A good year for apples, a better year for family

Full story: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/travel/2004473090_travessay15.html

By Anita Legsdin
Special to The Seattle Times

David sits in the chair like an adult sitting in a child's chair. He's at least 6-foot-5, a former basketball player. He speaks slowly, softly. "The weather is unusually warm for October. It usually rains." He pauses. "It was also like this during the war. 1942, the year the Russians took Riga. ... We were in the country then, entire families taking refuge in the woods, with all our horses, cows and dogs."

He nods. "It was warm then, too, like it is now, a good year for apples." He tells how they were captured when one of the dogs began barking at a squirrel. I feel the shadow of his memories pass over me.

It's my second visit to Riga, the capital of the now-independent Baltic nation of Latvia, to visit my newfound cousin Ieva and her family. David is her husband, a former basketball star of the Russian Olympic team during the 1950s. They have a daughter, who is married and has two sons.

We sit at the dining-room table in their small Riga apartment. In the United States, it would be called a one-bedroom apartment. In Latvia, it is called a three-room apartment. During Communist times, this apartment housed Ieva's entire six-member family, as well as a Russian stranger who they thought was certainly a spy for the Soviets. And they were considered lucky; other families were forced in wartime to share space with even more strangers.

When I was in my 20s, I sporadically wrote to Ieva, my parents correcting my written Latvian (Ieva didn't speak English). Over the years I wrote less frequently, then married, changed my name and moved. I eventually stopped writing, but still felt guilty. She visited the United States in 1993 and was not able to locate me but, through a bizarre coincidence in Chicago, found someone who knew my address. We've been corresponding since that time, and I am delighted to be reconnected to my father's family.

It's fall in Riga, high mushroom season. Ieva takes me to a mushroom-hunting expedition in the forest a short train ride from Riga. Forests in Latvia are mostly pine and birch, with little or no underbrush. Looking down, I see mushrooms everywhere. "What's this one?" I ask. She waves her hand. "That's nothing. Those have no flavor, they're not worth the trouble." I continue at a snail's pace, examining every brown and white patch, while Ieva strides through the woods like a racewalker, stopping suddenly when she sees a patch of mushrooms. At the end of an hour, her basket is full, but I found only the inedible or poisonous ones. She has many more years of practice.

Back at home, Ieva and I clean and chop the huge pile of mushrooms. We will have some for dinner tonight, and she will prepare some to preserve. Even though I am impressed by the collection, Ieva tells me it isn't a good year for mushrooms. The autumn weather is too warm, too dry. It is a better year for apples.

The visit is too short. I collect names, addresses and phone numbers, and promise to write. I can even write in English, because Ieva has been taking lessons, and her grandsons are learning English in school. Ieva gives me some photographs of my father when he was small, together with his three brothers. We all cry when I leave, but I know I will come back again. The connection will not be lost.

Anita Legsdin lives in Seattle.

The travel essay, written by readers about an adventure or insight, runs each Sunday in The Seattle Times and online at seattletimes.com. We welcome submissions. Essays, which are unpaid, must be 600 words maximum and will be edited for content and length. E-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or mail to Travel, The Essay, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Individual replies aren't always possible.