Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Letters from Latvia

by Zinta Aistars

(Photo taken 2.14.92 in Houghton, Michigan)

When the literary e-zine, Fiction Attic, asked if I might submit an essay about my experience of living and traveling in Latvia, I found myself going back in memories to my other home and another time...

For seven years I led a double life. Some might have called it an insane life. It required two hearts, or, at least, one that was split down the middle. One part of my heart belonged to my children, who, though Latvian in blood and eight generations of family history, were born and raised in the United States. The other part of my heart beat for my husband, a man I had first met when we were both the wide-eyed age of 15, in the port city of Ventspils, Latvia. Ventspils, a city with an 800-year history, is on the Baltic Sea. Andris had been born and raised there; it was, and is, his home.

For seven years, I balanced a dual citizenship, in constant travel or preparation for travel or recuperation after travel, with one foot firmly planted on either side of the Big Pond and the split in my heart growing ever more bruised and bloodied, ever more harshly tested.

Back when this story first began, my life in the United States and Andris’ life in Latvia could not have been more different. I came from the land of plenty, milk and honey, gold-paved streets and opportunity, flying the flag of freedom as a role model to the rest of the world (or, in perhaps a show of our American arrogance, we liked to think so). He was born into a world of oppression, the Iron Curtain a very real divider between the Soviet-occupied European countries on the perimeters of cruel Mother Russia and the rest of the world. I had been raised by refugee parents, narrowly escaping that oppression as the Red Army invaded tiny Latvia, eventually finding a new life in the States. Still, they raised my sister and me to think of Latvia as true home, some day to be free again, and the United States as our temporary place of exile. Latvian was my first language, the only language spoken in our home. My childhood consisted of bedtime stories of a faraway ancient land, its language, the one I now spoke, one of the most ancient still in use in the modern world. I grew up bilingual and bicultural, attending American public schools on weekdays, Latvian schools on weekends and summers. My personality, perhaps even my appearance, was in a state of constant shifting as I moved seamlessly from one world to the other and back again.

So maybe it made an odd kind of sense, during those seven years, that I lived on two continents. The first time I visited Latvia, my parents took me to Ventspils to see the city where my father had spent his teen years, just prior to World War II. A small stone house a short distance from the city, near a village called Sarnate, was the place where my father spent his childhood summers. Its weathered front faces the Baltic Sea—white sands scattered with pieces of amber, tall pines leaning into the wind, and the house itself holding within it the echoes of seven generations. Seven generations of hard work, love of land and family, many births, many weddings, many funerals, one generation gradually passing into the next, surviving many wars. My father knows Ventspils; his heart, in part, still resides there.

It was a strange feeling, arriving in this place for the very first time, yet feeling myself at home. I was, yes, in a place that I knew instinctively—I belonged. At least, some part of me did and always would. When my parents went to the house of Andris’ parents to meet with old friends, we two met for the first time. The boy with dark hair and dark eyes of unusual intensity greeted me with a firm handshake and a polite nod of his head. As our parents talked over dinner, bridging the lost years and the great divide between the paths their lives had taken, Andris’ eyes never left me. Mine dipped away shyly. In silence, I took in my surroundings. The house was tiny. One room, really, with curtains dividing space at room’s end for a bedroom for his parents, a corner serving as kitchen, and a closet-like space curtained off at the opposite end that was his bedroom. They were fortunate, I learned, to have the luxury of their own home under Soviet occupation, however small. An even greater luxury was to own a telephone, but Andris’ mother quickly took the telephone, pulling the long cord taut, and placed it outside the door of the house while we sat down to dinner inside. Soviet residents knew that telephones were commonly used as listening devices, and few things interested the eavesdroppers more than visitors from the Western world. "Let them listen to the crickets," she said.

Andris spoke to me quietly after dinner. He played his guitar for me. Music, they say, is an international language, crossing all borders, and it melted any remaining between us. By visit’s end we had exchanged addresses, and over the years our letters crossed the ocean, and the Iron Curtain, even as we grew into adults, married, had children, and lived our lives—he as a musician and composer and I as a writer. If his letters on occasion hinted at some stronger emotional bond, I gave it little credence. There was, after all, an Iron Curtain between us, and if the term was a metaphor, its reality was truly one of iron.

