Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Open Empty

 by Zinta Aistars
I’m always feeling it, needing it, but never more than now, when space has become so packed, time spread so thin, so that my mind feels caged and claustrophobic, and my spirit bangs around inside me in silenced scream.
I need open, empty space.
That place, that space, that comes between chores, errands, obligations and duties.
That place, that space, that appears between busyness and rat race.
That vast emptiness that the uninitiated refer to as boredom, but the wise ones recognize as space to dream. Here, creativity unrolls the red carpet and invites a beautiful madness in. Vivid dreams, more than a little mad, intoxicated with possibility, dance here, in that great empty ballroom with dusky lighting.
Yes, dim those lights and let me dream. Sit by the fire with legs outstretched and arms hanging loose over the arms of the chair, in decadent sprawl. Head thrown back to stare at the sky. Shape clouds into flittering butterflies, fire-belching dragons, mustachioed tyrants and leaping sheep, caped bullfrogs riding on their woolly backs.  
Let my fingers sink into sand and play. Play as children do. Build mansions in the mind that crumble into snaking tunnels that open gates to kingdoms.
Let me wander in the woods, dodge slants of sunlight, pocket odd mushrooms and acorns, gather wild things in my arms, recognizing kindred spirits. See the shadows of gnomes coming out of hiding. Hear the creatures speaking in languages I suddenly recognize.
Where is that empty place where I can finally exhale?
Where the responsibilities end. That finish line. There. Free. At last, free to wander and look for treasure.
I know it’s here somewhere. I buried it myself, long long ago. A more hopeful self, a dreamer with ocean waves shushing in my ears, a scoundrel, a rascal, a tomboy.
Let me climb trees. Tall ones, scraping skies, wide-shouldered, those ancient oaks where I can sit far out on the limb and dangle bare legs, mosquito-bitten. Sing from the belly, roar from the heart, as if no one can hear me. As if everyone can.
Where is that time for nothing? That precious, sweet moment? Fallen off the calendar, swept off the clock, unrecorded by the stingy time keeper. Stolen and luscious.
To do nothing, nothing at all.
That sorely needed, longed for moment when I am needed nowhere, by no one, set loose like dandelion fluff to swirl on the drunken breeze. Unshackled prisoner, run! Dog chewed through his leash, run! Moth sliding through the crack in the lid of the jar, fly! Spark rising from the bonfire toward the night sky, circle, spin and away!
It’s in that space, in that place of the open empty, that new wonders are born. Tasty thoughts. Craven ideas. Elegant epiphanies. Flashes of stunning and rock-busting revelation.
All this crowdedness, this cramped busyness, this chasing chore to chore, knocking off to-do lists, churning out orders and projects and more, oh enough. My brain is overfull.
I long to wake up and have nothing to do. Not one thing. So that I can finally begin to discover how life was meant to be lived. In the expansive luxury of the unowned and unowning. When I grow quiet enough to hear whispers again, to go where it softly leads me.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Weekend on Deck

by Zinta Aistars

At last, at long last, the sweltering summer has cooled to something bearable. Much of this summer has been my time to hibernate, withdraw from the outdoors into my woman-cave, and I have longed to return to fresh air and the gentler breezes of a summer waning.

Summer has been my least favorite season for many years now, as the climate has turned increasingly to extremes. Too many days of 90s-plus, the air thick and milky with humidity. News announcements tick off deaths of those who have no air-conditioned reprieve: heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration. With heat index added in, a great many days this past summer have been into triple digits degrees Fahrenheit.

So I've become the summer recluse. My camping trips take place in the other three seasons, including winter. I'm counting days now to my upcoming escape to the woods in mid October. By then the summer tourists will be gone, the woods will be quiet again, the air will have gentled and cooled, the nights with a crisp edge.

Oh, I long to be outdoors again. At last, a hint of it ... the summer releasing its sweaty palms and letting go, little by little, letting go. At last, a Saturday that I can be outdoors again and enjoy.

