Sunday, October 24, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 12 (Mirrors in Time and Spirit)

by Zinta Aistars

My grandmother, seated, and her sister, Milda

Voices in the living room when I stepped out of the shower. My last day at Jūrkalne, and I was moving too slowly, reluctance turning my movements to molasses. Solvita and Jurands were already waiting for me, ready to take me back to Ventspils.

I don’t want to leave, not yet, don’t want to go …

But the rain had cleared, the sky had turned blue again, and, duffel bag in hand, I turned back one more time to look at the lemon yellow house with a turquoise roof that had given me rest and a measure of clarity. I had had my time alone, and I felt ready to connect to others again. Family awaited. Friends awaited. And Andris had called yesterday, while the sky was sopped with rain, to tell me I’d forgotten my sunglasses in the red Passat. We would meet later so that he could return them to me.

Jūrkalne now a part of my past, however regrettably, and I had one more day in Ventspils before it turned to all things past and wonderful, too. A quick shiver of sorrow passed through me, time speeding up, clocks running again, but then returned to the moment. No point in dreading the farewells to come when I had the day yet ahead of me.

Back in Anita and Imants’ home on Katoļu Iela, I wandered their hallway while Anita prepared another delicious meal. They had lined the hallway with framed photos of family members, all now gone. Imants walked the line with me, naming each one, but many I recognized already—especially my grandmother, Lidija Šulte-Aistars. She was gone from me for some time now, yet I thought of her surprisingly often. Or, my body reminded me of her. My own mannerisms. I would catch myself as I grew older holding my hands in my lap just as she did, as if holding some treasure hidden inside, a waiting revelation. And it was … a treasure. This connection from generation to generation. I was sure I had not learned this mannerism, but that it was something genetic. I had never held my hands before me in that way for the first part of my adulthood … why now?

Musite on the Michigan dunes
When I was very young, I remember bristling at these inherited ways, features, mannerisms. I wanted to be an original. Original Z, unique in every way. Impossible. The only thing unique about me was this particular combination of my ancestry. This feature with that mannerism, coupled with a particular skill or gift, handed to me from my long ago family members. Today, much older, instead of bristling, I felt a great comfort in this connection—this voice from the past that still spoke inside me and through me.

"Musite" and Vectetis, my grandparents

It was true, after all, that platitude we all mutter at funerals: we never die. As long as our children and grandchildren and great- and great-endlessly-great grandchildren carry on, so do we. What matters only is that we leave a legacy of which our children can be proud.

My grandmother had. A soft-spoken woman, never taking the limelight, yet at her core, one of the strongest women I’d known. She had raised four sons, my father the eldest, nurtured an idyllic marriage to my grandfather, writer Ernests Aistars, who never sent off a manuscript to a publisher without passing it along to her first. His “first eyes,” she would read, edit, discuss his stories and novels with him, then dutifully and lovingly retype each one—he always wrote first in longhand. That old typewriter clacked beneath her fingers, and helped produce twelve novels, read on both sides of the ocean. In the evenings, the two of them sat reading to each other, poetry, novels, nonfiction, whatever was of interest. In Latvia, my grandfather had been the director of the Jelgava Teacher’s Institute as well as author, and my grandmother had been a teacher, both of them passionate about education and deeply patriotic. Even after the war and immigrating to the States, the two taught at Latvian schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and during the summers, at the Latvian summer school at Garezers, near Three Rivers, Michigan. They were known for walking everywhere hand-in-hand, heads leaned in toward one another, talking quietly. Friends for life.

My grandfather, writer Ernests Aistars, with chipmunk as muse
We called her Musīte.

I stand in the centuries-old house on Katoļu Iela and gaze at her photo on the wall. A young woman, her uncut hair, which I remember to the last as reaching down to her knees, even after it was shot through with gray, coiled neatly at the back of her head. Alongside this portrait, photos of her sisters, her brother, and other family members. I stand looking into their eyes, stilled by time, holding my hands in front of me.

