Tomorrow, I’ll be 53 years and 245 days old. My mother never reached that age.
When my parents died, people said, “They died so young.” And I remember thinking that my parents, at 53 and 55 years old, were quite old. They had lived full lives, had three grown-up daughters, and had recently sold their company. For the last couple of years, they had been traveling the world, enjoying life, their freedom, and their first grandchild.
I was 26 years old and, in hindsight, quite dumb, as many twenty-somethings are.
At that age, I thought that youth ended at 30. Today, I know better. And even though I, too, have lived a full life, I’m aware life can end any minute. But I might have another 40-45 years to go, and that’s almost half of my life left.
My mother was born in Tallinn, Estonia in January 1941, during an era called the Soviet Terror. A few months prior, the Soviet Union's military forces had seized Estonia, an independent and neutral country, despite an earlier mutual peace agreement. The Soviets arrested and/or executed most of Estonia’s leading politicians and military officers, as well as the president. When my mother was six months old, the Nazis moved in and, together with the Estonian freedom fighters, they pushed the Red Army out. One occupation replaced another.
In 1943, my grandmother used false identification papers and fled with her two children via Finland to Sweden. My grandfather followed later. In 1945, the war was over, and the borders of Estonia closed for the next forty-six years. Life as refugees began.
My mother was a beauty: dark-haired and exotic, with big blue eyes and a winning smile.
In her childhood diaries, she describes how the boys in her class in Southern Stockholm left her love notes and flirted with her. But when a sculptor even asked her to pose for a statue, she got scared and ran away from his place. Only later did she find out he was famous.
She was a huge jazz enthusiast, and in her teens saw all the greats live in Stockholm: Louis Armstrong (her favorite), Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and many others.
When she was 16, she met my dad at an Estonian event in Stockholm and fell head over heels in love.
She asked one of their mutual friends to introduce them, and my dad said, “Ask her to cross the room first, so I can take a look.” Apparently, he liked what he saw and they started dating. But it didn’t last long, because she was too childish for her handsome 18-year-old future husband.
Luckily, fate kept them moving in the same circles, and two years later, they found each other again. This time, their union lasted for life. Three years later they got married and after 12 months, their first daughter was born.
She loved being a mum and donned a maternity dress as soon as she found out she was pregnant.
My mother devoted many years to being a stay-at-home mum to her three daughters. Of course, we weren’t always nice little girls, and sometimes she had to yank our ears to get us to calm down. But besides that, we were never punished. She often told us she loved us and said that whatever we did, she would always love us and protect us.
We had the perfect childhood, even though money was sparse in the beginning while our parents built up their company. For many years, Mum knitted and sewed all our clothes and baked her own bread. As little girls, she loved to dress the three of us alike. We had strict rules and were told that while other parents may give their kids more things, she and dad gave us love. Every day, when we came home from school, she asked us how our day had been. Each of us daughters had our own individual goodnight rhyme––a dialogue––and she always remembered whose rhyme was whose. We always knew she loved us all the same.
Mum spoiled us with fantastic cinnamon rolls, blueberry cakes, and the best pancakes. She was a superb cook, but I don’t think she necessarily loved cooking, except maybe for parties.
At nights, after work, she played solitaire at the kitchen table, read novels, did crosswords, or watched TV. She loved horror movies, but also series like Emmerdale Farm and Dynasty. I remember her speaking about Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Melina Mercouri (Never on A Sunday), and Zsa Zsa Gabor as actors she liked. She loved white wine, dark chocolate, danish pastries, and also seafood.
Music-wise, her taste changed over the years. Satchmo remained her all-time favorite, but she also enjoyed Edith Piaf, Manhattan Transfer, and musicals like Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
Mum always had friends, but I don’t think she had a best friend until she was in her mid-forties. Before then, she mingled with other mothers at playdates, in her handicraft club, and with women at work. She loved spending time alone but was also quite social and easy-going. Everyone liked her. I never remember her being angry at anyone (except us kids), and she never had an argument with anyone.
After she turned 45, she flourished.
She joined organizations like Soroptimist International, Estonian associations, political and work-related clubs. Having always lived in her husband’s shadow, she suddenly came into her own. A sassy, intelligent woman emerged. Using her common sense, Mum could resolve any computer issues and fix any machines. She was diplomatic, smart, and charming. Within months, she was elected the president of (almost) all her clubs. She also started spending more time with female friends, did Calisthenics, and sang in a choir for the tone-deaf. When Dad wasn’t around, men would whisper in her ear, “I always found you very attractive.” But Mum only had eyes for one man: Siim.
During this time, Estonia became independent again. Two of her daughters moved to Estonia, and her husband formed yet another company, this time in Tallinn. A new way of life started—a life of freedom, travel, and joy. My parents acted like newly-in-loves and started thinking of buying an apartment in Tallinn to be closer to their first grandchild.
And then they died.
What would Mum’s life have looked like if she had lived beyond 53 years and 244 days? She never met (at least in physical form) three of her grandsons. She never saw her daughters and grandsons grow into their own and find success in their lives. In what direction would she have gone? Would she have found a new hobby or developed an existing one like sewing or drawing? Would she and Dad have settled in Estonia for good, or would they have kept one foot in Estonia and the other in Sweden?
What I regret most is that I never knew my mother as a person, at least not well. I never asked about her hopes and dreams. I didn’t know what she feared or what brought her comfort. I never apologized for all the stupid things I had done. I never really listened; I was too focused on myself. I never told her she was beautiful. But I did always tell her I loved her.
From tomorrow onwards, all my days will be supplementary to the time she was given. I will do my best to enjoy each day, and to be grateful for the people in my life and everything I’ve got.