26 May 2007


Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report won’t mind if I cite one of his new words. I think of it with the ancestral family tales I hear. Events happened, no doubt about it. But subsequent telling is subject to memory’s imperfection and sometimes imagination, which build layers of pearl around the grit. “Truthiness” usually surrounds a real fact. So family legends are seldom static. Mine have been known to shape-shift—at different times to spare the teller’s or the listener’s sensibilities.

Grandpa Victor Freibergs had intensely interesting stories to tell of a world far away and unknown to his grandchildren. Revolution, freedom fighters, guns, neighbours turned against each other, revenge, killings—these were real experiences for him in his youth. The grit of truth in one story is that his father Otto Freibergs was shot and killed in the middle of the night during the unsuccessful 1905-1906 winter revolution in the Russian Empire. The circumstances surrounding Otto’s murder have been veiled by the passage of time, the absence of contemporary records, the complex politics of the times and the Freibergs’ precise part in them. I’m not sure I will ever understand the complicated history of this small but proud country. Thanks to my researcher in Latvia, communications have newly opened with relatives in Riga. We know the essential truth of the story. Maybe now we can work in reverse to dissect and examine the added layers of truthiness.

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