Arm in Arm
by Zinta Aistars
She drops a hint that she would love to come along, and I decide to pick it up. I had told Mom when I first started this home renovation project at the beginning of December 2009 that I was going on this shopping spree alone. I wasn’t sure if she could truly understand my need to make my choices in home décor without influence. Mom, after all, was heading into her 60th year of marriage to my father; the two of them were in many ways one person. That happens when you survive a war and become refugees together, when you restart life in a new and strange country without even knowing the language. You bond. The two of them, truly for better or for worse, were bonded on a deeper level than most any couple I’d ever known, an interdependence that went to the core. They were one.
I was one alone. My life couldn’t have been more different than theirs. My bonds with another were of the passing sort, even when a certain measure of influence would remain with me forever. Some of my past loves had changed me at core level, and for the better. The father of my children had given me my children—that was forever, and I could not imagine my life without my daughter and son, and exactly the way that they are, with that specific genetic mix. My other great love, my soul mate in Latvia, was my husband for seven years, but I could not straddle two continents forever, moving back and forth from the United States to Latvia and back again, each time restarting my life from scratch. It was insane, if often wonderful. The way it rattled my children’s lives, however, as they grew into adolescence, was an insanity I could not bear. I had to make one of the most difficult and painful choices of my life—between my two great loves, my marriage and my children. I chose my children. I chose to stay in the United States.
Home, as I have written many times before, evaded me. My roots would be in my little family, my two babies, but in no specific place. I rooted in them and counted all my apartments and houses lived in as temporary shelter, not anything akin to Home.
I have crossed the threshold of 50 by a couple of years now, and so far, this decade is promising to be life changing and good. It holds no resemblance to my previous life, and by now, I no longer want it to. People who have known me for but a couple of years, well, know the smallest fraction of who I am and once was… and I increasingly find that a comfort. Some things should be left behind and doors firmly closed. At this point in my life, I want but a quiet place. After all the great adventure, the turmoil, the intense joys and harsh payment for them, I wish now only for a sweet serenity.
So, when it came to choosing colors for my newly renovated living and dining rooms, I chose a palette called Earthen Serenity. It fit. I had waited long enough to create a Home, and even knowing this would not be my last, this time—did not, would no longer, prevent me from giving this humble house my own color, my mark.
I wasn’t sure if Mom understood all that. For near 60 years, she had lived with Dad closely by her side, in all ways, in all things. They thought as one, they decided as one, they lived as one. “Displaced persons” that they were, they had found stability, rooted in each other, and took root, too, in a new house they had built together when I was in the second grade. They were still in that same house now. I had, meanwhile, gone through more than 30 different addresses and jumped the ocean more times than I could count.
I wanted to be Home. At last, I wanted to put down some roots, too. When I looked around at my house in transition, I saw the influences of many others who had passed through my life. The furniture in it now, for the most part, was actually cast offs from my parents. It had made sense for them to give to me what they were done with, Mom enjoying regular redecorations of their house, but with plenty of living yet to be done on her old furniture, and since I never seemed to stay in one place very long, why buy new? Indeed. I hadn’t. Nor could I afford to buy new. Raising my two children, paychecks went where a parent’s paychecks should, and none of that was as frivolous as decorating a temporary shelter.
I wanted to be frivolous now. I needed to, for the first time ever, pay attention to myself, my own wishes, my own likes and dislikes, my own yearnings and longings, my own way of being and my own way of expressing who I was, past, present, future. And I needed an oasis of peace after a life that, up until the last couple years or so, had been anything but. I deserved this.
It was hard for Mom to be quiet about her likes and dislikes. We had bumped heads, and hard, many times over the years because we could both be pretty stubborn in having things our own way. In the cause of “wanting the best for me,” Mom had sometimes made choices for me, tried to throw sticks into the stream, maneuver and navigate where it was not for her to do so. And I resented it. I fought back, and it wasn’t always pretty. Some of my more distant addresses were, at least in part, because I needed that distance. But if this new place in my life was all about serenity, making peace with Mom would have to be, I realized, a part of that transformation.
“Sure,” I said. “I would love to have your company on this spree. But, Mom, promise me something.”
She looked at me quizzically, but knew me well enough to quickly guess.
“Keep my mouth shut.”
I laughed. “Yeah. Please.”
She made a face, then laughed with me, and promised to be good.
The old furniture was hers. The dining room table was from my first marriage, once a beautiful fruitwood table with two leafs that had gotten lost some 15 moves ago, a surface that was showing the battering of years. I had three chairs left of eight. The buffet had been left behind when I lived in the Keweenaw, simply because I could not afford to move it. The carpeting in the living room was an accommodation to a more recent relationship, where I had tried much too hard to please a man that would not be pleased, not by me, not by anyone, not by anything. It took a long time for me to learn that, and to let go. But the carpeting in his favorite color remained. Other remnants of my past, and those who had been in my past, were scattered throughout the house. I could look around and spot the imprint of every man I’d ever known on a more intimate level. I could see the various ravages of raising two children alone, rough and demanding years, and some of those memories, too, were nearly unbearable now to recall. There was a time when I thought I would lose my son forever to the dark places where he insisted on going, and now that he was a grown man, much wiser, reclaiming his good heart, I wanted no souvenir.
