Sunday, July 27, 2008

Curling Up for a Bedtime Story

by Zinta Aistars

Days rush by us in a swirl of busyness, nights fall over us in gasping reprieve. Stress and strain wear away at the finer sensibilities, and it seems, at times, in all our mad rush and rat race, we forget the simplest pleasures—those very ones that sustain us best.

Remember the bedtime story? Your eyes falling heavily, ever more heavily shut, mind swirling toward imaginary places, surreal and magical dreamscapes, and the soothing sound of Mama’s or Papa’s voice, reading to you and lulling you into a sweet sleep.

How many of us still embark on this dreamy literary island before sleep, either reading to or being read to?

I remember my personal favorite, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, peeking over Mama’s arm to lose myself into the pages, odd little creatures in odd little towns, each in their odd little beds, and one great yawn bonding them all.

“The news just came in from the County of Keck that a very small bug by the name of Van Vleck is yawning so wide you can look down his neck …”

By book’s end, I was yawning too, one great delicious yawn, comforted to know that the world yawned with me, with all its gooses and mooses, Crandles with candles, and Collapsible Frinks.

My love for bedtime stories carried over into my own parenting days. As soon as I headed for the great pillowy couch in our Kentucky living room, my own two rompers bounced along behind me, each curling up against my side, either side, and peering over my elbows into the book I had chosen for the evening. Yes, I read them the Sleep Book, too, and they, too, adored it. But there were so many others. We made adventure treks to the local library to collect a fresh pile each week. Classics like Seuss and Beatrix Potter would last through the ages. But we added in new children’s authors, too, and I marveled at the beauty of modern children’s books, rivaling the art reproduction books my father, the artist, favored. The selection in this genre is a thing of beauty and wonder, even while adult literature seems to be lagging behind …

But my children are grown now. My elderly parents no longer read to me at bedtime; I have, on occasion, read now to them. Yet my love, even my need, for the soothing power of a bedtime story has not waned. Perhaps only increased, as the stuff of daily living increases in its levels of stress and strain. I live alone, and so I most often read to myself, a ready stack of books always on my nightstand. Even if only a page or two before sleep overtakes, reading still smoothes out the rough edges of the hectic day. Rattled nerves calm. To-do lists, never finished, fade away. Stories, however grown up now, restore my sense that I am not yawning alone in this world, that there are a great many other Crandles with candles and Collapsible Frinks yawning with me, and wishing and drifting into sweet, restorative sleep.

So, last night, when an old friend offered to read to me over the phone, I sighed in contented anticipation and accepted. My lights were already out. The house was dusky, only a wan light of moon and summer stars seeping through the uncurtained window. I plumped a pillow into position in one corner of my living room couch, and settled into its soft and cool lap, closing my eyes, holding the phone to my ear.

He began to read to me. He had wanted to share a particularly moving essay, a memoir, from a baseball anthology he had recently purchased. I listened to his deep, low and sonorous voice in its even pacing, and let the story draw me in …

It didn’t matter that I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a sports fan. I have attended a dozen or so baseball games over my lifetime, always in a show of companionship to a male friend or a spouse, rather than driven by my own interest. But a story well told is a story well told, no matter the subject matter, and this one was. Well told and well read. It described the poignant relationship between military son and his athlete father, the physical separation between the two while father played in the major leagues and son was deployed in military service overseas in 1945. To maintain the bond between father and son, however, for all his years absent, the son meticulously wrote a diary, something of an ongoing letter to his father, noting his war experiences even as he noted his father’s baseball stats.

My friend’s deep voice upped a notch as emotion overtook him. His own father had been gone from him many years hence. They, too, had struggled with the challenges of a father-son connection, however differently. And when a good story mirrors something of our own experiences, it moves us, twinges and tugs at our hearts, and helps to release tears that too often we otherwise hold back. He shared this bedtime baseball story with me, because it stirred baseball memories of his own, memories he had shared with his father, now shared with me, many miles away, by reading me a bedtime story over the phone.

This wasn’t the first time, not nearly, that my old friend had read a bedtime story to me, although it had been a long while since the last time. On that occassion, I lay back on a Victorian divan at The Tabard Inn in Washington D.C., after a long day of business travel, dotted by business meetings. My friend’s familiar voice, reading to me from half a country away, a series of humorous flash fiction pieces, had me chuckling softly in shared amusement. The stories chased away the rush of the day and made me feel like home again. Safe again. Like a child curled into a parent’s lap, listening and dreaming of faraway places and great adventures.

