Posts tagged grandfather
Posts tagged grandfather
Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She’s dead, so our options for celebrating are limited. We can’t take her to to dinner, or a concert, at least not without horrifying a lot of people. What we do instead is pretty boring by comparison. I pick up my grandfather and we drive to Whittier to visit her at Home of the Peace cemetery. The name is awkward, like something a Russian immigrant would name their new cemetery or yoga studio, but it really is quite peaceful. We pick up flowers from the same Mexican family we always do. Their little stand is two blocks from the cemetery, so they’re technically in the dead flower business. My grandpa stays in the car, not even a little interested in the flower choosing process. Villi is a man’s man. When I bring him change and hand him the flowers he nods approvingly, “These are good.”
My grandmother’s favorite flowers, as trite as they seem now, were red roses. When I think of them in relation to her, I think of them as classic, like red lipstick, or black pumps. We never bring roses to her grave because we planted a red rose bush there, so she has them for company always. My grandpa loves to tell me that even in the really hard years after World War II, when anyone and everyone took bribes or “thank you gifts” just to eat, my grandmother, who worked as a doctor, never took the bottles of vodka, candy, smoked meats, or caviar. The only thing she would accept from her patients were bouquets of red roses.
My grandpa met my grandma through his cousin. The war just ended, and he was only twenty-two, having seen men blown up in front of him, earning medals for bravery, getting wounded several times. He was an electro-mechanic by trade, having dropped out of regular school as a teenager and enrolled himself in trade school in secret. His father found out by reading an article in the local paper about his son’s achievements, complete with a smiling picture of the little bastard. His father kicked his ass, but he got to stay at the trade school. After the war, my grandfather wanted to sail the world, doing what he loved on giant ships.
In 1945 the USSR was tight with granting sailors visas to sail overseas. One requirement was that he had to be married, no exceptions. He complained to his cousin Raya, who said she could help. She had the perfect girl for him, Busya, they attended medical school together. She was 6 years older than my grandfather, which in Russia means she might as well have been a frigid leper with the face of the Elephant Man. But my grandpa agreed to meet her anyway.
They met at Raya’s house four or five times before they got married. I asked my grandpa about his first impressions of his wife, what they talked about, if he thought she was pretty. “Not really, but not rotten-faced either,” he says. I can see how he swept her right off of her feet.
VIlli found out that Busya was also in the war, working as the head of a hospital wing taking care of prisoners of war. In addition to her medical training, she was fluent in German. She held that post until she found out her whole family was shot to death by the Nazis while she was at the front. They lived right next to a circus, and when the Nazis came, they hid in the cellar of their building.
"The Armenian ratted them out, that bitch," says my grandpa bitterly.
"How do you know it was her?" I ask.
"Busya saw her wearing her mother’s jewelry after."
This is so dark I can’t possibly imagine myself in the situation. There is something especially macabre about the circus being so near. I remember the first time my grandpa took me to that circus, and wonder if he thought about his wife’s dead family.
Villi and I at the circus
"Your grandmother wrote a letter asking to be relieved of her post after that, she said she couldn’t take care of the Nazis like a proper doctor after what they did to her family."
They tied the knot simply, in a courthouse. My grandmother wore a suit, not even a white one. I haven’t seen a picture of that day, that’s how matter-of-fact they were about it. Then my grandpa took her out to a restaurant on Pobrezhenskaya Street, and got himself a double shot of vodka (200 grams as the Russians say). He says grandma asked for one too, which surprised him since she was so proper. 200 grams of bread were supposed to come with the vodka, but they didn’t because even the restaurants were hard up. It’s been sixty-seven years and he’s still so mad about it he yells “TWO HUNDRED GRAMS!” to the roof of my car. They had some crab instead, and went home to their separate apartments. If I know my grandpa, he probably plowed another lady that night.
Villi was supposed to ship out to Japan on his first run, but he wasn’t called up. He went over to Busya’s, back to the apartment underneath which the Nazis had murdered her whole family, to tell her the news. Then, unexpectedly, they made out. I ask him if they fell in love. He tells me they got used to each other, yeah. I tell him the two things are not the same, but he shakes his head back and forth in a way that says “yeah, they kinda are.” They moved in together, and the marriage of convenience stuck.