Nearly all the walls were painted in what I was calling Phase I of my home renovation, this transformation of house into Home. The bedrooms upstairs would have to wait for Phase II, the lower level would be fine until Phase III. My main living space, however—living room, dining room, stairwell to the bedrooms, and the kitchen—were nearly done. One more day, promised my good handyman, David, with the help of his son, Luke. Maybe two. But the living and dining areas were complete and now ready for new furnishings.
Saturday morning of a holiday weekend, near perfect in symbolism as the beginning of a new year, Mom and Dad showed up at my door. Dad would go back home to spend his day painting, a love that had never waned for him. He had another art show coming up in less than a week; there was still work to be done. Mom stayed with me for the day.
I had it all planned. We would visit several furniture stores throughout Kalamazoo. I wasn’t coming home until I had chosen what I wanted. Pieces that would reflect no one else but me. Not chosen for the comfort and liking of the man in my life. Not chosen for the practicality of growing children. Not chosen to suit Mom. For me.
Mom was near jumping with glee. Oh, how she loved such shopping! She prided herself on her fine eye for color, shape, texture, design, no doubt in great part due to living those near 60 years side-by-side with a fine artist. I knew well how hard it was for her to bite her tongue when I pondered this couch or that, this table or that, one color over another. Bless her heart, she stayed quiet. Only when I had clearly made my decision did she make a little hop from one foot to the other with sheer happiness. It turned out my taste, oh dear, was not so very dissimilar to hers. And when she pressed her lips together extra tight and looked a little to one side, pulling her shoulders up like a little turtle, I knew I had chosen something she didn’t particularly like. And that was fine, too.
“You deserve this,” she said, as we waited for the salesman, looking near faint with joy at the huge sale he had made, only two weeks on the job, to calculate the final numbers. I had purchased a sectional sofa, a marble top coffee table with matching end table, and a dining room table, also with marble tiles set off by wood, and four leather chairs with wood trim. “But I don’t think I have ever seen such a table. At such a height.”
“Bar height,” I said, signing the paperwork the salesman pushed toward me with trembling hand. Mine was steady as a rock. “Think how easy it will be for Dad to sit down on this with his bad back. Right up there at his bottom.”
“So you were still thinking about others in your choices,” Mom couldn’t resist. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed.
“Only a little,” I grinned. “And I look forward to having you two over for dinner when all is said and done.”
Her smile widened. I’m not sure when I had last seen her so happy. We had spent the entire day together with not one bump in the road, not one moment of friction. I realized, in her 80 plus years, how much my mother had grown. And, hmm, I guess, so had I. We were getting along beautifully, having learned how to get along without stepping on each other’s toes, respecting each other’s style without inflicting our own.
Purchases made, we enjoyed a mid-afternoon lunch together at a Chinese restaurant. Mom’s treat. I plopped down next to her in the booth for a moment and held up my cell phone to snap a photograph and capture the moment.
“We two,” I said, sending the photo over to her cell phone so she could keep it to remind her of our day of shopping together.
She smiled at the tiny photo that popped up on her phone and then smiled at me. “I love the choices you made.”
I raised an eyebrow. Now, there’s something I hadn't heard very often from my mama over my messy life.
I nodded. “Thank you. And thank you for keeping the happy hops down to the minimum while I was making them.”
“You could tell, couldn’t you?”
“Which pieces you liked?” I chortled. “Yeah. I guess maybe our tastes aren’t so very different, after all, eh?”
The day was still too blue-skied and snowy beautiful to end when we emerged from the restaurant. There was a movie I really wanted to see … Avatar, in 3-D. It was supposed to be pretty incredible, a visual treat.
“Shall we go to the movies to finish off our day? My treat.”
“Yes! Oh. Wait. Let me call Dad, see if he’s okay … Oh, don’t roll your eyes. You know, honey, it’s not such a very awful thing to actually have someone waiting for you at home … “
“Mom.” I used my warning tone.
She closed one eye, pressed her lips tight. She made a motion of zipping her mouth shut. I could hear Dad sigh over her phone; a day apart was wearing on him. He missed her. He would be waiting for her, he said, and she listed a laundry list of what he should do while she was gone. Like, feed himself.
Then we were off to the movies, nearly three hours of a most astounding visual treat, the two of us wearing our big black 3-D glasses and leaning into each other through the entire show.
Dad snuggled up to Mom when I finally brought her back home after our day together.