A bedtime story, after all, is soothing and sweet at any age. Parent to child, older sibling to younger, aunt to nephew, graying friend to graying friend. It makes us remember. It makes us forget.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Crime, Punishment and a Heart on Parole

by Zinta Aistars

That sick feeling when you see the red-blue lights flash in your rearview mirror, nothing like it. And the truth of it was—I’ve been a lead foot most of my driving life, only recently reformed. Higher insurance premiums didn’t do it, point systems didn’t matter, and the element of danger of driving at high speeds only added to the seduction. I loved driving fast, simple as that. Higher fuel prices didn’t slow me down, I’m almost ashamed to admit; I am now a bit bratty with enough zeros on my paycheck that, blush, the gas pump takes no bites out of me, in spite of my 110 mile commute each week day. What had slowed me down, at long last, was concern for the planet. I slowed down out of love for Mother Earth. I was a good driver now, even ponderously slow on the road.

But this was dirty play. I so rarely now drove through downtown Kalamazoo since taking on a job in Grand Rapids, 55 miles north of this southwestern Michigan town, that I had forgotten the usual speed traps. Trap, indeed. Coming down Westnedge Hill just outside of town was coasting down a steep hill with an illogical 30 mph speed limit on the down slide. It was impossible to do without standing on the brakes all the way down. And I was riding my brakes. Just not standing on them. The speed limit was installed, I was convinced, for no other reason than to keep the local authorities’ treasury comfortably full.

Rain spilled in my car window the moment I rolled it down. Pulled over in a nearby parking lot, I didn’t mind that the young officer had to stand in the rain while I rummaged through my wallet and glove compartment for license, registration, proof of insurance.

“M’am, do you know how fast you were going?”

His face was emphatic enough. But my pride would never allow me to plead or make my case or ask for leniency. Right now, it was all I could do not to cry, and I was damned if I was going to let this blue man see it.

“No,” I said, pulling my license out of my wallet and handing it over. And I didn’t care. There was no lesson here to learn that I hadn’t learned already.

For years now, my license had been clean. All the points wiped off long ago, and I’d been proud of that. At least when I was pulled over in the past, it was for some respectable speed—105 on the interstate, 60 through thick downtown traffic as I dodged traffic and swerved in and out of packed lanes with glee. I had to admit, there were times that I missed driving that way—the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of the dodge rushing through my body.

Rain slashed across my windshield. I closed the window while I waited for him to write up the ticket. Every day, driving to work, I set the cruise control at the precise speed allowed. At times, even lower. Good for me, good for the environment. This morning, it made no sense to set the speed, and my mind wandered to the chores of the day, a too short weekend to accomplish all that needed to be done when my work week was spent in the office, on the road, sleep, back on the road again. Certainly the long commute had taken a large bite out of my free time. It was difficult to keep up with my friends. My social life was suffering. If I made time on an occasional evening to meet someone for dinner or a drink, to stop by for a visit, it meant getting to bed late and fighting sleep on the road the following morning. The job, sure, was a good one, and the pay had quickly gained the steely hold of golden handcuffs as I put myself on a mission to pay off the debt accrued over the previous, far leaner years. No luxuries for me, only pay pay pay, keeping my eye trained on the goal of eventual freedom and independence. Every payment and extra payment I made now gave me a surge of hope and pleasure, drawing the future I wanted one step closer.

Now this. I flipped the ticket over when he handed it to me, saying something about lowering my speed category to the lowest one—was I supposed to be grateful?—to see the fine I now owed: $110. Unabashed tears streamed down my cheeks to match the rain streaming down my windshield as I pulled back out onto the road, and he back to his trap, waiting for the next feckless prey.

Two points, I repeated to myself, wiping my stoopid tears away with the back of my hand. Now that the officer could no longer see me, I let them fall, let them stream, snuffling like a child. Two frigging points to stay on my record for three more years. Derailed from my dogged efforts to clean my unclean life, leaving all the dirt and trash of the past far behind. Pay the debts, clean up the garbage, throw out the trash. This was more than paying off debts and cleaning up points. I was working hard to clean up my future. I wanted the future to be as different from my past as it could possibly be. For too long, I had lost hope there would be one. My strength and confidence had taken blow after blow on so many fronts. It was all I could do to even know the shape of hope again.

