Ursula Carlson: Tante Baiba turns 100 years old
We sit at the kitchen table, my mother’s youngest sister, the one the boys in Latvia had called “Krejums” (Cream) because of her creamy, white skin and blonde hair, a red cloth napkin folded beside her breakfast plate, her open-faced sandwich of sliced turkey, Norwegian cheese and avocado almost consumed. The table is almost level with the window which looks out onto her driveway and the neighbor’s big, two-story house. My aunt knows the history of that house better than the current owner does because she’s lived in her little “circle” house (as my granddaughter Abby calls it) since 1952.
My aunt is thrifty. The Fridgedaire gas stove dates back to 1952 and works, not exactly like a charm, but close. The two pilot lights for the top burners sometimes go out when there’s a draft, but my aunt has a keen nose so no problem thus far. The oven requires a lit match held close to the gas flame, which is a bit unnerving since my aunt’s vision is somewhat impaired, but her spirit is undaunted. She has given up baking pies this past year, but the cookie jar is filled with homemade chocolate chip cookies.
A stationary bike in the basement keeps her mobile in winter. She does her own laundry, walking up and down the stairs, always hanging onto the handrail because she doesn’t want to risk taking a fall. Prudent, she confesses that she no longer trusts her sense of balance and won’t climb up on a chair anymore to open the basement windows.
The number 100 scares her. It makes her think she might drop dead right on her birthday, which would spoil the birthday party we three nieces and two nephews, spouses, children and grandchildren have been planning for her on April 20 at the large, bucolic “party house” we’ve rented about 25 miles outside of Grand Rapids. I point out that her Latvian friend Elizabeth is 101 and doing well, but she waves her hand dismissively.
My aunt talks; I listen, take notes, ask questions. It’s our old pattern and we go on for hours. Her troubles: insomnia, combatted by conjugating Russian verbs or reciting Latvian nursery rhymes; mishaps with a house key solved by safety-pinning the key into her purse; sciatic nerve pain; eczema behind one ear. Her pleasures: savoring dark chocolate in the afternoon while listening to the Blue Lake classical station; reading the Latvian newspaper when the sunlight is bright enough for her to see small print better; composting, growing flowers; wading in the Chippewa River on a hot summer day; making soup.
The life she had envisioned when young was ripped away by World War II. That unlived life haunts her, taunts her with its many promises, but she keeps her sorrows close. “Some things,” she says, “you don’t even tell your undershirt.”
Everything is on the table: she self-assesses, points out her flaws, has self-recriminations. I counter with her virtues, point out my own flaws. We talk about death (not a new subject) and decide it does not lurk in a number (especially not in the number 100) nor in signs or symbols, black cats or cracked mirrors. It comes unbidden so no need to flag it down.
The birthday celebration lasts three days and nights — much like old-time Latvian weddings. Family flies and drives in from near and far; bouquets of flowers abound; as do hot-cross buns, Latvian piragi and a mocha four-layer Latvian torte. Invited guests join the family; music, conversation and good will permeate the party house. Tante Baiba glows and sparkles and all of us feel as if we’ve been sprinkled with fairy dust.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.