I hit the raspberry fields on Saturday afternoon and pick three pints full. My favorite summer berry, and for this, I forgive summer much. I have real whipping cream at home, waiting. And my kitchen counter is stacked with summer vegetables, ready to prepare and process. Tomatoes by the dozen, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, jalapenos, basil, patty pan squash. It will be a weekend of cooking, I think.

But when Saturday evening comes, I take my break. This past work week has been brutal. Indeed, it has been for some time now, chipping away at a mountain of writing projects that seem to multiply as fast as I can dig through them. I'm tired. I'm worn to the bone.

Setting a bowl of just washed berries in front of me, I settle my bones onto the patio loveseat and toss a few logs into the fire pit just as the sky dims to that dusky hint of evening approaching. Jig, my old cat, and Guinnez, my old chow pup, settle in with me. We are all feeling it ... the need to draw a deep breath and release.

The fire catches quickly. A ribbon of curling smoke, a puff, then sudden flame. Sparks burst into a flare, and the logs crackle and spit. I sigh.

Not so bad here, really. I've been chomping at the bit for some time, talking north, talking escape, planning those still so far away golden years. It's the fatigue. Work, work, no room for play makes a Z squirm and restless. Keep those numbers trim. I've consulted with a new financial adviser in the past week ... can it happen? Will I ever be free? I can be, he says, with discipline. For this, I do not lack it.

Yet there is just so much one can do in a few years time when most of my adult working years were so lean. I'm trying to be realistic even as I refuse to entirely quash a dream. For now, to ease the way, to provide some reward today while I work for tomorrow, I gift to myself by gifting to my house, providing comfort and reprieve.

Such as this corner on the newly painted deck. I've created a cozy corner, and the trees and shrubbery have grown in just the right places around the backyard, so that when I sit on the loveseat, not one neighbor has a view of me. I could almost imagine myself in the woods already.

The night deepens, and the cool edge to it is delicious. I've longed for such evenings. Legs outstretched, I lean back and sip a cool something and gaze up at the stars, a glimmering between the ceiling of tree limbs overhead, so thickly leafed now I almost can't see the sky at all. There is no moon anywhere.

Glass empty, I bring out my laptop, plug it in to the deck extension, and boot up a movie channel. I pick a foreign film, French subtitled, an autobiographical documentary of director and photographer Agnes Varda, called The Beaches of Agnes. The story unfolds, the elderly Agnes walking backwards on a beach as she returns to the stories of her childhood and young adulthood, her first forays into photography. I'm drawn in, amused and enchanted by her story, and the night draws in around me.

When it's done, I'm not. I still want to sit in the cool of the night. That cooling air, it's a caress. And I love this night silence. I sit long after the last ember has grown black.

On Sunday morning, I'm back out again. Another gift, this pleasantly refreshing morning. Yesterday's just picked raspberries add fresh flavor to my oatmeal. I'm still in my robe, a blanket tossed across my lap, the morning is that cool still, and it makes me smile. Long time coming. I've had cabin fever, and now I can't bear to go inside. 

Only long enough to make a dent into those summer vegetables. Amy has sent a recipe for her tomato soup, and I know it's incredibly delicious--she's served it to me. Now it's my turn to make it. I cut her recipe by almost half, just enough to put some away but mostly so that I have some for now, this week, perhaps to serve some guests.

I don't like tomato soup. At least, I thought I didn't, until I tasted Amy's. Campbell's, what travesty. I blanch a dozen sun-ripened tomatoes, mixing types, including some heirlooms. The skins pop off and I put those into compost. I chop up the skinless tomatoes, celery, onions, peppers, and toss in fresh basil. A bit of flour, butter, brown sugar and salt, including some of my oak-smoked sea salt, and it thickens. Now a loaf of fresh, crusty bread, Irish butter, cheese made by The Cheese Lady in Texas Corners, just down the road.

Just then my parents stop by, as if called and drawn in by tomato scent. I seat them on my patio loveseat and serve. They moan with culinary delight and ask for more.

