Oldest Estonian «has no regrets»

This Sunday, Arved Tamm turned 106. The oldest living Estonian is positive to the core, say those that know him, and one to always have said «take nothing to heart, main thing's staying alive».

The last couple of decades, Arved has dwelt in a small light green brick house, in the Pelgulinn part of Tallinn. The door is opened by Anne, daughter of his brother. She lives upstairs while daily descending to see how Arved is doing.

Walking up to meet me and the photographer, Arved greets us as old friends and takes us to his cosy living room. He seems to be fun to be around, I find myself thinking.

The first thing that strikes the eye is a vast collection of old clocks. All his life he’s been busy collecting stuff but the clocks have obviously been a favourite. Also, the room is beautified by flowers and candy boxes brought by guests.

So we take a seat, on a row of chairs in front of a cupboard. Wasting no time, Arved grabs a bulky album with pictures, turns a few pages and points at a black-and-white photograph. The back of it reads: «The year 1939. President Päts with entourage goes to Kadriorg stadium in Tallinn to watch 2nd Estonian Games.»

He remembers the games like they were yesterday. «I shot the picture,» says Arved. With state secretary Karl Terras, President Konstantin Päts was honorary patron to the Games.

As it turns out, Anne needs to go to work and she asks her son Rene Tamm (29) to help ask the questions. To talk to Arved, one must do it loud and right into his ear – the hearing has declined these past years.

We keep on turning the pages. As related to Mr Päts, Arved also recalls an Estonia-Latvia football match from before the war. «Estonia won and the people got to yelling. Mr Päts said he was not about to try and beat the noise, and walked off,» he smiles.

While many have found fault with our first head of state, Arved does not think Mr Päts did bad deeds. «He was a man of reason.» Above all, he does appreciate the pre-war Estonia. «The Päts times were good, the Soviet times were bad,» he says while noting he always believed Estonia would be delivered and at 81 he saw it come to pass.

Turning to the childhood, he shows a piece of paper stating «Early-baptised, January 25th». As the old calendar put it, Arved was born on January 18th 1910 in Liivimaa Province, as eighth child to Avinurme Parish elder Gustav and his wife Marie. The health was bad and he was not really expected to live too long, so the baptised him as a matter of emergency. But the child took them by surprise, got healed and is still doing great. Of his brothers and sisters, four died while still children.

«As I went to get my passport, the secretary said she would add 13 days to me. That’s why my birthday reads January 31st,» he says.

While raised with five brothers and two sisters, Arved mainly talks about his youngest bro Manivald who deceased 15 years ago. The brother studied to be a bridge engineer, lost a foot in the Battle of Narva while in his 30ies, and fled to Canada. Afterwards, the brothers often talked over the phone.

Another childhood think comes to mind. «When I was four, parish messenger came riding his horse into our yard and asked where the elder (his father – was), as there was a war that had,» relates Arved. It was WW1. «That’s when my brother Manivald was born,» he notes.

Enough of the childhood. Alfred suggests that we might as well listen to some music. And cranks up a hurdy-gurdy. Out comes «Silent Night».  

Thereafter, Arved proceeds to fetch an antique telephone. Which is followed by a tune he plays on a tiny concertina. Asked what he is playing, the old man laughs saying he «don’t know to play the thing! Made by Jüri Mägi, he used to rent a room from me.»

Next to a picture of Lydia Koidula, I spot a caricature drawn of Arved on the wall. Turn out, this is for his 70th birthday by the artist and politician Heinz Valk. Some half a century ago, they used to be together a lot.

Displaying these sentimental items, Arved isn’t not too emotional at all. «That’s perhaps why he has lived to be so old,» suggests Rene. «Those who boil over and are emotional, they take all to heart and the health gets bad sooner.»

