Tuesday, September 06, 2011

House of Mirrors

by Zinta Aistars
She laughs. I’m counting the days—4,474—and my daughter laughs, reminding me with an arched eyebrow to enjoy the moment.
“Of course,” I acknowledge. “There’s a balance between not missing today and planning for the future. Although I can get a tad obsessed …”
It’s my favorite topic among several, talking retirement, planning my breakaway, even if it is still a wad of years away and thousands of days. I commend my daughter, newly crossed into her decade of the 30s, on putting away a nice stash already into her retirement plan. I did not have that option back then, and am hustling now to make up for lost time. If she keeps going like she’s going, her golden years will be golden indeed, while still lining the present with silver.
So we chatter, sitting across from each other at a Thai restaurant, walking distance from the Chicago condo into which she is currently moving. She is on the brink of considering forming a family of her own, playing with the thought, while I am gradually approaching the brink (but 4,474 days away!) of making my empty nest cozy for what I hope will be easier days. We compare dreams.
We are in vastly different places in our lives, and I consider how different we are, mother and daughter. It amuses me, that this old country girl (me) has produced such a vibrant city girl (my daughter). Are such things genetic? Her father was born and bred New York City, to the bone and the steel girder, but while I have always prided myself on my flexibility and adaptability to most any environment, my lean has always been toward the green, the leafy, the wide open. 
I mostly raised my children on my own, and a significant part of that was out in the country or at very least small city or village, but she resisted the non-urban even then. She longed for that fast pace, the excitement, the constant movement, an endless itinerary with every space filled with action, action, action.
We pay up at the restaurant and walk back home, Chicago streets dazzling with their lights and sounds and not entirely pleasant smells. Chicago—I was born here. It’s in my blood, too. I feel a little thrump of my heart when I first spot the skyline, driving in from Michigan, and I never tire of that wide curve of Lake Shore Drive at the southern bend of Lake Michigan, the endless crashing water to my right, the soaring skyscrapers to my left, the Gold Coast, as I drive in to see her. I do get it.
I just don’t crave it, as she does, as I crave the wild north. I enjoy the visit, adjust my rhythm to the heartbeat of the city in its cemented chest, but then race out again, letting the jagged skyline sink back into the horizon behind me.
We pass the row of cafés and shops and boutiques and restaurants a block away from her home, and here is part of what I do enjoy: the cultural diversity. Walking through the big city can be like walking from country to country, languages on signs changing, cuisine and clothing and goods changing, and for a while, one might think a passport had been involved. We’ve visited neighborhoods that are miniaturized, quick  trips to Greece, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Lithuania, Poland, Italy, China … and the list goes on. It satisfies my wanderlust, or piques it for a trip to the true source.
Yet it’s the pace that seduces her, I can see that, as even her step has absorbed it. I used to walk that fast, I think, but no more. Or at least, when I catch myself walking that fast, I purposefully slow. Don’t miss the moment, I think, and leave a little elbow room between the moments.
I treasure these. My time with my daughter is always treasure, moments of sunshine in the every day, sparkle tossed into the mundane. I am always fascinated to learn more about her life and what she enjoys, how she thrives, what makes her tick. She is the greatest wonder of this city, to me.
We lounge for a while in the condo she shares with her honey, gone for the weekend, but our chatter dies down to a slow simmer, then fades. It’s been a long day, a long drive for me, dropping my parents off at my sister’s house on the northwest side of the city and then turning around to head back in again. And it’s been a hot day. That alone saps me. She giggles about growing old herself, ready for bed by midnight, but I don’t buy it.
In the morning, I wake to a view of Chicago brick out the bedroom window. It’s the same view she’s had at her last several addresses, with slight variation in color of brick and its proximity. Sirens flare in the distance, bouncing off brick walls, circling up in the courtyards to slip in open windows. It is the music of the city. The honking of the horns, the screech of brakes, the distant hum and throb of conversation on the streets.
I miss my morning cuppa in the garden, sitting on my deck beneath the canopy of trees, but it passes as I watch her bustle about the kitchen. She is in full blossom, her youth, her vibrancy, her all-is-possible dreams a shimmer that add an almost tangible aura around her. What a wonder she is. Reminding me of my own life, my own youth, my own dreams. She reminds me to be inspired and to believe.