But then the patio is mine again. The world draws in to become my little corner of it. There are so, so many things I should be doing ... so much work awaits. I only give it this: a load of laundry, dishes rinsed and put into the dishwasher and set to humming, but then I'm out again.

I'm reading The Winter Diary by t. kilgore splake, and I can't help but see the similarities, even if there are so many opposite paths. I think this book has come my existential way with supreme timing. Nesting as I am, planning as I am, fingering dreams to see which ones will, should, can hold, and which ones pack away, I am reminded by this story of my own chafing spirit.

A few days ago, I shared a Guinness--delicious! first of my approaching-longed-for-fall season--with Andy Robins, news director of WMUK, Kalamazoo's NPR affiliate, and his sweet wife, Dorothy. We talked ideas for the station's expanding "Arts and More" series. I told Andy about splake and his ties to Kalamazoo, and it seemed a good fit. I'll do an on-air interview with the Keweenaw writer sometime in September, connected by Skype on the northern end with me in the radio booth here in Kalamazoo. We're working out the details now, but I'm already formulating the questions in my mind as I read The Winter Diary ...

... and wondering how many of those questions will really be my own dream-ghosts itching in, as splake would put it, my brain-skull cavity, and in silenced screaming protest of, as he would put it, rat bastard time. Stealing mine. Oh, to be in the woods, deep into the cool green silence, and hear one voice only, of that old tease Muse. What writer, what artist, doesn't dream of it?

All life working, toiling, toward that freedom that for too many, somehow, never comes. I'm determined not to let it get away in the trivia of the every day.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nesting Instinct

