Tag Archives: grandfather

“A Man Gets Tied Up to The Ground — He Gives The World Its Saddest Sound.”

(Continued from November 26th, 2011.)

“Make a wish,” he said.  “If you wish for something good — it WILL come true.”

I held the ring he gave me in the middle of my palm, and I stared at the open space caught in the center of its beaded circle.  It was made out of a tightly wound spiral of a single metallic line, as thin as a single hair on a horse’s mane.  I thought of my grandmother’s cuckoo clock whose pendulum she had stopped winding-up, suddenly one night.

Her husband, a retired fisherman, had gained himself a habit in his old age:  He’d climb up to the roof above their attic to watch the sunset every night.  There, he would witness the reunion of two unlikely lovers:  The sun would give up the ambition of its skies and melt into the waters of the Ocean beneath; and every such reunion would illuminate the old man’s eyes with colors of every precious stone in the world.

There, up on the rooftop, my grandmother would find him, when she returned home from work.

“My little darling boy!” she’d gosh.  “You’re too old for this game.”

She was eleven years his junior; but after a lifetime of waiting for the Ocean to return her lover, she hadn’t managed to forget her worries.  And even with his now aged body radiating heat in their mutual bed each night, she would dream up the nightmares of his untimely deaths.

“I’ve died so many times in your sleep, my baby lark,” he joked in the mornings, “I should be invincible by now.”

Still, the woman’s worrisome wrath turned her into a wild creature he preferred to never witness:  They were unlikely lovers, after all.  So, he’d smirk upon her scolding, obey and lithely descend.  Then, he would chase my grandmother into the corner bedroom of their modest hut.  And she would laugh.  Oh, how she would laugh!

One day, after she scolded him again, he slipped; and as she watched each grasp betray him, she suddenly expected that her lover could unfold his hidden wings and slowly swing downward, in a pattern of her cuckoo clock’s pendulum, or a child’s swing.  But he was an injured bird:  That’s why he could no longer go out to sea.

Upon the permanently wet ground, he crashed.  And on that night, she stopped winding-up the spiral inner workings of her clock.

“Well?  Did you make a wish?” the old Indian merchant asked me after I slipped his gift onto the ring finger of my left hand.

The beads rolled on the axis of the spiral and slid onto my finger like a perfect fit.  On its front, four silver colored beads made up a pattern of a four-petalled flower, or possibly a cross.  I bent the fingers of my hand to feel its form against my skin.  Under the light, the beads immediately shimmered.

“Well?  Did you?” the old, tiny man persisted.

Instead of answering him, I pressed the now ringed hand against my heart and nodded.

“See.  It is already coming true,” he said.

He was by now sitting in a lotus position on top of a lavender cloud.  It had earlier slipped out from behind the room with bamboo curtains, in the doorway, and it snuggled against his leg like a canine creature.  Before I knew it, the old man got a hold of the scruff of the cloud’s neck, and he reached down below — to help me up.

His hand was missing a ring finger.  How had I not noticed that before?  I studied his face for remnants of that story.  But it was not its time yet, so I got lost in between the wrinkles of his brown skin and followed them up to his eyes:

His eyes were two small suns, with amber colored rays.  The center of each iris was just a tiny purple dot, too narrow to fit in my reflection.  I looked for it though until the suns began to spin — each ray being a spoke on a wheel — faster and faster.

The spirals of the old man’s watch began unwinding, and we floated up through the layered clouds of time, up to the sunroof.  With a single gesture of his arm, the man unlatched the windowed frames.  He sat back down, shifted until his sit bones found their former markings in the lavender cloud; and when he turned to face me, I realized he had become a young lover of my own:  with jet black hair and a pair of smirking lips of that old fisherman who had stopped the spiral of the clock inside my grandma’s hut.

“I had a feeling about you,” he said and buried his four-fingered hand inside my loosened hair.  “You are the type to always wish — for good.”

“Let Me Sleep All Night in Your Soul Kitchen.”

In grandma’s house, there were no days of waking late.  They could’ve been such days, but it would take some stubborn courage to not succumb to my innate Russian guilt and to stay in bed while the rest of the household filled with busy noises.

The women would always rise first.  My grandma was the first to make it to the kitchen, and after the dry footsteps of her bare, callused feet against the wooden floor, intermixed with the thumping of her wooden cane, I’d soon smell the smoke of an oil lamp that she’d start inside a cove of a stone stove, in the corner.

