Monday, March 14, 2011

sleigh ride

seventy-five winters ago there was still a shaky peace in the land. there was also a short-lived independence between the two big wars for the small baltic countries - latvia, lithuania and estonia - one they would not see again until 1991. in a few years the second world war would start and embroil these tiny nations in feuds not of their own making. german and soviet soldiers, horses and tanks would trample over latvian soil, changing forever the lives of thousands of people.

but that was later. for now marta and her family and the farm's workers, would keep on doing what they had always done. many years ago in latvia, the family lived on a farm called three lindens, named for the three largest trees on the property. the three linden trees stood proudly by themselves in a cluster beyond the terrace, like three beautifully dressed girls showing off at a garden party.

three lindens farm provided much of the food for the people who lived and worked there, any surplus was sold or bartered. sugar beets were the main cash crop. old grandmother, marta's mother (a widow), owned three lindens and, with marta's help, ran it well. (marta's husband was a university professor who lived and taught in riga during the week.) she supervised baking bread and cakes, slaughtering chickens for dinner, milking cows, planting flower and vegetable gardens, and landscaping the grounds. sugar beet production she left to the farm's manager.

not only was this a prosperous farm, it was also a home, and old grandmother firmly believed in the beauty of nature. the barns and other outbuildings were built a distance from the house to keep the business of running a farm separate from the business of running a family. old grandmother surrounded the big, yellow farmhouse with tall lilacs and hedges, planted for their beauty as well as for privacy. colorful flowers, shrubs and fruit trees grew in a dense profusion, and fine gravel pathways laced around the manicured garden. beyond the garden, an unobstructed, panoramic window-like view through the tall pine, birch and linden trees was carefully maintained all the way down to the bank of the little daugava river.

that winter seventy-five years ago, when marta's daughter, ani, was six years old, was a cold, snowy one. ani and her friend sylvie could not walk the two miles to school in the huge snow drifts. until the weather warmed up, one of the farm hands hitched a couple horses to the sleigh every morning. marta fluffed up the fur blankets, tucked the children deep into the sleigh, and watched as they drove off to school. along the way they would stop and pick up other girls and boys who were walking to school on the road.

shouts of joy greeted each new rosey-cheeked passenger as they climbed in and snuggled under the warm furry coverings. with sleigh bells jingling, the children would sing and chatter and laugh as they slipped across the icy land on their way to school. riding free, free to let their voices ring out loudly across the fields; free to announce their happiness to the world; free to slide along in a sturdy sleigh with beautiful horses pulling them down the snow-packed road; free to just be children.

when the war came, many of the farm's workers left to become soldiers. when the soviet tanks got too close, the school closed. when the tanks drove away again, the school reopened. when the town's food supplies dwindled, marta's family did not go hungry, nor did their neighbors. they stayed on the farm for as long as they could. then one day in springtime when the soviet army returned, closing in on the retreating german army, marta and her family fled under the protection of the germans, taking only what they could carry. they assumed they would return home when the fighting was over.

the sleigh disappeared one night near the end of the war. the sleigh bells hung silently on a peg beside the barn door, mute and forgotten. old grandmother, marta and ani never saw three lindens farm again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A beautiful, moving and fateful description.