Okay, yes, this was a pity party. I was working to hold back the tears as I neared my mechanic on the other side of town. It was too shameful to walk in to Otto Kihm with my eyes all red-rimmed and weepy. Not that they would mind, those grease-stained boys. I’d been taking my cars to Otto for twelve years. It meant something for me to say I trusted a mechanic. But every time I sought out a second opinion at another garage, they always came in at less, and, more importantly, at better quality. Today was just about an oil change. And I knew, with my employer’s discount, I could get one for half the price in Grand Rapids. But loyalty toward me built my loyalty in return. Trust was something far too scarce in my life these past years. The last man in my life had the cleanest, softest hands I’d ever seen on a man. But he had cheated on me so many times, each time asking forgiveness, only to plow that same row again, that trust was now a word I’d deleted out of my dictionary. So back to a mechanic that told me the truth, and had proven himself trustworthy over the lifespan of five cars. I was this close to declaring my love, grease and all.

Hoping my eyes weren’t noticeably red, I went in to drop my keys on the counter. The short walk from car to office had left me sopping, so if my tears had been momentarily dried, at least the rain running down my face and dripping from my hair would disguise my recent personal storm. Bob’s face lit up in instant recognition. Wasn’t that worth twice the price? That kind of smiling sunshine on a rainy day?

“Hey, Zinta! Long time! Now that you have that new Honda …”

“Yeah,” I nodded, pushing my keys toward him. “So is it okay to go ten thousand miles before an oil change? I have this nifty little indicator on my dash telling me my oil life is still at 15 percent …”

“Sure.” Bob smiled brightly, waving away my concern with a grease -blackened hand. Black smears crisscrossed his blue shirt. He was boss here, but that didn’t keep him from poking his head under the hood. Which is why I liked him. Nothing arrogant about him. Even his voice was soft, shy, kind. No, that wasn’t the only reason why I liked him.

“Those Hondas go forever,” he went on. “And you’re putting on highway miles, anyway. So how’s that drive to GR? Tiring of it yet?”

“Not at all. Well, not much. Mostly, it gives me time to gather my thoughts—“

“Come up with some new poetry, maybe?”

There. That’s why I like Bob. He is a mechanic who reads and loves poetry. How kewl is that? How many grease monkeys know Rainer Marie Rilke? But we’d talked poetry before, and when I tested him on Rilke’s gender—those who didn’t know poetry inevitably made the mistake of thinking the German poet was a female—he passed the test and even quoted a few lines. This is why I am loyal to Bob, why he may be the only man on the planet that I trust today. I even see his eyes flick to the book I’ve set on the counter while we talk, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, his mouth pressing into a line of approval and interest.

He makes time in their busy Saturday morning for my oil change, and I start to move toward the waiting area with book in hand to pass the time when I see that every chair is already taken. But one. Between two big-bellied dudes. I suppress a wince. No way I am squeezing into that tight fit. I look back out the window onto the street. I’ve often walked downtown from here for a quick breakfast while my car is in the garage, but the rain shows no sign of letting up. Indeed, it is pouring now, great sloppy buckets of it, and I want to cry again. Silly. Tears for rain. But I can feel waves of weeping held back inside, held back too long, and I wish for a dark corner somewhere, hidden, so that I can wail out my misery.

I glance back at the bellied dudes. No.

Stuffing my book into my bag to protect it from the wet, I head out into the rain. This is not the best side of town. On a Saturday, everything around here is closed. Only place open is a lone Mickey D’s two blocks down, the one where all the poor saps go, the homeless who have begged just enough for a hot cup of coffee. The Gospel Mission is kitty corner from this fast food joint, and they come over in a steady stream of the hapless and hopeless.

Well, at least I will belong, I tell myself, and I jog across the street. In moments, my hair is as wet as if I’d just stepped out of a shower … into another shower. My T-shirt glues itself to my skin. My sandals slosh in the puddles I can’t seem to avoid. I’m not at all hungry, and the food this sort of place sells, frankly, makes my stomach roil, but the hot java would be good.

I stand dripping in line, waiting for my turn. As expected, I am surrounded by the despairing. Long, tangled beards, torn shirts, hoisted plastic bags of who knows what gathered treasure along roadsides, stained trousers and patched jeans, dirty feet peeking out of battered sneakers. I keep my eyes to myself, pay my buck and six cents for coffee, and turn to find a place to sit, sip and read in silence. But in back, there are more of them, and I wouldn’t mind the filthy clothes so much, but the sullied man who sits down in the booth next to me is having a loud and animated dialogue with his invisible friend. I try to lose myself in the pages of my book, but his diatribe about the approaching days of the end of the world is distracting. He admonishes his unseen companion to hand over his soul and do it now before it is too late. Amen, Lord, amen! Oh, Jesus, he wails, and throws his head back, his arms upward to greet the Lord he seems to already see in His second coming.

I sigh, pick up my book, my bag, my coffee, and get up to look for another place to sit where heaven is not so near. I don’t want to be saved now, I want to wallow. The booths and seats are all full, however, the rain driving all sad souls inside. Ah, no, a booth in the corner, facing the mechanic’s garage. Perfect. I squeeze by and in, plop down and keep my eyes on the garage for a familiar Mecca. Traffic splashes by, unseeing to what is here, speeding, yes, speeding, with no one to stop them. Why did I have to be so unlucky this morning? I ponder, prying the lid off my coffee. It’s searing hot and I want it to cool quicker. I spot … is it a small black hair? on the rim. And suddenly, just like that, trigger hair instant, I am weeping again.

For speeding tickets and wasted funds that could have gone to better purpose. For the loneliness of a rainy morning in a seedy fast food joint. For all the meanness inflicted on me by uncaring hearts that make me feel, at least this morning, that I may never recover from so many broken places, that as soon as I think myself clear, someone or something will pull me over again and hand me a reminder. Pay. Keep paying. For your own far too many sins. For your far too expansive foolishness. For your stupidity in trusting the untrustworthy. For failing at all that matters. Pay. For debts accrued over years and years of struggle, most of which came to nothing. Pay. Keep paying. There is no end. Change the oil, and in ten thousand miles, you will have to do it all again.

My heart is too tired to complain at the counter. I shove the tainted joe away from me, open the book in front of me, but stare out at the pouring rain. Across the street, in no rush or effort to evade the open sky, another homeless man wanders, his arms waving in great gestures. Now and then, he stops, and it is clear that he sees someone standing before him, although I see no one there. He nods his head in agreement to some tidbit of conversation only he can hear. His hands go up in a gesture of acknowledgement. Perhaps on this soaked morning, he is less lonely than I, having found conversation with a companion who is endlessly fascinated with all that he has to say. I watch him for a long while through the rain, wondering at the wisdom he is surely passing on to his imagined companion.


I realize then, I’ve said the word aloud. Which doesn’t make me stick out from this crowd at all. I fit in. I am the brat, the spoiled brat, and I know it, have no argument against it, not one point in my own defense. The hard truth is that I am now in a place in my life where I can pay the $110 fine and not even feel it. Write the check and forget it. All too well, I remember the time when that kind of money meant groceries for a month, even more, for myself and my children. A ticket like this, unforeseen, would have meant near impossible struggle to create out of nothing nutritious meals for growing bodies. A small miracle, and maybe not so small, that my children had grown up healthy and strong and bright in spirit and mind.


But I wept nonetheless, the tears raining down from my eyes and plopping onto the open pages of my book. It was a book that had instantly nailed my attention to its true tale of a man whose mission had become to build a school for poor children in Pakistan, repaying kindness when he had entered the town lost and worn, dirty and tired, from a failed mountain climb. The townspeople, who had never seen an American, surrounded him with care. Food, hot tea, warm blankets for a bed, and human kindness. When he saw later that the town had no school, that the children knelt in the dust and scratched numbers and letters with sticks in the dirt, even as they had no teacher, so hungry were they to learn … he promised to return and build them a school. Even though he himself had no money. He had the faith and the will, and he created the opportunity. While his own government fought terrorism, real or imagined, with the violence of war, he fought with kindness returned.

From my rain smeared window, I could see my blue car pull back out into the parking lot at the mechanic’s. Ready. I could go back now. I could go back to my life.