They had my mother their first year together. When she turned two months, Villi finally got the call and left Busya for the sea. When he came back, his daughter was a year and two months. While he was away, he and his wife spoke by phone once a month or less, and there was no way to send letters because he didn’t stay at any one port for long. I imagine she was fuming the whole time, but I never got a chance to ask her. While I know more about Villi than probably anyone in the world, I know so little about Busya she could be someone else’s grandmother. By the time we could talk like adults, she had had a stroke, which greatly impaired her brilliant brain, and was slightly mad, whether due to a stroke or not, I don’t know. I remember her as an iron lady, made into a twisted version of herself with disease. I remember helping her put on bras after her mastectomy took her left breast. I remember her holding a giant kitchen knife to my grandfather’s chest and telling him she would kill him. I wish I could see her like I can see Villi, a young beautiful carefree man with a cool hat tipped back on his head, his smile as big as the ocean, his survival turning into living by the sheer force of his will. I want to remember a young Busya, in a frilly dress, her steely green eyes softened by the glow of Odessa at night, her future wide open to a new life full of the kind of love she deserved.
My favorite photo of my grandma, 1939. Notice her sweet girlish smile and the cat.
A typical parting gift when I visit my Russian grandfather: a bottle of scotch, a book about a Nazi sniper who killed 209 people during WWII, and a cup with a ship on it. Packaged in 9 plastic bags because he has 56,798 of them.
From what I understand, I was conceived at a computer conference by two Russian computer programmers after they had already broken up. If there’s a sadder sentence that captures the magical moment of the creation of a brand-new life, I haven’t heard it. If I’d been conceived by two felons in a garbage truck, it would have probably been a more joyous occasion than that of two Linux-lovers who’d already given up on their relationship, making one last final desperate sexing.
My mom doesn’t talk about my dad much, and by much I mean never. I know he’s only seen me twice, once when I was only a couple months old, and then again when I was 11 and we were leaving Ukraine for America. I didn’t know it was him either time – the first because I was a dumbass baby, and the second because I never knew he was there. It would be true to say I grew up without a father, but it wouldn’t be exactly accurate.
When I was born, we lived with my grandparents. I thought I had a father who just happened to be old and somehow involved with the older lady who also lived with us, but it didn’t concern me much – hey, it’s your life, man! But at some point, a family friend corrected me, “He’s your grandfather, honey.”
Oooooooh, that sucks, I thought. I mean, not for my grandmother, it was good news for her that she wasn’t the third wheel after all. But she already had it pretty good, getting to cook and clean up after me all the time. For me, this was terrible news. Grandfathers were old and didn’t do cool stuff and forgot everything and their pockets were full of old tissues and sticky butterscotches and they couldn’t give you rides on their shoulders on account of the sciatica. They were total crap. This was total crap.
The first sign that my grandfather was less of a grandfather and more of a father is that he was gone a lot. He was the head electrician on a huge ship that sailed from Odessa, Ukraine, where we lived, to countries all over the world. When I was older and we were already living in Los Angeles, we marked up a world map with every country he visited (45 in all), and he installed little Christmas lights in all the ports on the map. All of them blinked off and on, except for the one by Odessa. “That one always stays on,” he said.
He became even cooler when he showed me all the photos and postcards from his trips. I mean, ALL of them. Not just the beautiful ones of the Venice canals and the amazing ones of the pilgrims traveling to Mecca, but the ones of the naked women at the equator, and him and the guys on his ship in women’s clothes, clearly drunk, celebrating the festival of Poseidon, and the topless hologram-like postcard of Hawaii one where the big-eyed big-titted girl winked when you tilted it. It seemed this guy had serious balls. I was impressed.
What sold me on him completely was the first time he told me a war story, that clichéd experience we’ve seen a thousand times on a thousand sitcoms, “The Abe Simpson.” Except our experience went a little differently.
“Tell me about the war,” I asked. He thought for a couple of seconds. He had volunteered to fight in World War II when he was seventeen, which seemed romantic and old-fashioned and adventurous, like War and Peace, or the mini-series I liked to watch on TV.
“Well, there was this young kid in my battalion, I mean we were all young, but this good-looking blonde kid, real good heart, a Russian kid. We were next to each other in the trench, and it was really coming down out there, just heavy fire and shells bursting everywhere, and he looks at me and says, ‘Villi, you’re one lucky bastard, how about we switch places, huh?’ I shrugged, because you know, one place is as good as another to me, so we switched. Not a couple minutes later a grenade explodes, and I look over at the kid, and his face is so white, like a sheet, and I grab his shoulder and I say, ‘Hey, you alright? And the kid kind of slides down, and his guts fall out. Of his back. I thought he was just scared, but his guts are just falling out of his back and I know he’s not gonna make it. And he smiles and says, ‘I guess you really are a lucky son of a bitch,’ and he dies.”
Then my grandfather looked at me and picked his nose. Holy crap, I thought. I just wanted to hang out and get to know him better, not get my soul fucked.
“Did you feel bad about it, grandpa?” I asked breathlessly.
He shrugged. “Why should I, he’s the one that wanted to switch!”
