Skaidrīte is one of the happiest people I have ever met. Her life seems picture perfect. But as a child she lived with her alcoholic mother, who was incapable of caring for her and her sister. Skaidrīte held her sister as she died of starvation. Starting at age eight, Skaidrīte lived in a series of foster homes. She was kicked, beaten, and forbidden to pray. She was treated like a slave. Over the years, she contemplated suicide.
Years later, searching for hope, Skaidrīte entered an LDS meetinghouse.
Leslie Nilsson, photographer
Skaidrīte Bokuma of the Kurzeme Region, Latvia, started work when she was young. She was eight years old, living in what was known at the time as the Soviet Union.
“My mother was divorced,” Skaidrīte says. “She became an alcoholic. I had a father, but he was sent to Siberia. We had lived in a village but the government sent us to live in an apartment. We were often without food. I was holding my younger sister’s hand when she died of starvation. We were in such a poor situation that my mother sent me to the countryside to become a shepherd.”
That was when Skaidrīte started working full-time.
She lived like a slave. “Whatever I was told, I had to do—gather wood, milk the goat, put the animals in their shelter for the night.” She was allowed to go to school for only one winter.
The lady who owned the sheep farm taught Skaidrīte about God. “She said that He sees everything you do, so you shouldn’t lie,” she recalls. “And she taught me some basic principles. For example, when I lost something I would pray for help to find it.”
If Skaidrīte wasn’t listening or did something wrong, the farm owner told her husband to beat the young girl. “He didn’t like to do that. So he would hide me and say, ‘Pretend I’m beating you.’ I would try not to laugh.” After a while, however, she was regularly beaten and kicked. She didn’t laugh anymore.
From Farm to Factory
After two years, Skaidrīte was called back from the countryside. She and her younger brother were sent to a foster home to receive vocational education. As she learned to sew, Skaidrīte also worked on the school farm. She earned a little money by pulling weeds and milking cows, money that enabled her to occasionally visit her two living sisters in an effort to hold her family together.
In the foster house, when Skaidrīte kneeled by her bed at night, others would make fun of her and remind her that prayer was forbidden. “If there was a God,” they said, “you wouldn’t be in a foster home. You’d have a nice family.” They convinced her to stop believing.
After five years at the school, Skaidrīte went to work in a clothing factory. She was a good seamstress, skilled but not fast. Others laughed at her and said she was avoiding work. Because she was slow, she wasn’t paid much. She became discouraged. She even contemplated suicide.
Then a new factory opened and Skaidrīte moved there. This factory emphasized quality rather than speed, and because her skill was apparent, Skaidrīte was selected to oversee the other seamstresses. It was a perfect situation.
“Don’t Laugh about God”
Skaidrīte married in 1969 but didn’t have children until her only child, a son, was born in 1981. By the time the boy was eight, Skaidrīte once again felt the need for religion in her life. Her mother-in-law often said, “You don’t laugh about God. Even if you don’t believe, you can respect.”
Skaidrīte still carried emotional scars inflicted by her mother’s alcoholism. She hated being around others at weddings and celebrations where they drank alcohol. Impressed by a relative of her mother-in-law who never drank, Skaidrīte started attending his church. “I was in church,” she says, “but I wasn’t getting to know God.” For 10 more years she floundered, but her desire to find her Heavenly Father persisted, even as her own husband and her son both slipped into alcoholism. She divorced and her husband and son moved far away. Again, dark thoughts arose. Was suicide an answer?
She Smiled at Me
In 1999, Skaidrīte was looking for a church. She saw a building with a sign that said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was a weekday, but she opened the door and went inside.
“There was a sister missionary. When I walked in, she was smiling—a very open smile. I thought there was somebody behind me. Then I realized that smile was for me, and I smiled back. I felt like I was meeting a best friend, long not seen.
“She was the one who introduced me to the Church. I had never met anyone like the missionaries. I felt like they were angels, literally come from heaven to earth.
“Basically from that day, everything changed in my life.”
Skaidrīte stopped going to her previous church, even though people there warned her she would find bad things in this new Church. “I told them if there was something bad, I would stop going,” Skaidrīte says, “But there was nothing but good to find.” That was 17 years ago.
Life Is Beautiful
Today, Skaidrīte, age 71, is so happy and full of life that it’s hard to believe that hasn’t always been the case.
“When I first saw that sister missionary, when I found the Church for the first time, since that day all the thoughts of suicide were gone. There were no thoughts of life being dark. In spite of everything, I am positive. Life is beautiful to me.”