The Estonian American Experience > A Meaning of the Estonian American Experience to Me

I'd like to go back to the first challenge in this most fascinating website: "Share your thoughts about what the Estonian American Experience means to you!" (Language is now a problem for me too, so I'd as soon not go there!)

An answer (and only one answer I might offer of several) occurred to me in reading an article that appeared in the New York Times on the 15th of March--"This Life: The Stories That Bind Usi" It is on-line and readily found in the current "most popular" tab. The article described research into factors that maintain strong families and that contribute to resilience in children during difficult times. The answer was: "The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative." Researchers found that "The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned."

So what became a "family narrative" for my nuclear family of three, a family totally cut off from its relations? It is I suspect the one so many of the readers and contributors to this page understand and have all heard. Completely sliced off from extended family--I never met a relative other than my parents and heard little about those I knew of, grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle--the "family narrative" became the stories of those we associated with in the Estonian community in the New York City area. The stories were sad, and they were heroic. There were, of course, the separations, the deaths, the disappeared. But there were always stories of great resilience and comebacks. My mother and her trek across war-torn Europe with a two-month old sated for silence with brandy (how many others there must have been who went through similar journeys!) Then on to emigration to the United States, made possible by the generosity of a US Congress. Arrival in a strange place, strange language. Then starting from nothing, some went to college to set up new lives. Others found new professions or built on innate or old skills. Almost all raised children. My father went to night school for a dozen years. There was the husband who'd lost his wife and child in escaping Eesti and started a new family and lived well if not in great wealth. Some did go on to great wealth.

Of course, this is one of the great American narratives, repeated by one nationality after another. But I met few of those who had lived it outside of the Estonian community or barely knew it existed. So, if the research cited in the NYTimes is true, the great narrative of the Estonian emigrant would have played no small role in granting me and my parents and perhaps other readers here the resilience to work through the challenges we all shared early in our lives. As one my own "family narratives," it is certainly the most significant. But then, perhaps it is so obvious and so ingrown in many of our experiences as to be hardly worth bringing up among ourselves, but at a minimum such narratives belong to our children and grandchildren too and should not be left untold for their sakes--av

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndres Vaart

Very true, and thank you Andres for bringing this up. Our historical narrative is so integral to who we are that we tend to overlook it. But what would we be without it? Would we feel so deeply that we are Estonian or Estonian American, and feel immediately at home with another one of us, if we did not implicitly share this history, this story? It is so important to keep it going, in our families, in our communities, and in the world. The Estonian supplementary schools, the Independence Day ceremonies, our church services, Estonian Houses, choirs, folkdance groups, etc., all serve to further the story. We need to support them! And attend the events! Knowledge of and sharing our history is indeed a huge part of the Estonian American experience.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarju Rink-Abel