By Michelle Piven
I had just walked in from school, on a warm spring day. Unexpectedly, I saw my grandma. She was sitting on the couch talking to my dad. I had not seen her for a few months because she had been traveling around the world. At first, I didn't react and just stood there admiring her inner strength and beauty. She sat with an air of confidence about her, wearing a red and gold sari she brought from India. My grandma was speaking to my dad in a very calm and soothing voice. Seeing them together made me remember the time when the three of us visited the place where they were born and raised.
I had always heard about the hard times my grandma and dad had to endure living in the old country, but it was hard for me to truly imagine the difficulties they had to overcome. Fortunately, I had the chance to see and experience the place where they grew up.
It was an ugly grey day a few years ago. Heavy dark clouds predicted the gathering storm. I strolled slowly beside my dad, trying to hide my eagerness and attempting to emulate his calmness. We were walking, hand in hand, on a dirt path underneath enormous leafless trees. My grandma was in front of us, taking the lead in an attempt to locate their old apartment. I looked around wide-eyed and curious like a puppy trying to take in all the different sights and sounds. By that time, I was already used to traveling abroad. However, this country was entirely different from all others. This wasn't just another place to me. Rather, this was a key to understanding my dad, my grandma and my Jewish heritage. I was in Russia, the country that the two people I loved most, once called home. The dirt path we walked on accentuated the lack of development in Russia over the years.
We passed many apartment buildings all of which looked identicalbleak boxes without character or soul. I could imagine that they were once a light eggshell color. Now, they were dark, covered by layers of grey dust, and scarred by time. I wondered how much they had seen over the years. In a way I was glad they could not tell their stories. Each building was studded with balconies and many were filled with old clothes hung out to dry. There was an empty field with two soccer goals made out of cardboard boxes. We passed a dilapidated playground to our left. It had a bench covered with trash, an old wooden see-saw, and a sandbox filled with dirt instead of sand. In the sandbox, amidst countless cigarette butts and broken beer bottles, sat two middle-aged men who looked as if they hadn't showered in days. By looking at the men's tattered clothes and their unshaven faces I could almost smell the stench.
To the right of our path was a shabby vendor stand. A heavyset lady behind it was selling rotting fruit. As we passed she was speaking to a customer in her native tongue. The language, or perhaps the way she was expressing herself, did not sound graceful. Instead, it sounded harsh and loud. The street vendor was wearing a flowery white dress that had seen better days and perhaps even decades. An old three legged mutt was sitting beside her. It barked every now and again in a vain attempt to make the flies that buzzed about disappear.
We were close to my dad's apartment and although I was beginning to understand why my dad disliked Russia so much, I was still excited to see where he had once lived. I looked at my dad in an effort to figure out what he was thinking and feeling. While his face was composed, I could tell that being around his apartment brought back memories of his childhood, most of which I was certain he had tried to forget. His normally lively brown eyes looked sad, reflecting the cheerless childhood he had told me about. He glanced at me with a half smile letting me know, without the use of words, that he loved me.
My dad abruptly stopped and pointed to a building which, not surprisingly, looked like the rest. My grandma and dad said in unison that this used to be their place. To my disappointment, we were unable to go inside because the current owner was not home. Nevertheless, my grandma was determined to show me how the inside of a Russian apartment looked by calling on an old friend and neighbor. My dad had not seen this person since he left Russia 30 years ago.
As the woman opened the rusted steel door, she was overwhelmed with joy to see us. The lady was wearing a worn out bathrobe and had her hair pulled back in a messy bun. It was clear she wasn't expecting company just then. That fact didn't seem to bother her, and without hesitation she invited us in to her apartment. This was a tiny place with only two small rooms. The size of the total apartment was a little bigger than my living room. The lights were turned off to save money. This made it very hard to see.
We walked past a kitchen which was slightly bigger than my bathroom. Finally, we made it to the bedroom which also doubled as a living room. This room had a table, a bed, and an overstuffed book shelf. The walls were finished with cheap flower wallpaper which evidently had been peeling for years. We sat down on non-matching chairs around the room and my grandma and dad began reminiscing with our hostess.
As I watched them, I could tell this was a bitter-sweet reunion for my dad. He was seemingly enjoying talking about different childhood experiences with the lady. At the same time I could see his sadness increasing as the memories of his childhood were slowly coming back.
When the time came to say goodbye, the lady gave me a hug as though we were old friends. I looked into her blue eyes, drained of life, and saw sorrow, hardship, and a life with no true joy. The deep lines on her face could hardly be called "laugh lines." We left and began our walk back on the same dirt path. I was happy that I got to see where my dad once lived and could now understand why he has always tried so hard to provide a better life for me. Although, I felt much closer to my grandma and dad, I still had one unanswered question. Even though the low quality of their former lives was obvious, I wanted to know what ultimately made them decide to leave everything they knew and everyone they loved behind not knowing if they would ever return. It was as though my grandma read my mind.
"Michelle do you know what finally made me decide to leave Russia with your father?" she asked.
I shook my head "no," anxious to find out the answer.
"I asked your father, who was a teenager at that time, why we should leave. He told me 'Mother look around you. There is no future here. 15 years from now nothing will have changed. We will be living in the same place and still be just as unhappy as we are today. We need change.' After he said that I knew we had to leave," explained my grandma.
I knew that my dad had been exactly right, nothing had changed. I looked around at the decaying buildings one more timeone of them could have been my home. At that moment, I appreciated everything I had back in the United States. I loved my car, my two-story house, and my room that didn't double as a living room. Seeing my dad's apartment and how he used to live made me realize even more how lucky I was.
I thought the new found appreciation for everyday comforts I once took for granted was all that would be gained by that experience, but I was wrong. Now, while standing in the kitchen of my house and remembering my visit to St. Petersburg, I attempted to grasp how much courage it must have taken my grandma to start a new life. As hard as I tried, I could not comprehend the fear she must have felt.
At that moment I understood a concept that escapes many people. Staring at my grandma I suddenly knew that I did not know her as a person. My familiar, warm, loving, caring, grandma disappeared and was replaced by a stranger. The face was familiar, but all else was foreign.
I finally realized that I was looking at a person and not just a grandma. A person, whose life, believe it or not, was not all about me. She was a human being with her own thoughts, fears, desires and emotions. The reason I couldn't understand how she must have felt when she was leaving Russia was because I didn't understand her. I felt guilty that I had taken my grandma for granted for so long and never bothered to ask her about her life. I wanted to run over to where she sat and give her a hug but something stopped me. How could I hug a stranger? I slowly walked over and sat down next to her.
Although, there were so many questions I wanted to ask, only one came out. "Grandma," I said with a sheepish smile, "what is your favorite color?"
Several years have past since that day. Yet, I still wonder why out of so many questions that could have been asked, I chose that particular one. I honestly don't know the answer. All I know is that this was a good start. Incidentally, my grandma's favorite color for that day turned out to be purple, but she has many favorite colors.
Through our many long walks and other adventures, my grandma calls "magic moments," I have made an effort to learn what makes Faina, my grandmother, the complex and beautiful person she really is. I look forward to learning as much as I can for as long as I can one step and one "magic moment" at a time.
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For more True Jewish Stories, see our True Stories Archives
from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine