On those long ago Sunday afternoons when I was seven or eight years old, my father would place a crystal bowl full of unshelled nuts on the dining room table. The bowl always contained a wide assortment including Brazil nuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, and walnuts. When he asked me to choose one for him to crack, past experience told me to select the roughly textured walnut.
“Are you sure this is the one you want?” he always asked.
“Yes,” I always replied.
“Alright then,” he would say, taking the walnut between the steel prongs of the nutcracker and very carefully breaking the shell into two neat pieces. He would then exclaim over his discovery, which for a few moments he always cupped within his large hands.
I would plead to see what he held there until his unfurling fingers slowly and more than a little dramatically revealed, not a meaty walnut, but some other treasure: a bright red marble, an intricately folded piece of paper containing a cryptic but funny saying, a dime store ring. Once there was even a tiny rubber spider inside the shell.
Not until I was eight, maybe nine, did I realize it was my father who planted these treasures inside the humble halves of a walnut. When anxiety or nightmare woke him during those pale hours before dawn, I liked to picture him sitting at his study desk, carefully parting walnut shells using one of his sharpest knives, then gluing each shell back together, after secreting the treasure inside.
More than twenty five years later, on a recent visit home, I stood at the kitchen sink washing breakfast dishes. When I turned around, my father stood before me cradling a rectangular, wood-rimmed mirror in his outstretched hands.
“Dad,” I said. “I’m not ready to look at myself in the mirror right now.” And I wasn’t, for I’d just returned from the gym, and my skin was sticky. My hair, tangled and in need of a good wash.
“Where do you think this came from?” he asked, ignoring my vanity. “What do you think this is?”
“A mirror,” I replied, irritation punctuating my voice.
He placed the mirror in my hands, where I felt its weight and simultaneously its oldness, for the wooden frame was cracked, and the mirror itself pocked with age spots. “But where do you think it came from?”
I shrugged and immediately felt guilty for something about the brightness in his pale blue eyes told me that this was important; this mattered.
“It belonged to Babushka,” I said, mentioning my grandmother for the first time since my arrival in Chicago three days earlier.
“Close,” he said, revealing the white, straight teeth of which he has always taken such superb care. “It belonged to her father.”
I frowned. Of all the things to carry across several countries and two continents, why would anyone bother with an old mirror?
“The mirror was part of your great-grandfather’s military kit,” he explained. “He took this mirror with him when he negotiated for prisoners in Japan after the Russo-Japanese War. This mirror,” my father said more urgently, “was in your great-grandfather’s kit when he was gassed in Germany during World War I.
I looked back at him, still not understanding.
“I want you to have it,” he said, placing the mirror in my hands. Then, clasping my own face between both hands, he proceeded to kiss me twice, once on each cheek, as is the Russian way.
Since my grandmother’s death five years ago, my father has begun parceling out her possessions. Last Christmas, I received an amber brooch and a long string of her amber beads. For my birthday, he gave me a rose gold ring set with a ruby, a sapphire, and an emerald. Yet this was the first time my father had given me something that had belonged to his own grandfather, a man my father revered.
Almost all I know about my great-grandfather I have learned, not from my father, but from my grandmother and my own mother. My grandmother once told me that her father kept a Saint Bernard, a dog that she was especially devoted to. Apparently, when the family’s cat had kittens, the mother cat carefully carried each of her offspring over to the dog. One by one, she placed the tiny creatures between the many folds of his thick, fleshy coat.
“Then,” my grandmother said, “she forbade him to move.”
This dog may have accompanied my great-grandfather on all of his military campaigns, and eventually died from the poison gas that did not kill my great-grandfather (who was on horseback). Nevertheless, my grandmother stressed that at home the huge dog was subject to the female cat’s will.
In my grandmother’s story about the cat, I inevitably saw her. Strong-willed and at times dictatorial, my grandmother, or in Russian, my Babushka, presided over a household filled with immaculately arranged crystal vases, framed family portraits, and hand-embroidered pillows. My elegant grandfather in his fedora hats and tailored clothes may have been fifteen years her senior, but it was clear from the way my grandmother organized their lives as precisely as she tended her sumptuous rose garden that she, the three star general’s daughter, was the one in charge.
The only other story I know about my great-grandfather, one my mother told me after she and my grandmother argued after some holiday dinner, is far less enchanting. According to my mother, my great-grandfather established a whole other family—illegitimate of course—during the time he spent away from his wife and two children.
“Your grandmother eventually learned that she had a half sister. That half sister,” my mother said, leaning wearily against the china cabinet after a long family dinner, “once tried to get in touch with her.”
