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I was born on 7 February in­Tartu, as the first child in my family. My mother and father were both teachers. I  lived in Tartu until I was 13. Then my father changed jobs and the family moved to Tallinn. What do I remember about those Tallinn years? I could easily fill twenty pages just with those memories. But that would not be a life story. As I sift through my memory fragments, what rises to the top is not so much what happened, but my thoughts, feelings, wishes, and longings. What surprises me even more is that most of my wishes from that time have come true, much later than I expected, and not quite in the way I imagined it. This confirms the proposition that we so eagerly defended in philosophy class: the broad outlines of a human life are drawn by the place and time of one’s birth, and the characteristics and abilities one is born with, but filling them in is largely in one’s own power. An important factor in my life story was my poor health. It seemed I caught every bug that was going around, and spent countless days and weeks in bed with one illness or another. When I entered school and filled out the health forms, I had to underline almost all the listed illnesses, except for meningitis. I also remember that ever since I was little, older people kept saying with regret, “Too bad that child won’t last very long, she’s a smart one.” Consciously or unconsciously, perhaps I was in a hurry to take in as much of life as I could while there was still time. Whenever I got well enough to get out of bed, I had to catch up with everything I had missed. I worked up a sweat, and then all it took was a slight breeze to Heljo Liitoja Born 1923 i3 Kirss.indb 365 7/17/09 5:47:51 AM 366 Estonian Life Stories land me back in bed again. Being in bed was boring, whether at home or in hospital, since the means of entertaining myself were limited. When I had memorized every last detail of the pictures in my picture books, I began taking an interest in the little squiggles in the captions. Soon I knew my alphabet, and since Estonian is a phonetic language, it did not take long to figure out that M-U-N-A meant “egg” in Estonian , and K-A-N-A stood for the bird that produced it. I remember that I was given a spelling book (aabits) for my fourth birthday. My proud father had me read out loud to the guests, and since the general consensus was that I had a “good head,” there was a suspicion that I was reciting from memory. One of the uncles picked up the newspaper Postimees from the table, and, smiling triumphantly, told me to read from it. The printed letters were a little different from the ones in my books, but seeing the man’s mocking face, I tried very hard and read fluently: it was Father’s turn for a triumphant smile. My parents thought it was a good thing for a child to learn another language besides her mother tongue. To this end a German lady was hired, whose patient coaching resulted in my learning how to read in German at age six. I read everything I could get my hands on: popular science books from the Loodus publishing house’s Golden Series that my father brought from his Põhjala fraternity library,1 children’s books from the German library, signs in shop windows, magazines, and newspapers . My reading appetite was huge. But because of my ongoing poor health, it was recommended that I wait until age 8 to begin my schooling. When that time came, there was nothing left for me to learn in the first or the second grade, and the school board approved the decision to enroll me in the third grade. I became a celebrity overnight: during recess the pupils in other classes whispered, “that’s the girl who…” As the youngest in the class, I had some special privileges. I was also often the one chosen to perform at school parties and convocations, and who was offered parts in plays. I had sometimes thought I wanted to become a washerwoman or a farmer’s wife when I grew up, but now, having tasted...


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