N a m e s are undoubtedly an interesting concept. If you think about it, they are something we all passively inherit. You don’t get to choose it, even though you can legally modify it later in life. They are something that everyone knows you by. They become not only a title, something used to get someone’s attention, but they are then associated with a memory, a personality, and a soul. It’s like a word in the English language that becomes the word for that person; in a way, the names begin to take on a personality of their own. In that sense, they are not “merely” titles, they mean so much more about who we are. There’s something sacred about parents choosing a name for their child. It shows the anticipation they had for 9 months (or longer), waiting for this soul to come into the world. It reveals their hopes for that child’s life and their love in painstakingly choosing the perfect name; most often they will choose names that are dear to them, adored even, and make their heart soft. They think of nicknames they will want to use for that child. Sometimes they will even name their child after someone else that was important to them to protect the memory and legacy of that person.
I was fortunate enough to inherit not just any name, but a name shared by my mother and my grandmother, who is Estonian. Growing up, it was hard for me to understand what an incredible woman my grandmother was. She escaped her homeland -- Estonia, during World War II just before the Nazi’s invaded, met my grandfather -- an American soldier in Germany, and moved to America to start a family with him. Her courage and bravery were unmatchable. She made the connections and arrangements for her and her family to leave, she braved her circumstances like a fearless leader, and her sacrifices were the only way that our family could even come to be. She could be feisty and lively, vibrant and full of life, but always kind and loving. Her strong statements always collapsed into laughter and made her nothing less than adored by all of us. She would talk about your life far more than she would talk about her own, and like any good Estonian, she would not dwell on communicating the emotional aspects of any story. The answers were always plain and simple. That’s the way it was. We had to flee, we had no choice. And things turned out how they did, what else do you want to know? Most of us in that situation might ask ourselves, "Why is this happening to me?" and it amazes me that she always seemed to see past her own comforts and even the life she might have "deserved"; rather than questioning why this enormous uprooting was happening in her life, she persisted through it and found a solution; she refused to dwell on the emotional aspects of this change and rather keep her chin raised, eyes on the horizon, and keep a fierce determination by her side, and all at such a young age.
It’s especially meaningful to me to share her name this week because we are celebrating her memorial, celebrating her life and the family she started. She became the matriarch of a large family and we owe her our history and our heritage. Because so many citizens had to flee during World War II and Estonia lost so much of their population, generations like me were granted citizenship so that the culture of Estonia might not be lost. It feels like a free and undeserved all-access pass, since I don’t speak a wick of Estonian and have only spent one week there in my entire life. But it is not something I take lightly; it is a true privilege, a way for me to carry my heritage and the sacrifice my grandmother made for our family, and I hope that I can make the most of that honor.
I would like to think I inherited some of these traits from her. I can’t say that I recognize them, but I would be honored if I had an ounce of her courage, a small dose of her resilience, and even a taste of her joy. She was always enjoying herself, and she meant more than she may ever have recognized to those around her. She called me Kaia Kena , which is an Estonian name meaning “little sweetie.” I was her only granddaughter, and I savor the little Estonian we could get out of her. The most important thing she left me was her name and the legacy she started with it. When considering a name to go with my new music, Kaia Kena became an obvious choice, because of all that it represents in my heritage and the traits my grandmother had that I aspire to embody.
As a young child, my family reminds me how I saw my grandpa visit us as Santa Claus on Christmas. Not recognizing him, but realizing he was late for the party, I rushed under the Christmas tree to give him a present. I didn’t understand the concept of Santa or even really that I had picked up someone else’s present to give away ;) but from an early age, she saw something in me that compelled her to call me an Estonian “little sweetie.” The official definition of the word is “nice,” “lovely,” and “kind.” I can only aspire to live up to the name she has given me and the nickname that will define me my whole life. My whole family knows me as Kaia Kena (as we had to distinguish between me and my mom who also shares the same). I am Kaia Kena. It’s natural. It’s organic. It’s how I identify. And I’m excited to share not only this personal name, but more of my self and more of my heart in my music.
Cheers to a new season, a new name, a new start.
If I'm gonna tell a real story, I'm gonna start with my name.