Tuesday, July 02, 2013

What flows through generations

by Zinta Aistars

My paternal grandmother and my father, 1928, Ventspils, Latvia

A couple of events recently have opened a vein of curiosity and even a need to go back in time. One was an email that showed up in my inbox a couple weeks ago with the subject line of "Aloha Zinta." I had no idea my cousin was now living in Hawaii. How had we lost touch? So long since we had seen each other, yet we had been inseparable in our childhoods, spending all our summers together as little girls. Her father was my mother's much beloved brother.

Odd, that I've visited at some point all 49 of our 50 United States, but never been to Hawaii. Now, she lives on the island of Oahu. Will this at long last be my reason to make the long journey to our 50th state? I find myself giving it serious consideration.

Meanwhile, she is planning to visit the Midwest sometime this September, and we are now planning to spend some time together at Z Acres. She can stay at the Cottage on the Hill, and we can catch up on all those lost years ... and vow to never lose time like that again.

Time passes so quickly, so quickly. The second event that inspired me to wax nostalgic and feel once again a deep appreciation for family was my father's recent health issues. He's recovering nicely, but it was a scare. My sister came out, too, to check on him. With the help of visiting nurses and therapists, we are on the road to recovery ... and it is we, not just he, because when one of us ails, all of us care.

Family. How to put into words its importance? Last evening, my sister and mother and I gathered around the kitchen table in my parents' home and opened boxes of old photos. My father rested in the next room. I couldn't get enough. Many, if not most of these photos, I'd seen before, but some were a fresh discovery.

My paternal grandparents
My grandparents and my father
My father, holding the leash to the pup, with his cousins in Latvia
My father
My paternal grandmother
There were photos of my parents as infants, as toddlers, as children, then blossoming into youth. These were photos from Latvia, black and whites and sepia toned with latticed edges. My paternal grandmother in her youth, her long hair hanging like a dark curtain around her hips. I once saw her open that bun, unweave that long braid, until her gray hair hung below her knees. My grandfather collected rain water in barrels in back of their little house on Grove Street, and he helped her wash its amazing length.

My grandmother
How beautiful she was as a young woman. How handsome my grandfather. But then I found an even older photograph: my grandfather's father, Ernests Ansevics, holding a firm rein on three glorious horses. I can just make out his big, bushy, bright white mustache. Tall and lean, like all the men in the family, he kept a farm on the shore of the Baltic Sea where my grandfather was born, where my father spent his summers, where I have many times now driven by to walk the grounds, run my fingers across what's left of the old stones where the outbuildings once stood, in Sarnate, Latvia, feeling the spirits still present.

And still in me.

I peer closely at the old photos of my father as a child. Already serious. My grandmother pushing him in a wonderful white child cart, laughter on her face. I see him on his first tricycle, my grandfather watching over him. Fathers, always initiating their sons on first wheels. I see my father holding the leash of a tiny white dog with one black eye. The brothers, then, four of them. More family members, growing years, graduations, then photos of my parents' engagement, a few wedding scenes, unposed. There I am, an infant in my parents' arms. My sister, her long blonde braids, and the two sisters already forming their bond.
The four brothers, my father the eldest, and my grandparents

My father's graduation from Art Institute of Chicago
My mamma in bobby socks
A candid photo at my parents' wedding, Chicago, 1951
Just Married 
What stuns me, though, are a handful of photos I don't remember ever seeing. Or maybe I had seen them, but did not recognize who it was that I saw in them. Even now, I handed that handful to my mother and asked, who are these people?

"Tava Vecmamite," my mother smiles. My grandmother, her mother. My grandfather I could recognize more readily. Oh, how I had adored them ...

My maternal grandparents
My maternal grandmother
I gasp. Really? Why did I not recognize her? I bring the photo even closer, staring.   Little by little, I make out my grandmother, the older woman I knew and dearly loved, who cared for me and spoiled me. There she is, yes. I am stunned to realize I have never seen her as a younger woman. Because my parents' families, both of them, came to the United States during WWII, all refugees escaping the Soviet occupation of Latvia, they had with them only what they could carry. How many photos can one carry alongside a few pieces of clothing and other necessities? Each and every one of these photos was to be cherished, rare treasure.

