|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.
|Musite on the Michigan dunes|
|"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|
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.
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 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...|
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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|