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The idea of being half-Estonian has puzzled me, at times even troubled me.
What could it mean? I didn't learn the language. I struggled to place it geographically, culturally or historically for the curious and well-meaning. For so long, the very name of the place (that suffix -onia) sounded mysterious, forbidden, uncharted, if not made-up, to me.
I didn't feel half-Estonian. How could I call it a fact of my life? But there were facts. For one, my mom, Kaie, was born in Tallinn, Estonia's capital, to Jakob and Laine Suksdorf.
And, growing up in Ottawa, there were stories. However short and repetitive they may have seemed to me then, and despite feeling disconnected, these stories connected me - made me half-Estonian.
In late September 1944, the Soviets advanced on and Nazis retreated from Estonia, a dance they were doing across Europe at the close of the Second World War. My grandfather Jakob captained a ship carrying immediate and extended family, friends and strangers to Sweden, to safety. My mom was two and a half.
The family stayed in Sweden for five years, until, in 1949, Jakob captained another vessel, this time with two daughters aboard, among the 154 mostly Estonian passengers and crew. The Pärnu left Malmö, Sweden in mid-July and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on August 2nd, 1949. They crossed the Atlantic in 17 days.
The reasons for the first crossing were clear (war, occupation). For the second, they were less tangible, but no less real. Besides economic barriers, some Estonian refugees felt Sweden lay too close geographically to Russia. Fear of the Soviet sphere of influence remained.
Unlike most, the Suksdorf family remained in Nova Scotia, eventually settling in Dutch Settlement, north of Halifax, and then Halifax itself.
Our grandfather Jakob, the Captain, died in 1963, before any of his grandchildren were born. He was 50 years old.
He was a heroic figure to my brother, sister and I. He led the search for home. Portraits of the Captain made him present in our house - to us.
We were close to Laine, Granny, but she spoke rarely about the past. When she did, it was brief, vague. When she spoke of it, Granny appeared lost in thought, apologetic. The absence of the past from my many and long conversations with my grandmother didn't deter our friendship.
Each of these 49 Notes is a response to something I've found out about my Estonian grandparents, my Estonian heritage, by accident and by design. The writing is heavily influenced by poetry, but I would never call it poetry. The Notes begin with a prologue ("The Last Smoke"), recalling the time I stumbled across a pamphlet about Estonia and remembered, again, that I was half-Estonian. After that, they tell a rough family biography.
This site was first (and finally) posted in full in October 2012, on the occasion of my grandfather's centenary. The 50th anniversary of his death was marked this month.