Fifteen years after our first meeting, Andris made his first trip to the United States. The Soviets had cautiously begun to allow a crack in the Curtain, a few carefully monitored visitors permitted to travel the world outside, quickly to return again, their property and family members held as something of a ransom. Married couples, for instance, were never allowed to travel together. I did not meet him that first trip. I was married, had two children, and, well, it just didn’t work out. Or, in some deeper part of me, I knew it shouldn’t.

Two years later, when he came to the States again, he found me separated from my husband and living alone with my children. Andris, too, was no longer living with his wife and boys. When I heard the knock on my door, I opened it to a tall, bearded man who little resembled the 15-year-old boy I had met in Ventspils so long ago, if only for the intensity of his penetrating eyes. Suddenly, there were no more barriers.

Only, there was. A vast ocean, after all, separated our homes. We married in a small church in the northern wilderness of Michigan that had a strong resemblance to Latvia. Before we could file papers requesting a change in his citizenship status, Andris’ father died in Ventspils. An only child (his half-sister, Laima, was born to his father in a previous marriage), he returned to help his mother settle her affairs and heal her heart. I soon joined him, my two small children in tow. Around this time, the Soviet Union split open like a rotten fruit, the Iron Curtain crumbled into a rusted heap, and Latvia entered a time of anarchy and rebirth. As excited as we were to see this newborn freedom, it was undeniably a dangerous time, powers being challenged, new governments being formed, and a people struggling to find their way. It was no place to raise two American-born children.

The day of our first anniversary, I returned to the United States with my children. Andris remained in Ventspils. For the next six years, I would travel between these two countries as others move from room to room. To allow for enough time to stay with my husband in Latvia, enough to maintain a marriage, each time I left the States I also left a job, an address, and what few belongings I would keep, carefully boxed and stored in my parents’ garage or basement. Each time I returned, I would have to start my life all over again. Find a new job, lease a new apartment, unpack a few boxes, establish a new if temporary home. Wherever I was, a part of me longed for the place I was not.

My joys in life were simple ones. To be with those I loved was something I never took for granted. In the United States, I raised and nurtured my children, working hard to support our little household. I went to the office, attended parent teacher conferences, drove across town to take care of my many errands as any single parent might. In Latvia, I braided my hair in the manner of Latvian women, and I shopped for fresh produce at the open-air market on a daily basis, washed our laundry by hand, and boiled a large vat of water on the wood-burning stove for our bath water that Andris carried up the stairs in buckets from the well. While life in the capital city of Riga was quickly becoming as modernized as in any city in Europe, the countryside remained as if caught in another time.

One of the happiest days in my memory from those years was an evening spent at my sister-in-law’s house in Ventspils. Hers was a grand two-story place with walls nearly two feet thick, having survived several wars. It had no indoor plumbing, and the stove in her small kitchen was wood-burning, but it always felt like luxury to me. Laima took us out to her garden to pick fresh vegetables for our dinner. I held my shirt out to collect the beans Andris snapped neatly from their stems. Laima dug into the loose soil to pluck out round new potatoes. Her partner, Peteris, cut green onions, his small blade gleaming and sharp. In the kitchen, we rinsed and cut and snapped and prepared our meal, laughing and at moments bursting into song as Andris strummed his sister’s guitar. Surely I had never tasted a better meal than that one, with my family in Latvia warm around me, raising a toast of old cognac in the air—“Prozit!” To us, Laima offered, to our Latvian hearts, surviving all, strong and sure, and to our bright new future ahead.

I last saw Andris on October 15, 1994. It was the hardest, most heart ripping decision I ever had to make. My children could not thrive in such constant change. I was beginning to see signs of damage. They needed me. Full time.

That moment when the steel door at the Riga airport closed on Andris’ face, separating us perhaps forever, haunts me still in my dreams. His dark gaze never wavered as the door slammed shut, never moving from mine.

For months, no, years, I was tormented with the sense that I should never have left. I would wake in the night and, for a moment, not know where I was… here? There? Then, through the dark would come a light rustling, a child’s sigh in dreams, one of my own sleeping in the next room, and I would settle again into the twisted sheets. I am back in the States. Yes, I know: where I belong. With one heart that holds many loves and two homes.

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