My grandmother in Latvian folk costume
My father on his first tricycle, with his father
With more members in the family and more pairs of hands, the paternal side of my family had been able to save more photographs than the other side of my family. I hold these few photos carefully in my hands, overwhelmed by the journey they have taken to this kitchen in Michigan. There are so few ...

My maternal great-grandfather
My mother and her brother
A bombed-out house in Germany where my mother's family, with many others, found shelter in refugee years
My mother in Germany
I study the photos for details, gleaning the stories told by the furnishings in rooms, items on a desk, book spines on a bookshelf, paintings on walls. I study the clothing my ancestors wore, and the expressions on their faces. I look long into their eyes.

Eyes not so unlike mine. I am looking into mirrors. A little hint of me here, a spark of me there. All come together, and then somewhere in there is me, and then after me, my children. On it goes, the passage of time and the passing of the family flame across generations.

My family in our first house in Kalamazoo (I am in my father's arms)
That would be me
There was a time when I was young that I longed to be, oh, utterly unique. I bristled at anything to tie me to others. I wanted to be Z and Z alone and ... oh, I don't know, the silliness of youth and rebellion and forging independence. Now, all these decades later, pouring over these photos, my heart near weeps at the resemblance I find here, there, in a smile, in the gesture of a hand, a tip of the head, a demeanor. This is my family, this is me, in a million upon million shards, coming together and then passing on again into the next series of mirrors. All connected. I can only marvel. And my heart swells at that sweet connection.

At my confirmation, age 16, with my father in background
I look forward to renewing the connection to my cousin. I am grateful beyond words at my father's recent recovery. We have strong genetics in my family, both sides, and our chances at a healthy longevity are good.

I take a large envelope of photos, begging them off my mother, pondering how I might display them in my home. These beautiful photos don't belong in dusty boxes, tucked into a dark back corner of a closet. I want to see them, look deep into them, again and again, and let them live with me in my every day.

I don't ever want to forget the gift of these faces and the lives behind them, making mine possible. This is my family. This is me, and who lives in me now.

My parents
Left to right, my mom, grandmother in front, uncle Aivars in back, my then husband, me, my father
My grandparents
My grandfather, writer Ernests Aistars
My baby girl in our Kentucky home
Z and Mama
My sister at left, and me
Z and my cousin Ray
Z in chair, sister Daina with doll
My son in his great-grandfather's arms, his two great-grandmothers
My daughter's first day home, with our cat Podzina


  1. Zinta, mila Nisina! This has got to be the most moving piece you have ever written, and you've written plenty. As I am related by (a previous) marriage to your family, the photographs were extremely meaningful, to me, too. I had recently decided to make a pictorial history for my children of their ancestors and am dismayed by the paucity of pictures from their great-grandparents' generation. Every one of your photos is a gem, and your running text beyond beautiful. Thank you so much!

  2. Paldies, Anda! There were a great many photos, and I haven't looked through them all yet, but I did see a few of you, too ... even as I ached to realize how much got lost during WWII and the refugee years. That any survived at all is nothing short of a miracle, I think. Today, looking back into family history like this ... moves the heart to its core.

  3. Such a wonderful collection of magnificent photos! My parents were the keepers of the family photos, and now they are mostly at my sister's home, in dusty boxes on shelves, waiting to be sorted through and shared. This makes me want to take some time off from my work and go spend a weekend (it may take a week) with her and get that job done!!!! I know exactly what you mean about looking into the faces of your ancestors and looking for a trace of yourself in them...I do the same thing now. I wish I had known those great-grandmothers/fathers, and would so love to have heard their voices and listened to their stories and dreams. I have a feeling they weren't so different from me after all! Loved your story here. Thank you for allowing us to share this adventure with you. Your new friend, Pam