“So what happened?” I asked, already mourning the fact that my very small circle of cousins had not been expanded, even slightly.
“What do you think?” my mother said, the edge in her voice revealing her own fraught history with my grandmother. “Your Babushka refused to have any contact whatsoever with this half sister.”
Although I did not defend my Babushka, I believed I understood her reaction. Above all else, my grandmother was proud. When she told me about the night during the First World War when she and her own grandmother buried her family’s jewelry in the nighttime garden so that the invading soldiers could not steal, not just their valuables but their heritage, her voice acquired a vehement, defiant energy.
Five years after her death, I remain convinced that my grandmother’s pride, more than anything else, enabled her to survive, not just a series of wars, but the transatlantic crossing to the U.S. after World War Two. Given the humble circumstances in which she and my grandfather found themselves living in Chicago, especially during those early years when they labored in the city’s poorly-ventilated factories, what more—other than her pride—did my grandmother have?
Given his abiding love of the whimsical, not to mention his desire for the continuation of a family decimated during the twentieth century’s wars, it seems only natural that my father would like a grandchild. Two years ago, just after I married a man who is the ninth child in his family and a decade older than me, my father anticipated the arrival of a baby in the immediate future. He even made a toast to just such an effect at our wedding.
A year later, when there was still no hint of a coming grandchild, my father took me aside on one of our visits to Chicago. It was a cool August morning, and we were waiting for the train into the city. When my father pulled me out of hearing distance of my husband and my mother, I feared he was going to tell me some bad news about his health or my mother’s. Instead he fixed those same clear, blue eyes on me—eyes that are so like my grandmother’s—and said, “Don’t you want a child, Jackie dear? Bill is older than you. I don’t want you to wind up alone.”
Looking back, I find it hard to remember how I answered, despite the fact that my father’s words remain etched in my memory, as does the meaning contained within those words. For my father, family, howsoever fraught, ensured community, solidarity. survival.
“I don’t want you to wind up alone.”
At the end of her life, my grandmother was not alone. My parents, who lived just over a mile away, were almost daily visitors to the home she came to share with a Lithuanian caretaker. On their visits, my parents paid her bills and kept her company. But they also came to encourage her to talk about her life in as many languages as she could still navigate, for my grandmother had once been fluent in Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, German, French and English. Mostly, my grandmother talked about her childhood and teenage years, the period that still seemed the most real to her, and she primarily spoke about this period in Russian and Lithuanian, with other languages coming in to create emphasis or a different context. English, the last language she learned, fell away, so that it became a blessing I could speak German so as to communicate with her.
Last Christmas, a few months after he took me aside at the train station, my father sat unhappily at the dining room table and spoke longingly, if not regretfully, of the possibility that he might still hope for a grandchild. As I sipped my wine, I remained convinced that he was disappointed with me. Only later did I learn that my sister had phoned the day before to tell my parents that, despite her recent marriage, she was not going to bring a child into this world of terrorism, environmental destruction, and general chaos.
At age eleven, my father found himself a child in Nazi Germany where his parents had found refuge with friends after the Red Army invaded Lithuania. They had fled to Lithuania from Russia during the Revolution. In Hitler’s Germany, my father became the non-Aryan target of many of his schoolmates. The nightmares that still wake my father from sleep go all the way back to that friendless time when he endured god knows what kind of brutality. In all these years I have been afraid to ask him for the details, and not once has he volunteered a single story. Then there were the bombings in Munich. In one of these bombings, his beautiful half sister Galena, an architect and pianist, was buried alive.
To my father, the world has always seemed unstable and chaotic.
Yet he filled my childhood years with small treasures secreted in walnut shells.
On Christmas Eve, the night before my father spoke of his desire for a grandchild, he spent hours playing with his goddaughter’s little boy. As soon as we entered his mother’s house, the boy rushed over to my father, who dotes on him with all the longing of a surrogate grandfather. Why did it not surprise me to find my father in the living room, down on all fours, despite his bad knees and even worse back, building a town out of blocks with the child?
If I am blessed with a child, there is no doubt that when she is old enough, she will join my father at the dining room table where he will produce that same crystal bowl of nuts. “Choose one,” my father will say.
Will it take her more than a few such occasions before she intuitively reaches for a walnut, a walnut she will hand over to her grandfather, who will grin broadly, then make an elaborate show of opening its shell, that single gesture hinting at so much magic and mystery still to come?
– Jacqueline Kolosov’s work has appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Ecotone, Western Humanities, and in numerous anthologies. Her third poetry collection, Memory of Blue, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in February, 2013.