Saturday, January 28, 2012

Back Through Generations

by Zinta Aistars

My niece Erika has recently taken up an intense interest in her family history. At one point or another, I think we all get to wondering about our roots. Who came before us? Who do we carry within us? Who will our own genes travel through to future generations?

I thought I might help her put together her family tree and dug around in my own files. Before my paternal grandparents passed away, they thoughtfully wrote up their memories, as far back as they could recall, and gave me a copy.

When my maternal grandfather passed away, an alarm went off inside me. He had taken a lifetime of memories with him, unrecorded, some never told. While I did have stored away by then in my own memories the many stories he had told me growing up, I had neglected to write them down. And memory is a faulty thing. I couldn't lose more in this way, so I invited my maternal grandmother to come visit me for a week, and over that week, we sat on a white wooden bench my grandfather had made, hour after hour, all afternoons long and into those evenings, and she told me her stories while I wrote them down. That was sometime in the late 1970s ... she's long gone now, too.

Family trees are ever expanding, and in constant need of updating. As I gathered what notes and information I had for Erika, I invited her to help me get the family at our next gathering ... Easter? ... and talk about our various memories. Someone should write them down, at very least record the conversation. We must not lose more. This is family treasure.

I paged through the now yellowed pages I had in hand. My grandparents had typed them out carefully on my grandfather's old Remington typewriter, and my own scribbled notes were on tiny notebook pages, unraveling now at the binding. Most of these were written in the Latvian language.

My files were also full of yellowed newspaper clippings. Obituaries, various newspaper and magazine articles about family news and achievements. I had to shake my head at some of the old clippings of my own life ... the years have gone by so quickly as I now look back. We think life will go on forever when we are young ... when we are older, in hindsight, we see it increasingly as the blink of an eye.

Here was my father in 1997, meeting with then president of Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis. The newspaper Diena, published in Riga, Latvia, had misspelled our surname, Aistars, as "Aizstars." But my father's oil painting of a woman in Latvian folk costume was now a part of the permanent art collection at the Riga Pils (Riga Castle), the president's residence in the capitol city. My father was actually a name once included in a crossword puzzle in the Riga newspaper, seven squares across. The Aistars name, my grandparents write in their notes, was first my grandfather's pseudonym when he wrote his first of 12 novels. In 1937, he made the name official.

And here was a clipping from the Kalamazoo Gazette with an article about a 18.5 foot long, 6.5 foot high triptych my father was painting in  his garage, commissioned by a church in Chicago. He was 57 years old then, just a few years older than I am now.

I read through my grandparents notes about the family. So much suffering in the family, many times over refugees through different occupations of Latvia, through different wars. Yet such endurance ... and strong genes. My maternal grandmother's grandmother lived to age 105. My paternal great-grandfather lived to 84, even after seven years of being deported to a harsh life in Siberia. He was a widower twice. He loved books, played the violin, conducted the church choir and gave sermons.

I've seen that little church in Sarnate where he gave those sermons, conducted those choirs. I have walked the property and sat on the porch of the house where he lived, where my grandfather was born, where my father spent his summers as a little boy. It's just a little way north up the road where the church is turned out toward the Baltic Sea.

Tomdeli, the house in Sarnate where my father, grandfather, great-grandfather  lived ...
I read how my grandmother didn't see her father, Andrejs, for months at a time because he was a man drawn to the sea. She waited for the ship to come into port, her father bringing exotic gifts from faraway places to her and her three sisters and brother. A pair of embroidered slippers, and the antlers of a caribou which the family hung on the wall to hold hats. Whenever he opened his sea chest, she recalled the smell of the sea emanating into the room.

My father in the Kalamazoo Gazette
I read how she recalls the family burying her little sister who died at age 6. And that her grandmother taught her to read from a slender hymnal with no illustrations. It was the beginning of her lifelong passion for books. She writes about the first time she saw my grandfather, a tall, slender man with wavy dark hair, coming into the church. "That's the son of the Sarnate minister," her girlfriend whispered to her, and my grandmother's heart skipped a beat. In my memory, my grandfather's hair was always snow white ... and I smile to remember my own parent's stories of their meeting in Chicago, so many years later. My father saw my mother in the church choir (he was a baritone, she was an alto) and the two fell in love.

My grandfather's sister Anna lost her husband to the sea as well, shortly after they were married. The waves took him and he never returned. In her grief, she remained alone, a young widow, for the rest of her life, eventually sharing a home with my grandmother's sister Milda. She, too, was a teacher.

I read about the first shared home my grandmother and grandfather had in Dobele, a one-room apartment, where they moved soon after their wedding in 1925, and yet she felt as if she was living in  paradise. Their love story continued lifelong, as they shared many passions for art and literature and teaching. My father was born in Dobele, the eldest of four sons. When my grandfather became director of the Jelgava Teachers' Institute, my grandmother recalls with obvious pleasure how often the students would come to visit her, also a teacher, at their home. The girls would ask if they could unplait and brush her long hair. My grandmother never cut her hair over her lifetime. Past her waist when she married, it hung to her knees when she grew older. My grandfather sometimes washed it for her in rainwater they collected in barrels in the backyard.

There are pages of memories of the war and of the family being forced to leave Latvia. The family of six packed only what they could carry, walking from Jelgava to Tukums, from there taking a train to Ventspils, where they boarded the boat Sanga to take them to Germany. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. My mother's family and my father's family met in Chicago ... and eventually, that is where I was born.

So much here, so much is missing. I gaze at the photos of my father as a young man, laughing, his head thrown back, his hair thick and dark. His hair is white and much thinner now, his back bent, but when he laughs, I still see that younger man, my handsome daddy.

The passage of time ... and so much of our lives is soon forgotten. Yet perhaps some generation not yet born will someday look at our own photographs and wonder ... what were those people like? Are we in some way alike?

Future generations: my daughter Lorena dances a Latvian folk dance in the foreground,  1987.

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