by Zinta Aistars
The last time I recall having this intense of a nesting instinct, I was nine months very pregnant. We had just moved south from Michigan to just outside of Cincinnati, across the Ohio River and on the Kentucky side. I’d never lived in such a big house, but there was no time to be dazzled. The clock was ticking, the calendar pages were flying away, the due date was approaching—there was no time to spare. With hubby at work in his new job, a newly minted chief of a department overseeing 800 employees, he was gone, gone, gone, and I and my round belly were the only ones in the new house to unpack and make it Home.
It took some interesting belly gyrations and heavy-load tricks to paint the new nursery, unpack stacks of boxes, and arrange the house just so. I worked at a frenzied pace, fierce in my determination. I wanted it all to be ready and perfect for our first baby. And it was. And she was.
But that was a long time ago, a long way away, in a marriage that has been long over, and I am oh too wonderfully far into midlife to be growing that kind of belly.
So what’s with the nesting instinct?
What is it, who is it, that I am preparing to birth now? Paint brush in hand, dabbed all over with dark brown paint—autumn brown, states the can, hardly a nursery shade—I am coating the deck walls and railings with a fresh new coat.
This, after a long list of other home repairs and improvements. With much gratitude to my handy son, all grown up baby #2, my bathroom is now entirely renovated, from repainted ceiling down to new porcelain floor tiles and vanity. One of the bedrooms has been renovated; the others have been prepped. The living and dining rooms were gutted and redone a couple years ago. Landscaping has transformed the front of the house.
After 14 years—count ‘em! 14!—of having a non-working dishwasher in my kitchen, I bought a top of the line new machine for my son to install. I’d forgotten it was there, felt no need, but now that I had this new purring appliance, I couldn’t be more delighted.
A renovation of the downstairs bathroom has just begun, the family room soon to follow, and I have been eyeing that living room carpet and thinking … new hardwood floors? a gas fireplace installed on the freestanding wall?
What gives?
I let the paintbrush drip into the paint can for a moment to access my progress. Just a few months ago, I very nearly bought a new house closer to work. Two weeks from closing, with the seller giving me an opening with his reluctance to make the repairs my home inspector had pointed out, I did a quick backpedal. I walked. I recommitted to my 110-mile daily commute—oh, it’s not that bad!—and starting showering my current house with gifts instead. 
And it’s not just the home repairs and buffing up. Something else has been going on with me. I’ve been cooking up a storm of garden fresh vegetables and farm-raised meats into delicious meals, freezing many for a winter day to come. Every Friday, I stop by Harvest of Joy in Shelbyville, an organic farm run by my friend Amy, gardener and poet extraordinaire, and pick up my CSA share. Every Friday, I bring home a tote full of tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeño peppers, sweet peppers, green onions, eggplant, broccoli, basil, dill, zucchini, salad greens, kale, turnips, beets, snap beans, cantaloupe, until the bounty spills in vivid color across my kitchen counters. 
I think I’m going to have to buy an extra freezer. All week I cook and prepare, marveling at how good food tastes when it’s this fresh. What I can’t eat, I stash. Great pots of water boil as I trim beans to blanch, then freeze. My eyes water from slicing and dicing jalapeño peppers to freeze for autumn chili.  Dish after dish of diced green onions are stacked in my freezer to use in those weeks when the garden will lie fallow.
Am I feeding an army?
No, just me. And my visiting all grown up babies, and my dear friends, and my much beloved family, and that special face waiting so patiently at the brand new front door to come in, please come in and be welcome!
Yet I am struck with how much I resemble a squirrel, padding my nest with a comfortable lining, storing away a stash of yummy nuts for the winter, scampering this way and that to get all ready.
Ready for what?
All my life, as long as I can remember, I have longed for Home with a capital H. I have always found myself in various degrees of Home in many different places, notably on this shore, the United States, as well as on the Baltic shore, in Latvia, where my ethnic roots go deep. That still remains so. And for all my moving about during my life, I have left pieces of myself in many places that I’ve lived. I have roots in Cincinnati, where both of my children were born, but in some ways even more in the Keweenaw, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where wild beauty resonates in me in ways I do not feel anywhere else.
I still can’t say where the coming years will take me. On many travels, I’m sure, although I’ve been exploring nearby places more than the beyond and distant yonder in the last few years.
Certainly this house here, now, the one where I’ve lived the past 16 or so years, is not nearly the best of them all. But it’s mine. I am dutifully paying it off. If it little resembles today what it once was, it is because I have been infusing it with my own personality, my own joie de vivre, expressions of myself in terms of art and color and mood, mementoes of those other places I also love, and of those many people who matter to me.
What all that swirl comes down to … is that I can create Home wherever I am. Because no place is perfect. No one place holds me entirely. Every place on earth is temporary. Why not make this one its very best and most suited to me?
Even as I watch the world swirl around me. Such madness. Debates about debt and default, world markets crashing, housing markets diving, retirement plans turning to smoke, what’s a middling old girl to do? Slow down and get my acorns in a row. Make the best of what I have. On one hand, dressing up my nest to be as nice as I can make it. On the other, paying off all debt, trimming those numbers down to zero, so that the madness need not affect me.
If I was nesting then, those decades ago, in preparation for the birth of a baby, I seem to be nesting now for the birth of a retirement nest egg, complete with nest. Haven’t I worked toward this end all my roller coaster life? I see that golden place ahead, even if it is yet many years …. but I want to plan now, be ready, have my winter stash safe in its bounty.
Funny, it suddenly occurs to me—what I am doing is a combination of cuts and targeted spending. I am investing and saving, but I am also spending to build a future. It takes both approaches to get it right.
I dip my brush in the paint and cover one more board. The night is coming on, getting too dark to really see what I am doing. Time for rest. The old deck is looking sharp. I visualize the new fire pit, the patio chairs and sofa with welded coffee table to hold my book and chilled glass. Ah, those warm and breezy evenings … I am sure I will enjoy many to come, right here, creating the perfect place for them. Eventually, this will become a sun room, with windowed walls, but until I save for that, this will be exactly right.
Just as there is no Mr. Perfect, I’ve discovered—there is no perfect Home. We need to bring it to ourselves, create it around us, own it, make it ours. Sustainable, reasonable, beautiful, peaceful. Wherever we are at this moment in time.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fine Silken Stitches

by Zinta Aistars

Working it, working it, trying to thread this dang thread through that dang needle, squint, blink, squint ... wait a minute. Flashback. My vecmamīte, my Grandmamma, asking me, little Z, to come thread the needle for her, because my young eyes are better than her old eyes ... oh, I miss her. And my young eyes.

