I like to think I inherited the Dostoevsky Idiot gene from my papa. I mean that as a compliment. Papa is honest and always says what’s on his mind. So when he spat and said “chert poberi” (damn it) upon learning that the Martini Bar by JFK’s Gate 9 didn’t serve any Russian Wodka, I wasn’t surprised. Most American bars don’t stock real Russian vodka. I know this. My dad doesn’t.
Sensing the bartender’s confusion at my dad’s seemingly nonsensical response, I shrugged much like I suspect parents do when their kids say the darnedest things and ordered us two wines: red for him and white for me. Our plane to Moscow was boarding soon.
“Don’t forget,” papa wagged his index finger at me, taking a sip of his Cab and wincing - I knew what he was thinking: everything about this fermented grape juice is wrong, the tannic taste, the lingering smell, and the blood stain it leaves around your mouth, like a sloppy vampire; it is nothing like vodka, clear and crisp leaving no evidence behind - “we must find a wooden cane for Dima and bring back kolbasa (sausage) for Tanya.”
“We’re not allowed to smuggle back food, pa.” I whispered and looked around to make sure no one heard us. One could never be too sure one wasn’t being surveilled. Mama taught me that when we lived in Russia decades ago.
“Pfft. The meat is smoked - it’s perfectly safe. It will just be one or two links….” Papa looked past me out the window where our plane sat waiting, plotting to bring some of the smoky goodness back for himself. “Three at most.” I chuckled at how well I knew my father. Then I licked my own chops remembering doktorskaya kolbasa, the first kolbaska (diminuative ending of "ska" is used as a term of endearment) I ever tried. It was based on the American bologna recipe with higher quality meat and less fat content, or so it was advertised. Doktorskaya (meaning “from a doctor”) was intended to be everyday good food. And it was. Mama gave me a thick slice of kolbaska on buttered, fresh-baked bread almost every day before school. I’ve sampled some of the best charcuterie boards in New York City. Nothing compares to Russian bologna.
“Don’t they sell kolbasa in Brighton Beach?” When we first emigrated to America, we lived in Brighton Beach, also known as “Little Odessa” due to its high population of Russian and Eastern Europeans. My parents tried living in other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but they didn’t take and they returned back to Brighton Beach.
“Nyet, nyet. It’s not the same.”
“Ok, but a cane? Why? There are canes here, pa.”
“Nyet. No wooden canes. None in America.”
“I’m sure there are. And if not, probably because the ones here are better.”
“Not everything is better here, Masha.”
“But everything is better in Russia?”
“Dima wants a wooden cane from Russia and I promised to bring one back for him.”
“Horosho” (fine). I gave up. It was pointless arguing with my dad about a promise he made to a friend.
Although it remained unspoken between us, papa and I both knew this would be the last time we would be voyaging back to Moscow together. My father had wanted to go to celebrate my brother, who was turning 50 and lived in Russia. I couldn’t send my father alone. While he was a spry almost octogenerian, papa was fresh from battling throat cancer the year prior. Radiation had burned his throat accentuating his passionate dissertations on the “evildoings” of Obama with regular uncontrollable coughing fits, compounded by countless shots of Jewel of Russia, real Russia vodka. Mama was too sick to come with us. Late stage Parkinsons rendered her barely mobile, unable to speak or express emotions - slowly freezing in time. We reluctantly left mama with a home attendant and neighbors checking in. At night, when I couldn’t suppress my fear for her worsening condition, I imagined her lying in bed unable to move her body at all, just the occasional blinking of a pair of wide, bewildered eyes.
I looked over at my pa sitting next to me and smiled. He looked so handsome in his navy sports jacket and jeans. Tall and broad-shouldered. Fit. His never-fixed-broken nose and bald head suited him. Made him look like a retired boxer with many KOs under his belt, like a Russian Evander Holyfield. He even had a slightly misshapen wrist from a bone broken during an arm wrestle match that he never bothered fixing. I beamed with pride. Traditional Russian men are very macho. Putin never misses an opportunity to pose topless.
That’s my papa, I telepathically announced to the flight attendant, wearing canary yellow from the pilotka (side cap) and perfectly tailored suit down to the reasonable, two-and-a-half inch pumps, when she pressed her hand against our overhead storage bin. I followed my dad’s sleepy gaze out the window to my left. It was still light out and the traffic control man with the big headphones and rods was getting smaller and smaller. Soon we would be enveloped in white, fluffy clouds; floating through space and time like a snowflake inside a snow globe.
