Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Mother, My Self, My Imperfect Superhero

by Zinta Aistars

Mama does not wear a superhero’s cape. Children often look up to their parents as superheroes, capable of all, certainly of protecting them from all harm. I don’t ever remember looking up at Mama that way. By age eight, the world had tossed me between the grindstones, and Mama didn’t know. I didn’t tell her. Instinctively I knew: Mama would not defend me. She trusted in authority figures, an immigrant woman in a strange land, uncomfortable with the English language, and a declaration from her little girl that her need to reconstruct a world that makes sense made no sense from where I stood—would not go over well. I never told.

Now that she is in her 80s, I know I never will. She has never quite understood my distrust and deep cynicism about authority figures. Strangers are not always ugly men in vans, holding out candy to lure you in. Sometimes they are the very people to whom you hand over your child, requesting help and trusting they will provide it. But our mother-daughter relationship has always had an undertone of that which is withheld. On some childish level, looking back now, I realize I may have held her in some part responsible. I wanted, so very much, for my mother to be a superhero. With X-ray vision and powers of omniscience.

When I arrive at her house early on a Saturday morning, she throws the door open with welcome, her face wreathed with what I would almost call a rapturous joy. My father is just behind her, and they greet me as if I bring all good to their doorstep. I have been observing this for some time now … that as my parents age, our bond has grown in importance to them. As if I were some lifeline, and as they drift further and further away from this earthly life, pondering the other, the unknown, still to come, I bring not only comfort and pleasure with my visits, but even joy. It is as if I bring the sun with me. Their faces shine.

I have come to exchange vehicles with them, taking my father’s van so that I can go back downtown into Kalamazoo and take down the art exhibit of his paintings and drawings that I put up two months ago at Waterstreet Coffee Joint. This time, he can’t come along. With his chronic back pain, undeterred by five surgeries, his spine now crumbling with age, he has had yet another treatment for the pain. He cannot drive or lift or move about more than a few steps today. He nearly stumbles into my arms this morning and hugs me, saying into my ear, thank you, Zinti, thank you, what would I do without you, you always help me … and I realize he is weeping. When did I become my father’s superhero?

Mama bustles to come along. Her cheeks are flushed. I help her with her coat, she clutches her bag, and we are soon on our way.

I listen to her chatter as we head downtown. Most of it is a recounting of various health ailments, all of which I have heard a thousand times before. I occasionally say in my most gentle tone, “Mama, you already told me that story,” and she gasps and apologizes, starts on another, then later resumes the same one again. I try to listen. I try to understand what it means to be looking back at life from where she stands. I try to imagine how I might sound to my own daughter, with my own litany of whines about the various injustices of life. I know I have not always been kind to my mother. I have not always been patient.

She scurries around the coffee shop as I clip the fish line holding up Dad’s paintings. It is still early, only an occasional customer wanders in for his first cup of coffee, still bleary-eyed. I stack the paintings; Mama picks at the sticky goop left on the walls that held the bottom corners of the art pieces in place. She holds the door open for me when I carry the paintings out to the van.

“Didn’t take long, did it?” she says when I close the back door on the van.

“Always easier to tear something down than it is to build it up again.”

My words hang in the air, and we gaze at each other for a moment. Saturday morning blooms around us in full sunlight now, bright and blue.

“Would you like to go have breakfast?” I ask. “My treat.”

Her face crinkles into a smile, and she nods as eagerly as a child. Once again, I have that sense of the full circle, of changing positions, of what comes around goes around, and maybe even … second chances.

She asks me to order for her at The Blue Dolphin. She trusts me, she says. I know her penchant for all things sweet, and there are crepes on the menu, fresh berries and syrup and whipped cream. Her doctor has recently warned her that her blood sugar has crept dangerously high, to pre-diabetic numbers. I order scrambled eggs for her with dry toast, but share the Greek sausage I have on my plate with her when it arrives. She tastes it with little puckered smacks of her lips.

We sit for a long time. I finish my breakfast, she carefully divides hers in halves and asks the waitress for a box, so that she can bring the other half to my father. Her husband. She calls him after she carefully dishes half her breakfast into the Styrofoam box. Don’t worry. We are having breakfast. Are you okay?

