This morning I did a Facebook search to see if my brother has joined since the last time I checked. No, he still hasn’t. At least not under the name on his birth certificate. That last name would be Ziedonis. Alas, that is not really our last name. My last name is not Ziedonis right now because I got married a long time ago when women were still taking their husband’s name upon marriage. But….. I use my maiden name as my middle name, so that is an error as well.
In doing family research a number of years ago, when it was first the craze and I was curious about my Latvian ancestry, I went to Latvia and met great-aunts and great-uncles and assorted other relatives. I spoke with the relatives here in the United States, too. Sadly, the USA aunts and uncles were not very forthcoming. I’m not sure what kind of secrets they’re hiding or why it matters all these years later. My grandparents died years ago, so there’s no way to ask them the answers to my questions.
I found out from a living-in-Latvia relative, namely my grandfather’s sister, who lived to a very old age, that my father’s father was born with the last name of Bulle. In other words her maiden name was Bulle. Furthermore, the Bulle great-grandfather wasn’t even Latvian. He came to work in Latvia at some German Baron’s estate because he was good with horses and the Baron needed a horseman. I don’t know if that means Johan Bulle was from Germany. He could have been. He could also have been from Finland or many other places. My grandfather’s sister didn’t know the answers to any of that.
Johan married a servant woman working on the estate who was Latvian and they had four children. Or five. I would have to look that up. My grandfather, Arvids Bulle, was one of them. He was born just before the twentieth century. He wandered off to Russia to attend a place of higher education when he was about eighteen. I couldn’t find out much about that, either. It could have been St. Petersburg. It could have been other places. But it was in Russia, that’s for sure. It’s where he met his future wife and my grandmother, Maria Kostukevich. I am very unsure about the spelling of her last name because none of my uncles/aunts seems to remember how to spell it. Memory lapse or more secrets? I don’t know.
I did get an interesting little tidbit of information once. One of my relatives told me that Maria grew up in Vitebsk in the same neighborhood, in fact three doors down, from Marc Chagall. Aha. I looked him up and Marc Chagall was Jewish and lived in a Jewish neighborhood. Does that mean Maria was Jewish and is that the secret? I don’t know. The rest of the story I heard was that Maria’s father supposedly owned a store, perhaps a small grocery store. She had brothers. And during the Russian revolution her brothers were killed on the street. I’m left wondering – were they a target or were they merely caught in the crossfire? So many questions, so few answers.
Okay, back to the name issue. My grandfather, Arvids Bulle, brought Maria back to Latvia to live. Latvia got its freedom after World War I and there was a huge swell of patriotism. At least that’s what my history sleuthing said. As a result of this patriotism, many people changed their last names to sound more Latvian and that’s apparently what my grandfather did. He picked the name Ziedonis so that’s what we were from then on. Maria and Arvids had eight children, all given the last name Ziedonis. Seven came to the USA after World War II and one went to Canada. At one point, I counted twenty-five cousins. So we’re passing on the wrong name all over the place. Were there other reasons and more secrets surrounding the name change? I’ve wondered but again, I don’t know.
You may wonder why I’m writing about this on my blog about writing. Here’s the answer. I recently realized that one reason I became a writer is that I don’t like unanswered questions or blanks in the stories. So I write stories to make up the answers.
My first novel is based on the life of Arvids and Maria and takes place during the Russian revolution and World War I. Of course I did take some things that I knew, like the date they got married and the story that they eloped, and used them in the book. Their personalities are based on the real people I knew with my own take on them. But since I wasn’t there, the conversations and most things that happened are my own made up story.
I’ve been reading recently that a writer should write what they know. And of course it is true that writing what you know is important. I would also add the idea that a writer writes both what she knows and what she doesn’t know. At least that is true for me. I have a story or a character running around in my head and am not satisfied until it is on paper.
When I wrote that first novel I had an idea of how it would start and how it would end and I even made an outline. Once I started writing, though, the characters took over and my story went in a totally different direction than I ever imagined. It was a huge surprise when that happened. And after I got over the characters making mashed potatoes out of my outline, I let them go where they wanted and say what they would. In other words, I let the characters drive the story and thereby the blanks were filled in and the story was completed. So in that sense I am writing what I don’t know as well as what I know. Unlike the real life story where there are a bunch of holes all over the place, in writing fiction, I have the freedom to fill in those holes and it’s damn satisfying.