“Que Será, Será” resonated with the Latvian WWII refugee who experienced much hardship and shared much joy.
My grandmother, a soft-spoken World War II refugee from Latvia, was one of the most serene people I’ve ever known. She had a deeply comforting presence that quelled my often hyper childhood heart down to a slow, happy place.
Omam, as we called her, was not a big conversationalist. To be honest, she was more of a commenter than a speaker, adding to our family chatter with bursts of approval — “Ahah, vonderful!” — or disdain — “Ak vai! Enough!” And she was always there to laugh at a joke. Always.
When my grandmother did speak, the words she shared with us felt like gold. I recall stopping in my tracks when I’d hear her talk. Perking my ears up so I didn’t miss it — that beautiful sound of her voice, sharpened and lilting in its Eastern European way. And I always weighed what she said with care, like turning a small, smooth stone over in the palm of my hand.
“If you are bored, then you must be a boring person,” she used to say. “If you feel bored, just look around for things to count. Count steps, or clouds in the sky, or how many times you can jump rope.” I loved jumping rope for her. I was very good at it, especially when we counted.
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Omam would also sing. Well, it was more like humming, but if we listened closely enough we could hear the words. Sometimes, if she was in a jubilant mood, we didn’t have to listen closely at all. She would belt the words out loud, patting the top of her lap in rhythm.
My grandmother had a favorite song: “Que Será, Será,” written in 1956 by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, but made famous by Doris Day.
Having memorized the words to this song, Omam would sing it frequently. Through her, I learned the song. I would often consider its lyrics, which to a child seemed to hold cryptic meaning: “Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see …”
It made sense why that song resonated with my grandmother: forced to flee Latvia in 1944 and wander across war-torn Europe for months; fated to raise two children in a displaced-persons camp, to immigrate to America and start a whole new life in Tacoma, never knowing if she’d return to her homeland.
Although I can’t possibly imagine living through such horror and upheaval, when I sing the lyrics of “Que Será,” I start to piece together what she must have felt. I start to see a simple philosophy that resonated with her, that gave her the shape of an answer to profoundly unanswerable circumstances. I start to know my grandmother as a young woman.
Last month, in the midst of Latvia’s centennial celebration, my family buried my grandmother’s ashes alongside my grandfather’s (buried 30 years before her, when Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union) in the beloved country that she once fled. In a way, it was a centennial celebration of Omam as well. She would have been 100 years old this January.
“Sirds Latvijā — Liktenis Trimdā” reads their gravestone, which roughly translates to “hearts in Latvia, fated to the Diaspora.” These words echo the shared story of thousands of Latvian-American refugees. In this, my Omam was not alone.
On the final day of our trip to Latvia, as I was running around in search of last-minute gifts, I cut through Vermanes Garden, a beautiful park in the center of Riga. Near a small rose garden, I heard a street violinist playing my grandmother’s song.
I paused several feet away from the violinist. My heart slowed down to that peaceful place she used to bring me to. I listened, and I could hear my grandmother’s accented voice once again: “Que será, será, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que será, será.”
Goodbye Omam, and thank you.