“Something to drink?” the Russian canary asked me in English while posing the same question to my papa in Russian.
“Beloe vino” (white wine), I defiantly replied. My dad’s face was turned towards me and his eyes were closed. I was glad he had fallen asleep. I needed time to prepare for this visit.
Papa and I were returning to our rodina. “Rodina.” The English translation is “homeland” or “country of birth.” Neither term is a good equivalent. “Motherland” is closer but is not common and too formal. My friends teased me prior to my departure saying things like, Don’t get arrested and get thrown in a gulag in the motherland. Etymologically, “motherland” makes more sense because “Rodina” is female and “rod” means birth. “Rodnoi” means by birth (as in moi rodnoi brat - my brother by birth) but is also used to describe how dear someone is to you. There simply is no equivalent in English. Having grown up in Soviet Russia, just the word “rodina” sets butterflies aflutter in my belly. “Rodina” was our supreme being. “Rodina” was our God. Love and home-sickness for one’s country of origin are complicated in an immigrant country like the United States.
Papa and I had been drifting apart ever since we took that first 2,000 mile journey from Moscow to New York in the summer of 1985. Would this trip bring us back together? Increasingly separated by language – I became fluent in a year’s time and my papa, though he knew many English words and proverbs (“So many people, so many customs” was a favorite) never truly becoming immersed. Not like a pre-pubescent whose language patterns hadn’t formed yet. In my haste to assimilate I wanted to leave everything Russian behind. Including my parents. I ran so fast away from them and had gotten so far ahead, that I reached another planet by the time I was an adult. And that suited me just fine. They wouldn’t mind. Isn’t that why they brought me here to begin with? It worked. I was an American. Except not really.
I remember being on a phone with a friend and transcribing the words to George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” song. It was 1987 and we were in America for about two years. I was twelve-years old standing in the hallway of our tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach with my parents in the kitchen, not even a door away, saying: “Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it but everybody should…” My father probably didn’t understand most of the words, but he knew the word “sex”- it’s the same in Russian. He was horrified that: “people talk about such intimate things publicly.” I became horrified too. But not because of what I was saying. Because he was horrified.
In nine hours and five minutes we would land in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The last time I was in this airport was in 2000, arriving to spend the summer at Coudert Brothers’ Moscow office, a law firm which no longer exists. (And good riddance.) It was my first time back in my birthplace, after a fifteen-year absence. What I remember most about that visit is returning to “Perlovka,” my grandparents’ dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. Although it wasn’t theirs anymore. Other people lived there - my father’s second wife, her son (my brother whose birthday we were coming to celebrate), his wife and their son, Misha. Misha was ten years-old then. He roamed the dacha, climbing trees and cherdaks (attics) much like I used to do. My dedushka’s (grandfather) prized apple trees were still there but no longer bearing fruit. The barrel where dedushka pickled cucumbers was gone - rotted. Anton’s budka (dog house) was also gone - Misha broke it. But the feeling I used to get in Perlovka before we emigrated was with me still. Peace and well-being. The air fresh from the many berez (birch) trees. And those aromatic lilac bushes growing wild everywhere. The birds chirping healthy tunes.
At work, in my firm’s Moscow office, I felt much like I did in Perlovka. Everything was dear and familiar to me. I would lose myself staring at the white birch tree outside my office window sometimes opening it quietly to shake hands with one of the tree’s branches. Sure America has birch trees, but not like here. Russia has forests full of the majestic white-barked species contrasted perfectly with their elegant, perfectly-figured green leaves. Black and white spotted trunks like a forest of dalmatians. They say birch trees will bend under the weight of multiple feet of snow and never break.
Even though it was all familiar to me, I remained a stranger to it all. A woman at the salon called me innostranka (foreigner) because of my accent. Not only did I not sound Russian, I apparently didn’t even look it. But that wasn’t the worst of it. It’s the fact that I didn't think like a Russian or an American, I thought like both, at the same time. It’s like sitting on an edge of a coin seeing both sides but not fitting into the image on either side. W.E.B. Dubois described a “double-consciousness” for African-Americans. This description works well for immigrant children too.
