Grand Tales: My grandmother Astrid Briedis - whynow

Grand Tales: My grandmother Astrid Briedis, The First Ray of Sunshine

We are living very unique, perilous, uncertain times. I know I certainly feel like that as I grumpily look out the window and fight the cantankerous old lady inside of me, dying to yell “NO picnics!” at the people in the park below me. How I wish sometimes I was old enough – I mean, really old – to get away with acting just in the way my heart desires and knowing that I am fully entitled to do so because of the time I have spent on this Earth.

But I am not, I am a granddaughter, not a grandmother. As I think of this mythical grumpy old lady that seems to be my spirit animal, my thoughts inevitably turn to my mother’s mother… almost centenary, kind, big-eyed, and a bit of a coquette. She is nothing like the witch I strive to become. 

…my thoughts inevitably turn to my mother’s mother… almost centenary, kind, big-eyed, and a bit of a coquette.

And then, daydreaming as I often do these days, I start recalling her amazing tales of childhood adventures in the Latvian countryside, her impossible journey by foot to Western Europe during WWII, her gamble to hop on a boat full of strangers to seek a new life in the Caribbean, and her all-enduring smile after an impossibly eventful life. I immediately realise that whether a situation is good or bad is just a matter of perspective, and that, in any case, there is no such thing as an unbearable situation. 

Astrid, although everyone calls her ‘Omama’ now regardless of whether they are related to her or not, used to tell me that the sun was shining despite the bitter cold on the February morning when she was born: “That very moment became a metaphor for the rest of my life. It should be for you too; if I must pass on to you a piece of wisdom, let it be this: be the first ray of sunshine. Bring joy to the world yourself if it is not already in there and, above all, make your life your best friend; she is the one who will make you smile when all you have left to do in this world is to look back at her. If that smile is half happy, and half sad, you have probably done things more or less right.”

Be the first ray of sunshine. Or, in her elven-like native Latvian “esi pirmais saules stars”. My millennial mind has been tempted several times to make a cheesy tattoo out of that beautiful phrase. Instead, I try to give it real meaning by remembering it often and living by it when I can. Like just now, when instead of fighting to become the crazy-lady of the neighbourhood I waved at the girl in the little garden underneath my balcony and asked about her health. The conversation went on for longer than I had originally intended, but the truth is that even before realising that she needed the conversation, I was also feeling much better about the world myself.

The desire to take it out on the sneaky park-goers vanished with the small interaction brought on by my grandmother’s advice. “Wise, cheeky…” I think. My mind is in a good place again and I keep thinking of Omama; if only I could be with her now.

Be the first ray of sunshine. Or, in her elven-like native Latvian “esi pirmais saules stars”

She is staying with my mother, her daughter, in Spain. The heartbreaking situation in the country means they have not left the house in days, and will continue to stay indoors for a while. It also means that we speak much more often because everyone’s schedule is suddenly free to indulge in chit-chat and evening-long conversations that are as trivial as they are delightful. Quite a luxury, really. 

During these conversations, she tells me that many good books are sure to be written about lockdowns, panic-buying, makeshift masks and other coronavirus-related anecdotes that she finds unbelievable, horrifying, hilarious, or inspiring depending on the hour of the day. I reply that a book should be written about her life, so full of stories to share and of lessons to learn. She giggles like a schoolgirl who’s just been given a compliment and waves off my suggestion. “Ja, ja (yes, yes)” she says.

Slowly, however, the conversation drifts towards her own past and we start comparing the war times she lived as a teenager with the current situation. 

“It feels just like war,” she says “war times all over again!” She laughs with genuine joy at the thought of such an absurd reality. I ask her to tell me one of her war stories again, and she immediately picks up on the fact that, at least, they could still move around. “Of course,” I think, “only you would manage to find the bright side of a world war”. The conversation moves on to her family’s escape by boat from the Soviet army towards the West, towards an unknown destination away from the fighting:

“It was frightfully quiet. The kind of quiet that shortens your breath, not allowing it to make a sound above the murmur of the waves against the hulk of the boat.”