Does anyone sew anymore? I had once owned a sewing machine, long long ago, when I was a young wife and all things seemed to flow so easily from my hands. I would sew dresses for myself, and a dress I sewed for my mother, a summer shift of light white material with tiny sprigs of green leaves, still hangs in my mother’s closet these several decades later, even though she no longer wears it.

I knew my dresses would never compete with those that my vecmamīte would sew. Her perfectionism was legendary. She would at most glance at a pattern, but freely design the dress herself, combining fabrics, adding flourishes, revising the angle of seams and darts, until it was entirely her own. Down to the final stitch, just so, and if something struck her wrong, she would sputter in fury and pull out the thread, unraveling the entire dress and doing it all over again.

Until every stitch was just right. Her work was exquisite. When I attended a party, a dance, a gala affair in my younger days, I would wear the dress she had sewn for me, especially for that particular occasion, and I felt beautiful.

My family would travel across the country—to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago—to Latvian Song Festivals, or I would attend Latvian Youth Congress every November, and these gatherings would take place in grand hotels, drawing hundreds if not thousands of Latvians from across the country, even from across the ocean. Ballrooms lit up with crystal chandeliers, orchestras played, and couples swirled in waltzes. Women wore long gowns and the men were in dark suits, elegantly cut. And I, I was a tomboy turned princess for the night by the magic of my grandmother’s hands.

My vecmamīte made that all possible. I never saw her attend any of these dances, although she would tell me tales of her own youth, the dresses she had worn, the dances she had danced …. all cut short by the war. She was still a young woman when her family became refugees, living in barracks for displaced persons, wondering if they would ever see home.

She never saw Latvia again. The English language would always be difficult for her. She would look out from the windows of her little house on Elkerton Street in Michigan, her heart hammering in her chest, and wait for the Bolshevik troops to come and get her, tear her away once again from her life and her family.

I wondered if those tiny, fine stitches helped to keep her new life together. Out of ugliness and brutality, she would create a new life with her family, and she would sew beautiful gowns.

As I stood in her living room with a new dress draped over me for a fitting, pins prickling my skin at every seam, she would step back and gaze at me, up and down, head to toe, turning her head this way and that, looking for a fault in her work. When the dress was ready at last, I would try it on and swirl in front of her so that she could see the way the fabric would flow across my young body, how it would drape my lines and compliment them.

If it looked the way she wanted it to look, she would step back, her hands held together as if in prayer, tucked beneath her chin, and press her lips into a smile. Her blue eyes would shine, and mist over a little.

Tu esi skaista …. you are beautiful, Zintiņ!

Because she made me so. Her love sewn into every tiny looping of the thread, cut into the bias, tucked into the ribboned trim, folded inside the hem. I would dance for her, my vecmamīte, in those beautiful ballrooms.

I no longer attend such galas. My paths seem to lead me now more often to walks in the woods. And still I hear her, see her in the slant of sunlight in those great green rooms beneath the trees. And I see her now, sometimes, when I look in the mirror. Now that I have let my hair go white, it reminds me of hers, snow white as she grew older, in glowing soft waves against her lined face.

Now that I thread my needle to take up a hem, I think of her. As her years accrued, she would call me to her to thread her needle when she had trouble seeing its tiny eye. Tev ir jaunas acis, Zintiņ, you have young eyes, will you thread this for me?

When she died, we held onto her old Husqvarna sewing machine for several years. It was a beautiful machine, black and decorated with gold swirls, powered by a pedal below it that she pushed back and forth with her foot according to the speed she desired. But none of us had the time or wish to sew. I abandoned my new Singer machine once I graduated from college. Eventually, a small shop in Chicago that collected vintage sewing machines bought the Husqvarna and put it on display in their window.