Stuffing my book once again into my bag, leaving my undrunk coffee behind, I ran back out into the rain. I jogged across the street toward the gesturing man. He didn’t notice me standing in front of him, his eyes still trained on the face of his invisible friend. I wondered at all these invisible poor that walk our streets as I rummaged in my bag, rain spilling into it. Those we can see, if only we would look, and their many unseen friends to ease the loneliness. We all needed someone to talk to. Someone to hear us, to notice us when we cry.

I stuffed the wad of bills into his hand, holding it still for a moment in mine. “You can buy yourself some hot coffee over there,” I said, nodding my head to the Mickey D’s behind me. “And some food for you and your friend. Get out of the rain for a while.”

I glanced back again just before entering the dry lobby of Otto Kihm. He was still standing there, in the rain, both arms raised to the wet heavens.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Rooting of a Family Tree

by Zinta Aistars

In honor of my father’s 81st birthday, July 15, 2008

It’s the predawn hour, when the air is cool and moist, the sky a deep bruise of blue. The very edge of the horizon is a thread of pale gray, the color of hope. I stand on the deck in back of the house in my bare feet, my summer robe in a slow flap against my knees. It is the caress of a morning breeze, bringing in the day. I breathe in the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee from just ground beans, holding the mug in the circle of both hands. It is the smell of hope. The edge of the day is the smell and color of hope.

And my son, a dark silhouette still, moving against the far fence at the end of the yard, is spilling cool hope on the thin sapling of a maple tree. I watch him and think of my father. The two of them, in two different places, space and time, watering thin saplings and seeing a dream of the future. This man I watch as a mother. That man I watched as a little girl, his daughter, learning from the care in his hands, the hope in his eyes, to believe in what we could not see or know.

How did my son learn the same moves? I see him pull the length of the garden hose behind him, hold his thumb over the end with just enough space to produce a fine spray, just as my father had done. The water caught splinters of gray light and spilled it into the soil surrounding the sapling. He set the hose on the ground and touched his hand to the skinny trunk of the new tree, lightly touched the leaves, letting them lie on his open hand, palm to palm. Such care. Where did he learn this? As if he, too, had watched my father when my father was a young man, his back still straight, his hair still black.

My hair tucked behind my ears, I lay on my tummy in the cool grass, peering over the edge of the hole into the belly of the earth. My father’s shovel had sliced into the earth as if it were cake. He set each slice of chocolate earth, iced with a layer of green grass, to one side of the hole, one layer upon the next, until they formed a fan around the edge of the opening. With his hands, he scooped a special soil, rich with nutrients, into the bottom of the opening. My chin rested on my hands, my nose just over the edge, drawing in the good, lush smell of the earth. I watched the moist squiggle of earth worms along the sides, stunned at sudden light. When it was time to plant the tree, my father let me help him lift the bundle of root into the waiting earth, and my heart shivered in a quiet joy. We pressed the earth down around the sapling, my father’s large, warm hands over my small ones.

My son circles the young tree and tips his head to one side, examining it from top to bottom. The thread of light at the horizon has widened to a belt of buttery gold, and it reflects in his face like the caress of another Father. Well done.

It had been years since I had thought of that long ago time, those sweet childhood years, when my father planted tree after tree after tree in our yard. Maples, birches, elms. Rows of fruit trees in pairs: plums, pears, cherries, rewarding us first with tender blossoms, later with sweet fruit. The tiny spruce he had planted to one side of the kitchen window had grown to over a hundred feet, then all come falling into the house in a recent storm. There were many storms. There are many more storms coming. The shifting and shuddering of a worn-out Mother Earth ache in my heart in a sorrow mixed with a loss of hope. How many more buttery dawns are left to our tired and bruised earth? But watching my son now, that tender care, those moves that echo the precise moves of his grandfather, helps me remember the shape of hope and take it back into my heart.
(Watercolor painting by Viestarts Aistars, "Solitude")

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Siblings Unrivaled

by Zinta Aistars

Paper thin chocolate wafers inside tiny square ivory envelopes, gold embossed, have been placed on our fluffed pillows. The covers on the two king-size beds have been turned back in precise diagonals, revealing the invitation of snow-white sheets. No doubt the thread count is high … Martha would approve. The northwest corner of our room is all glass, opening to a panorama from the 20th floor of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel of the Grand River far below. Eight lighted bridges cross the expanse of the river to the north from where we stand. The river walk below is a shimmer of bobbing golden lights, melting on dark water. We can just make out the horse and buggy crossing the closest bridge far beneath us.

