My Latvian FamilyJuly, 1977

Behind the Stories and Pictures, Meeting My Family for the First Time

Family! I was so excited to finally meet all of these people who were my blood relatives, but knew only from stories and pictures. In the U.S. I only had my parents, sister, and both grandmothers still living. I arrived in Latvia, and there were relatives everywhere—starting with a mob at the airport greeting me with so many beautiful flowers I couldn't hold them all, and hugs, and kisses, and tears—and this was our first meeting. Any nervousness I felt on the way over quickly dissipated as I looked at all of these so familiar faces and saw nothing but love and welcome.

The first few days were busy and a bit overwhelming. Between taking every Intourist tour so I could see as many of the sites as were allowed, and spending every other waking moment with one relative or another, it was nonstop activity.

My closest relative by blood was my father’s brother, my Uncle Alex—and he and his wife, my Aunt Zina, took me under their wings for most of the trip. My most amazing connection, however, was with their daughter, Anda, my cousin, five years younger than I. It was an immediate bond that now, 22 years later, is stronger than ever. I immediately felt like I had a little sister, and to this day that’s how I refer to her.

Another family that I met that first trip, the Velkars, also had an immediate impression on me—the impression was of love, and of forever. Supposedly somewhere way back we have some blood relations, but, in a nutshell, Ojars Velkars was my dad’s best friend, my grandmother’s sister’s godson—and the only one that would take Tante (aunt) Helena in when she returned to Latvia from Siberia. Ojars’ wife, Skaidrite, I thought was going to swallow me whole with affection—and what a wonderful feeling. And as it turned out, Ojars’ daughter, Iveta, was the same age as I. Another bond formed during that first trip that again now, more than two decades later, only grows stronger.

Oh, and incidentally… there are some of my friends that call me the piragi goddess, but I assure you, Iveta’s mother’s piragi are the best in this world. Speaking of food, meals were included with the Intourist package, but invariably my relatives whisked me off every day to get away from that dreadful hotel.

It seems those two weeks I spent in Latvia, on that first trip, were the most meaningful of any I had encountered thus far in my short lifetime. And looking back now, that significance has only deepened.

At every Latvian home—what a spread! The only problem was that I had been told by my parents and grandmother how our relatives struggled economically under the wonderful Soviet regime, and I didn't want to eat their food! Little did I know that I was upsetting them because they went to so much trouble to feed us well. I used the age-old teenage excuse of “I’m on a diet,” even though I was already thin. I learned to eat with Latvian gusto on subsequent trips, and now every time I get back home I have to diet in earnest to get rid of all that good Latvian food. But I digress…enough about food, since there are no piragi around here right now to indulge in.

As I mentioned, things were not all good. I was almost overwhelmed with the unjustness of my people living under Soviet oppression. But more overwhelming were my people themselves. I was blessed with awesome parents and a wonderful family with which I grew up, so I loved “family” and always yearned for more. Now I finally had it. Relatives everywhere, and as many hugs and kisses as I could stand. So I left that first time not thinking about the Soviet situation, but about family, and wondering when I would see them again.

I've never been one to cry, but I sobbed from the time I got to the airport to leave until we boarded the big plane that would take us back to the States. I worried that it might be a few years until I saw all of these wonderful relatives again—unfortunately, I was right.

My next trip would not be for another seven years.

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Orthodox Cathedral
A museum in 1977, viewed from the Hotel Latvija

Silvija and Anda
Immediately close, and closer through the years

Brivibas Piemineklis
In 1977

Dziesmu Svetki
National traditions bent to serve the Soviets

Family

Kvass wagon
Peters thinks this is the same one he still saw in Riga 20 years later

“Piens”
Milk

Silvija and Anda
Visiting Sigulda

Silvija and Iveta
Iveta's family took in Silvija's great aunt when she returned from Siberia

Dom Church Square
Called (Red) Pioneer Square or some-such

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