By Zinta Aistars
Astrid waved at me as soon as I walked into the door of Ann Arbor Art Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The place was hopping. A rainbow of humanity. I spotted my father seated to one side, watching the milling and bustling with wide eyes. It was as if the artwork had stepped out of the walls and turned into the living. Only some of the art represented what none of us would wish to see alive. Dark spirits, gray suffering, painted portraits of those who had endured the unendurable. The exhibit was titled, Displaced Spirit: A Visual Journey, and tonight was opening night.
I made my way around the gallery, stopping on the way to pick up a glass of Shiraz, a plate of strawberries and chocolate. My eyes were drawn as much to the milling crowd as to the varied pieces of art. This was a microcosm of the world, I thought, right here in one gallery. My father had two oil paintings on exhibit of Latvian women in folk costume. When I stood in front of one, my favorite, a woman with downcast eyes, holding a plain brown vase in her hands, another gallery patron stepped closer to me. I felt his eyes study me as much as the painting.
"You?" He squinted at me, then at the painting. "A resemblance…"
"I don't think so," I said, keeping my eyes on the woman and her vase. "Although, perhaps… " I let my gaze swing around the room again. "Something from all of us. A little of everyone."
He nodded thoughtfully, sipping his wine, and I moved on. The artists were almost all here, standing near their work. A table at the back of the room had books from every represented country: Sudan, Iraq, Latvia, Iran, Israel, South Africa… fourteen countries, places that had groaned and bled under the hands of the power-hungry. More land, more gold, more chest-thumping. No matter the cost.
When I turned back to my father, I saw another one of the artists had sat down next to him, and the two were deep in conversation. And there. In the two of them. The meaning of this entire exhibit. My father, an elderly European man, thinning gray hair and back hunched with lifelong pain, and the young, tall man from Sudan in his striped floor-length robes of gold, orange, and yellow. His bare brown feet showed beneath the hem of his robes. His shiny, black hair fell in long dreadlocks from underneath a striped cap, curtaining over his shoulders. He pointed to his work, a series of ceramic tiles, matching the golden hues of his robes, with delicate blues and browns painted across them. Blue villages melting in African sun.
"When he moved to Ann Arbor, he painted his house a bright yellow," Astrid came up beside me, following my gaze. "His neighbors didn't understand. In their brown and gray houses."
I turned my eyes to Astrid. We had met once before, when I brought my father's artwork to the Center two weeks prior. It was she that found us, program director seeking international work to represent those displaced by war and genocide, and sent me an e-mail inviting my father to submit his work and represent Latvia. We bonded quickly and easily, as she told us over lunch that day her own history—an Australian father, a refugee mother from Latvia who drowned when she was four years old.
"Look at you," I smiled at her. "Aren't you beautiful." I touched a fingertip to her heavy jewelry, created from ancient Latvian designs and patterns. Ropes of gleaming silver, butter-yellow beads of amber. And she was. Beautiful. A tiny young woman, her black hair draped over her shoulders, her round face and sparkling blue eyes all smiles, she emanated joy in life.
"Oh," she blushed. "Thank you. These, too, are my mother's." Then she placed an insistent hand on my arm and tugged lightly. "Come with me. I brought something to show you. And I want you to meet my fiancé."
"Lucky man," I smiled and winked at him, and he was, and his own smile showed his knowledge of it. A musician from Ann Arbor, he had courted the young woman from Australia on a trip, and she had moved across half the world to be with him. He watched her fondly as she held out a wooden box to me. It looked very much like a box my mother had. Polished oak with imbedded Latvian folk figures out of a darker wood. Inside were old photographs, mostly black and white, a few with color, now faded into off shades of pink and yellow. They reminded me of the photos my parents had saved, bringing them along through the various camps for "Displaced Persons" in Germany that took in the Balts—Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians—streaming out of the tiny countries being swallowed by the Soviets. The groupings of pretty women huddled together in the photos, arm in arm, smiling with youth and hopes for the future, never to be realized. Their lips were stained dark and pursed prettily. The tall young men in their loose trousers and shined shoes, looking a tad cocky and mischievous. Cheerful gatherings. Carefree socializing. The bliss of ignorance. War was but an impossible nightmare in the distance, the sort of horror that happens to others, always others.
