Sunday, September 21, 2008

Displaced Spirits

by Zinta Aistars

Leaning back in the white plastic lawn chair, I think: so this is what it is like to feel the years piling on. I have been sitting in this chair, tucked away in a shaded corner of my parents’ back yard, for quite some time now … doing nothing but thinking. Thinking. Reflecting. Remembering. Wading into pools of cool nostalgia. You know, like old people do.

My open book balanced on my knee, my eyes had instead wandered to the yard itself, scanning its width and breadth, and as if one transparent film overlaying another and another, I saw the various decades of my life simultaneously. Childhood streaming into middle age streaming into youth streaming into childhood again. The back yard was crowded with ghosts, some of them my own selves from a previous time. And I could well recall—because even now, she is a ghost in this yard, I can see her clearly—my grandmother sitting here and staring into space, hours on end, lost in thought. The child me would peer at her from time to time during my play and wonder, how could it be that a person could sit still for so long? Not even reach up to scratch her nose? What could a body be thinking and thinking and thinking like that and not jump up screeching with boredom after five such unbearable minutes? No, three. Three minutes was surely the outer limits of endurance. To the child me, sitting like that in one place, unmoving, just thinking, seemed the sign of an old person if not of senility. Life was movement.

Now, I sit. Far, far longer than three minutes. Yet I am not even conscious of time, because time has lost its boundaries. The ages have collapsed in upon themselves. The days past overlap with days present and seep into the future. And I sit mesmerized.

My mother is inside the house cooking dinner. My father, no doubt, is padding past her, this way and that, in his stocking feet, in tiny scooching steps, his stooped back never quite alleviating the ever-present pain. They are old. Let’s face it. My mother and my father are old. And I am getting older.

The three of us have spent the day together. I was up early on this Saturday morning, drove here to their house, once upon a time also mine, to gather the two of them up and head east across the state, from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor. My father gladly handed me his car keys. With relief, in fact. The more I can do for him, the more relieved he is, and he settled back into the passenger seat with a sigh, Mom in the back, as we drove cross-state down I-94 to deliver two of his paintings to the Ann Arbor Art Center for an upcoming art show next month. A panel of jurors had selected two of his paintings, both of Latvian women in folk costume, as part of an exhibit titled, “Displaced Spirit: A Visual Journey.” The exhibit is a collection of art that expresses the survival and longing of the spirit displaced from its home by war and genocide. That definition included my father. It also included artists from a too long list of many other countries and many other wars.

As we neared the needed exit, I coached my father. I would not be with them when they would next make this drive, although my father had already arranged for another driver for the evening of the artists’ reception. He was deathly afraid of driving after dusk. His night vision was poor; the approaching headlights dizzied him, disoriented him, until he was confused about what was road and what was ditch. He was also afraid of all things new and unknown.

See, I point out to him. The sign says Exit 172, Ann Arbor. Did one of you want to write this down? You will be taking this exit.

My father tries to turn in his seat back toward my mother. “Veltin?” He begins, but she is already digging in her purse for pad and pen. After nearly 60 years together, they do not require full sentences to communicate. My father grimaces at the pain from the motion, his back spasms, and he turns back in his seat to try to memorize the road.

I point out landmarks. I read the names of roads in Latvian phonetics, rather than English, making the names sound ridiculous, making him laugh. My thought is that this will help him remember. It is really very easy, I keep reassuring him. See, Tita, we don’t have to turn anywhere. All the way like this into town. No turns. Only here, by the overpass—I point my finger up to the heavens as we dip down beneath an ugly, rusty overpass that throws a momentary shadow across our laps—do we make a right turn onto First Street. Yes? My father nods eagerly, peering at the sign, peering at the surroundings. First Street, I repeat. The first street as you approach town. Very easy. Two blocks, two lights, and here you are, home free: Liberty Street. He nods. One block up and he cries out with relief and glee as the multicolored sign is already apparent: Ann Arbor Art Center. Do you see how easy that was? I say again, but this time it is I seeking reassurance. I know how he worries. I know how his mind spirals into fear of the unknown, new roads to places he does not know, the sense of getting lost in a vortex where no one will ever find him again. This, yes, from a man who has traveled much of the globe, has changed countries, languages, cultures, jobs, served in the military, earned a degree in a language he had hardly yet grasped. Perhaps that is why the unknown so frightens him now, in his 80s. We all long for home and a sense of roots, firmly enmeshed in the earth beneath us.

