Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tädi Virve - in Memoriam

Liina’s aunt Virve—immortalized in the pages of Eesti Ekspress for playing tug-of-war with a rabbit cage—died last week marking the end of an era. With Virve passed far more than a woman: to me she was symbolic of both a lifestyle and worldview.

I often recall her response when I engaged her in a discussion about politicians and bribes: “I wish somebody had offered me a bribe in my day.” I found her response surprising. She was known as a maverick in the Estonian Soviet Ministry of Health, and her reform-minded bullheadedness won her a почетная грамота and почетныи диплом, both presented in Commie-red leather folders with gold embossed print. Was it possible she had worked her entire career in the Soviet bureaucracy without being offered a single bribe? And would she really have gladly taken it?

In spite of her contradictions, or perhaps because of them, Aunt Virve was a living monument that all things in the Soviet Union weren’t necessarily bad.

For Aunt Virve, time was a limitless commodity. She always had time for a discussion, even though you knew she was going to hold down both ends of it. I would sit and listen, and then, after a little while, I would sit and pretend to listen. While she held forth on the best type of seakoot and which open market to buy it, I would often study her old black and white photographs printed on the thin East German paper. She was young and vibrant with a smile like a flood, which, it seemed from holiday photographs, served to light the tables where she dined in Black Sea resorts.

She once talked about her suitor, Peep, who spent days lugging limestone slabs to build a sidewalk from the street to her house in Nõmme. Poor Peep, I thought, slaving with fifty-kilo stones while she sat idly by with a glass of Kindzmarauli, telling him how to arrange them, or discoursing on the history of the glass in her hand—perhaps held by Czar Nicholas II moments before signing the treaty of Bjorko. She was an irrepressible storyteller. She was irrepressible.

Digging through her possessions after her death, I found her Soviet-era paper, V.I. Lenin: dialektika, tunnestusteooria ja loogika ühtsusest. I wished I might have discovered it sooner so that I could have asked about it. Was its public debut met with a rousing ovation? Or was it both written and received with a wink of the eye? And just how much time was left for treating patients after the obligatory rhetoric about Lenin’s dialectic as it relates to medicine was finally out of the way?

Accurate or not, the West’s idea of the Soviet Union was a place where millions spent their nights in cramped apartments teeming with friends, drinking vodka from dirty glasses and laughing quietly about the absurdity of their lives. In part, the West saw it as an era of silly slogans—The Soviet Union is the Source of Peace; The Ideas of Lenin Live and Conquer—and grandiose toasts to Mir i druzhba. For those of my generation, the Soviet Union was a dysfunctional land run by overweight drunkards in fur hats, a place which would eventually collapse under the weight of its own silliness. But it was also a state with a hell of a lot of missiles, though there was no doubt Sting was right when he offended with his haughty verse, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”

Virve lived in a time and place characterized by some western writers as downright miserable. She had a Stalinist childhood with her sunset years spent in the abject poverty of a post-Soviet pension. A life lived in unconscious fear. Her lot to endure.

Though if her life was miserable, I never heard Virve complain. I never detected that she felt she suffered. She never sought pity or even understanding. She had nothing to prove or explain. In spite of her circumstances, she lived. And the evidence of this was her septuagenarian and nonagenarian friends—Urve, Evi-Mai, Nina—who rose at the wake and raised glass after glass in her memory. It served as a poignant reminder that regardless of what we do, where we work, what we accomplish, in the end we’re left with nothing more than our family and friends. That modern Western cries for growth and progress matter no more in the end than they did coming from the mouths of Marx and Lenin.

Virve took life on her own terms and at her own pace. I only ever saw her rushed when she was on her way to Selver to buy mulgikapsas or when a new issue of Linnaleht was published, she on a mission to obtain multiple copies to light her stove. On the street, Virve put her head down and plowed forward like Stalin advancing on Berlin, her umbrella in hand, stabbing the ground before her and oblivious to the world around her.

Six months ago, Liina asked me to go downstairs to Aunt Virve’s apartment and retrieve a pan she’d borrowed. Liina and I tried to time our meetings with her around the “Ajaloo Tund” radio broadscasts or game shows starring Hannes Võrno—the only two things Estonia could offer which could keep Virve quiet. Knowing that Virve’s health was fading and that walking in her door for anything was a twenty-minute exercise, I took along a tape recorder. Now, whenever I need to be reminded about what is important, I listen to her discourse from that day. The batteries died before she finished, but it’s a classic filibuster about a frying pan, furry objects, and a ceramic dog from the Kola Peninsula. It might have seemed nonsensical. But if you listened carefully and patiently, and if you made the time, then Aunt Virve always made sense in the end.


Special thanks to Giustino for hosting the recording of Virve on his site.