During my trip to Estonia we visited a land called Setomaa, where the Setu live, a tiny minority whose name means “not this and not that” because they practice a version of the Russian Orthodox religion and speak a version of the Estonian language. Most Estonians today do not practice any religion, but back when the term was coined, they were Lutherans.
We visited a little church in Varska named after St. George, where we met members of the famous Setu choirs, whose music I find more hypnotic and enchanting every time I listen to it.
St. George’s is not at all like the starkly beautiful, unadorned Congregational churches of New England that I’m used to. It’s full of representations of God and Christ and the saints and the angels — the works of hundreds of artists. There was a place to light candles for your loved ones. I made an offering and lit four for my mother and father and my cousin Chris and my sister-in-law Allison, all of whom passed away in just a few short years.
My three brothers and I took care of my parents during the last years of their lives, and in a situation like that you have to focus on making them as happy as you can. We watched as my mother lost her mind and my father lost his will to live, but we really couldn’t ‘process the experience’ as the shrinks might say. We were too busy taking care of them and cheering them up as best we could.
My brother Rob handled the banking; my brother Shady handled the insurance and the doctors and the nursing homes and the liquidation of the estate and everything else, God bless him. My brother Paul gave direct care to my dad, and my small but important role was to keep my mother as jolly as might be under the circumstances, which, it turns out, was like rolling off a log. She was so brave, and loving, and naturally jolly.
We used to put three music boxes on the dining room table, a unicorn playing Camelot, a Christmas tree playing O Tannenbaum and a Chinese lady with a lute playing a very Occidental Methodist hymn, and played them all at once.
Then the time came when we could no longer care for them, and Shady and Rob found nursing homes. Then my mother died and we were just reacting to that and my cousin Christopher died. Since the death of my grandmother Essie in 1987, Chris, known to the entertainment world as C.T. Tucker, had become the spiritual and creative leader of our family. He embodied everything that was good about the descendants of Esther Kimball Hartshorne Megargee, may she rest in peace.
My dad lingered longer, but passed away the following year. We held two services for each of my parents to accomodate our family in New Jersey and their many friends in New Hamsphire, where they retired.
Then my brother Rob’s wife Allison died after a long brave struggle with cancer. Allison spread joy wherever she went, especially when she sang, and at her service in the little Lutheran Church in Hastings, New York, even the coatroom was packed with well-wishers paying their respects.
For our little family, it was what you might call the coup de grace. We were well and truly knocked out, and it became a real struggle to deal with everyday life.
After I lit the candles in St. George’s Church in Varska, and looked around me in this profoundly holy place, I began to weep uncontrollably, and not kinda sorta. I was overcome with all the stored-up grief and sorrow, but something else, too, something wonderfully positive and healing.
I was with a group of travel writers, and at first I was a little concerned about maintaining my dignity, but they were very understanding, and I felt free to let it all out. Funny how you have to travel halfway around the world to find out what’s in your own heart.
The form of singing practiced by the Setu choirs, known as Leelo, is a way of expressing grief and love for those who have passed away. The Setu bring offerings of food to the graveyard and sometimes spend several days there singing. I believe it is similar to what the Irish call ‘keening,’ and it is found in cultures all over the world.
For an Anglo-Saxon rigorously trained to keep a stiff upper lip, it was an extraordinary experience, and I have come back from the Setu lands a changed man. Eventually, grief subsides and love takes over, love for the wonderful people who have passed away.