by Zinta Aistars
(Artwork by Viestarts Aistars)
Mama was disappointed in me. She tried not to show it, but I could sense the slight edge of sadness in her voice when I told her no, I would not go along with her on her romps Sunday afternoon in celebration of her birthday. She had hoped to go out to Three Rivers, to the Latvian Center Garezers there, to join in an after-holiday party. She did love her parties.
I heard her sigh over the phone and reluctantly agree to my invitation to stop by my house instead. I would take her to lunch.
When I hung up with Mama, I texted my sister in Chicago. She lived nearly four hours away. “Close one! She almost canceled!”
My sister sent me worried emoticons in response. :-o
On Sunday, January 8, my parents arrived—much too early. They’d decided not to head back across town after the church service to their home. Mine was closer. I didn’t have a chance to finish vacuuming and was still dripping wet from the shower. I shouted downstairs to them to make themselves comfortable, I’d be down in a moment to make some hot tea and dig up those delicious cranberry and walnut cookies I had in the pantry.
Mama gave me her best smile when I wished her a happy birthday and gave her a hug. I put the water on to boil.
“Kind of hungry,” she said, shrugging. “Maybe we could go to lunch early?”
I blinked at her. “Not yet. I made reservations. Here, have a cookie.”
She munched, sipped, looked at the photos I had taken on my last visit to Asylum Lake. I watched the clock.
My cell phone blipped. A text had arrived.
“Someone calling you?”
“Nah. Just a message,” I said, and I read on my phone: “Get your camera ready.”
I’d left the front door unlocked. A few minutes later, as I stood chatting with my parents, both facing away from the door, my sister walked in. With her, her daughter Erika, along for the ride from Madison, Wisconsin.
“Oh, look!” I finally allowed myself to giggle.
My mother swung around in her chair. A full minute passed, not one word from her. My mother dumbstruck and speechless? Never happens. But it happened now. Her eyes got bigger and rounder, her mouth dropped open, and at last it all sunk in—she sprang up from her chair and fell into my sister’s, then my niece’s arms. Both presented her with a white rose. My mother laughed, hugging them both, once, twice, and then wiped tears from her eyes.
We had a wonderful meal at Fire Side Grill, and Mama smacked her lips over almond-encrusted walleye with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, followed by tiramisu. Her eyes reflected the flickering light of the fireplace just behind her. We chattered and laughed, exchanged family news and jokes. Family members and friends called on the phone to talk to her as we passed cell phones around for us all to connect.
Even I was forgiven for being so unaccommodating to her other plans for the day.
After our meal, we drove back to their house and went downstairs to my father’s art studio—one of our favorite family activities, to rummage around in the stacks of his paintings and drawings, new as well as old. Erika wanted to see her grandfather’s old sketchbooks, and we found them in rows on a shelf, as far back in time to when he was an art student at the Institute of Art in Chicago.
I watched them all. My Mama, my father, my sister, my niece. Many of our family members weren’t here today, but I could see them all in these dear faces. I could see them in those sketches dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. I saw my son in my father’s self portraits in his youth. I saw my own features in his face, and other features in my mother’s face, the many sketches he’d made of her over their nearly 61 years together.
I even found a sketch my father had made of my mother as a young woman with an infant in her arms. In the lower left hand corner of the drawing he had written, “Zinta,” and added an arrow pointing toward the baby. He has sketched and painted me surely a hundred times over the years … this must have been the very first one.
And my niece, now a young woman in her 20s, I could see my parents in her, too, and my sister’s younger face reborn in hers. Erika squealed like a little girl, however, when she found sketches of herself as a toddler, a small child, a growing young woman.
Birthdays … they came and they went, and they seemed to come faster every year. I watched my family huddled in my father’s little basement studio, and listened to the laughter they shared, all day long, and late into the evening, joining in. It is one of the most profound blessings of my life, to be a part of this family.
I hoped with everything in me that Mama would celebrate yet many more together with us. Our relationship had often been complicated, moving through stages of friction, rebellion, declarations of independence, and just plain stubborn nature (all mine). Where other relationships would not have survived, we fought harder to work on ours because we were blood. In the past years, my mother and I had attained perhaps the most enjoyable years of our relationship. We had both worked at it, and work at it still. The rewards are rich. It’s a good thing she’s not perfect, because neither am I.
No doubt I annoy her at times. I still have my stubborn streak. But I have to admire the way she has always been willing to consider another perspective. Even at this age, she’s still interested in trying something new. She knows how to laugh, how to dance into the night, how to flirt with my father and blush. She’s willing to look foolish just to make someone else laugh. She loves to wear her hair long and full, elderly years be damned.
There are still many things I can learn from her. And she from me. I look forward to that.