Some time ago, I downloaded The Rings of My Tree: A Latvian Woman’s Journey, by Jane E. Cunningham. The book, which was published in July 2004, sat in my Kindle queue for a very long time. I just searched my digital orders on Amazon.com and I see that I bought this book in April 2013– over ten years ago! I just now got around to reading it, three months after Bill and I visited Latvia for the first time.
I’m now glad I waited so long to finally read this book, after actually visiting Latvia, and having spent the last nine years living in Germany. My own life experiences gave me more appreciation for The Rings of My Tree, the extraordinary story of a woman named Mirdza, whose fate led her far away from her homeland when she was just a young woman newly out of high school. The title references how Mirdza’s grandmother taught her how to determine a tree’s growth by its number of rings. Mirdza also learned that strong trees weather storm after storm. Like a strong tree, Mirdza weathered many storms in her long life. And if you’ve ever been to Latvia, you know that it’s a country where trees are revered. One of our guides told us that it’s a tradition for new parents to plant a tree when a baby is born– linden trees for girls, and oak trees for boys.
Mirdza’s story is lovingly written by author Jane E. Cunningham, who, as of 2012, lived in Connecticut, and wrote that Mirdza, then aged 92, was then living in a nursing home. I’m sure that by now, Mirdza has passed away. But wow… she really lived an amazing life. At the time she wrote Mirdza’s story, Jane Cunningham had known Mirdza for forty-five years. They were neighbors. Jane was one of the first Americans who became a real friend to Mirdza, who fled Latvia to escape Soviet occupation. She landed in Hitler’s Germany before a series of lucky events led her to an American run displaced persons camp (DP camp) in American occupied Berlin.
While she was in the camp, Mirdza met and, in 1949, married her Latvian husband, Janis, who died in 2000. In 1950, the two had a son, who was born in Germany. When their son was six months old, the family moved to Oklahoma, where they were sponsored by a wealthy American couple. Janis and Mirdza worked for the couple to repay them for their passage to the United States. They had a second son in 1951, who died when he was a month old. Later, they landed in New England, where Mirdza and Janis spent the rest of their lives. In 1961, they had one more son. In May 1962, Mirdza, Janis, and their German born son became naturalized American citizens.
You might think The Rings of My Tree might be mostly about Mirdza’s life in America, but the story is mostly about Mirdza’s upbringing in Latvia, time in Germany, and subsequent journey to America. Mirdza was born in Jaunpils, Latvia in 1920. At the time of Mirdza’s birth, Latvia was a free country. Mirdza’s mother became very sick and died when Mirdza was only four years old; consequently, her earliest years were spent being raised by her grandmother, Gobina. Gobina was her father’s mother, and a very faithful, Christian woman whose father was German. She taught Mirdza how to speak German, how to knit and crochet, and educated her “from the Bible, ‘But the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Matthew 10:30). She would one day come to apply that Bible verse to her limited days of freedom in Latvia.
Mirdza’s father had been the postmaster in Jaunpils. Her mother had been a switchboard operator before her death. The couple met while working at the post office, and built a beautiful home for their young daughter. But the beautiful life filled with roses and domestic bliss was not to last, as leaders in other countries were plotting to seize Latvia. Mirdza and her friends, family, and community were blissfully unaware of what would come in 1940, when the Russians took over the country and annexed it into the Soviet Union.
Mirdza was five years old when her father remarried a young woman named Anna, who was not very nice to her. Anna was very jealous and hated anything that reminded her of Mirdza’s mother. She eventually gave birth to Mirdza’s half sister, Rasma. Although Mirdza had known her mother and missed her, she was expected to accept Anna as her mother, even though Anna never treated her lovingly, as if she was her daughter. When Mirdza addressed Anna by her first name, she was chastised and told that Anna was her “new mother”. That was difficult for her. But in spite of the early hardships she endured, Mirdza was happy in high school and excited about her future.
Then came Josef Stalin and the Russian soldiers who would bomb Latvia into submission, as Hitler’s Army also approached. Mirdza, and so many of her countrymen, were now caught in the crossfire of World War II. At first, she thought life under the Germans might be better than life under the Russians. She stayed and worked at the post office for awhile, befriending a German soldier who was decent to her. She helped him send food home to his wife, and he ended up saving her life by giving her his wife’s address in Germany. When the Russians became a direct threat, Mirdza ran for her life, boarding a ship that took her to Poland, and onward to Germany, where she became a refugee, experienced hunger, humiliation, and homelessness, and witnessed hopelessness and despair that would haunt her forever. On her way out of Liepaja– a Latvian port town that Bill and I visited in June– Mirdza fell and injured her hip and her left hand. From then on, and for the rest of her life, she walked with a noticeable limp– a constant reminder of what she’d left in Latvia.
Mirzda’s life was not easy, but she somehow managed to survive a number of near misses that should have killed her or driven her to suicide. Along the way, she met people who taught her new things, helped her, or hindered her. She met one woman who actually talked her into surrendering to the Russians. She and the woman were actually waiting for a truck to take them to a Russian camp when they were picked up by an American who gave them an opportunity to find freedom.
The Rings of My Tree is a fascinating read for me, because I find World War II an especially interesting time in history. I would feel that way even if I hadn’t spent so many years living in Europe. However, what makes this book special– especially in 2023– is that it’s so relatable to today’s times. Mirzda experienced a lot of the same things refugees are experiencing now. Like other people who have fled their homelands for peace and safety, she faced discrimination, ignorance, and hostility. But she also met kindness, decency, and generosity. As I read about how Mirdza was treated in 1950s era America, I couldn’t help but realize that people of 2023 behave in much the same way, forming opinions about subjects about which they know nothing and about which they don’t care to be educated. Below are excerpts of the book that seemed especially insightful to me:
But aside from her experiences as a Latvian refugee turned American citizen, Mirdza also learned some hard personal lessons. When she was living in the DP camp with a bossy fellow Latvian woman named Tanya, she learned how to be assertive. Tanya gave her stockings and said something along the lines of, “Darn these for me.” Mirdza was about to do as Tanya demanded, but then something occurred to her, and she steeled her spine:
I see that The Rings of My Tree is no longer available as a Kindle download. I think that’s a real pity, as physical copies of the book are pretty expensive. I do think the book is well worth reading, and even paying a lot for, if my description of the book is intriguing enough. I’m just happy I downloaded it when I had the chance, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading Mirdza’s story. And I do think it’s a blessing that I waited until now to read this book, after I’d had a chance to see the place Mirdza left behind. Latvia is a very beautiful country, with many trees, beaches, and grand old buildings that predated the Soviet occupation. It’s good to know that Latvians are free to be Latvian now, and their homeland is free again.
When we visited Latvia in June of this year, I heard firsthand from Latvians that they never wanted their homeland to be occupied by Russians… and I read in Mirdza’s story how terrible communism is. I had also seen that in Armenia when I lived there, as well in other countries that used to be ruled under communism. But, toward the end of the book, it becomes clear that capitalism isn’t necessarily better. I don’t know if Mirdza realized it herself, but when her half sister, Rasma, visited her in America, after the fall of the Soviet Union, she was left flabbergasted by American supermarkets. She was bewildered by the huge array of choices Americans have, and the terrible waste… as well as the ignorance so many people in America have about the rest of the world. Sadly, as I see every day on Facebook, not that much has changed since Mirzda’s young life as a refugee. And she had the benefit of having white skin, which helped her fit in with the ruling class in the United States.
Anyway… I really enjoyed The Rings of My Tree. I’m grateful that I had a chance to read Mirdza’s inspiring story through Jane Cunningham’s capable writing. I hope those of you who will read this review will get something from it, and perhaps, try to read this book yourselves. It really offers perspective that I think is lacking from so many Americans… especially those who never venture beyond the United States’ borders. Yes, Americans are very fortunate, but our luck may be running out before too long. I implore you to open your eyes and your minds to what could happen to you or yours someday. You could learn a lot from Mirdza’s story, if you’re open to the lesson. I sure did.
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