I carry the paintings in, even though he protests and tries to take them away from me. I know, it hurts his pride. A father wants to do for his baby girl, not let her do for him. With the expression of relief are also the lines of worry that he has given up a role in my life he had cherished, even as he cherishes me. But I cherish him, too, and so I look away so I will not see his face. His tiny, halting steps scitter by me as I carry the paintings, and he holds the door open for me—at least this. I don’t want him to run, I hate it when he runs, because I know the next expression on his face will be one of excruciating pain. He is scheduled for yet another procedure next month on his back. Something about singeing nerve endings to prevent the pain signals from reaching his brain. After four back surgeries, steel bolts, fused vertebrae, shaved bones, unpinched nerves, cortisone shots, acupuncture, massages, water therapy, surely nothing more can be done. I imagine the pain is by now so singed into his brain that nerve endings are but a distant echo. He knows nothing else.

Paintings delivered, the program director, Astrid, accompanies us to lunch. We had thought about merely crossing the street to a pub called Old Town, an easy distance, but the pub is closed until the dinner hour. We have to walk one block farther. Astrid picks a place called Grizzly Peak, and she chatters prettily in her Australian accent—she has moved to Michigan for love, a wedding date set in January—as we work to keep up. She is young. She turns from time to time for my father to catch up, and I walk beside her, in conversation, then walk back to walk beside my father, then catch up again. Midway, pausing under Sweetwater Coffee Shop’s brick wall, I turn my back to the wall and face my father. He has stopped. He stands hunched in the middle of the sidewalk, people streaming by him to both sides as if he were a rock in a stream, and holds one hand to his lower back. My mother stands just ahead of him, looking at him, looking at the people streaming by him, looking slightly embarrassed. Astrid waits. My father starts to walk again, in slow, slow, halting steps. Two blocks are two miles to him. Twenty. Endless.

But for a moment I see the child in him, that happy, when the waitress places a personal pizza in front of him. Tomatoes, sausage, layers of stretchy cheese, and he is in bliss. Astrid tells us about her childhood as we eat, and it is because of her own roots that she found us—searching for Latvian artists in Michigan on the Internet and finding her way to my father’s artwork, where I have posted a page for him on MySpace. Her mother was a Latvian woman that had immigrated to Australia from refugee camps in Europe during World War II. She had married an Australian man, Astrid’s father, but had raised her daughter to know her native language and culture. Tragically, she drowned when Astrid was but a small child, and the language went with her. And still, we carry the roots of our parents, present inside us if not beside us. Astrid wanted a Latvian artist to express something of this ancient, war-torn culture in the art exhibit of Displaced Spirit. All things come together at some point. The legacy of finding love in different continents has continued, and now she is creating a new home for herself in the small town of Ann Arbor halfway across the globe from her childhood home.

My parents comment on her jewelry. Latvian pieces, all of them, silver rings with golden and blood red amber pieces. Her mother’s, she says, and her voice is soft. One of the rings reminds me of a silver sun with an amber center that my grandmother wore. It is now in my jewelry box.

I hear my mother calling me for dinner. I sit for a moment longer in the back yard. I recall when I was a little girl, the house just built, and the yard was nothing but dried mud scarred with the deep grooves of bulldozer tracks. Today it is carpeted with emerald green grass, lush from recent rains. I remember planting trees in this yard with my father. Fruit trees, little maples, tiny birches, and willow twigs that curved in my hands like whips. He taught me how to plant a tree, how to care for it, how to help it grow.

Only one fruit tree remains. The pear tree is hardly bigger now, some thirty-five years later, but it is heavy with green pears. The maple, which grew to over a hundred feet, is gone, its roots prying too insistently at the basement of the house. The great evergreen toppled in a recent storm, crashing into the eaves.

The yard seems empty to me now. Just a few trees along the borders, a random flower bed here and there. A few rose bushes.

I remember dancing back here as a child, dancing between the trees, for sheer joy of young life. I remember celebrating my engagement in this back yard, family gathered and holding up champagne glasses to me and to my husband-to-be, the father of my children. He is married to his third wife now. I remember my grandmother sitting in the grass with my children as they scampered around the yard, giggling and splashing in the tiny pool we’d set up for them. I remember the green swing set with the Chiquita banana oval stickers I collected and pasted along its every surface. We ate a lot of bananas. I remember the laundry line where my mother hung out the wash, the clean white sheets slapping damply in the summer breeze. I remember the four brothers gathered here with my grandfather when my grandmother died, my father the eldest. My grandfather’s white hair shown like a halo in the sun. He never let us see him cry. His back was always straight as a board, and he died just a few months short of his hundredth birthday, talking to my grandmother in whispers as he passed.

For a moment in time, it seemed all time opened its doors to the same space, and they were all here. All of them. My grandparents, my parents, young and strong, my own loves, my little ones, myself in a thousand different, fleeting moments. Always here and gone forever.

My mother calls me for dinner again. Zin-eet! She calls my childhood nickname. I rise slowly from the white chair and make my way through the crowd back to the house.

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