Her dresses no longer fit me, nor I them. Those ballrooms have faded into darkness, the tinkling of crystal has the distant echo of dreams. My grandmother is seamed into my heart, with fine silken stitches. I finish my hem, loop the thread and bite it off, just as she did. I tuck my hands beneath my chin as if in prayer, counting the stitches, and smile, because she is so beautiful, her glowing white hair like a halo, her bright blue eyes, her laughter to see me dance and the dress she’d sewn swirling around me, the fabric come alive.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon, Cooking Up the Love

by Zinta Aistars

This little piggy went to market ... this little piggy was only for a moment tempted to stay home. Another humid and hot Saturday, but I was getting an itchy brain from staying inside all summer, avoiding the intolerable heat. And, my sister had come out for a visit from Chicago. I wanted to show her a good time and share a growing passion (pun intended).

My plan was to make this Saturday a foodie day: early morning at Texas Township Farmers Market, including omelets for breakfast, made for us on the spot; a stop in Shelbyville as we headed north from Kalamazoo toward Grand Rapids (Michigan) to tour the Harvest of Joy garden where my weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) share is harvested for me weekly; a quick turn east to Middleville to find the local meat market and butcher shop I'd read about recently in The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather; back north again to Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids; a late lunch somewhere in the city before heading south again, topped off with ice cream at Plainwell Ice Cream Shop in Plainwell, just before returning to Kalamazoo ... and maybe stopping in to check out the grand opening of People's Food Co-op as we rolled back into town.

Diane Glenn in the Harvest of Joy garden
My sister had been hearing me go on and on about eating local and eating organic for more than two years now. The whole family had observed it, my expanding knowledge on the topic and with that, my hardening insistence that I eat this way and this way only. Sure, now and then, I crossed the line to the dark side when going out for dinner with a friend who was less rooted in the cause. But recently I'd made a scrunchy face of disgust when my mother offered to make a quick lunch when I'd stopped by and held up a canned ham in promise. I couldn't help it. Before I knew it, I'd made a sound of disgust and was shaking my head, no thank you! My mother was used to me by now and took no offense. She scrambled a couple free-range eggs and dropped in a few bits of green onion, fresh from the garden.

Buddy and Amy Newday
Nor was my sister resisting my message, although I suspected she thought I was a bit over the top with it all. She would listen politely, nod and smile. But I wanted her to understand, in part because I wanted to share my delicious discoveries. This food tasted so much better. More than two years, and I was still discovering new foods, heirloom vegetables, intense flavors that had been missing from my table all life long. I had had no idea what I had been missing. I wanted her to have a taste, too.

I prattled on about the better health and nutrition, how bison was leaner and had more protein than beef, how heirloom tomatoes, now bursting into season, offered so many different flavors of tomato than the paltry two or three types available at the supermarket. How factory farms torment animals, penning pigs for their entire lifespans, feeding feces of poultry to livestock and farmed fish, chopping off the beaks of chickens who live out their lives in tiny wire cages, eggs dropping through the wire onto assembly lines. We won't even get started on the use of antibiotics in animals (well, yes, I did).

On and on I went, and one wonders that I didn't ruin our appetites, but when we walked into Texas Township market, I shut up and just let her see it all. Not like she didn't already know. She had long loved farmers markets, too. Both she and her husband were exceptional cooks. Indeed, she'd been the one to introduce me to the wonderful in-city farmers market in Cleveland many years ago, when we both lived there, and I suspect she visited the Cincinnati farmers market more often than I did when she lived there, and I lived just across the Ohio River on the Kentucky side. She'd gotten out of the habit, perhaps, because the suburb outside of Chicago where she lived had only recently started to organize a market.

We sat down at a picnic table in the center of this market with our just-off-the-pan hot omelets, filled with garden vegetables. The day was heating up quickly, although storm clouds had gathered at the edge of the northern horizon. Our totes were filling up fast with salad greens, blueberries, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and smoked pork chops from a nearby farm. And cheese from The Cheese Lady, creamy golden slabs of it, and a little tub of chevre goat's cheese from Mattawan Artisan Creamery.

