That was that. Don’t ask more about it. It’s just Grandma being funny. Some things just are: that’s another thing I learned.
She took that word’s meaning with her to the grave, but later one of my mob of old-country aunts, my grandmother’s cousin perhaps, finally explained it to me. Kurat means devil, in the most literal sense, although it serves double duty as an all-purpose profanity for any situation from disappointment to catastrophe. Google translates it as “fucking,” which is funny when “Big Devil Rock” becomes “Fucking Hard Thing.”
Kuradisaar, or Devil Island, is another story that aunt gave me, though the name she used was Devil’s Rock; it’s an island just off the Käsmu peninsula where stories say the Devil lost a fight, I think. Though if my family are a standard example it’s just as likely that the island got its name from everyone slipping off the rocks, skinning their knees and swearing, kurat, kurat, kurat! She would walk out into the bay at low tide, picking her way across the glacier-smoothed rocks like gigantic stepping stones, and go to the island. Then the tide came in, and either she was stuck there or she had to swim back. “And you didn’t want to do that in the winter time!” she’d say. Why did you go out to the rock in winter? “Well” – a shrug – “why not?” Because it’s there. It is. Some things just are.
I have a muddy estuary full of tarpon and dolphins and crabs, and while I’ve been in it often enough to be immune to Karenia brevis, I’ve never gone out and found myself trapped on an island where the Devil lost a fight. I have turned up plenty of stingrays though, which I’m sure they would have liked to hear about, laughing as they’d scold me: “You did what? Those can kill you! What is wrong with your mind?” Well, why not?
I asked her about the herring once: that was the other thing I never did figure out. I still don’t know, come to it. When the clock strikes twelve and the new year comes, the first thing you must do is eat a great gob of herring. Pickled in sour cream is what we always get. I asked my great-aunt, my grandmother’s cousin, why it was lucky. She fixed me with a look and said, “It just is!” Why is the sky blue? Why are there rocks in the ocean? Some things just are.
Normal is whatever you’re used to, I suppose. When I was younger and these magnificent lunatics were all alive, I took it for granted. I didn’t know there was anything special about it. But I feel the loss, and I miss them so much, the accents and the stories, the table manners (pizza with a fork, really?), silver and ships and herring.
Nostalgia has got to be another genetic trait.
It makes perfect sense that my grand-uncle had his winter home on Anna Maria Island. Boats were as necessary to his life as cameras are to mine; he’d been a sailor in Estonia, made his way to the US aboard ship, then worked in the Merchant Marines after getting his citizenship. After that he owned a small marina, and when it came time to retire he picked a house on a small wild barrier island (it was at the time, at least) with a canal in the back yard, and a dock on that, and of course, a little motorboat moored to it.
The thing I remember the best is how we’d go fishing in the morning for what we ate at dinner. We set out when the sun was still coming up, motor out around the island into the gulf, then cut the engines and drift. We’d spend the mornings out there, listening to the tall tales he’d spin and waiting for the fish — which were always called trout, I’m not sure why — to bite. There was a wooden scaling post on the little dock, and he’d trim the fish right there with an old kitchen knife before bringing them indoors. I had two jobs: fetch the live shrimp from the bucket so he could bait the hooks, and afterwards, throw the discarded heads and tails to a blue heron that learned it would get treats if it hung around begging.
Yesterday I learned that there’s a wealth of sacred stones in Estonia, thousands of years old. They are glacial boulders with little holes or cups in the surface. Some may have been natural. Some were carved to depict constellations. They were offering stones: you would leave something of value in the hole, for a wish, or for luck, or for health. I don’t know if my uncle knew about that, the details, the historical specifics; he did know a stone with a hole in it was good luck, a talisman to carry in your pocket or put in a drawer. I don’t know how a Neolithic tradition survived long enough to become a modern luck-charm, but it has. Some things just happen.
That amazes me.
All of those people are gone now, and I miss them so much. It’s strange and lonely. I crave the accents and the stories and the food and the laughter. But they gave me valuable things, the herring and the stones. Kurat! Laugh off a calamity. Some things just are. By learning about that place, about the things that made them who they were, they don’t seem quite as far away.
Especially the jokes — remind me to tell you the one about the potholders, sometime.