Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How the Skeletons Dance

by Zinta Aistars

She calls me Nisiņa (ni-si-nja). It is a Latvian perversion of the word “niece.” For some forty odd years, she didn’t call me anything at all. Nor I her. Yet now we find each other again, my favorite aunt and I, across time, across an expanse of miles (I live in the Midwest and she in Philadelphia), across what we are now finding is a battlefield of mess and memories stretching out across the decades between us. We stumble across one another on the Internet, and there is a quick exchange of links: our Facebook profiles, her favorite chess site where she plays the game long into the night, my online collection of photographs and poetry, a blog, a literary ezine. I view her posted photos of cakes she has baked—a white Easter bunny with ears dipped in cream cheese icing, a torte circled with blanched almonds and puckered raspberries sprinkled with chocolate shavings, a sheet cake made to look like the American flag with strawberries and blueberries in long, neat rows. It was baked not for Independence Day, but to mark the day she had become an American citizen, a young girl emigrated from Latvia during the war. She comments on my just posted album of images, a little house in the woods with a fireplace burning to comfort one, taken at a recent wilderness retreat.

Our e-mails race back and forth, near collapsing one over the other in a kind of frantic attempt to erase time and distance. I tell her that in a roomful of somber relatives, discussing art and cultural digressions and hopeless politics and theories of philosophy, circling on themselves like cats biting tails, she was the one dazzling ray of blonde sunshine. The young aunt who laughed a little too loud, a little too often. Louder than the rest of us dared. The aunt who let her fingers fly over the piano keys, chasing Ludwig. She married my uncle—my father’s second brother in a downward scale of age with my father at the summit—after two fiery dates. Their third date was their wedding day.

It wouldn’t last. I was just a little girl in beribboned braids, a bit confused about why my sunshine aunt was suddenly gone. The family was back to intellectual debates and marathon discussions on the newest developments in the world of art. My uncle was so sad. He would never marry again. She would marry again. I would marry, and again. Hers would last. Mine would not. Her blonde hair was gray. I was hiding mine. She had come to think of herself as the black sheep of the family. Now there are two of us, I reply.

And we are both writing our memoirs. We discuss the perils of going naked into the world. One has to wait for certain family members to die. Ah, the shame, the embarrassment, the unveiling of rattling skeletons. Could ruin a few marriages, estrange several children, undermine a career or three. I tell her I am calling my work-in-progress a pack of lies. Which, of course, it isn’t. One must protect the guilty, because they are still loved (and we are all guilty). But I may as well give this one fine gesture of undeserved kindness as I walk into that night. I can hear her laughter spread across her e-mailed reply. She’d considered a few gestures, not all of them kind. Most of those denuded secrets, after all, would be a blush on our own faces more than any other. Fools that we are. Ah, the mad and impulsive decisions of youth … we found we regretted none of them. Even those with the highest price. It was life, juicy life, lived crazily and fully, and regretting any of it would dishonor those who have the courage to dare.

One would think we were related. Can I still call her my aunt? Not by law. Perhaps a higher law. One of resonating memories, mirrored scar patterns, that her children with my uncle might in some wonderful, mystical way have a similar something about them with my children, none of them having ever met any of the others. It is the law of connection, gossamer threads that travel near invisibly between us all.

I laugh at her subject lines: “No, No, NO!!” Nisiņa, she laments, I cannot go on like this! Writing into the long hours of the night, too old to pull such all-nighters, but I’ve just read your story about your Tom the tomcat, and now I want to tell you about my favorite cat, called Ludwig, in honor of Beethoven, even though I stopped playing the piano several years ago. I cannot say why … nor why it will not wait until morning…

Every night now I check my e-mail one more time, just to find hers that sends me a little bučiņa, a little kiss, on the tip of my virtual nose. Sending auntie love across those hundreds of miles and many, too many hundreds of days. Sending bits and pieces of precious trivia that bond.

Both of us now gray and graying, time become an enemy, I begin to plan a road trip to Philadelphia. Perhaps in the autumn, when the Pennsylvania interstate that winds through endless forests will flame with color. She might bake a cake for me—with butter cream frosting. I would come with my stories of new art, somber, and she would make me laugh again. We would read our memoirs to each other and wonder at so many memories swirling in mist.

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