There had been a moment that I had considered Motel 6: sufficient and efficient. Then it occurred to me: this visit deserves, surely needs, more. It had been quite some time since my sister had made the drive out from Chicago, and my new hometown—even while I still lay my head down to sleep in Kalamazoo, my life and work were increasingly unfolding an hour north, in Grand Rapids—beckoned to be explored. Or, perhaps the deeper truth here was that it was our sisterhood that deserved to be explored. I think we both felt it. A connection had been lost. If not lost, weakened by ever more diverting paths.

Blood bond, yes. But it seemed in recent years, we had somehow found less and less to talk about. Daina had eloped at the tender and impulsive age of 18, beaten all the odds to have a better than average marriage, now in its thirty-something year. Who’s counting anymore? I had, well, been there, done that, left that, done it again, left again, and spent much of my adulthood as a single parent and a stubbornly, teeth grittingly, independent woman. I learned to rely on no one. I sometimes wondered if I had lost the ability to commit. Or was it to connect. If I had on occasion dared again the effort, blue skies had opened to zap me with painful lightning of punishment for such risk. A cautiously reopened heart received in return the grinding down of a booted heel. It seemed best to stay my course staunchly alone.

Passing our half century threshold, my sister was planning a quiet retirement far north with her lifelong husband; I couldn’t remember why it was that we ever got married. Her three children were following traditional routes of college educations leading to solid careers; mine were into testing the limits, earning their degrees on their own terms, crashing through barriers, dabbling in a thousand dreams, loving and losing, not unlike their reckless mother. My sister lived in a gated golf community, where the square footage of houses rivaled football fields. I had lowered my eyes to the floor of a welfare agency, refusing to let my humiliated tears show, awaiting my food stamps. Her family had had their share of health woes, each receiving the best medical care. I had raised my kids as one of the country’s uninsured, learning what I could about natural remedies, or simply learning to ignore the occasional ache and pain. She had warm just-baked cookies on the kitchen counter when her babies rushed home from school. I ran from one job to the second, and the third, to make ends meet if I was lucky, unravel if I was not, calling home and wondering why my kids weren’t picking up the phone, oh where could they be?

Our differences didn’t stop there. My sister has one of the kindest, softest, most trusting hearts of anyone I’ve ever known. Mine, over the years, had grown cynical, battered and bruised by too many harsh blows and the hard knocks of unprotected living. In too many ways, I feared, it had begun to shut down. And I had begun to wonder … did we really have anything left to talk about? Were the colors of our lives from a different spectrum? Did we even speak the same language anymore? Was blood enough?

In the past year, at least this: my financial circumstances had at long last begun to match my experience. I had made a few leaps, a bound or two, even mastered the occasional mountain. My humble shack could still fit inside my sister’s house a dozen times and a time to spare. But then, I was considering renting an extra apartment in my new city to the north to ease the commute from place to sleep and place to work—a second residence would be a comfort and a gift to myself. My rambling children had grown into amazing adults never afraid to blaze new trails. And while my heart was still a battered mess, my life goals were finally taking on the faint, fleshy tint of reality rather than a wildly hopeless dream.

And my sister’s life was not without its own tests and obstacles. Perhaps our planets were not orbiting in separate universes any longer. With her announcement of a visit, I decided to greet her as she had so often greeted me—with a light padding of luxury. Perhaps even a sprinkling of decadence. And this time—on my tab. A room at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel it is. The lobby alone was a glimmer of gold. Fountains splashed cheerily under crystal chandeliers the size of a small car. Ballrooms opened to either side. Art galleries invited a leisurely view of local artists. Fine dining establishments infused the air with the delicate scents prepared for discerning palates.

Daina’s eyebrows arched in appreciation. “Mmm,” she hummed. “Nice.”

“Anything for my big seester,” I flushed with pleasure that comes from the ability to freely give. I was breaking in my AARP card for a discount on the rate. Some things take time to achieve. I had paid for my graying roots. Now they could pay for me.

