Calling My Grandmother (Or, Why I Write Fiction)

September 16, 2013 | 2 6 min read

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People are part families, part random things that catch attention, part forgetting and re-building from the ground up. My grandmother is a woman among photographs: When my sister and I are young, and then when we are getting older.

My grandmother lives in Russia. I grew up in Uzbekistan. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, when I was getting ready for first grade. I remember watching the tanks on television. My mother had made new clothes for my knock-off Barbie from scraps of my uniform apron. (In the Soviet Union, students wore uniforms to class. Brown dresses for girls, dark blue suits for boys.) She wove bows into my braids, and the parents watched outside the school on the first day of class. In the classroom, we learned etiquette. To stand up when the teacher comes in. How to raise hands, our arms parallel to the desks. I remember fidgeting. Maybe this memory is universal.

We came to the U.S. in 1998. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup a month later. It was very exciting because there were many Russians on the team. The kids were mean. I lost my accent quickly. I didn’t have much English when I came, though my father was focused on learning language. I was taken to a special Sunday school in Uzbekistan. I remember putting together a project, cutting out pictures from magazines. The project was a family photo book. I cut out a woman and I wrote, “This is my sister” in English under the picture. I cut out a picture of a couple and I wrote, “Here are my parents.” I cut out some happily graying older people and I wrote, “Here is my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Here is my grandfather, my father’s father.” I cut out a picture of a boy in a baseball cap, though I do not have any brothers.

My family’s roots are in Siberia and in a small town by St. Petersburg. These generations came to Uzbekistan, insofar as I understand it, for work and to escape famine and repression. I have a nebulous concept of genealogy.

Usually people learn more by asking. Asking is hard at times because of the language barrier. I was twelve when I came to America. Sometimes, I tell people that I was thirteen, because twelve tends toward childhood. I want credit for my Russian-ness, or at least for an immigrant identity. Thirteen seems the right threshold for credit.

From eleven to thirteen is a liminal space for language. People can be naturally, proficiently bilingual when they get their second language during this time. Get the second language before, and you tend to lose the native language. Get the second language after, and the native language shows dominance, at least in terms of sound, of accent. My writing is in English, I think in English, and maybe my children, when I have them, will know English alone.

But I have an emotional connection to words or expressions in Russian that I’ve never felt to English. My Russian language is a day-to-day language. It’s the language in which I tell my grandmother that work is good and what I had for dinner, that I will call her again soon. I read Russian novels, but I don’t use that language in conversation.

My grandmother now lives in St. Petersburg. When I remember my grandmother, a few things stand out. That she canned. That she made a joke about printing money, a joke about her line of work. I don’t know exactly what she did in the Soviet Union, but my guess from the joke is that it was some kind of accounting. Her husband, my grandfather, died a decade ago, and he was a taxi driver. I remember about him that I got to go for rides. I remember that he’d gotten mugged on the job.

The pictures on my grandmother’s wall, we haven’t seen in years. We are still children in them, and this is her idea of us. Sometimes I send her new pictures from America. She has a picture of me and my fiance, for example. We are raking leaves. I am wearing purple jeans, a jean jacket, and cat-eye glasses. What must she think of this, her granddaughter with a green lawn.

People say that today distance is easy. In America, families are often on opposite coasts. They check in on Skype, fly to see one another over summers or holidays, they keep up. This is not my experience of long-distance family. When I was younger, I often thought that it was more like prison. Now that I am older and less prone to self-pity, I understand that the prison analogy doesn’t hold. The brutality is missing. Still, the condition is sort of permanent. There’ll never be a time when we’re together as a family. Sometimes I think, why try. There is something false in connecting, to check in about what’s happening without the dinner physically-together to look forward to in a few months.

I am getting married shortly. Weddings are strange if you have an invisible family, the memories with which reside in a disappeared place. A fellow expat once said to me that people of our generation who have stayed in Russia don’t think about the Soviet Union as intensely as we who have moved to America do. I think this difference has to do with our liminal space of language, our emotional core, which connects us to the fall, keeps us thinking about the place, keeps us building stories.

I set alarms to call my grandmother. I don’t call her for weeks that add up to months, and when I finally call her, I tell her that I will call again next week. I don’t call her next week. I think about calling her each time that I say I will call her. When I call her, I can hear the background noise of the street. She says regular things like that she misses me. She asks for great-grandchildren.

I read something recently that described stealing as lack of faith. We steal when we don’t have faith that the things we need will come. When I don’t call, I think I am stealing time. I do not have faith that at the end of the conversation about the weather there is something that turns out to be love.

I’ve been thinking lately about the way, when you wake up in one place someone else is waking up somewhere else at the same time. Or maybe even if it is on the other side of the globe, where it is night time, it is still the same moment. I have noticed lately that my grandmother is an abstraction. I don’t live with her in the same time, the same planet. But sometimes when I walk to work and the light is right through the leaves and the wind is slow and it seems like the universe is connected, and I think about what she is doing at the same time as I am walking to work, which is probably reading a newspaper or putting together the jigsaw puzzle or looking at the printed black and white photo of us that has been up for a decade, I acutely feel that we are in the same world. (It is kind of like a ghost, when you feel a presence in a house, and you don’t believe in that kind of thing, but right then you believe it.)

Also, on Saturday. We were making brandied cherries for the wedding. I was pitting the cherries with a fancy plastic pitter from Target that had a splatter guard, and it was like a wormhole to that time when I was eight or nine and it was summertime. The market had just gotten fruits. My grandfather knocked on the watermelons to determine which ones were ripe. We pitted the cherries with something metal, a device that looked like a thumbscrew, something medieval, and the cherries splattered everywhere, on our arms and on our clothing and the floor, and my aunt was there too. All the windows open for the summer on the three-season patio, and the Uzbek neighbors downstairs, the tensions that seemed quaint.

The wedding reminds me more than anything of the barrier. On the phone, my grandmother tells me she couldn’t have her wedding because her brother, an athlete and motorcycle driver, was killed right before and everyone was mourning. My mother tells me that at her wedding she got pink eye and used the medicine more often than prescribed, every few minutes, and that they got smoked salmon, and that they got so much of it that all they did the next day was eat it and cake. Also, the groom must barter with the bridesmaids for the bride and the bridesmaids get to keep the cash. Glasses are crushed, something akin to champagne flutes, sometimes against a statue of Lenin. I plan to crush glasses too, though against the lawn, though wrapped in fabric, though what if I think about what she is doing at the same time that I am crushing them?

Is this why I am afraid of ghosts?


Images top and center via Wikimedia Commons

’s fiction has appeared in Redivider, Sonora Review, and on Two Serious Ladies, among other places. She is also the Midwest editor of Joyland Magazine. Find out more about her here:

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