The first time I was in Sheremetyevo airport was when we emigrated to America in 1985. I remember being terrified of customs, mostly from what mama told me. She warned that sometimes they do full body cavity searches and that children are not spared. At ten-years-old I didn’t know what a “full body cavity search” was and was too afraid to ask. We were instructed to arrive at the airport the night before our departure in order to check in our luggage. Since our luggage wasn’t called up for inspection until about two hours prior to departure, we spent the entire night at the airport, having lost the chance to return home to get our carry on items and among them, my favorite doll. Customs opened each of our bags and felt and shook each item making sure that we didn’t smuggle out what was not allowed, like extra bed sheets. They made my parents give up whatever jewelry they were wearing – precious metal was not allowed to leave the country. My parents were allowed only their wedding bands. Then customs searched me. My shoes kept beeping. After they x-rayed the shoes and tore off the 2-inch heels (10 year-old children weren’t supposed to have size 7 shoes in Soviet Russia so my mother could only find adult shoes in my size), they determined that the metal buckle was the culprit, and my pumps were turned into flats.
What would this trip bring? A quarter of a century had passed since the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia had undergone a dramatic transformation. Many people were well off. Though there was still much poverty. Did the people change? Did my papa and I change?
The gray clouds hung heavy over Sheremetyevo airport as we were landing. By the time we got our luggage and met my brother it was raining in earnest. But not just raining. It was as though it had never rained before and the rain was making up for the past. Maybe it was cleansing. Forget everything that happened here before and experience this place anew.
We arrived in Perlovka and I inhaled greedily trying to absorb my surroundings all at once: the heady fragrance of lilac bushes overgrown into trees, the hypnotizing perfume of the little, bell-shaped white flowers of lily of the valley growing wildly in the yard. All the colors and smells combined with the chirping of countless birds and the occasional woodpecker: a visual, musical and olfactory symphony bathing the senses.
After what an American friend once called a “peasant lunch” - black bread, salted fish, smoked meats, whole cucumbers, tomatoes and scallions, and too many shots of vodka - we set off to visit one of my father’s oldest friends, Vadim. I had heard Vadim’s marriage story from my dad countless times before, but at dinner I asked Vadim to retell it.
“It was 1959. I was at university. I was living in a small flat with my father. My mother had died long ago and our flat was a disaster. I didn’t have time and my father the inclination to cook and clean. We were both in desperate need of a woman.” Vadim chuckled and glanced at my father.
“Go on. Tell the rest.” My father smiled, encouraging Vadim.
“Your father went to university with Lilia.”
“Nyet, Vadim, you forget. Lilia went to school with Irina, my girlfriend. I met Lilia through Irina,” my father interrupted. Even when the facts made no material difference to a story, my exacting father had to correct them lest an untruth be told.
“That’s right,” Vadim continued.
“Anyway, Lilia was studying to become a nurse.” He warmly looked at his wife seated next to him and touched her shoulder.
I imagined he was picturing her as a young woman still. Couples who have been together since they were young continue to see each other the way they were when they first met. It’s like the cloak of long-lasting love lets them see through the old age spots and the crepey skin to the person they fell in love with.
“She was a poor girl from the country on a student visa in Moscow. At that time there was a rule that people from villages outside of Moscow couldn’t permanently relocate to Moscow. In a few weeks time her studies would be finished and she would have to return back home.”
“I was desperate not to return back home.” Lilia chimed in, leaning her head on her husband’s shoulder.
“There was nothing for me there. Nothing to do, nothing to see. No young person wanted to stay in the countryside. There was no future there. I loved Moscow and wanted to stay.” Lilia added.
“And that’s how your father and Irina hatched their wild plan.” Everyone around the table erupted in laughter.
“To the best wild plan that there ever was,” Vadim raised a toast and everyone took a shot of Alpha vodka.
“Da, so Irina and I, seeing our good friends’ predicament and wanting to help, proposed Vadim and Lilia marry.” My father said as though it was the most natural solution to the problem.
“That is just crazy,” I said imagining, as I always did, the plan being born during an evening of eating and drinking with good friends, like tonight. I always pictured my father raising the toast: To a new family!
“What’s crazier is that we did it,” Vadim said, shaking his head in pleasant disbelief. “No one who knew your father ever questioned him. There was an implicit trust - if Emil proposed something it had to be good.”
“Yes, but remember how at night, after the wedding party, in the flat with your father when everyone got up to leave and I got up to go too?” Lilia said through tears and laughter.
“Irina sat me down and told me that this is my new home and I couldn’t leave.” She continued.