I know this story already, but she always tells it like it is the first time, and I always find out something new. “We were right in between the German and Russian armies. It was the midst of WWII and the only option for survival was to get away from the contested areas and to flee towards the eye of the storm.” She looks concerned even now as she remembers the bombings and the anxiety. “It was the only version of calm to be found in the hurricane of battle. For us, for many people in the Baltic states, the eye of the storm was Germany. And our boat was taking us as close as possible, to Poland, from where we could continue the journey by foot.

“Riga had already been taken, so we could not have escaped from there. As these things go, a friend of a friend had managed to get us on one of the last boats leaving the port of Liepaja, the last access to the Baltic that was still ‘free’. Like scared children, we were disoriented and blinded by the severity of the situation. If we stayed behind, we would soon be in the hands of the advancing Soviet army, and rumour had it they were merciless. If we boarded, we would embark on a dangerous journey full of uncertainty, with no guarantees of shelter, food, or even survival ahead.

If we stayed behind, we would soon be in the hands of the advancing Soviet army, and rumour had it they were merciless.

“My parents chose the uncertainty ahead… It was not an easy decision, and I am sure they regretted many times during the journey. I was travelling alone with my parents; my eldest sister, her husband, and their four children had gone ahead of us and my brother had decided to stay behind”. I make a mental note to ask her to tell me more about her brother next time. “We sat half-frightened to death in the deck of that boat, praying to go undetected and to avoid the torpedoes from the submarines that infested the Baltic Sea. All I can remember thinking is that I was grateful my little nephews were not with us, not only for their sake, but because my heart could not have sustained the wrench of hearing a child cry and break the silence of the night!

“The hours passed on like that, bundled in the night, listening attentively to the immensity of the sea. Every other minute we were startled by the sound of a distant explosion, and hoped that no relatives were close to the sound. Above all, we prayed that the bursts would not get closer to us…” she says with an almost imperceptible shiver. “We all knew that our boat was a potential target too: at this stage of the war all transportation carried soldiers as well as civilians, and the submarines’ mission was to make sure that no new army recruits reached the shore. The sound of the blood pumping in my head was so loud, but not enough to shut down that thought.

The sound of the blood pumping in my head was so loud…

“As I think of that wretched night, I shiver with the thought of my own fear, and the thought of the frigid waters that awaited the passengers of the blasted boats.” She seems to be intensely aware of her own luck. “The explosions, however, never seemed quite real… like a nightmare that lived in our minds. From afar, the sound of a torpedo hitting a target was not violent, but rather a dry noise. We never heard cries or screams.” She says almost to herself: “Maybe we were too far, or maybe there wasn’t enough time to cry, or maybe the passengers of those unlucky boats were as petrified as we were even after realising their fateful destiny.” As she comes back from the memory she looks lively again, but serious. “I would rather not think about it, but it is impossible to ignore the silence of that night even now. Sometimes, I search the darkness of the Baltic sea in my mind in an effort to comfort that girl, bundled around a blanket with her parents, unaware that she will reach the shore safely. I want to tell her that crossing the Baltic is only the beginning of the journey that awaits her, but that everything will be alright in the end.”

We have many things in common, my grandmother and I, but the most prominent right now is that I also want to find her and hug her. Badly. But things are as they are and we have to be content with sharing these moments in video conference-style. Her own “Hakuna Matata” philosophy soon kicks in and she swiftly goes on to narrate how she came to meet my grandfather some years later and tells me how handsome he was and describes the wonderful parties and enviable amounts of dancing they had in post-war Western Germany before moving to South America in the 50s.

As these things go, I finish the day secretly happy to have had to work from home, and to have had the chance to have a proper conversation with my grandmother on the continent while sitting on a sunny balcony in London. “Indeed,” I think, “I may need many more years of practice, but there is definitely a lot of wisdom in finding happiness within yourself first. ‘Be the first ray of sunshine’… She definitely is just that”.

Rampa  They Will Be