My parents met while both were employed by a flower store in Tartu. My mother was learning to make flower arrangements and my father’s responsibility was gardening. They found they were a match and they married. They moved to Tallinn and started a flower store. It was located on the corner of Kreuzwaldi and Narva Maantee. I was born in an apartment nearby. The store was successful.
But then everything changed. Estonia was occupied first by the Soviets, then by the Germans. When the tide of war changed we had to flee. My father did not succeed in finding a boat to take us to Sweden. The remaining alternative was to flee to Germany and we got onto a German-bound ship. We left Tallinn the night before the Soviets entered Tallinn.
When the war ended we, along with other Estonian refugees were gathered to a refugee camp in Geislingen, a city in south Germany. The camp was organized like a city with our own administration and schools. I attended an Estonian gymnasium.
After several years in the camp, we immigrated to the US. My father found work in a hat factory where German was spoken. It was owned by Jews who had emigrated before the war from Germany. My mother found a job as a dusting lady in a furniture store where also German was spoken.
I learned English quickly and I made a decision to become an American. At the university I was accepted into advanced Air Force ROTC though I was not a citizen at that time. This put me on the path to become a pilot. But on graduation I decided on an engineering career to design helicopters and missile systems. I married and had children and continued to go to night school.
My job brought me to Seattle. We arrived just before Christmas. I read in a newspaper of an Estonian Christmas celebration being staged at a museum. Attending it I met some Estonians and they invited me to join the local Estonian Association. I was asked to be a candidate for the association’s chairmanship. My father wrote that I shouldn’t do it, because my poor ability to speak Estonian. I read my father’s warning at the meeting but I was voted in. That is when I became Estonian again.
In 1990 singers and folk dancers from outside of Estonia were allowed to participate in the song and dance festival in Tallinn for the first time. Roman Toi as the director of the Toronto Estonian Men’s choir invite me to join the choir to sing there. But then I decided that I’d rather take advantage of an invitation to dance at the folk dance festival as long as I can still dance, and leave singing for the time I get older.
Folk dancers from outside Estonia were organized into an ensemble by Toomas Metsala, of Toronto. When we met in Tallinn we had only 60 couples. We came from Sweden, from Canada and USA. Our ensemble was allowed to perform separately at the dance festival, and received huge applause.
For the festival opening all participants marched from the city center to the festival grounds. The route included also Narva Street; and passed the store where my parents once had their flower store. Onlookers shouted long live America, and we shouted back ‘Long live Estonia!’ Marching past the store was especially a very powerful moment. I can feel at home in the United States, but returning to the place from which I was forced to flee, was a moment I’ll never forget. I felt I’m back!