|Katolu Iela in Ventspils|
I am eager to get on our way. I am eager to see all those beloved faces, those faces I haven't looked upon in nearly 17 years ...
It isn't long before we are out of Riga city limits. The first stretch of highway is modern and comfortable to travel, but soon the road narrows to two-way traffic and stretches through country. The population of Latvia numbers around 2 million, one million of which is in Riga. Driving through country west toward the Baltic Sea, the landscape is dotted with a few houses, mostly old ones, and an occasional village or town. Mostly, it's green and open land. When we drive through forest, I recall what my mother told me as a child: nowhere are forests more beautiful than in Latvia. We all think of our childhood homes as the best and most beautiful.... but Mama was right. I have rarely come across such clean forest in the States. With little to no undergrowth, the forests often consist of sky-high slender pines, or groves of tall, white birches.One can walk through these forests on mossy ground enjoying the sound of a breeze softly shushing through the trees, picking mushrooms from the mossy hillocks, or simply gazing on a slant of light breaking through the foliage, as if in divine blessing.
We stop midway at a quaint little pub called Apsu Krogs, enjoy piragi and cakes with coffee, then head on again. Good thing I'm not wearing a watch, because I would be watching it.
Yet I recalled with what ease my children gained street smarts. Not a day before they figured out where to buy "cipsi" or potato chips, and where the best place was for play, in an old castle soon to undergo renovation. They zipped in and out of narrow Ventspils alleyways like they were in their own backyard. They were as boisterous as children anywhere, curious and eager to take it all in, even as I quietly assessed medical care, educational standards, and the predominance yet in those years of the Russian language in Latvian institutions.
The road not taken. What might our lives have been like? I would never know, but I was confident I had made the right decision at that time. Right or not, Ventspils was dear and close to my heart. If I had painful memories there, I also had sweet ones, and the latter prevailed.
A train pulled slowly across tracks just outside of Ventspils and I watched for the caboose, watched the woman waiting at the small yellow booth with flowers planted around it, giving a signal to the conductor. Almost there ...
Anita was leaning out the window on Katolu Iela as we turned onto the cobblestone street. How long had she been leaning out like that, face gleaming with a wide smile, waving, waving and even jumping a step as our car appeared. I saw her bright face, waved back, and any remaining qualms I might have had about returning to this country faded away. I was welcome. No one would question me about why it had taken me so long this time to come back. No accusations, no guilt trips, no interrogations. I stepped out of the car, and I was instantly wrapped into the warmth of family love, just one of their own, coming back.
Ah, the laughter, the kisses, the warm embraces, the healing of decades done in but a moment. Surely I'd never left at all. The emotional upheaval of this total acceptance and heart-warming welcome was almost too much for me. I nearly collapsed in the chair in Anita's and Imants' living room, the same chair and in exactly the same spot where it had been the last time I was here, and I wanted to curl up and sleep like a child, like a child who has come home after a long, long wander in the dark wood, now safe and warm and watched over, able to rest in security. An oasis in the sea, a haven, and I in it at last.
Coffee cups appeared out of nowhere, with coffee so strong it was almost espresso, Latvian-style, and a homemade apple cake (with apples from the tree out back) with real whipped cream, just whipped, and I almost moaned in pleasure at the rich taste of home. I wasn't to rest for long, however. In a group of gathered family and friends, the air around me thick with chatter and laughter, we trotted through Ventspils at what seemed to me top speed...
...wait, wait, I can't keep up.... I lagged behind, or to one side, overwhelmed, caught between laughter and tears. I needed a moment alone, a moment of silence, a moment to take it all in.... that I was back in Ventspils, that I was back, here in this place where suddenly every corner was familiar, every building, every park, every little house, every bridge... it was overmuch and my mind whirled and hummed, I swirled in a whirlwind of memory and flashback. My lovely family.... this uproarious crowd that so obviously knew no greater joy than to be all together... even blessings, when we have too much of them at once ... like one starved being suddenly seated at a grand buffet... as we made fast tracks through the city as a group, through parks, to the seashore, down the pier, to the family cemetery, to the market ... I found myself falling further and further behind.
I looked for a moment of solitude and quiet.
Then, too, there was a call I needed to make. A call I had promised to make the first day I arrived in this country.
(To be continued...)