Can you imagine longing for something for 75 years? All our lives, Charlotte has told us stories of her early childhood in Lithuania, of wandering in the forests and following the cows on their paths to the beaches. She came to love watching birds in the forests and sought seashores to visit, but none quite matched her memory of those first years. Perhaps it wasn’t just the place, those years with both a mother and father, before war and devastation, when life holds nothing but possibility. Charlotte left Nida when she was six years old — it was time for schooling, and her father got a job in the “big city” of Memel (now Klaipeda). Maybe strengthened by the loss of her mother a few years later, scenes of those years are printed brightly in her memory, and we’ve heard many of the stories a hundred times, it seems, yet all in colors not quite real.
From the Palanga airport we took a van to the ferry; on the way Charlotte was practically buzzing with questions for the driver. Like many people here, he spoke German, and knew a little about the olden days of this area. The ferry used to launch from the center of town, but now it’s a few minutes south of the city. Charlotte tells that on the last days of school the children all bought passes for the ferry, then every day of summer they’d swarm en mass across the “haff” (the wide estuary) to the “Curonian Spit” a long, narrow ribbon (about 1 km wide by 100 long) dividing the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon (the “Haff,” half-sea, half-fresh water — large enough so you can barely see across the width over 100 km up the length). Each day, she said, all the children would board ferries and spend the days roving the beaches in packs.
Across the water, we drove for an hour down the spit, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, though pine forests that were planted several hundred years ago to help arrest the wandering dunes (the town of Nida was actually covered over twice by dunes, the “current” town is the third location built around 1730). In Charlotte’s memory Nida was tiny Kourish fishing village and port on the Haff, with not much but a single horse-drawn wagon, wood fishing boats, and a few small houses. Not surprisingly, Nida grew a bit (and had its streets paved, somewhat to her dismay) but it’s still a storybook place. The traditional houses have rust-tiled roofs with carved fascias and shutters painted bight “Nida blue.”
One of the first activities after we arrived was a visit to the old cemetery at the Lutheran church; Charlotte wanted to find names of people from the 20s, and found a few she recognized. The traditional grave markers here were carved wood, so many graves were now only marked by weathered wood, some with lovely carved shapes. Watching Charlotte here with her great grandchildren I was struck by the passage of generations.
Inside the church, Charlotte and I found a book where records had been transcribed, and leafed through velum pages of births and deaths; she knew many of the names, and found the family of her landlady, and the family of the friends where they used to often go for dinners. The pastor came to lock up, and in German they talked about her quest; he invited her to service, so on Sunday she returned. We found her sitting at tea outside with several of the older congregants who’d brought their books of Nida history and old photographs.
Near the church was dirt track leading into the forest, so later we followed this path over toward the Baltic Sea. Starting as soon as she could walk, this was Charlotte’s home. She said she’d leave in the morning and come back to the cottage only late at night… walking with the cows, eating wild berries and smoked fish being cured by the fisher-people, and napping on the moss. She talked especially of the Kourish fisher-people, and how they had so little yet always shared with this adventurous little girl (who’d come home covered in brambles and smelling of fish). We’d always thought this was far exaggerated, but walking with her it seemed more than possible. This forest is enchanting, full of light and soft colors of green and brown. The sandy soil is thickly carpeted in moss dotted with patches of wild blueberry, lily of the valley, wild strawberry and something like blackberry plus dozens of tiny wildflowers. It’s an untamed eden.
After a lovely 40 minute walk, we reached the beach. The white sand is powerdery with minerals, and the gentle Baltic waves wash up only tiny shells.
Amazing day of discoveries and adventures and homecoming, where the black bread and even the beer seems to taste “just right.”
When I asked Charlotte if she’d like to take us here, she said, “It’s the dream of my lifetime.” We all thought, even the kids, that this would hard for her — facing the passing time, the loss of a place that must inevitably pale in comparison to childhood memory. But it’s been far from a chore; we’re delighting in Charlotte’s pleasure of rediscovery and her joy in sharing this “home of the heart” with us and the kids. While the evenings have been cold, when the sun is in the pale blue sky, we’re filled up by the springtime of returning.