A journey back in time.
I saw a ghost the other day and I haven’t been able to shake it since. It stays with me wherever I go, sleeps beside me, drinks coffee with me in the mornings, and asks me to fix fallen curtain rods.
The encounter happened at a children’s museum in Tallinn called Miia Milla Manda. It’s a very sweet, gingerbread, Astrid Lindgren kind of retreat. The walls are all yellow and they sell paper dolls there, the pretty ladies who staff it are dressed like apothecary assistants from the first years of the last century. There is a sweet-smelling bakery that serves coffee and hot chocolate, and a garbage can that thanks the children when they throw away candy wrappers and snotty tissues. “Mmm! Garbage! Delicious!” a voice recording says, munching away. “Thank you!”
Inside there is a mock post office from the year 1940, with a quill and an inkwell and filing cabinets for letters. The children can dress up in old-fashioned clothing and sort mail and even send a real letter to one of their friends, if they know the address. One can also listen to a postal worker from long ago tell of his daily routine from a set of headphones on the wall. And above the headphones there is a portrait of Konstantin Päts, Estonia’s dictator from the 1930s, that was put up there for the true period effect but is actually confusing because my children think that he is the one that they hear speaking about mailmen’s lives 70 years ago.
“See, Daddy, that’s the postman who’s talking in the headphones.” My daughter Marta has told me this both times we have visited, gesturing at the ancient dictator. I look up and there is the deceased pater patriae himself with all his presidential regalia, an apparition in black and white. I just nod though when she says it. Who am I to mess with my children’s fantasies? The truth will come out someday.
On the wall there is another image, one of three women working in a post office. There are two old ladies in dark dresses with crooked fingers, perhaps from sorting too many fallen apples in fall. But in the middle there is a more familiar woman with hair that hangs in curls and nestles on her shoulders.
That woman. I noticed her the last time too. The woman is looking down in the old picture, sorting those old letters, but I can make out the lines of her eyebrows, her nose, her cheeks. The woman in the picture is not beautiful in any modern, conventional way but for some reason I feel drawn to her each time I see her, though I can’t figure out why.
The last time I was there I stared at the woman for a while, maybe stared at her for too long. And I ogled her so because after looking at that face for so long, I understood at last of whom she reminded me.
My wife’s mother.
I shivered when I realized it. It wasn’t her, of course. That woman, my mother-in-law, was born a good decade and a half after the old post office photo was taken. But it looked so much like her, and like my wife too, for a very simple reason: because she was an Estonian and they were Estonians.
Estonians. They were a people from a place who had their own capital, their own children’s museums and post offices, their own way of speaking to one another, and their own kinds of faces. And I was married to one of them. I was married to an Estonian. We had made more Estonians together. And though I would never know the woman in that photo with the familiar face, I knew her quite well in another and very eternal way.
This was the point where I nearly started to cry and I cannot exactly say why. I almost never cry and I didn’t this time either. I’m a guy from New York, so I’ve been trained to restrain myself from showing emotion in public. But it couldn’t stop all of these feelings from welling up in me and rumbling and vibrating like some undersea earthquake. That’s really the worst, I think. When you feel the moisture in your eyes and you don’t even know why it’s there.
I think it was because it had been a long time since I had even seen the Estonians as Estonians, as a group of people who came not only with a language and a history, but with a certain set of faces. I had spent so much time in their company that they had only become individuals to me with hard-to-remember names, some odd habits, and a peculiar, often bloody, cuisine.
In fact, if I ever thought about Estonians these days, it was with a mix of disappointment and disgust. Why were those guys always standing around smoking and drinking beer? Why were the women such task masters? Why is there a commemorative book about a Nazi war hero at the supermarket?
There was quiet hatred in there too, nipping at and pestering me. I raked my leaves and shoveled my snow to the best of my ability, just so that I could avoid some dreaded comment or smug look or other expression of Nordic anal retentiveness, because everything had to be nice and neat and within the lines in Estonia. That’s how my wife said that things were done around here.
“Damn perfectionist Estonians.” I had uttered it hotly under my breath many times. “Snow-shoveling fascists!”
Yet despite the beer and the chores and the Harald Nugiseks coffee table book, the leaf raking and snow shoveling and Nordic anal retentiveness, the truth was that I spent most of my nights sleeping beside an Estonian. I had never met this Estonian’s mother and never will, because she is dead, but I knew her in some way because she was an Estonian too. In a way, I had been just as intimate with the ghost of the woman in the picture in the museum.
“What are you looking at, Daddy?”
“What? Huh?” My daughter Marta startled me and when I looked down I saw her again. Another Estonian.
“Um, I’m going to go play in the other room, okay?”
“Sure thing, kid.”
The eight year old skipped away.
How many of them have there been? I wondered. How many women have been born in Estonia who looked just like them? They were all individuals sure, one sorted mail in the 1940s and the other was a librarian in 1980s and the third was a writer in the 2010s. Maybe one was a bit more neurotic than the other, or another preferred French pop music and a third liked to swim. Yet, in this base, bottom line way, at the end-of-it-all way, they were all the same person.
There probably had been many more of them. For 5,000 years, they say, the Estonians had occupied this little patch of land by the Baltic Sea. They had come here from the Ural Mountains long ago and handed down not only their looks, but also their language and songs, their knitting patterns and fish-smoking techniques. This, of course, is all well documented, the domain of archaeologists and linguists, most of it kept away in museums.
In this museum, though, I began to suspect that they had also handed down something else — their souls. Her soul. It was a thought that was both sweet and disturbing. Maybe I wasn’t just sleeping beside a 38-year-old woman at night. Maybe, in some other, more mystical way, I was sleeping with a 5,000-year-old woman too.
“Daddy, what’s her name?” my other daughter Anna asked and tugged at my shirt.
“That lady who looks like Mommy. In that picture.”
“What difference does it make?” I said and shrugged, and then I saw Anna’s little five-year-old lips curl into a frown. “Well, maybe her name was Miia,” I tried to sound more positive. “Or Milla. It could have been Manda too!”
“Ah,” said Anna. “So this is her museum?”
“Yes, honey. This is her museum.”
That’s just what life gives you. In one flash you are in the Ural Mountains and the next you are sorting mail and the third you are waiting for your husband and daughters to get back from the children’s museum in Tallinn. Life gives you the most important things — your name, your language, your looks — and there is little you can do or change about it. The Estonians were who they had always been, and I couldn’t change them nor could they change me.
The thought awakened in my soul a long dormant affection.