Monday, March 28, 2011


by Zinta Aistars

The former Nazareth College
 Sunny Sunday morning, and I’m excited to meet Sister Betsy at the former Nazareth College to discuss my art show—on schedule for February 1 through March 31, 2012, at Transformations Spirituality Center, 3427 Gull Road, Kalamazoo, Michigan. The center contains within its parameters a small art gallery, and I am eager to see it as well as the rest of what remains of the college.

Today, the Sisters of Saint Joseph are still there, as are various offices for human services, Borgess Hospital facilities, a Head Start program, senior housing, an outreach center, and a spiritual retreat.

Driving across town toward Nazareth, my mind flashes back to many, many years ago. I have quite some history at Nazareth. I drive past it frequently when I travel from one side of town to the other, whenever I drop by to visit my parents. The long stone fence surrounding the campus, the drive in the main gate, lined by ancient pine trees, and the white marble statue of Christ, palms upraised in welcome, at its very end. Admittedly, over so many years, I’d developed a certain blindness to it. Familiarity breeds blindness …

Or perhaps there was something more to it. Looking back on those memories, at some point, may have been painful, more easily avoided. Then again, at least now, as I cross town to visit the old campus—the college closed in 1992 for lack of funding, but the buildings all found new purpose—I realize enough time has gone by that the memories flowing over me are more sweet than bitter.

I share them both with Sister Betsy after I find her in the chapel, still running her fingers over the chapel piano, rehearsing Easter hymns, as another Sister leads me in to find her. She greets me with a warm, bright smile, and we walk slowly through the winding corridors of the building, talking.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, I tell her, once worked here. A refugee from Latvia in World War II, with very limited skills in the English language, like so many other Latvian refugees, nothing mattered on this new shore of education or work experience on the other side of the ocean. If one was here with a green card and just learning the language and ways of America, work was all menial. And so my grandfather found work as a security guard in the college boiler room. He worked the graveyard shift, night after night watching over the great machines, making sure they all worked properly. I could remember visiting him there once as a little girl, awed by the immense and loud machinery, thinking this must be the heart of the college, thumping so greatly in its unstoppable rhythm.

Entrance to the art gallery
 “He would often bring home boxes of old books the nuns had discarded, or the library no longer needed,” I told Sister Betsy. “Old textbooks, yellowed history books, whatever books there were, he picked up and brought home. He had a great old desk, and he would sit there for hours on end, paging through the books, reading the dense text, learning the language but also the content, penciling notes in the margins.”

“Perhaps we crossed paths here then,” she mused. “I was here in 1964 already. But the young nuns weren’t allowed to talk much with others. Silence was encouraged.”

“And he was probably equally silent,” I smiled. “In his own contemplation of this new world, so far from home.”

We were both silent for a while, walking the corridors, the stone walls, the high arched ceilings, the great windows to the green courtyard of yet bare-limbed trees outside, in their own silence, holding secrets and unspoken memories.

“I miss him,” I said.


And then we had arrived at the section of the building called Transformations Spirituality Center. It was more a long corridor than a separate room, but I immediately found it appealing. The outside wall was all windows, sun streaming in, bathing the opposite wall, hung with paintings, in a golden glow.

In just a few days, my father’s paintings would be hanging here. His work will be on exhibit April 1 to May 31. Twenty of his watercolors and oil paintings will be here. Indeed, that was how Sister Betsy and I had connected. I often made arrangements for my father’s art exhibits, and since she had contacted my father now nearly a year ago to show his work here, I had taken over electronic communications, sending her jpgs and links associated with my father’s artwork.

Sister Betsy had done some online wandering and click, and click, had found her way to some of my sites, my blog and website. She’d found a few photos of my painted stones, and she had read some of my blog. When she contacted me to ask if I’d like to show my work at the gallery, I blinked, I blinked again, and then double checked to be sure she had not confused my father’s work with mine. She hadn’t.

I stood in the gallery hallway, studying the work on show by the current artist. No matter how many times I visited how many galleries in this city, I would always find a new local artist. It was what I loved most about living here.

Sister Betsy led me on to show me the rooms used for retreats and gatherings. There was a peacefulness here, a calm quiet, that drew me in—I hoped the tour would go on and on.

“And then,” I went on with my recollections, “my romance with the father of my children began here at Nazareth College, too.”

We were both in the wedding party, bridesmaid and groomsman. The bride was from Kalamazoo, the groom was from New York City. As were we. Standing at the altar to either side, our eyes wandered to each other. By the time we’d made it to the reception ballroom at Nazareth College, he was at my side and didn’t leave it for the rest of the evening.

Once Sister Betsy and I had parted, I wandered the campus on my own. There, I stopped between two buildings, a wide grassy area between them, dipping ever, ever so slightly in the middle, even now. There, we had walked outside in the starry evening, he in his tux, me in my pink chiffon, and suddenly, in a moment of exuberation, he had literally swept me off my feet, and went running across the grass with me in his arms.

I couldn’t stop laughing. Especially when he tripped where the ground dipped, and the two of us went rolling in the grass. My pink chiffon had green streaks, grass stains, all down my right side. His tux was badly mussed. We lay in the cool grass in fits of laughter. A couple years later, it was our turn to stand at the altar.

Our paths had diverted some 15 years beyond that moment in the grass, but two glorious children were born of that union, and I would never regret it.

How very young I’d been then …

How long ago …

How interesting, to come back here now. After all this time, as if in full circle, to plan an art show of my work, broadsides and painted stones, a combination of my two artistic loves. Would my grandfather from some great beyond see? Would the engines in the boiler room thump a little louder then? And that ancient pine, so tall, so broad, its great branches hanging heavy like green curtains along that long walk, remember that youthful joy of first love blossoming, when the young man from New York City pressed that young girl from Kalamazoo against its trunk to steal a kiss?

I would paint that pine tree. One of the broadsides to go on exhibit … yes, I saw it rise in my imagination, the colors, the lines, the droop of those heavy branches … and find the right words to measure the lifelong and indelible mark those two men had left upon my life. My grandfather and my children's father ... I had returned here now transformed because of both of them.

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