Dinner at Louis Benton’s Steakhouse sported $55 steaks and black truffle infused mashed potatoes, lobster bisque, a platter of a buttery wild mushroom mix that had us both laughing as we dove in. There was no explaining it but odd genetics, and we wondered aloud if some DNA codes were shaped like ‘shrooms, because even when we had nothing else in common, we had our culinary tastes that mirrored exact preferred menus: a near obsession for mushrooms; a weakness for oysters, smoked, raw or fried; a moaning appreciation for shrimp. When I couldn’t afford such delicacies, Daina bought enough for both of us. Now, it was my turn. We clinked glasses of fine red wine. Even so, her filet mignon was medium rare, but my rib eye was medium well. I took a special pleasure in the obscenity of the food bill. It paid for years of baked beans and rice.

And still our lives were worlds apart. There was no reducing it to a dinner menu. After our dinner of decadence, we walked the city streets slowly, asking about each other’s families, work—mine writing for a large health care organization, hers helping her husband to run a new business. Our rosters of favorite books recently read had no matches. I hadn’t watched the movies she loved. She loved gardening in her wooded backyard while I wondered if I shouldn’t soon replace the rotting boards on my graying deck. I told her about my creative pride in a new summer issue of my literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, and she wasn’t sure how to bookmark a link. We worried together about our aging parents. Dad had an 81st birthday coming up. We were old enough to understand how birthdays had become something of a day to dread. Instead of a celebration, these were days of a sober reassessment: where have I been? Am I any closer to what I had hoped to achieve?

We sat at my favorite booth at my favorite pub in the old section of town, while my sister shrugged to admit she really had no favorite pubs in Chicago, didn’t really go to any. She had her regularly scheduled Friday night dates at fine dining establishments with her husband, ending in a cozy cuddle. My Friday nights were unpredictable. I couldn’t recall the last time I had been held. Just held. Close and warm to another beating heart that gave a damn.

Fed and floating, we trailed slowly back to the Amway Grand, our steps in time on the wooden walk along the Grand River. A series of small rapids spilled and sloshed below. We crossed a bridge, leaning over the railing to watch stars swim in reflection in the black water. Then leaned back to gaze at the glimmering skyline of Grand Rapids, guessing at which window on that high tower in silhouette might be our fairy tale room for the night. We weren’t so young anymore; we were ready to return to our room and take our shoes off, even if it wasn’t yet midnight.

Half a dozen bouncing boys in the elevator on our ride up, first fuzz of experimental beards bristling on their soft cheeks. They formed a half circle around the two of us as we stepped in, smiling widely at us, oozing friendly. The fresh face next to me knocked his head to one side and peered at me, then my sister.

“Care to join us? Party on the 27th. Killer view!”

“Thanks,” I smiled with a quick glance at him. “We’ll pass. But you boys have yourselves a grand old time.” I surmised my son had a year or two on him.

Another fresh face leaned into us as the elevator door opened on our floor. “You’re sisters, aren’t you?”

Daina laughed and hooked her arm through mine as we emerged on the 20th floor, ours. “For as long as I can remember,” she said.

Crawling into each our own king-size bed, both of us setting our paper-thin sliver of chocolate aside for morning coffee—mine with cream only, hers with sugar and half and half—she made a quick detour to come over and give me a goodnight hug before sleep. Just like when we were girls sharing a pink bedroom of adolescent fluff and ruffle. My sister held me. Close and warm to another beating heart that gave a damn.
(Artwork: Sisters by Mary Cassatt)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Declaring Independence

by Zinta Aistars

Sorting out files, cleaning closets, digging through moldy boxes in the crawlspace, I am in the process of purging the detritus of a life half a century lived. I do this partially in celebration of my daughter’s birthday, 28 years old on this July 5th, and from time to time throughout the day, my cell phone sings on the kitchen counter, bringing me to it in a run. I leave a trail of that detritus in my hurry to catch the call. Every day I miss her vibrant and bubbling presence, but most especially on this day. Whatever closet I’m in, whatever box I am digging through, in whatever room I am running the vacuum, I am thinking of her. Of her and that day 28 years ago. When she calls, in bits and pieces and random scenes, I replay that long ago, or not so long ago, day back to her … and she updates me on this day, today.

The normal scene would have been paaaar-teee! But that, she tells me, gets old. I know, I say quietly, nodding in memory of my own youthful parties, at least as many years ago as she is marking today. The ink on my college diploma was barely dry when she was born. Her existence was a stunning surprise. I had given no thought to children; the realization of my newly minted state of marital bliss was still a concept I was working to absorb. I went through stages of denial, anger, panic, and finally acceptance as my body underwent its dramatic metamorphosis. My body, yes, but my heart, too. Once I accepted that I was no longer alone, that some other life had taken over my own, an even more stunning, second realization was dawning on me. I was falling in love.

