Monday, July 15, 2013


by Zinta Aistars
Copyright 2013

My father in a work photo during his graphic art career

Happy birthday, Teti! Tetis (tevs) ... father in Latvian ... my father, artist Viestarts Aistars, is celebrating his 86th birthday today. And that's a big deal. To me, my family, and, of course, to my father.

My father's father, writer Ernests Aistars
Thankfully, we have terrific longevity in my family, and my father's father lived to just a year and a few months shy of his 100th birthday. Another relative, a woman on my mother's side, lived to 105. To my knowledge, that is the family record, and knowing that, I have been declaring to my family that I intend to be the new record holder at 106 ... at least.

I wouldn't mind, however, if my father becomes the new record holder. He is our family patriarch, and we adore him. A gentle man, deeply creative, painting and drawing since his boyhood days in Latvia, he has molded a legacy of art over his lifetime. He was born in Dobele, Latvia, the eldest of four brothers, the son of Latvian writer, Ernests Aistars, and lifelong teacher, Lidija Sulte-Aistars. The Aistars family escaped the country in 1944 as the Soviet armies invaded, killing Latvians in horrific numbers, destroying property, leaving a trail of blood and destruction.

That's one of the reasons I so treasure the few photos we have of my father and his family from those long ago years. On foot, through forests, boarding small boats in the night on the Baltic shores, jumping on trains, taking along only what the family could carry, I imagine those photographs being carried through that nightmare to safety. Finally, the photos, with the family, traveled across the ocean from the displaced persons camps in Germany to the United States.

My great-grandfather and grandfather
My father graduating from Art Institute of Chicago
My parents on their engagement day, my maternal grandfather in back
My parents' wedding day, May 12, 1951
That's me, with my father's self-portrait
My father, about 1 year old
My father holding his granddaughter, 1980
Now, here they are. Lately, as my father underwent various health issues, we younger generations found ourselves drawn to these boxes of black and white photos. We sorted through the images again and again, my sister and I taking some of our favorites home with us to frame and post in historic collages on our walls. They deserve to see the light again, the images once again becoming a part of daily life. Those faces, those faces from the past brought into our present.

We find a few photos from as far back as the days of my great-grandfathers, although we find no images of my great-grandmothers. Perhaps we still will. There are more boxes hidden away in closets, under other belongings, and it's a treasure hunt to find them again.

My paternal grandmother's father
My great-grandfather at far left, wearing a dark cap

My great-grandfather at center, back to camera
The younger generations have asked to see them, too, and over this past weekend, I drove my parents to Chicago to visit my sister and her family, and my daughter and her husband joined us as well. It was wonderful to see the young faces leaning over the images of their elders, spanning centuries, and my father across the table from them, sharing his stories of a lifetime well lived.

My brother-in-law prepared a wonderful meal for us, and we sat around the table honoring our patriarch, lighting candles on his cake. We are where we are today in great part due to him. It is fascinating to me, today to look through the images of my father as a child, as a young man, as a man with two small daughters, changing over the years. How handsome he was, and still is, now with white hair, using a walker, but still and ever with his delicious sense of wry humor, and a playfulness that shows itself when he invites his bride of more than 63 years to take a seat on his walker as he scoots her, giggling like a girl, across the kitchen floor. He cheers us all.

My father with his youngest brother
I see my son's face in my father's face, sometimes a remarkably strong resemblance. In one photo, where my father wears a fedora jauntily titled, leaning on his kid brother, I see my nephew Alex in his expression. In that moment, they look almost exactly alike. Elsewhere, I see my own features mirrored. Growing up, people always told me I was "daddy's girl," and I never minded that label. He was, and still is, my hero.

I see my father in his father, and my grandfather uncannily similar to his father before him. So we move from generation to generation, carrying our ancestors along with us, a part of us. Their blood runs in our veins today, and will flow in the veins of the yet unborn.

My father during refugee years, with sketchpad
My mother and sister with Dad during his military service in France
Four brothers (l-r): Viestarts, Raits, Janis, Aivars
My paternal grandmother
I take great comfort in that. The more birthdays I celebrate myself, the more I have grown to cherish my family. When we are young, we crave independence, we crave a chance to blaze our own path, develop our own personalities and lifestyles and find our own place in the sun, and that is as it should be ... but as we pass into higher years, we travel that circle back again. We need to explore the beyond, but as maturity settles in, we come to understand the treasure we have at home, right where we started. It's what matters most: family.

It has not been easy, these past few weeks, helping my parents as their medical needs and growing years called for more assistance. My father has been advised not to drive by his doctors, at least for now, until he regains strength from his recent health issues. That means transport has been up to me, and it has taken a bite out of my time and my ability to keep up with my workload. I've had my moments, admittedly, of panic, wondering how I will keep everything together. I was at full capacity before, working most every day, including weekends. How to manage this now?

Yes, some things have been forced to the side. My garden is full of weeds, some of my vegetable plants have died of neglect. I have had to reschedule work assignments, although I have not yet, thankfully, missed any deadlines. I have even worked on my computer while sitting in doctors' waiting rooms, while my father was undergoing various tests. And I've happily acquired several new clients. It's been a challenge.

And yet ... in a recent conversation with my sister, who lives too far to help on these daily runs, I found myself saying: "I'm the lucky one." Spending more time with my father has been precious. Helping both of my parents has been a challenge, but also a privilege. I watch him across our family table, sitting in the place of honor, blowing out candles shaped as the numbers 8 and 6, and my heart swells with love for this dear man.

None of us will be here forever. How precious are these days, each and every one. I can't imagine my life without my parents as a part of our family gatherings, coming by to visit me at Z Acres, calling me on the phone, being a presence in my days. Peering into those faraway faces in the boxes of family history, I can only think how quickly time races by, and how lucky we are, how richly blessed, who have the chance to grow old, have our hair turn white, and watch our younger generations blossom and take their turn.

Daudz laimes, Tetin. Happy birthday to my dear father. Many more.

Mama and Dad, reading a birthday card


  1. I just found your blog and wow, what a great post to start with! Beautiful. I'm fascinated by family stories and relationships, especially when told through photographs. There's so much history in every family, molded as they are by national and international events.

    As an aside, if you haven't seen Stephen Poliakoff's drama Perfect Strangers I would highly recommend it, as it explores these very themes in a beautiful and poignant way too.

  2. Abbi, thank you so much. I've really enjoyed delving into family history, and looking through old photographers is a profound experience, looking into mirrors of the past. I'll take a look at "Perfect Strangers," thanks for the recommendation. I also made a visit to your blog.

  3. Your story of your Dad reminds me so much of my own dear Daddy, now gone to heaven for the past 2 years. Enjoy your parents while you can...especially during these golden days. Ask them questions about their childhood, and be sure to write it all down. I was fortunate to live near my parents in their waning years and even though, like you are discovering, it became challenging at times, I would never trade those years for any other time or place. My memories are priceless. Yes, treasure these special days..."Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the the land which the Lord your God is giving you." Exodus 20:12

  4. BTW: I think your father resembles the actor Tom Hanks in the picture you have at the top when he was a young man! When I first looked at it I thought it had to be him!

    I so enjoyed this story. See my other comment previously posted.