When we sit down in a Swedish restaurant, Svea, for a mushroom omelet and crêpes with lingonberry preserves, two older gentlemen at the table next to us gaze from her face to mine and back again.
“You wouldn’t be related, would you?” one of them chuckles, not expecting an answer. Apparently, no answer is required. My daughter’s coloring has always been light, all sunshine and blonde, and mine had always been dark brunette, but now that I’ve gone white, perhaps we resemble each other even more. I wink at her, mouthing, “Poor you. Lucky me,” and she makes a face at me and rolls her eyes, then laughs.
We eat off each other’s plates, tasting and comparing. The two gentlemen tip their hats when leaving, wishing us a good meal and a good day, and we wish them likewise. We talk about her brother, back home, who had once been my little clone, and she daddy’s girl, but somewhere over the years, they’d switched. He was now the spitting image, as they say, of his father, alike even in gesture, so much so that sometimes I drew my breath in surprise, taken back in place and time. She had grown from resembling him as a child to mirroring a younger me, and in her expressions, I sometimes see my own.
There, that way she frowns a bit when considering the world around her, drawing a line between her brows. Arcing one brow, that was me. And maybe that love of the hurried, maybe there was some mirroring of my lack of patience in realizing favored dreams … counting days, counting days, to get to where I want to be.
Locking up the condo, we head back out of the city and toward the Chicago suburbs, where my sister and the rest of the family wait for us. There I get my fix of lush garden. If not exactly wild, still gorgeous in its taming. Another lifestyle that in no way resembles my own, my sister’s immense and luxurious home in a gated community, yet there you have it … we couldn’t walk down the street together either without someone remarking on our strong resemblance.
Family, yes. We could each move off in our individual directions, develop lives and interests loosely held together by roaming tangents, yet from time to time, we felt the need to reconnect, dabble in each other’s worlds to remain aware. What are you up to? This and that, and you?
I had a sense of my world expanding for our family connections, city and country, wealthy and not so much, married and single, young and aging, and so on and on. We were bonded in our interest in knowing each other’s paths, even if veering off in such different directions.
And for all our dissimilarities, our similarities could surprise. My sister and I have some common interests and tastes that amuse us both. We share a ravenous appetite for mushrooms. One glued to city, other to country, but both with an eye sharply focused on the north for later years. We adore books and trade them, even as our chosen topics can vary greatly. We scare our mother at the family dinner table by how much salt we pour over our food. Neither one of us has much of a sweet tooth, even though both our parents drool over rich desserts.
When we all go for a walk through the Chicago Botanical Garden, I take a path sideways sometimes to observe them all from afar. My daughter, my sister and her husband, our aging parents, my father choosing to take the trails in a rented wheelchair to ease his crumbling spine. We travel those botanical pathways as we travel through life—each drawn to a different environment, a different grouping of flowers, yet constantly checking over our shoulders for the direction taken by the others, and circling back again.
So we move forward, in circles. We are a series of overlapping circles, at one point far apart, then coming around to intersect again. We compare, point out, share what we see, so that none of us might miss what we may not have been drawn to on first passing. One of the joys of family—this expansion on our solitary worlds. If we felt an occasional friction of conflicting opinions or ways, other times there was a tug to consider something we might otherwise have missed. We are tied together by all the ways in which we are alike, but perhaps bonded even more by all the ways that we are different.
My family is my many mirrors on the world and back onto myself. The older I get, the more I appreciate this passage of reflection. They catch the light in angles I might not have, so that I don’t have to miss it, not entirely. They expand my reach even as they keep me rooted. My children gift me with a sense of immortality, watching my own features appear and reappear in many variations. Here is eternity, here is the absence of death’s sting. My elderly parents see life go on in us, their lives, too, same yet different. Life is constant change, life is endless variation.
We hold our mirrors up to each other to know ourselves better. We hold our mirrors up to each other so that the light never fades, only changes its slant across the garden path, leading ever onward. 

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