Which will not mean that for the man the memories aren’t of value. For his age, Arved moved briskly. Even so, we are told he has been with a heart simulator for 13 years and at times the blood sugar causes issues. Not reading the newspapers for quite a while, he lets others read these to him. Till today, he daily listens to the radio.

What do his days look like? «I wake up at 8 in the morning, and go to sleep at half past eight in the evening. Life is very good. Anne takes care of me. And Rene comes in the morning and helps me get dressed,» he says.

Thereafter, in the mornings, Arved warms up his own porridge. In the cold weather, he goes out no more. In the summer, he gets seated in a yard chair and looks by the sun when it is time to go back inside.

Arved admits he never was into sports much, but when young he walked so fast no-one could keep up. This brings to mind wrestling lessons in Mustvee, and Kristjan Palusalu who he used to know. With that, the thread of thought is severed.

The hard times in Russia

He launches into stories of the time he got mobilised into Russia and was sent to serve at a labour unit in the military. That was the fate of most of those mobilised in 1941, and the living conditions there were poor. At Kambarka labour battalion, he ended up building an oil base.  

Along with him there was a friend, composer and choir conductor Gustav Ernesaks. Also, he claims to have come into contact with the composer Boriss Kõrver and organist Hugo Lepnurm. «There were hard times,» he summarises. Some were short of gloves and shoes, some of food. During the year that followed, thousands perished in the labour battalions due to hunger and diseases.

At Kambarka, Arved organised statue for those who perished which was erected secretly in the graveyard in 1942 under his initiative. Afterwards in Estonia, he set up get-togethers for those who used to serve in these battalions. Quite an activist, say his acquaintances.

In 1943, Arved began working in Russia, as one in charge of a warehouse. With a report, he accidentally erred and was jailed. Pretty soon, he got hired as a cook to the guards. While sentenced for six years, he says he was released in a year.

With four grades of education under his belt, his wisdom, experience and communication skills have helped all along the way. The list is long: Arved has been a farmer, a photo magnifiers sales agent, expeditor, clerk on a market place, brigadier, kiosk clerk, watchmaker, amateur filmmaker, and whatnot.  

«He used to be embarrassed his meagre education, and therefore tried real hard,» says Rene.

Back in Estonia, Arved married Alise – a shop assistant. Together, they set up a kiosk – he got the goods, she sold it. We collected money enough to buy a home at Nunne Street,» he says. There they lived, for 35 years.

When Alise died, Arved at the age of 75 found a new wife with whom he lived for ten years. While having no children, Arved does have lots of relatives and he has served as babysitter for lots of the little ones. And to Rene, Arved has always been like a grandfather.

Do you regret anything, I ask. «I have nothing to regret. What I have done I have done,» says Arved. According to Rene, he has helped a whole lot of people in his life. «I do not remember when he last was angry or sullen. He’s a great example.»

Arved says he has followed the principle of always considering the others. «Help the fellowman, and you will have it easier.»

Always, he has said a firm no to alcohol and tobacco. After his wife died, he also begun to eat healthier and for decades has eaten porridge and onion in the morning. Also his favourites are cabbage, eggs, mackerel and now, for many a year, low salt potato chips.

Wishing to live for at least two more years, Arved would like to see Estonian Republic turn a 100. «In a year, in January, I will get a new heart stimulator and if all goes well, I can celebrate my 107th birthday,» he says. «How many years have been given, nobody knows. 106 is a good number too.»

Rene says Arved has been motivated by goals. «For a long time he wanted to live to be a 100, then 105. He has always found things to do, and has set goals. Partially, this has also to do with living long and keeping fit.»

Do you know you are the oldest one alive in Estonia right now, I ask Arved. «Women are supposed to live longer,» he assumes and gets a bit confused. Then, convinced that over 1.5 months now he has been carrying the title of the oldest, he exclaims: «Well thank you! Thanks a lot!»

To the people of Estonia, Arved wishes good health while again underlying that cigarettes and vodka ought to be kept at bay. «And the less salt you use the better. Salt is a secret killer.» And sugar? I ask. «Sugar too!»