Astrid set the box down and carefully unfolded a piece of paper that had been in among the photographs. It was a church program from her own christening. It was written in Latvian, and she did not know the language. This was a piece of that faraway world to which her mother had belonged, a remaining echo.
"Can you tell me what it says?"
I looked at the program, and I was transported back in time. My mother. My grandmothers. Myself, holding my babies close in my arms, rocking them gently, my face pressed against their pink, soft skulls and drawing in the irresistible fragrance of one's own child.
"These are lullabies, Astrid. This one, my own favorite."
Aija, zuzu, laca bernin … pekainami kajinami … tevs aizgaja medus podu, mate ogu vaceliti…
"The mother bear sings to her cub," I said. "She tells the cub that his father has gone to get a pot of sweet honey for him, and mama bear will bring home a pot of sweet berries, but he must sleep now, sleep and dream of the sweet to come…"
It is a lullaby that Latvian mothers have sung softly to their children for many centuries. Astrid's eyes grew moist. If perhaps she could not quite remember—she had been so little—then perhaps something in her spirit knew the echo, felt the words, and over the decades, a mother's love wrapped its warmth around her once more, half a world away and across time.
Humming ancient Latvian lullabies, I moved around the gallery again. An Iraqi artist, a small man with a cane and a back even more bent than my father's, grasped at my sleeve and pulled me toward the table of books. What did he want? He knew no English. I knew nothing of the Iraqi language. He showed me a book and pointed to the name on the cover: Iraq. He pointed to four paintings on the wall. They were his. We stood in front of the paintings, and he was eager to be understood, and I was eager to understand, and he spoke in his language, and I listened to its rhythm and its music, like the pulsing of a heartbeat, and nodded. From his eyes, from his bent back, from his cane, from the deep blue of his art, the mad swirls of color, the anguished and upturned faces, searching for hope, I understood.
There were paintings here of Native Americans, riding beautiful stallions across the wide expanse of once open land. There were broken ceramic pieces hanging from the ceiling by string, and more broken pieces mixed in with sand scattered across the floor. Each one had a person's name on it, nearly unpronounceable to me. Names I could not enunciate, lives in which I could never share, only stare for a moment at the order of letters that represent an identity, a person's name, a tolling of the lost, an entity of human hope for a future that would never arrive. Jagged, scattered pieces in drifting sand. A mosaic of porcelain pieces was arranged to form a tiny yellow songbird, soaring toward a distant sun. Another painting showed a corner of a playing card: the Queen of Hearts. Her face was frozen without expression. Her eyes were black points.
They came, people off the bustling, Friday night Ann Arbor streets, and I wondered what part of their evening this might be. An after dinner treat. A stop before the theatre. A random wandering. They were young, they were old, they were middle-aged, and a few of them were children. They were all colors. They were elegant and bejeweled. They were young students from the university nearby. They were alone, or they came in couples, holding hands, or in chattering groups. They spoke a variety of languages. Some translated one for the other. Some spoke not at all. For a moment, they looked deep into the world of the Other, their faces drawn close to the images on the wall, as if to lean in would bring them closer in understanding. It was a desire to see. And that was everything.
I could see the fatigue drawing gray shadows into the lines of my father's face. I took him by the arm, and my mother came up beside me, and the Latvian minister, Biruta, who was kind enough to drive them here so that my father would not have to drive in the dark. We found our way to an Irish pub, hoping for a warm and simple dinner, but the place was so packed with bodies and noise, that I saw the immediate horror in my father's face, and we kept moving down Main Street, looking for a place of simplicity and quiet. Ah, yes. He likes gyros, I thought, spotting the Grecian diner. We sat eating, talking about the turquoise beauty of Greece, the waitress shouting out opa! as she set flame to the cheese and doused it again with lemon juice.
"This I have never had," Biruta smacked her lips, smearing the melted cheese on a thick slice of fresh bread. "It is wonderful, to taste like this … other worlds."