… but I’m not quite ready to think about that.
Close my eyes. Let my head thump the glass a bit as we travel east to Rīga. The bus wasn’t overly full, people were quiet at this early hour, and the seats were comfortable enough. To lose myself in sleep…
The night before had turned into a little impromptu party at Anita and Imants’ house. Solvita and Jurjānis had joined us, the wine bottle, the big one, was uncorked, poured out for the women, while a bottle of šnabis, vodka, did for the men. Somewhere in the midst of all those cheery toasts and laughter and family reminiscences, my phone had chirped up again … Andris called to ask if I’d gotten home safely from Laima’s house, and to let me know that he would arrive in Rīga on Saturday, by the same bus that I was taking this morning. One farewell delayed.
Anita and Imants had walked me to the bus station in the morning, stood outside the bus looking up at me as the bus pulled out. I stared at their faces, their beautiful faces, for as long as possible, before they were but spots in the distance, and the bus turned onto another street. More of those admonitions: you will return, you will, we refuse to say goodbye …
There was power in such words. I felt those words sink into me, thread themselves through the fibers of my being, resonate inside the caverns of my mind. If it is meant to be, I thought …
I woke when we pulled into Rīga. The bus station was beside the Central Market, and I watched the bustle of people and food vendors. Duffel bag in hand, I got off the bus and headed on foot across town and into Old Town, Vecrīga, and wound my way through the narrow, cobblestone streets and alleyways, back across Doma Square and onto Pils Iela, to the rented apartment. All familiar enough by now that I could walk in something of a trance, feet carrying me where I needed to go.
I turned the key in the door of the apartment and fully had the sense of coming home, of belonging here, of being a part of this country and these people who spoke my own language.
I called Alda, the Latvian woman from Michigan who had flown to Latvia with me and shared this apartment with me for our stay. “Esmu atpakaļ Rīgā,” I announced. I’m back in Rīga.
“Oh, I can’t wait to hear about your time in Ventspils!” Alda cheerily answered. “And to tell you about Liepāja!”
As my family roots are in Ventspils, so Alda’s are in Liepāja, another coastal city near the Lithuanian border. We shared stories over our lunch, licking fingertips, resisting licking the plates, oh heck, no one’s looking … until Jānis called on my cell phone.
“Neither!” I dipped my spoon back into the cool cream of the bread soup and plucked a ripe cranberry to pop it into my mouth.
“Places to see, things to do!” Jānis offered, ever the enthused tour guide.
No rest for the traveler—we were off again. Jānis picked us up by the Latvian University, and we headed toward Brāļu Kapi, the Latvian equivalent of Arlington Cemetery in the States.
I’d been here many times. For Alda, first time in Latvia, it was a first. And still, for all my previous visits, the beauty of this old cemetery, the sacred stillness, instilled respect if not awe. The once white stone had visibly deteriorated, and my heart ached that the Latvian national treasury apparently lacked funds to keep up this national treasure, but the power of the place was no less.
I had always admired Latvian cemeteries. Whereas in the States we had a culture-wide fear of death, here, death was embraced as a vital part of the life cycle. Families visited family graves frequently, bringing flowers and shrubbery to plant, bringing rakes and trowels to keep grave site gardens immaculate. Funeral homes had recently begun to appear in Rīga, but the old traditions of caring for one’s own dead were still widespread. Family members washed, dressed their dead, held wakes in their own homes, sat for three nights by the deceased in flickering candlelight. There was grief, but no fear. In the country, even more ancient traditions held, with men folk making their own coffins from a tree on the property, and storing their future “home” in the attic until it was needed.
Jānis told us the stories of many of the more prominent graves of the Brāļu Kapi, as well as the two cemeteries bordering either side—Raiŋu Kapi and Meža Kapi. In these bordering cemeteries lay more current war veterans, political figures, nationally prominent figures, artists, and also Latvian families. We walked slowly, listening. He pointed out the section where Latvians that had been executed en masse had been buried; he walked us to the monument for Jānis Čakste, the first president of an independent Latvia. In front of the Čakste monument was the newer, larger one for literary figure, Vilis Lācis, who had been asked to write his novels with messages of Soviet propaganda, had refused, but, after his son had mysteriously fallen down an open elevator shaft and been killed, had finally complied. He had been transformed into a Soviet literary hero, and his monument was strategically placed to cover Čakste’s monument from view.
Silent suffering, I could feel it here, but I could feel also the peace. To walk among these aisles, among the stone sculptures and graves, beneath the green canopy of ancient oaks and slender white birches, I could hardly imagine the courage of those who had turned to dust here. I could only listen to these stories. I could keep them in my heart. But I could never know, born and raised in a free country so far away, what it had required of these, my people, to endure, to survive, to once again call their country free.
Rīga was a new city. She was the city she should have been many years ago. Her rebirth, rising from dust and ash and rubble of war, from occupation and deprivation, was testimony to the human spirit. The human spirit would demand its own, to live, the stretch, to thrive and grow, no matter how many times it was beaten down. There was no grave that could hold it. One generation wiped out, another would rise.
(To be continued...)