By the time we were on the interstate heading north, the clouds had gathered and broken open. Rain was splattering on the car windshield. Then it stopped again. We took a turn into Shelbyville to visit Amy and Diane at Harvest of Joy Farms. They were in the garden, of course, checking out the Japanese beetles on the pole beans that left both of them in shadow. It was an organic garden, and any sprays that went on for pests were organically made. Mostly, they made do. The garden dog, Buddy, did his best to scare away anything that didn't belong there. Perhaps nibbling bunnies or curious deer from surrounding woods, but Buddy was too sweet to scare away much ...

Then on to Geuke's Market and compromise. I was disappointed to find that their meats weren't from grass-fed cattle, only corn-fed, so I passed on the beef, but did stock up on their thick slabs of their famous bacon. The customer service was down-home exceptional, with a tossed in extra discount for being first-time customers, and that was a big part of why I enjoy buying locally: it's nice to deal with someone who will soon know you by name. In a world that is increasingly connected with technology, many of us can attest to the simultaneous isolation, standing in long check-out lines, picking out shrink-wrapped packages, and never exchanging a word with anyone in those gargantuan stores. Shopping this way, from local sellers, was a way to connect with one's community and make new friends and strengthen old ones. It added to the local economy, helped to keep us all employed, and undeniably nurtured the spirit as much as the body.

By the time we headed up to Fulton Street Market in Grand Rapids, the sky had grown ominously low and dark, and the rain was coming down so hard that I had to slow on the country roads to see where I was going. We didn't fear melting. Out into the pouring rain we went, umbrellas overhead, and couldn't help giggling as we sloshed through puddles. In fact, I noticed most everyone there was grinning in the rain, even dancing a little. Farmers and vendors were still selling their produce, and we were still buying.

There, the heirloom tomatoes I'd been craving. I filled a bag with them, every color, striped green, chocolate brown, blushing red, golden yellow, orange. A round loaf of dill bread, baked that morning. Cream-top milk from Moo-ville Dairy, plus a bottle of their buttermilk ranch dressing. There was no comparison between these and store-bought.

Our skirts soaked and sandals squeaking wet, we escaped into the Erb Thai restaurant on Wealthy Street for our late lunch. Hot and spicy curry on a rainy day, just the thing. At least the temperatures seemed to be cooling from the downpour ...

... but once the skies cleared, the heat began rising again. My sister and I shared our dislike for the heat of summer, both longed for a cool autumn, even a white winter, but the bounty of gardens made this a season we could still enjoy, if only through our palates.

A foodie day, but after a tour through Russo's deli on 29th Street, picking up a couple bottles of Michigan wines, we couldn't resist Schuler Books, another shared passion. I held myself in check, books crowding me out of home, but my sister came out with five books in her hands, and a gift of a tee-shirt for me with Thoreau's Walden on it, a log cabin by the water.

Ice cream, then, icy cold, that will do! Made right there in tiny Plainwell. We stopped at the little brick shop and made our choices. Rum raisin for me, with chocolate chips and coconut for my sister. We licked those cones as slow as the ice cream would allow, savoring.

Daina in ice cream bliss

A quick stop at People's Food Co-op and I found the organic blueberries I'd been seeking. Five pounds of berries to eat now, freeze for later, bake into muffins and toss into morning crepes.

By the time we were home again, the day was spent and so was our grocery money, totes full and coolers loaded. Enough here to keep us fed for many weeks, freezers stocked. I couldn't imagine spending a day at the mall, a place I hadn't visited in many years, or wandering the aisles of a supermarket as an enjoyable pastime, but this day had been fun beginning to end.

I made BLTs with the just-baked dill bread, the thick slabs of smoked bacon, leafy greens and juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes. We enjoyed raspberries, strawberries and blueberries with Greek yogurt for dessert, and settled in to watch a movie for the evening, sipping Michigan wine.

Sleep came sweet with the patter of summer rain on the roof ...

... and Sunday morning almost too soon, but with another fun day planned in Saugatuck, we gulped down hot coffee and brushed aside sleep. Our parents arrived soon enough, and Dad's van was big enough to take all of us to Lake Michigan, where Saugatuck, artsy resort village, was side by side with Douglas, filled with art galleries.