After the four hours talk, one still doesn’t want to leave. Calling for Rene, Arved asks him to help me into my coat. A gentleman indeed!

Like the good soldier Švejk

The eventful story of Arved Tamm served as inspiration to his sister’s son Heino Kiik who wrote Arved into his seven part novel «Arve Jomm», Arved Tamm being the prototype for main hero.

Mare Remmelgas, daughter of Heino Kiik who dies in 2013, says over the phone that she is glad her father wrote these books. «The life of Arved just happened to be so adventurous, it had to be written down.»

For her, Arved has always been like a grandfather and she keeps repeating what an unbelievable character the man is. «That he survived the awful war times at all … But that’s the way he is, a survivor. A diplomat who never quarrels with anyone. A bit like the good soldier Švejk. Like a living caricature!»

Having known Arved all of her life, she never recalls seeing him angry or grumbling. «He is always positive! Always teaching how to live. Always busy with something! Always poking his nose everywhere, and never caught. A bit of a busybody,» she laughs.

Mare’s grandfather i.e. the father of Heino Kiik was arrested in 1948 and deported to Siberia. Her mother was sent there in 1949 along with younger son and grandmother. At the moment, Heino happened not to be home and thus escaped by accident. Left alone in Estonia, Arved took him under his care.

To the relatives deported to Russia, Arved sent parcels of food. «He has helped so many, and has never wanted anything in return. All my life I have felt his support,» says Mare.

According to her, Arved has lived according the motto of take nothing to heart. «That has been his theme all of his life: don’t take things to heart, don’t bellyache – main thing’s staying alive.»

Despite the 106 long years, the man has not forgotten his manners and the people around him. «He is a stylish gentleman, still caring for all those around him,» says Mare.

In his life, Arved has also been treated bad. People have failed to pay him debts, and the sums have not been small. But he shrugged it all off. «The faults by other people are not worth troubling one’s own soul, he thinks. He gets over it,» adds the woman.

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Heinz Valk: Tamm told the totally mundane in a manner enjoyable to hear

I do remember Mr Tamm very well. My atelier and his apartment were rather close to one another, in the Old Town. 50 years ago, we communicated rather often. The last time I paid him a visit was a couple of decades ago. Sat for several hours and listened to his stories.

We got acquainted in a funny way. He was an amateur filmmaker and an elder relative of mine was too. They attended a club in the Old Town. As for me, from long ago I take an interest in old things, and Mr Tamm does the same. My relative knew him and introduces us. I often used to visit him at Nunne Street.

Mr Tamm lived in a small narrow house. Had a fancy doorbell! The whole house was stuffed to overflowing with all things ancient. Furniture, works of art, badges... All had been kept! It was especially fun in the attic, with heaps and heaps of old items. As I pointed to a heap and asked what was underneath there, he never even remembered. Oh all the things I bought from him... old ethnographic Estonian ornaments, badges, whatnot.  

Mr Tamm was a fun guy. A good storyteller and with a great sense of humour. Told even the totally mundane in a manner enjoyable to hear.  

He did all kinds of trades. After the war, he was a merchant in Tallinn and there we met too. He could talk about all sorts of things. Lots of knowledge and an excellent memory. Ought to have been recorded. He knew an enormous amount of people, important ones and ordinary ones. Never smoked, never drank. What a fellow!

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Estonians aged 100 and beyond

It is rather rare for men to live to be over 100. Currently in Estonia, 137 people are a hundred and older, and of these 18 are men. There are two men aged 104 in Tartu. To our knowledge, the Estonian who lived longest was Maria Tomson (112).

100-year-olds: 53

101-year-olds: 40

102-year-olds: 17

103-year-olds: 13

104-year-olds: 10

105-year-olds: 3

106-year-old: 1

Totalling: 137

Source: interior ministry

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