I watch her talk into the cell phone I gave her, explaining how to use it. Take it with you, Mama, I said, and if you ever need help, here, my number, in the directory … But she never uses the directory. She always presses in the number, digit by digit, her lips moving to say the numbers as she enters them.

“I love this,” she smiles, clapping the phone shut. “It makes me feel safe.”

I nod, smiling. “That’s why I got it for you.”

Her hip is bothering her again, but the day is so bright, so wide open, pathway clear ahead of us, that I invite her to walk through town a bit with me. We walk slowly, and she hangs onto my elbow for support, saying over and over again how it eases her, and oh this bad hip, sighing heavily. But we walk the entire mall. Slowly. Peering in windows, many of the stores not yet open. A few have closed permanently, hit by the economy, and we tsk and sigh together. She stops at one of the windows and gazes at her own image, touching her hair.

“You look nice today, Mama.”

She squeezes my elbow and we walk on in careful steps. I remember how she shushed someone once when I was a girl, someone who said I was pretty. Don’t tell her that, Mama said. She’ll get a swollen head. I had liked hearing that I was pretty, and felt immediately ashamed when I heard her turn away the kind words. I didn’t ever want my head to swell.

A long time ago, at least it felt like it was a very long time ago, I left Kalamazoo because I longed to be free. Of so many things. Of so many people, places, memories. I longed for a life I could call my own. And I swore I would never come back. Authority figures that held no authority, only power and control. Heartaches and heart breaks, and horizons that always seemed to creep too close. Yes, I wanted escape from Mama, too. Manipulations and maneuvers when she thought she understood how I should live my life better than I.

They say we see our parents as wiser when we grow older. That they really knew more all along than we thought they did. That did not happen for me. Mama didn’t know better. Her advice was not always the best. Her manipulations too often led to disaster, for both of us. But, with time and the wisdom it gives, I did come to understand that at the base of her actions, even when they veered off cliffs, was a mother’s love. She wanted me to be okay. She wanted me to be safe. She longed, even now longs for me to find someone to be good to me, to watch out for me and protect me, to love me long after she is gone, so that she might truly rest in peace.

She clutches at my arm as we return to the van, ready now to go home and bring my father his half of her breakfast. I hold the van door open for her.

“You know, your father and I, we pray for you every night,” she suddenly says, seated in the van.

“I know, Mama.”

“Every night.” Her eyes flush with tears.

Suddenly, so do mine. “I know.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

House Repair for the Heart

by Zinta Aistars

If home is where the heart is, mine has been absent. Something like 14 years in this house, and I have yet to truly embrace it as Home. From the moment I moved in all those years ago, I’d always had the thought in the back of my mind that this was a temporary stop along the way to … what came next. After all, prior to moving into this house, I changed addresses once a year, renting this place and that, never bothering to unpack the few boxes. With dual citizenship for two countries, I kept one foot firmly planted in each of two continents, Europe and the United States, and put down roots nowhere.

When this slamming about became too split-hearted for sanity, I did what a good mother would for her dazed children: I bought a house. For them. Good schools within walking distance, businesses and establishments they could reach for their various needs or first employment while their single mom was working two jobs. The house in its suburban neighborhood, just southwest of Kalamazoo, Michigan, seemed the sort of place one would have for kids. Fenced yard, reasonably quiet residential street, each their own bedroom upstairs, garage for one car. It would do.

For them.

So now they are grown. My daughter lives in an enchanting studio in Chicago, a block away from the Lake. My son is months away from his college degree and might be just ripe for a cheap foreclosed home of his own. There for the picking. The market is ideal for first-time buyers.

And me? Where did the years go? Ah yes, in the living. The rough tumble of a life that distracted me from, more than focused me on, a sound future. By now, I should have been in a far better place … but life wanted to chew me up a bit before spitting me out. I lost momentum. And if there is truth in the theory that a house is a reflection of the psyche that inhabits it, I stand outside on my back deck this morning, broom in hand, and look back at it—my house, so badly in need of repair. The patched roof needs to be replaced. New siding, painting inside and out, new windows, replace the carpeting and chipped tile with hardwood floors, and oh, how I long to toss the furniture! This deck on which I stand could truly be a pleasure. I have enjoyed many an evening here, sitting alone and watching the early morning blossom or the late evening wane. But the wood is old and weathered gray.