And again the rain! When the downpour became heavy, we found ourselves exactly at the right spot, between here and there, and ready for lunch. Crane's Pie Pantry in Fennville was known all along this third coast for their delicious pies, fruit picked from their surrounding orchards. Peaches, apples, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb. A la mode, of course, and warm. The bakery was busy, but we passed through into the restaurant to enjoy sandwiches first, then the pie. Walls were covered with antiques and vintage trivia, toy airplanes from days long gone by hung from the ceiling, and the floors were painted with big bright red apples to keep us on our path to our table.

It hadn't been so very long since all four of us had traveled north together, to the Keweenaw Peninsula for a week on Lake Superior. My sister and I had made it a gift for our parents' 60th anniversary. That was in May. We hadn't traveled together since we'd been children and they were young ... now, we all laughed, we were all four card-carrying AARP members.

As we found out on that trip north, our family dynamics had silvered to a fun level of family interaction. My sister and I were now the ones giving advice, making the big decisions, keeping us from getting lost. Our elderly parents were grateful for us to take the reins.

Saugatuck, Michigan

We all four had lousy memories, and that brought endless laughter. Sentences were started then broke off in midthought, unfinished, minds wandering onto another tangent. It wasn't long before we were laughing so hard that we were shedding tears, just as we had done in May. Fascinating how family changes over the passing of years, sustained in our mutual love for each other, but with ever changing roles, and sometimes role reversal, as we passed through the various stages of life. In many ways, we now sat at this lunch table as equals, and shared laughter as friends.

When my mother opened her wallet later, as we made a stop at a spice shop, my sister and I peered over her shoulder at the photo tucked into the plastic pocket. Our father, but from decades ago. We guessed ... at about the time I was born. Wearing a fedora, hair black as ink, chin leaned thoughtfully into the palm of his hand, wearing a tweed coat, he was gaspingly handsome. "Dapper and dashing," said the store clerk, noticing the center of our attention. He was. And still was, even as the passing years had changed him, as it had all of us.

It seemed now, whenever we came together as a family, we were all keenly aware of how quickly time was speeding by ...

So we treasured every moment, even when our feet hurt from walking up and down the main street of Douglas and then Saugatuck. We checked out all the art galleries, but let my father rest on the bench outside with his walking cane while we old girls enjoyed the boutiques. I showed him how to read on my Kindle, where to push the button to turn the pages. He shook his head with amazement that I had 93 books stored on this slim gadget, easily finding one that would interest him. I told him I could store yet several thousand more on it, and he sighed with wonder. Too much to grasp. He turned it in his hands, as if to find the secret compartment that held within it an entire library.

The rain clouds had long passed, dissipated over the edge of trees beyond, and the skies were blue again. The sun dipped lower. We headed home.

How many such weekends might we yet enjoy? Every moment a miracle. The passing of years deepened that appreciation. We were aware, we were always aware.

And if I had always appreciated my family, a thousandfold so now. I would still wonder at that bond that on a genetic level made us share so many traits. My sister and I love the same foods, both of us are mad for mushrooms, sauteed in butter, and both of us used too much salt, favoring savory over sweet. We both long to lose ourselves in northern wilderness, even as our lives now hardly resemble each other's at all. We can't resist a good book, or even a passable one, choosing to read over television any day. The older we got, the more we seemed to physically resemble each other, whereas when young we had each our own look.

I knew I had inherited several of my father's personality traits, his ease with solitude, the seemingly endless patience before suddenly bursting into flame. I shared his passion for the arts, as did my sister. And the three of us women could chatter and spurt giggles together like girls, while my father would look on quietly, a small smile turning up the corner of his mouth, until, when we would least expect it, he would deliver the one-liner that would put us into stitches.

If I'd taken little notice of such things when younger, I thrived on them now. The weekend ended too soon, but in that speeding time was an element of something that would never change, never tarnish, never grow old.