“So how did it work out?” I asked knowing the story but wanting to hear every detail again.
“It was tough at first. We were strangers. But we respected each other and I enjoyed cooking for Vadim and papa and with time it just happened. We fell in love.” Lilia gently touched Vadim’s cheek.
The next morning on the commuter train from Perlovka to Moscow, papa reminded me of our objectives.
“Don’t forget, we must find a wooden cane for Dima and bring back kolbasa for Tanya.”
“We can buy kolbasa at any grocery store,” I offered.
“True. And we’ll stop in a pharmacy for a cane.”
“Can we first go see St. Basil’s Cathedral?”
There are many beautiful churches in Russia with their multi-colored round piers and domes set against the white building of the church itself, but none are like St. Basil’s Cathedral. The ancient orthodox landmark is breathtaking with all its cupolas in various textures and striking colors like exquisite faberge eggs all pointed towards the sky. The church is so brightly colorful and intricate that it’s hard to believe it’s real. Looking at the stunning structure before me I chuckled remembering how my husband once wanted to get my father a birthday cake that was a mini replica of St. Basil’s, and the bakery quoted over $1,000 to bake it.
“Let’s go to GUM and see if they sell wooden canes.” My father said, impatient to fulfill a promise to a friend. GUM stands for “main universal store” and is the main department store in many cities in Russia. Moscow’s GUM faces Krasnay Ploshad (Red Square) and is close to St. Basil’s Cathedral. It is the most famous GUM and has been around since the late 1800s. In the Soviet Era it was called “state department store.”
Walking past the Cathedral in Krasnay Ploshad towards GUM I met a Russian me. Each of us paused momentarily taking in the other one. We were the same height, same oval face, same hard to tell eye color, same body type, except that I was in jeans and a t-shirt and she had on a summer dress and sandals. I wanted to ask her about her life - was she an unfulfilled lawyer like me or did she work in a creative field - as though that would provide insight into who I would be if we never left. We all have so many possible lives to live shaped by our genes and our circumstances. What would the Russian me be like? I looked at my doppelgänger and tried to read her face. There are so many things I wanted to ask her. All roads in Moscow lead to the Red Square. If I was going to find out what I could have been, what I could still be, this was the place to do it. The Russian me walked away before the actual me could think of anything to say.
My pa and I spent that entire day searching Moscow for a wooden cane. GUM did not sell any and neither did any of the pharmacies we visited. I looked at every babushka and dedushka and was prepared to offer them as manyAmerican dollars for their wooden cane as they wanted, if only we had encountered one. Everyone we saw with canes was using the lightweight metal ones, the same ones people use in America.
“I won’t be able to enjoy my visit to Russia if we don’t find a wooden cane. I promised to bring one back to Dima.”
“I know, pa. Maybe it’s just Moscow. We’ll find one in St. Petersburg when we go.” I had no idea if we would find a wooden cane in St. Petersburg. But since my dad never broke a promise in his life, that I was aware of, I hoped that a wooden cane would somehow materialize.
A few days later my papa, brother and I said our goodbyes to Moscow and took an overnight train to St. Petersbug to visit my uncle Leonya. Our sleeper room had four beds and I was surprised that a stranger joined us for the night. I remember we exchanged hellos, or maybe he just grunted in response, and that was all the interaction we had. At night, in my bunk on the bottom, with my brother above me and my father on the other bottom bunk, I wondered if the guy liked to ride solo in four-person cabins to axe to death the other occupants. Axe because he looked really big and strong, from chopping wood for his little log cabin that he surely built himself on the outskirts of Moscow. I finally fell asleep while chanting that nothing bad could happen with my brother and father near me.
At my uncle’s house, Leonya introduced us to his good friend, Maxim Bagatir, an award winning actor whose image was prominently displayed above Uncle Leonya’s bed. In the picture, Putin’s steely visage is congratulating Maxim and shaking his hand while awarding him with a state award.
Maxim gave us a personal driving and walking tour of St. Petersburg. We went to Pirozhkovaya which has been around since 1956. We had minced meat in fried dough chased by homemade chicken boullion and bochkovoe coffee which is sweet and used to be given to children in kindergarten.
While in Maxim’s car, he regaled us with stories from his past and pointed out all the beautiful landmarks. Maxim was such an animated and engaging speaker that it was hard to tell how factual his stories were. He told them so well that it didn’t matter. Even my painfully exacting father didn’t mind.
