It was a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight. There were no other signs, just my own prior knowledge, but I was sure the room was located upstairs.
Or, it could have been one of those houses that sits on stilts in my grandfather’s village. There seems to be no natural reason for such a structure: The inland area at the foot of an ancient mountain knows no floods. There are no rivers that run by it, and the winters tend to be brutally dry and viciously cold. But when the snow melts, it turns the ground into mush; yet, no river banks can be feared to overflow. The thick, purple layer of evergreens that covers the sides of the dormant mountain holds its outer layers in place, and I have never heard of mudslides or earthquakes in the entire history of the family. If anywhere else, there, in the middle of Russia, nature is obedient and tamed.
There was always a calm flow of hours whenever I came to town. There would be bickering between the two sides of the family, and that would be the only noise I’d hear for days: The Russian whites on my father’s side would find the brown tint of my skin somewhat scandalous. My brown motha’s blatant sexuality didn’t help the matters either. The matriarchs — the mother of the family and her only daughter (a matriarch-in-training) — would always insist on accompanying me in public.
But the town would be calm, and with an exception of an occasion hushing down of the old women, flocking benches at any hour of the day, I saw no outwardly confrontations. And even those women would express their aggression with silence and gossip, to which I wouldn’t be made privy, because it would unfold behind my brown back. This was no place for verbal confrontations or domestic fights. An occasional drunken brawl would be talked about for months.
And then, everything would return back — to silence!
In a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight that’s possible only in August, there was a circle of mismatching furniture: An old couch with wooden arms and flowery pattern of its material; an armchair of dark blue velvet, worn out and soiled in its folds. A wooden barstool was covered with a crocheted throw of fluffy, egg-foam-colored thread. And there was a rocking chair occupied by the ghost of my grandfather — the only member of the family who was always openly thrilled by the fact that I stuck out in all their photographs.
They were all blue-eyed, tall and sinewy; and in every picture, they stood behind me like a white backdrop. I would look at the lens from underneath my bushy eyebrows, with eyes so dark, no camera could distinguish the ending to my pupils. And above my serious, mismatching face, I would be balancing a cloud of messy hair, which, before the flash went off, had been aimed at by one of the matriarchs’ hands and yanked into a careless ponytail.
(Looking back at these photos, you can already see that my body would belong to neither my motha’s clan — a curvatious creature of wild nature — nor to the shared lean physique of the white matriarchs. I would be somewhere in the middle: My adolescent frame would already exhibit some softness, but the brown legs, darkened by my chronic solitary play in dirt fields and haystacks, belonged to someone who knew how to run.)
In the sunlit living-room, one of those hand-woven rugs took up the middle section of the floor. On it, I would be permitted to play, occasionally, after the matriarchs confirmed that there was no work left to be done around the house. Still, I would hide out, until my grandfather’s return. Like me, he would be ushered out of the kitchen by the women; and while he watched TV, I finally felt safe to bring my toys out of their hiding places and spread them out at his feet, upon one of those hand-woven rugs.
There was no eating on the floor. No eating was permitted anywhere but the kitchen and the garden bench. At times, the old man and I would sneak behind the house and curb our appetite with fresh cucumbers or a few unwashed tomatoes.
“It tastes better this way,” my grandfather would wink at me while polishing the giant berry on against the cloth of his knee.
But seeing a skeptical glimmer from underneath my bushy eyebrows, the old man would reaffirm:
“You get all the natural vitamins when the tomato is unwashed. Trust me.”
The secret would be to chomp it down quickly, before the matriarchs came out to the garden to collect some scallions or a bouquet of dill for the dinner salad. So, we would climb back up the stairs (the house sat on stilts, remember?); and reassume our positions of most safety: His — dozing off in his rocking chair, and mine — conducting stories upon a hand-woven rug.
But in my last night’s dream, the wide living-room, luminous with August sunlight, was filled with other people. They were loud and beautiful; and they laughed with such violent joy, I noticed the open windows of the house and the shimmering dust suddenly visible in that angle of the sun. We would be heard, I realized; and what would happen to the silence so strictly protected by the locals — it, at times, eliminates all life?
The beautiful people kept laughing, though. The women with golden hair intertwined their limb in ways that only women do with each other: with an intimacy that comes with tenderness and, most importantly, a lack of angst. The children straddled the wooden arms of the couch; climbed onto the women’s knees and crawled all over their feet.
My grandfather’s chair sat empty. I watched it from the corner of the room, where I had wedged myself in under an armpit of a tall man with laughing eyes. He, too, was in on the joke; and he kept shooting over loving gazes my way that seemed to say that I was the pun of it.
Is this what families are supposed to look like? Is this the way I wanted mine — to feel?
I had so little to remember them by, that all I seemed to want to keep was the empty rocking chair and my grandfather’s ghost. The rest was up for my rewriting.