Thursday, October 21, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 9 (Tomdēli)

by Zinta Aistars

Tears flushed my eyes, welled up, spilled. This was a day of peace for me, of a deep contentment, but perhaps it was not contradictory that it was a day also of several times welling up with tears. One had to feel at ease to weep openly. One had to be alongside a trusted friend to let long-held-back tears fall freely.

Andris reached across the front seat of the red Passat wagon and found my hand, held it tight. He offered silent comfort, and I accepted it. No platitudes, thank you, no empty words or clichés. I only needed an ear, a shoulder, silent understanding and compassion. He offered these. We talked about family, shared photos, compared notes. My recent history had been much more rough-and-tumble than his, but, sniffling, wiping my face with my free hand like a child, I suddenly felt a thousand weights lift from my shoulders. Raw wounds spliced and drew clean edges together, healed, free of poison.

It was a good day. A day of many blessings.

When I wept at sight of my father’s, grandfather’s, great-grandfather’s home, about a half hour south of Ventspils, just before the tiny village of Sarnate, I didn’t even bother to wipe my eyes. We had left Kolkas Rags behind, looped around Ventspils again, and were now driving along the coast toward Jurkalne, where I would stay for the next two days. Sarnate was on the way, blink and you miss it, and the sign for Tomdeli—the name of my fathers’ house—had loosened and curled down on itself.

“Aizšāvam garām!” Andris called out, hitting the brakes and turning the car into a quick U-turn. We’ve shot past it! He knew the spot better than I, having driven by it many, many times over the past years, on occasion stopping to snap photos and sending them to me over e-mail. I had seen the gradual changes over the years, through his lens, and somehow, I couldn’t quite explain how, or why, but it hurt me. It hurt.

We pulled into the small dirt drive. Andris got out to examine the sign. Līdumi was at top, the house beyond, and then Tomdēli. He uncurled the sign and held it in place for me to photograph. My father at home, back in the States, would want to see this. His health no longer allowed him for such long, grueling travel… my photos would be his lens on this world now.

Leaving the car on the side of the road, we walked the property. No one was there, although the little house was clearly inhabited. No doubt used as a summer home, as many here along the coast were, as the windows were boarded up with wooden shutters and the property appeared bolted down for the winter.

I touched my hand to the exterior wall. Aluminum siding?! No! I was horrified. Of all the houses I’d seen in Latvia, now or ever, this had to be the first and only one with aluminum siding. It was a travesty, I thought. This kind of exterior was suitable for American houses, built for the short run, but not for these historic homes that had weathered centuries and wars and many generations. The last time I had come by here, the house was stone and stucco and wood. It had a main door, wide and high, facing the road. There was no front door now, only small windows. The main entrance was now behind the house, facing away from the door, perhaps for privacy.

Wires and cables reached to the house. Years ago, there was no electricity here. An outhouse, and there it was still, out back, but clearly no longer used. A well that had been there through the ages—my father recalled it from his childhood—but it no longer looked used. A new roof. Foliage grown to hide it from the road, from the Baltic Sea just beyond. I could hardly recognize it.

My father’s family had been forced to abandon it in World War II. Like so many Latvians, they fled the incoming Soviet army. With a few belongings, only what they could carry, my grandparents and their four sons, my father the eldest, fled in the night to Vārve, where a waiting boat would take them out to sea, eventually to find their way to the refugee camps in Germany. As the Soviet army invaded and staked their illegitimate claim, this house, like all others in Latvia, was nationalized. The communist government had no allowance for private property. Homes that had been in families generation after generation after generation were simply taken away.

A complicated process of reinstating family ownership after renewed independence began, but was yet to be fully resolved. What to do with the Latvian families that had moved into the empty houses some 50 years ago? Did they have any rights? Where should they go? Some had settled, sold, traded, moved, while other houses stood empty, often in ruins, awaiting resolution. A few Latvians, scattered across the globe after the war, returned and took back ownership of their family estates. It was a difficult change for many.

From what I had heard, Tomdēli had been nationalized and a Russian military officer had moved in for some years. He was gone now. My parents at some point had visited, knocked on the door, and been invited inside to look around by a kindly old woman, who apparently had understood the pained expression on my father’s face.

In previous years, I had brought my children here. I had stood them at the front door and taken pictures. A generation lost. A generation with a complicated identity. A generation of tangled and far-reaching roots.