Imants Sulte
I spend the morning talking to Anita and Imants, looking through their photo albums, catching up on all that has happened in their lives over the span of near two decades since I’d been here last. Here, photos of their daughter, Zane, my goddaughter, now living in Rīga with her husband and two children … I looked forward to that meeting yet to come. Photos of all their lives, arranged in a shelf full of neatly ordered albums… my emotions are a swirl, of pride, of love, of sorrow at all that is already out of my hands, gone forever, gone into memory, held only in random photographs.

My phone rings, and it’s Andris, letting me know he is walking in my direction, up Jūras Iela, and inviting me out into the cool fall day to meet him. Not even commenting, Anita just smiles at me and tosses me a set of house keys.

Andris then, in leather jacket...
 I set out down Katoļu Iela, turn right onto Jūras Iela, and I see him heading toward me. By the time we’ve reached each other, I’m laughing, tug at the sleeve of that old black leather jacket, shaking my head. Had to be at least 20 years old by now. Ah, history. Sure, he said, has never been able to find as good a replacement. New lining sewn in, new pockets, why throw it away? More importantly, he said, holding out my previously abandoned sunglasses to me, am I free for lunch?

“I am a woman of leisure!”

And oh, how good that was. My endlessly busy life left overseas in the States, gone. Here I had no schedules to keep, no chores awaiting, no emails to read, no deadlines to meet, only a phone that rang for a fun meeting. We headed back to Don Basil, the cozy pub where we’d met the day I first arrived in Ventspils.

Over paella and a salad of garneles and avokado, shrimp and avocado, we chattered away about nothing, the trivialities of life that mean nothing and everything. The afternoon evaporated, Andris had to return to his family and I to mine, but I suddenly realized my last day in Ventspils was coming dangerously close to conclusion when I still had one very dear person to meet …

And now, same jacket...
 “Andri! On your way home … could you point me in the right direction to Laimdota’s house? Kuldīgas Iela, yes?”

Laimdota Sēle, Laima for short, was Andris’ sister, but over time, I had come to think of her as my Ventspils sister, too. Also a writer, she had trained her keystrokes as a respected journalist, working many years at the local newspaper, Ventas Balss, until she’d broken free to work full time as a successful author. Her novels and poetry collections were fast lining up on the bookshelf. We had bonded on many levels, as writers, as women, as single parents, as kindred souls. My Ventspils visit would not be complete without seeing her again.

Andris was holding his cell phone to his ear. “Laima? I have someone here who wishes to see you … shall I walk her over?”

I heard a gasp, a gleeful ja!, and I was already up and out of my chair and putting my coat on. Laima knew I would be in Latvia soon, but I had not been able to give her the exact dates when I’d first written her. That I would visit was not a matter of question, only when. Andris and I set out for the walk across town, on the way passing by Ganību Iela. We couldn’t resist a short stop. This was Andris’ childhood home, the little house tucked into a garden, where we’d first met as two teens.

Ganibu Iela
 I clamped fingers through the wire fence and stared at the house. Was it possible that this was all in the same lifetime? Surely that was another life, another Z, another future someone else was living out on some other plane of existence. The house seemed, for all purposes, unchanged. A tiny place, yet Andris’ mother and father had greeted my parents and me warmly, invited us in for a meal and visit, even as Andris’ mother picked up the corded white rotary phone … to bring outside and place it squarely among the rows of vegetables in the garden.

“Lai klausās putnu čivināsanu,” she’d said. Let them listen to the chirping of the birds.

I pointed now toward the garden, still flourishing, if under someone else’s care. “Do you remember when your mother put the phone out there?” I chortled. “Took me a moment to understand. But by then, we’d already been exposed to all the listening devices back at the Rīga hotel. Listening to the birds indeed, ha!”

She had put the phone outside, knowing that phones and radios were commonly known means of listening devices used by the KGB during the Soviet occupation, and never more eagerly than when one had visitors from beyond the Iron Curtain.

Andris stood at the fence looking at the house, silent. I was sure he was seeing his mother there now. She had passed away the year before. One more photo on the wall. One more ancestral coding to be carried through another branching out of another family tree. Another garden flourished.

We crossed the little red bridge to Laima’s house. I flashed back on Ansis, Laima’s son, taking a photo of Andris and me, leaning over that red bridge railing, a thousand years ago. A boy then, a man now.