Wow. This guy was no grandpa. What a tough son of a bitch. He inspired me. I leaned forward conspiratorially, “Grandpa, I have a proposition for you.”
Up until then, I had never deliberately disobeyed my mother. Sure, there were white lies and some dessert-stealing, but we had never come to blows over anything. That was until pierced ears. I needed them to feel alive and even though I didn’t know why or how they would make me feel that way, I knew they would change me and my entire experience of the world. My mother didn’t understand my passion.
I took a deep breath and leveled with my grandfather, “Listen grandpa, I really want my ears pierced, and my mom said no. Can you help me?”
I looked in his eyes as intently as I could, and picked my own nose for emphasis.
“You sure you really want this?” He asked.
Twenty minutes later we were at the clinic where my grandmother used to work as a doctor before she retired. As soon as my grandfather walked in, he somehow immediately became surrounded by eight giggling nurses in starched white uniforms. They smelled nice but also a little scary.
“Villi, what people! How long has it been? Hello hello hello!” they cooed, and covered him in red lipstick kisses. He was beaming and shooting compliments at them like a sprinkler, at steady intervals punctuated by explosive lady laughter. I realized I had no idea who this guy was. I mean, he has the build of Santa Claus, the face of a baseball mitt but with shrapnel in it, and the manners of well, a sailor, which is what he is, and these women were freaking out over him. This was the first but by far not the last time I experienced the unbelievable effect he has on women. He’s 87 now and has the young shy Asian nurses at his pacemaker doctor eating out of the palm of his hand.
“Ladies, ladies, my granddaughter is here, come on, this isn’t how I want her to find out about how babies are made!”
The nurses explode with giggles again, and I try to say over them, “Grandpa, I already know about that, Mom gave me a book. It’s with genitals.”
They laugh even harder. “This one, this one is definitely your granddaughter!”
My grandfather laughs and looks proud. “She’s here to get her ears pierced, I know you fine ladies’ll take care of her.”
“Of course, of course! What a big girl!” coo the nurses and touch my face and hair. I act like I don’t like it, but I like it a lot. My grandfather takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and unwraps it, showing a pair of tiny gold hoops. “Ah, you brought the samokolki!” the nurses nod approvingly. Samokolki literally translate to “self-piercing,” and are tiny hoops with very sharp points. They’re a very common and traditional way to get your ears pierced in Russia.
All the nurses but one leave, and I jump onto an exam table as the blonde nurse takes out rubbing alcohol and cotton, and proceeds to swab my earlobes. I look at my grandfather, who seems to be standing a little further from me than I thought.
“Is it gonna hurt?” I ask the nurse.
“No, sweet girl, it’s just gonna be a little sore later.”
“Ready?” The nurse asks, and before I can answer she deftly pushes the sharp hoop through my right earlobe and I draw a breath, sharply.
“That one’s done, just have to close it!” Says the nurse.
“Come hold my hand, grandpa!” I say and look to the spot where I had last seen him. He’s not there. I look around the room, and he’s not in it. I look through the doorway into another room, where I see him, leaning and breathing heavily on the doorframe. His tan face is the color of the clinic walls, and for the first time his bearish frame looks small to me.
As my grandfather starts to slide down to the floor, a bunch of nurses grab his arms and lay him down on the exam table in the other room.
As I’m sitting there, shocked, the nurse pierces my other ear and closes the hoop.
“All done!” She sings to me and playfully tugs on my braid. I’m so stunned to see the guy who picks his nose in the face of bloody gut-spilling death laid out by a mostly bloodless ear-piercing that I forget all about my new ear holes.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask the nurse.
“He loves you too much to see you hurt, understand?” She explains. “Don’t feel bad, okay love?”
I don’t really get what she means.
“Why should I feel bad, he’s the one that wanted to take me,” I shrug in the nurse’s shocked face and jump off the exam table.
My gramps and I became war buddies that day, forever bonded by our bravery in defying my mother. Our relationship is still pretty much the same – he tells me things that grandpas shouldn’t, and I don’t take any of his shit. We like to bust each other’s balls – I’d say he was my first partner in comedy. The way he commands a room with his charisma and sense of humor is something I’ve been trying to imitate since I was six. With age he holds back even less. He can be manipulative, sexist, tyrannical, show blatant favoritism between his children, and the main self-proclaimed reason for why he’s with his girlfriend is that she’s clean. He’s a lunatic, but he’s my lunatic, and I love him like a father.
Happy Father’s Day to you, you sweet bastard, and to all the grandparents, moms, aunts, and uncles, who take on the role of dad with love, enthusiasm and patience! Your effect on the kids you raise is immeasurable.