That thing took up half the room:  Built of wood and red brick, the stove was the oldest characteristic of a traditional rural Russian home.  Its purpose was not only for cooking, upon a single metal plate located right above the fire pit; but for the heating of the entire house.  So, the bedroom was often located on the other side of it.  The stove was always painted with white chalk; and after a few of my un-welcomed visits of my grandma’s cot, where I would try to warm up my feet but leave markings on the wall, the men of the house took turns repainting that damn thing, upon the grouchy old woman’s instructions.

“Little gypsy children have dirty little feet,” my grandfather would joke through the side of his mouth in which he perpetually held a slowly fuming pipe.

Per old woman’s instructions, he was not allowed to smoke in the house.  So, I’d shrug my skinny shoulders knowing that I too had some info on him that could get him also in trouble, really fast.

The fire pit was covered with a rusty door on squeaky hinges.  The pots were stored onto the shelves along its wall.  But right on top of the structure, one could pile up blankets and pillows stuffed with duck feathers — and sleep.  But in my grandma’s house, no living soul was welcome to lounge around up there.  (No soul was welcome to lounge around anywhere, really; because the family’s collective labor was its own religion. Except on Sundays:  And then, there would be church.)

Two curtains, each about three meters long, were hung to hide the gap between the top of the stove and the ceiling.  So narrow was the opening, a grown man would have to climb up there from the side and remain reclining.  But I could sit up and lean against the pillar that lead up to the chimney; which I would still do whenever I would not be caught.  I’d drag up my toys, but mostly books; and spend hours at a time, frying my soles against the hot stones.  Some days, the heat would be expiring until the adults returned and started another fire.  But late at night, after the dinner had been cooked, the pots — soaked in a tub of warm, soapy water, then rinsed under the spout sticking out from the wall of the house, outside — the stove was hot.  The wooden floor of the kitchen had to be scrubbed every night; and under the strict overlooking eyes of the old woman, the young wives of her sons would find themselves on hands and knees.  These chores would make the women be the last to bathe.  They’d be the first to rise — and last to rest.

It would require a conspiracy between my motha and I for me to sneak up into the gap behind the curtains.  First, she’d push me up, then store the drying cast iron pots in a row and pile them up in such a way, they’d create a wall behind which I could hide, if only I could hold still and flat on my back.

“You must be quiet like a spy.  Shhh!” my motha’s hiss at me while winking and tucking me in.  Her smirking eyes would tickle my insides with anxiety:  at the adventure and the danger of being discovered by the old woman.

“‘Cause if she finds you,” motha’d warn me, “she’ll kick both gypsies out!”

I wasn’t sure where motha and I would have to go if my grandma followed through with that punishment.  And I was definitely confused at why my father would not follow us into our homeless adventure.  But the threat seemed real enough to keep me snickering into the pillow — from little fear but mostly the thrill.

I’d hear my motha’s hands moving the floor rag quickly and impatiently.  I’d hear the dry footsteps and the cane of the old woman spying on her, while muttering passive-aggressive instructions on how to do it better.  The men would come inside the house together and they would wash their faces and their sweaty necks above a metal sink in the corner, while the women helped by pouring water from aluminum cups.  The men would puff and spray liquids from their mouths and noses; and I would hear the women’s chuckles, as the cold splatters landed on their exposed arms and chests.

“I’ll get you after she goes to sleep,” my motha’d promise, and as the house settled down, I’d play a guessing game with others‘ noises and shadows upon the walls and ceiling.

And sometimes, I’d wake up to another day of never rising late.  Most likely, I would have drifted into slumber while waiting for my motha to come back.  Then, I would have to wait some more, upon a now cold stove, while listening to the noises of the waking household.

I couldn’t yet understand the griefs and grudges that the adults held against each other.  But from behind the closed curtains, I could watch their uncensored selves and make up stories.

“Can I Take You Home — To MY House?”

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.)

Sylvie Guillem by Richard Avedon

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.

“But When She Gets Weary — You Try A Little Tenderness.”

Woke up late:  A day off.  I planned it that way.

But before that, I woke up every hour, on the hour, jumping up in bed and staring at the clock with the anxiety of someone whose memory was escaping her.  And I would decipher the neon red numbers of the alarm, as if among them, I could find reminders of my missed appointments or, god forbid, any broken promises.

I swore I was forgetting something.  But then, I would remember:

A day off.   I planned it that way.

Exhale.

I would recline back into the stupor of my dreams, just to leap up again, in bed, an hour and a few dreams later, and stretch the memory for the things I was forgetting.

