Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On Becoming a Hood Ornament

by Zinta Aistars

His light was a solid red. Mine, the sign at the other end of the crosswalk, read WALK. I was on my way to a holiday lunch at work, served at the hospital cafeteria, our executives and leadership serving up quarters of chicken and thick slabs of prime rib with wild rice, a medley of vegetables, croissant with butter, greens with dried cranberries, and raspberry cheesecake. It's a delicious meal, and all the employees show up ... there are, count 'em, about 18,000 of us. Yet each year for this annual holiday meal, the long and winding lines move remarkably quickly.

I'm thinking lunch as I step off the curb. I have no idea what he was thinking. Two lanes of cars were idling at the intersection, waiting for the light to change, but suddenly the driver of the white Ford on the outside lane decided he wanted to turn on the red ... turn right ... right through the spot where I was walking. He was looking left, watching for oncoming traffic, but I was in front of him, in front of that wide silver grill as it started to move toward me.

I made a yelp and a leap to my right, but I couldn't outmanuever a moving automobile. Next thing I knew the car's bumper was plowing into me, and if I didn't want to go under, I would have to go up. I bounced up on the edge of his hood and he hit the brakes.

I was okay. Surprised more than hurt. I got out of his way but then turned around to glare at him. His window came down, and I saw a kid, maybe 16 or 17 years old, wide eyed.

"Are you okay? I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

For some reason, I needed to reach out and touch him. A kid. I walked up to his window and squeezed his shoulder. "I'm all right," I said, "but you need to look both ways! Not just traffic, but you need to look for pedestrians, too!"

He nodded, pale.

Lunch then. The chicken was excellent. Drop off the bone tender and juicy. I enjoyed it and I felt fine. Only later, working at my desk again, did my left side feel a new soreness spreading, hip to knee. I thought about my grandfather, Latvian author Ernests Aistars (1899-1998), with a dozen published novels. He's long gone from me now, but I often think of his spirit, still with me. I thought about the time he was hit by a car as a pedestrian.

Pencil drawing of Ernests Aistars by Viestarts Aistars

My grandfather lived just shy of 100 years, and except for the last couple months of his life, he was always in remarkable health. Tall, slender, handsome, vibrant, he never missed a day of walking. It was the only exercise he did, but he couldn't accept a day without putting in a few miles. If for some reason he couldn't go outside to walk, he would pace the hallway in the house, back and forth, back and forth, holding his hands behind his back, deep in thought. I figured he was working out some thread in his next plotline.

Lidija and Ernests Aistars, my grandparents
My grandfather and my grandmother Lidija were known by everyone to be the perfect couple. They were often seen holding hands, huddling together, evident joy on their faces when they saw each other. Not once in my life do I remember a hard word between them, a look of impatience, or any evidence of discord. They were hand and glove. She taught language and literature at the Latvian school, and she edited and typed his handwritten book manuscripts. He had been director of the Jelgava Teachers' Institute in Latvia; they were two educators in life--with four sons, my father the eldest.
My grandfather with his four sons at my grandmother's funeral
When my grandmother died, none of us in the family or among their friends could imagine one without the other. How would he keep going without her? He walked. He read. He wrote. A painting of my grandmother, painted by my father (artist Viestarts Aistars), hung on his bedroom wall, and my parents once told me when visiting him on an evening that he'd been heard talking to the painting, still telling the love of his life about his day ...

My grandfather writing with chipmunk as muse

His walks weren't just strolls around the block. In his 90s, he no longer drove a car, but he walked everywhere--at a fast pace, with a long stride, covering miles in a day. He had rented an apartment about two miles outside of Kalamazoo. That meant frequent walks to the downtown library, two miles there, fill tote bag with books, two miles back.

That evening, my grandfather was on his way to the grocery store. If memory serves, he was 95 by then. The store wasn't so very far away. He cut across the street a little before the crosswalk, and that was his mistake. A Chevette had just made a fast turn right and he was right in its path. The car plowed into him, so hard that it threw him a good 50 feet across the pavement. An ambulance was called out and soon had him racing across town to Borgess Hospital ... where my father was already an inpatient.

My father at one of his art exhibits
Now, my father was once a great walker, too. When I was growing up, the two of us enjoyed long walks together in the evenings, talking art. His painting, my writing. But my father had back problems, and by now, this was his fourth back surgery. All those painful surgeries made no improvement on his crumbling spine. As straight-backed as my grandfather was, standing next to him, my father was bent over with chronic pain. More than once, those not in the know made a mistake identifying which was the father, which was the son.

When the ambulance brought my grandfather into the emergency department, my grandfather was conscious and grinning. No Chevette was going to dent his humor. In his Latvian accent, grinning, he told the attending physician and nurses: "I don't drive anymore. I needed a ride here so that I could visit my son, here for surgery. Thanks for the ride."

Stunned, they looked up the names of the admitted patients and found my father. After careful examination, finding no broken bones, no internal injuries, my grandfather, with badly bruised legs but otherwise no worse for the wear, was placed in the room next to my father.

I wasn't sure I wanted to continue that legacy. At least I wasn't thrown 50 feet. And I have some years, decades yet, to put down before I would get to my grandfather's age then. I figured there was a good chance I'd inherited not only his love for literature, but I was hoping for the genes of longevity and endurance, too.

Odd to say that becoming a momentary hood ornament on a white Ford brought back good memories. But it did. I massaged the sore area on my left thigh, wondering if he wasn't grinning down at me, up there somewhere, holding hands with my grandmother, tellling me to write a story about it, make it a good one, and keep walking.

For a catalog list of my books and my grandfather's books currently available at the Latvian National Library in Riga, Latvia, visit RIIM.


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