Drawing of his father, Ernests Aistars, by Viestarts Aistars, my father
 As a child myself, I had loved to wander into my father’s art studio in the basement of my childhood home. It was a magical place. It was a room where he painted his beautiful paintings, most of them images of a land far away. I was especially drawn to the tiny sketches framed and hung on the wall. They seemed so modest compared to his large and bright canvases. Tiny pictures, just right for my imagination. Sketches drawn by a teenage boy who had just lost his homeland. These were the drawings of a young man, capturing his memories on paper, so he might never forget … never forget …

Drawing of my great-grandfather, Ernests Ansevics, by Viestarts Aistars, my father

I would stand close to the tiny picture and stare, and wonder. A little house with a wide front door and a wooden overhang… a well to one side, and foliage growing up around its walls, in decoration. It looked like a good little house. It looked a little like a fairy tale …

The picture hangs on my father’s art studio wall today. I still stare at it whenever I am there.

The house in the early 1990s
I could hardly match the two images in my mind now, as I stood on this hallowed ground. I could not say, exactly, why my lip trembled, and the little girl standing in her father’s studio, standing here now, dripped tears. So much loss. So much grief. Such horror, to so forcefully pull the deep roots of generations from their soil and toss them so recklessly into the sea. So many lives lost. So many families torn apart. So many disappearances in the night, taken far away, to Siberia, to Russian tundra, to work in the cold and until death.

I tried to imagine the lives that had been lived here. I had heard so many stories growing up. About my father’s carefree summers. About my great-grandfather, whose portrait, too, hung on my father’s wall, his handsome face so very much like my grandfather’s, the two of them to be differentiated only by the thick, white moustache over my great-grandfather’s upper lip.

I had stood at my great-grandfather’s grave just the day before, in Ventspils: Ernests Anšēvics, letters very nearly faded away now from the spotted rock under a leaning pine tree. He’d been a Baptist minister, I was told, at the little Sarnate church that still stood a little further down the road. He had spoken the word of God to his congregation, but not been so firm that he didn’t allow for the frailty of human nature. He’d been married twice, and he had two children—my grandfather, Ernests, and Anna. My grandfather had changed the family name to Aistars, because his sensibilities resisted the name with its alien roots, as so many Latvian surnames had been given to families during their years of occupation, much as they had been to African-Americans by slave owners before the Civil War. My grandfather was part of the movement to restore clear Latvian identities to Latvian families, and so, Aistars.

One occupation after another. One invading army after another. When would it end? Ever? And now, with the economy reeling, so many younger Latvians were leaving the country to go elsewhere, seeking employment, means to support their families back home, or leaving entirely. Could one blame them? But I had noticed how much emptier were streets now than during my last visit to Latvia. Population had dropped noticeably. For a country so small it would fit inside West Virginia in the United States, such loss could be ruinous.

I walked the land of Tomdēli, wiping my face, snapping photos, finally sitting down in the plastic chair on the back porch to rest and contemplate. Andris stood to my side, silent. Swallows and chickadees twirled over the wood pile in back. A brown and orange butterfly swept over fallen apples, attracted by the sweet and slowly rotting fruit. An apple tree to the side of the porch was heavy with fruit—green apples, and I got up to pick one. The apples were hard and not yet ripe. It occurred to me, though … great things are born from small seeds. If my father could no longer travel to Latvia, perhaps a seed from an apple tree could travel back to him, find root in his garden …

Someone lived here. Not I. The idea of, the need for, Home, swept over me. I hungered for it. I would never quite find it. The Keweenaw, far north in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, had the strongest hold on my heart, and it occurred to me now, sitting here, how much the Keweenaw resembled parts of Latvia. It made sense. Yet something there, too, was missing. Since coming back to Latvia, all my dreams had gone back to Latvian. All my thoughts were in Latvian. Bumped, I reflexively called out in Latvian—ai!

This was my inner voice. The voice of the child learning to shape her first words, calling to her mama to be lifted up, hopping up on her father’s knee and asking for a story, a pasaka, pastāsti, Tēt, man kādu pasaku … tell me, Father, a tale…

I wandered to the brick ruins to the north of the property. These buildings were long ago beyond repair. Now only random parts of walls, a tumble of rocks, where once there had been rooms, now grown shoulder-high in weeds. A rusted old bin held collected rain water, gone brown, and a little frog floated on a leaf inside. Vines of tiny blue berries grew over a brick wall, reaching toward ground. It was all from a long ago, long forgotten yesterday …

"Thought you might want this," Andris handed me a sharp rock, a chunk fallen from the ruins, long and triangular in shape, almost like a blade. "To remember," he said. If I didn't handle it with caution, it could leave a wound.

"Sharp," I said, feeling its edge.

"Yes. It is."

(To be continued...)

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