Well, I think, leaning on my broom: if this is my psyche, it needs some serious spring cleaning and spiffing up. I declare the roughest years behind me. The days when I could only count pennies to raise my kids are over; life is much more comfortable now, and I can see the brand spanking new air conditioning unit on the side of the house to prove it, connecting to a new furnace beneath the house. My first major investment in …

A slight shiver of pain sears through me. The pain of difficult years has held me back long enough. The wounds, I’ve come to understand, will heal, although the scars will remain. I’m working hard now to not just whitewash the ugly places, but tear away the ruin and replace it with stronger, better material.

My first major investment in … me. For 14 years, I’ve held myself back from this house, considering it but temporary shelter. A place to put my stuff before moving on. Dare I admit I still haven’t unpacked some of the boxes? If a horrible housing market has forced me to realize I won’t be able to sell this handyperson’s special anytime soon, it might be time to start thinking of this place as, gulp, Home. More than just shelter. A place to call my oasis, safe harbor in the storm.

I lean against the deck railing and squint my eyes and look at the place again, only my eyes see into the future. Modest house, yes, but I’ve never wanted the big and brash. Life has had enough complications; I want it to be clean and simple. I tick off my wish list in my mind and in order of priorities. This could be fun. A gift to myself, of my self, at long last home and whole. I sweep the debris accumulated on the deck from a long winter with new energy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

When I Stop the Dancing

by Zinta Aistars

What does one do with the quiet?

When all has been ruckus and turmoil and upheaval and rush rush and this way and that way and one long, seemingly endless roller-coaster ride? The annual report has been written, even the first onslaught of edits completed. The new furnace has been negotiated and installed, purring warmly now. Brand spanking new AC unit huddles now against the house, smug with waiting power to chill; I no longer fear the summer. The spring issue of The Smoking Poet has been launched, hundreds of submissions read, examined, pondered, processed, replied to, yay or nay, giving others future hope, the template lovingly patched together, the interviews completed and posted, the Good Cause chosen and added, the promotions distributed. Meetings have been attended, eyes with great determination kept open. Concerts heard, the bliss of vibrating strings, the low resonance of a double bass, sending shivers and making fine hairs stand on end. Oh. Dinners, wonderfully enjoyed. Friends’ faces adored. Blessings counted, without end. Calls made, plans made, wish lists written and rewritten. Post-its posted, in rows, one atop the other, yet another, a covering of golden shingles across all bare surfaces, do not forget, never forget, do not lose track of the yellow brick road to Oz. Books read, highlighted and underlined, and reviewed, for better or for worse. Family attended to, ailing health of loved ones’ monitored and bettered, pampering administered, there-there’s issued. Hugs, to whomever asks sincerely. Kisses, as yet withheld. New parameters drawn, fence lines calculated and measured, gate opened and shut. And shut again. Dishes washed and put away, laundry pre-soaked, stain-treated, washed, dried, folded, stashed away. Errands run, a scramble of chutes and ladders, pouring into and out of traffic, rat racing and twirling, back and forward again. Mail sorted and piled up again, bills paid and stashed away. Sinks scrubbed, trash expelled, meals prepared, rugs beaten to near death. This dancing, this dancing, this mad dancing, this madness of dancing, this dancing of madness.

And then a long walk. A stray Sunday. Unspoken for and unpromised to any other.

Down the winding path. Chowpup on leash, pulling me along when at moments I forget the routine: one foot in front of the other. What is this silence of the woods? This soft air? This warm glance of sun across my cheek?

The ground is damp with leaf cover from last fall, Portage Creek churns and bubbles with anticipation, and I sit on the bench to watch and listen. Dog at my feet. To this bubbling silence. Thinking of northern places and so many other roads not taken. Where might I be. If. When. Maybe. Might have been.

What is this odd weeping, wet on my face, brought into sun? So. It takes time. And silence. And an empty space within the rush of days. Old grief to release. An ancient wailing. A howling at the moon of many moons ago, withheld. Submerged. Left under the cover of now melting snow.

I consider this: in part, the rush, it is a mask one wears. A place of hiding, within all that turmoil of busy busy. Here, by the creek, in a splatter of rising crystal bubblings, is some old truth.

Today, I take the time.