When I finally got up — late, on my day off — I made it over to the journal I used as a calendar (this year, I had refused to get myself a planner — a giant fuck you to my memory); and I stared at its pages for any suggestions of things I was forgetting.  The coffee drip was already spitting at intervals; and truth be told, beginning a day — had never been my problem.

I remembered that, while staring at my handwriting and inhaling the first aromas of caffeine.  The disorientation by dreams began to fade away.  In my mind, in my memory, I could see the trajectory toward my desk:  That’s where I start, every day, habitually.

Yet, I continued to stare at the pages — and at my handwriting; and I swore I was forgetting something.

I sensed my face:  I was pouting.  I don’t own big lips on me, but the lower one always insists on rolling out in my sleep, and it stays this way for the first hour of the day.

“Your grandfather always woke up like that,” my motha once told me, over a decade ago, while she could still witness my waking up, in her house.  And after I had moved out for good, into my own adulthood — however untimely, every morning motha would find me waking up in her house, she would tell me again and again:

“Your grandfather — my daddy — always woke up like that.”

And I would find it amusing, the way genetic inheritance worked.  We are talking eight decades now:  six of his and three — of my own.  He died too young and tragically.  Yet, still, he showed up on my face.  I guess, that’s one way to matter, in the chronology of the human race:  on the faces of humans that follow our deaths.  (But first, I would find it amusing that a grown woman would call her father “daddy”.)

Motha and I had both been the only children in our families.  Her situation was a bit more tragic than mine:  She had a younger brother.  He died, and in the worst of ways:  too young and tragically; without any witnesses — or even a body to bury after.  No closure.  And with him — seemingly went her memory.

Motha’s memory would begin to malfunction soon after her brother’s death.  The first thing — was to block all matters related to the loss.  It was a coping thing, most certainly:  These brain synapses collapsing on themselves for the sake of further survival.  Or, how else could one carry on, past such tragedy?  How else — to persevere?

Surely, she would still remember the general story of his life, its chronology.  But the details would be blocked out forever.

“My memory escapes me,” she would answer to all my inquiries.  “I was too young.  He was too young.”

I would stop asking.

But the second thing that changed — and that equated us, after my own birth — was the lack of opportunities to rerun mutual memories with her now missing sibling.  No longer could she turn to him and say:

“Remember that one time…”

Somewhere, I once heard that repetition matters to children.  That’s why they must ask the same questions over and over; or to provoke the adults to retell them the stories of their own short lives — their chronologies.  So, for those with siblings, memory becomes easier to train; because one could always turn to a brother and say:

“Remember that one time…”

I’ve never had that:  After my birth, motha decided, on my behalf, to never have another child.  Just in case anything would happen to him or her — she wasn’t sure I could survive it.  So, in her way, she was protecting me from my own possible tragic memories.

But any time she would find me waking up in her house, stumbling out into her kitchen for the first aromas of caffeine, she would study my face and say:

“My daddy always woke up like that.”

And she would wander off into a story — a story I most likely have already heard a dozen times before.  Still, I would let her retell it — and I would listen — because repetition matters to memory.  Repetition matters to children; and her brain synapses, collapsing on themselves, retracted my motha back to the little girl, with a younger sibling.  So, I would become her equal — someone she could turn to and say:

“Remember that one time…”

Agreeably, I would behold.  I would never embarrass her by interrupting the flow of her memory and say:

“You’ve already told me that!”

Or:  “I’ve heard that one before!”

And neither would I ever embarrass others if I caught them in the midst of repeating a story, for the dozenth time.  Because I could never predict the tragedy they may have had to survive, in their own chronologies, interrupted by bad memories.  (And chances are, there is always a tragedy — such is the human statistic.)

Instead, I would behold.  I would listen.  And I would try to commit their stories to memory — my memory with its own collapsed synapses, from years of tiny tragedies I myself was trying to forget.

“Young Hov’s a Snake Charmer: Move Your Body Lika Snake, Mama!”

Rule No. 1:  If I’m not perfect for my man — he is not my man.

Rule No. 2:  If my man is not happy with me — it’s time to look for another man.

That’s a rough translation, sort of:  from my gypsy grandmother’s mouth and directly into your modern ears, my comrades.  Still rings true though, nyet?  The wisdom — lives on!

