IMPORTANT THINKINGS

by sofiya alexandra

Posts tagged sailor

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An Old-Fashioned Love Story

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.

Filed under an old-fashioned love story grandfather grandmother love story marriage russian sailor world war II odessa