And then we were there, at Laima’s door. The same willow tree draped a graceful green curtain along its one side. I leaned back to look up at the old house. Old, centuries old, house where Laima was born, and who knew how many generations before her … it was one of those mystical aspects of European life that was almost beyond American comprehension. Houses that knew the steps of generations inside them, thick walls that had echoed with wars and the thud of passing armies, yet endured, endured the insanities of the power hungry and the violence of mankind, and still stood, and stood strong.

Andris called from his cell, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, letting his sister know we were standing outside. A moment, the door flew open, and there she was, my Ventspils sister, her eyes reddening, her mouth a gasp, the tears beginning, my return shout of joy, this embrace, only to pull away for another look, another embrace, and we rocked back and forth in each other’s arms, laughing, crying, cheering, oh hurrah for the snap of time in half, broken open and defeated, for here we stood again, in this impossible yet made possible moment, together again.

I brushed Laima’s blonde hair from her cheek, brushed those happy tears away, brushed away my own, and then noticed Andris standing to one side, grinning like a Cheshire cat at our greeting. I reached over to push gently on his chest. “You go home to your girls now. You’ve delivered me to where I need to be, thank you. Go home.”

“You’ll find your way back to Katoļu Iela from here?”

“Oh go on,” Laima brushed him away fondly. “I’ll take care of her.”

We hooked arms and went inside, Andris setting off toward his own home, and I re-entered a world I’d once known so well. In that previous lifetime.

“It’s good to see you two together again,” Laima squeezed my arm in hers. “What a wonderful thing, such a friendship.”

“Blessings, Laima. And you among them.”

We went upstairs, where I could already smell the pot of fruits bubbling into preserves. Laima’s kitchen was as ancient and warm and wonderful as I remembered it. Unchanged. The wood-burning stove to one side, still in use, the more conventional stove to the other, the window over the garden below, where we had once all gathered—me, Laima, her own Pēteris, her son Ansis upstairs, and Andris—to pick vegetables, string beans, tomatoes, unearthed potatoes, green onions, herbs—and brought them upstairs again to create a simple, but most memorable dinner for a memorable evening. There was song, guitar playing, shots of cognac, boisterous laughter. I walked through Laima’s rooms as she stirred her bubbling pot of brūklenes and apples for jam, and listened to the echoes.

“You know, māsiņ,” I called back to her, “I think that evening long ago, here, was one of the most perfect evenings I’ve yet known.” I didn’t have to tell her, which one.

This, then, would be one of the more perfect afternoons. We bubbled over the pot in catch-up chatter, we sat at the table with its white tablecloth, warming our hands around mugs of hot tea, we talked of what had been, but only for a while, and then quickly moved into what was and what would be. This was one of those conversations that picked up where it had left off, and flew forward again, and Laima had a way of talking to me about my next trip to Latvia that erased all question. While everyone else had argued and hinted to me that this could not, would not, should not be my last trip to Latvia … Laima simply took it for granted that I would come to my senses, that such stupidities could not be allowed, and told me, simply told me, that on my next visit, we would …

The hours were merciless. They flew, they soared in that upstairs room, swirled giddily around our heads, minutes like sparrows, with flapping wings there and gone again, too soon gone again. How good it was to sit with my Ventspils māsiņa, my sister, and talk from the wide open heart again. We talked of our writing projects, of her newest novel, of her poetry, and Laima pulled one of her many poetry books from her shelf and opened it to a favorite verse. She slipped her glasses on and read to me, and I held my breath, listening, my heart a sparrow, and then a bird at peace. Wings folded against its sides, resting, resting, in that place where one is known, understood, loved. This was one of those places where I knew I could always return, on any day, at any hour, and know the door would open for me.

At dusk, Laima and I stood on the corner of Katoļu Iela and hugged one more time, rocking a little on our heels.

Laima pushed me away a bit to look me in the eye and said, firmly, “Māsiņas, tu saproti. Sisters, you understand. For all time.”

(To be continued…)

Ventspils at dusk

"Spogula Parbaude," one of Laimdota Sele's many novels

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