That woman was a badass!  She strutted around her port city, lithe and decisive in her hips, as if she ran that motherfucker.  She was one them proud broads, asking no man for help (other than her father); and it was just her luck that by the time she entered the workforce, her country was on that whole socialist equality shtick.  So, the broad held jobs that not many women were interested in; and she flourished, climbing whatever level ladders her Communist Party chapter advertised.

She had been a construction worker and a collective farmer in the country.  But by the time I met her, she worked as manager at a fish cannery.  Oh, I’ve seen that broad at work!  From a rustic desk some moron once thought up to paint the color of a stewing swamp, she gave out her packing orders like some women give out their expectations.  She refused to be away from her people, so she moved that swampy thing out onto the factory floor, by the conveyor belt; and considering no Soviet machinery ran low on sound, anyone who needed to talk to her would have to holler out their lungs.  Nope, that job was not for the dainty-hearted!

But she did have a little corner getaway upstairs, which is where she would sit me down, underneath a black-and-white shot of one drunken righteous leader after the next.  For a while there, these leaders would die on us like flies, so she’d leave their portraits leaning against the wall:  What’s the point of worshiping a man if he ain’t planning to last long?

And to keep me entertained, while she strutted on the factory floor — lithe and decisive in her hips — grandmother would equip me with a can of black caviar, a spoon; an old world atlas and a pair of scissors.  There I’d spend my days, cutting up the world and acquiring the beginnings of my sick misconception that there was no distant corner I couldn’t cut through; no country I couldn’t slice across.   

“Thirsty, little rabbit?” grandmother would reappear at intervals with a glass of foaming sparkling water from the dispenser machine outside; or better yet, with a bottle of Pinocchio soda that tasted like a liquid, lemon-flavored Jolly Rancher.

Of course, I’d be fucking thirsty:  Gobbling up that caviar was like drinking sea water or licking the lower back of a tanning Brazilian goddess!  (Plus, all that cutting of corners!  All that wanderlust!)  As if to finish training my stomach to handle anything — in case I ever swallowed anything bitter or toxic (a cowardly lover, for instance) — she would rummage in her pockets and whip out a plastic bag of dried calamari rings:  My favorite!  Like some children with raspberries, I would top each finger with those rings; then, I continue to trace unfamiliar shores and continents, before cutting them to shreds.

What man could possibly keep up with a broad like that? 

The one that knew that taming a descendant of a gypsy was a moot point.  The one with balls enough to wait for all the unworthy, drooling endless admirers and ex-lovers to flake away:  because none of them could handle that hot number in the first place, bare-handedly.  The one with a freedom of his own, addicted to circumvent the globe’s ocean as if each round were a growth ring on a tree trunk of his life.  The one who’d seen enough, who’d lost enough to know that a good woman is a lucky find; and even if it chills you down to your bones with paralyzing fear or with the breath of your own mortality, you better give it a goddamn worthy try — to not keep her, to not conquer her — but to have a daily hand at trying to be worthy of her staying.

To that man — my grandfather — this woman was meant to be followed.  And so he would:  on our every Sunday walk to and from the bazaar, if he happened to return home from his circumventing.

She rarely kept company with other women (but then again, could outdrink every man she’d call “a friend”).  So, when walking, she’d always go at it alone, just a few meters ahead; perfectly content with the pace of my little feet, yet with a strut of someone running that motherfucker.  Sometimes, I’d look back to find my grandfather’s muscular arms with his fisherman’s tan; and from underneath the tattered hat, with a cig dangling on his lips, he’d smile and wink, as if he had just been caught at a naughty secret.

One day, I chose to walk with him, letting my grandmother lead the way, just a few meters ahead.  He lifted me onto his shoulders and told me to hold onto his ears:

“Otherwise, you’ll fly away!”

Every once in a while, he would reach above his head and make a crocodile mouth with his hand; at which point, I would pucker up my lips and let the crocodile devour my sloppy kiss.

And from up there, from the first pair of a man’s capable shoulders, I fell in love — in my youthful lust — with a woman.  That day, she strutted just a few meters ahead of us, lithe and decisive in her hips; and with each step, her tight wrap-around dress rode up higher and higher, bunching up at her tailbone and revealing the naked back of her knees.  A long, shiny, jet black braid ran down from her top vertebra down to the lower back; and the unbraided tip of it would tap each ass cheek as the hips continued to sway and sway, lithely and decisively, making me slightly dizzy with adoration and bliss.

That day, I knew:  It was not a bad deal to follow a woman’s lead.  (It was delectable, to the contrary.)  But it would take some esteem to be worthy of her staying.