Perhaps , then, this was not the time to pursue the writing of that first novel. Preparation for motherhood was fast taking precedence. But I wrote a story, nonetheless, in my native tongue—Latvian—and titled it, “Sieviete gaida,” or, “Woman Waiting.” Twenty-eight years later, I still look at that story as one of my best literary efforts. It was published in a prestigious literary magazine in Latvia, “Karogs,” and later included in my collection of short stories, “Ievainots Zelts,” winning an award. All I had to do to be able to write something of lasting quality was to allow myself to be transformed. To shed the old and comfortably known and take on the new, uncomfortably unknown.

As now. I fill bag after bag with old manuscripts, receipts, owner’s manuals, letters. My files thin. My life grows a little lighter.

“I was thinking,” she says over the phone she holds to her as she walks some street in Chicago. I imagine the cityscape as I listen: the street noises give me clues. “I might check into a hotel downtown, the Drake maybe, overlooking Millennium Park, and pamper myself for the day.”

“I’ve done that sort of thing,” I offer. “Order yourself room service and put it on my tab.”

“Maybe a spa. A massage? A manicure.”

“That would be nice.” I draw a deep breath, closing my eyes in my kitchen to open them to the skyline of Chicago, two states away. I wish I were there, with her. I say so.

“I know, Mom. And now I regret turning you down. I had thought—"



“And now?”

“Now, no. I mean, I was out with my friends yesterday. We watched the fireworks from a rooftop. I figured the whole weekend that way. It was quite incredible…”

And I remember a rooftop in Kentucky. My mind’s eye blacks out Chicago and instantly transports me to the roof of our house in Kentucky, the glow of the Cincinnati skyline a distant, pale glowing arc to the north. Her father and I have climbed through our bedroom window onto the gentle slope of the roof, our babies in tow. My baby boy sits in my lap, wobbly head knocking back against my chest, mouth a round open oval, as he stares wide-eyed at the exploding sky of July 4th. Our little girl sits under the protective arm of her father, leaning into him, pointing at the shimmering and falling stars overhead. He tells her the city is celebrating her birthday, which will begin at midnight. So happy is the world that she was born on the 5th of July. She is nearly breathless in wonder, dazzled by the show of colored light, and by the importance of her birth.

“It’s still and always for you,” I say into my phone. “The fireworks.”

“Oh, Mom.”

“I mean it. For you and for me, too. This is my day, too, you know. I declared my independence on this day 28 years ago.”

“How so?”

“On this day, 28 years ago, I discovered my true love. You. And later, your brother. In giving birth, I finally understood that to love someone else more than myself, to know another life more important than my own, really was the only kind of independence we can ever know. To be free of the bonds of self. I was no longer the center of my own universe, and I had never known myself more free than I did at that moment.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“You will.”

My girl has grown up to earn two degrees in social work. Her life now centers on working with abused and neglected children, children who are homeless. She is beginning to understand, even as she loves many, yet has yet to find that one love that transports her beyond the constraints of self. I look forward to witnessing that discovery.

I return to my sorting and cleaning. I rip and shred, taking a certain pleasure in obliterating testimony to my own past. So many years have gone by. So many experiences transpired. Standing at this point in time, I realize there has been, certainly in the past some years, more pain than pleasure, but I know a measure of gratitude for my gift of a half century, nonetheless. Not for what it has given me, but for the moments I was allowed to give back to someone else. Those moments of blessed forgetfulness. To look upon another sun, free of my own reflection.

My daughter calls again. And again. The last call comes late in the evening, as she opted for a friend’s rooftop garden rather than the downtown hotel. Her friend is gone to visit family and offered a key. My girl sits alone somewhere in Chicago, watching a sky lit up with skyscrapers and fireworks—and the love of a mother two states away. My heart aches to be with her. But I am with her. I have been all day. I remind her to light a candle and make a wish, because we must never stop believing in the making of wishes, even if we lose faith in the wishes themselves. Her holiday weekend has been filled with the cheerful noise of friends, but for her birthday, this year, for the first time, she has chosen to be alone. With perhaps only a silver thread, a little like an umbilical cord, leading back to a second heart whose beat she once shared.

Happy birthday, baby. To both of us.