“Once” Maxim began many stories like this, “I was entertaining very important admirals and I bet my friends I could get the admirals wasted. My friends said ‘these are seamen, they’ve been drinking their entire lives. They don’t get drunk. It is impossible.’ ‘I will get them drunk,’ I said. I asked for two good bottles of cognac and two very hot glasses of tea with podstakanniki (metal glass holders). I sat them down in front of the cognac and the hot tea and said let’s see which one of you will get drunk first. They sat down looking very serious and I instructed them to take one sip of the hot tea and then pour some of the cognac into the tea glass. Another sip of the tea, pour more cognac into the hot glass. By the end of the exercise the cognac bottles were empty and the still piping hot tea glasses were no longer filled with tea but with pure cognac and the admirals were singing gingerly and incoherently. My friends asked me how I came up with this. I didn’t. This is how mariners used to entertain themselves when they had nothing to do. It was one of their games.”
We turned onto Belgradskaya street after the section called Kupchino and Maxim pointed to a nondescript institutional-looking building set back far from the fence.
“This is the clinic for alcoholics, the SAINT-PETERSBURG I.I. DZHANELIDZE RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE.”
“I was once a patient of this fine place,” he continued.
“You? Why?” Papa asked incredulously. Though Maxim enjoyed Wodka as much as my papa he wasn’t what people in my papa’s circle called alcoholic.
“This place has some of the best doctors in the city. Think about it. A drunkard comes in - Maxim swayed his body left and right forcing the car to weave in and out of its lane - and utters: ‘moooo.’ He can't explain what's wrong with him. Maybe he can’t even point where it hurts. He’s like a baby. These doctors are so good they can diagnose just by looking at him. They’re like intuitive medical gods.”
After some belly laughs we continued driving north by the Neva river until we came across an abandoned building. Maxim stopped the car in front of it.
“When a building is abandoned it loses human warmth. It becomes cold and grey.” Maxim said.
“I remember once when I was young, my friends and I made macaroni in the ruins of a building. We imbued that macaroni with so much life that it became the best tasting dinner ever. A dinner like that makes a company of misfits one living organism.”
“Da,” papa said empathically. “When we love good people we can’t be bad ourselves.”
I looked out the car window and wondered if this was a building where Dostoevsky rented one of his many flats when he lived in this city. He rented apartments in around twenty different buildings, never living in one place more than a few years at a time. One of the best writers of the twentieth century and he had money troubles. Was this the building where Raskolnikov, protagonist of Crime and Punishment, lived in his tiny flat when he determined to kill the old lady?
“Can we stop by a pharmacy?” Papa asked Maxim.
“Why? What do you need?”
“I promised to bring back a wooden cane for one of my friends back home and couldn’t find one in Moscow.”
“I will get you one,” Maxim said.
“From where?” Papa asked.
“Leave it to me.”
Since Maxim was a celebrity - everywhere we walked together, people would stop him to take a picture or get an autograph - I was sure he would be able to procure a wooden cane or anything else he wanted.
Maxim turned on the radio and Leningrad’s “In Peter We Drink” was playing.
“… despite all the ostensible cynicism, I love this country with all my heart…”
The song came out shortly before we arrived in Russia and its video immediately went viral on YouTube. In it, regular-looking people quit their jobs and aimlessly roam the streets together drinking vodka. The video ends with a radio broadcaster announcing +5 celcius and asking listeners to dress warmly, remarking how pure the city is in the early morning when there isn’t a soul around while our regular shmoes are making their drunken way down the line of vision with one of them having vomited only a few hours earlier.
“Viktor Kononov, St. Petersburg’s tourism chief, publicly thanked Leningrad for making this song and attracting tourists. Can you believe it?” Maxim said.
“Tphew.” My father spat in disgust. “Sploshnoi mat” (all curse words).
“Kononov thought that listening to the song makes people want to visit St. Petersburg. Masha, do they play this song in America?” Maxim asked.
I thought about this for a minute. “I have never heard any Russian songs played on the radio. But there are many beautiful Spanish songs that they do play.”
“I wonder why no Russian songs.” Maxim mused.
“Russians always sound angry, even when they’re not they still sound pissed off.” Ever heard of Trevor Noah?” I asked. He said that “everything the Russians say sounds dangerous and menacing.”
Incidentally, St. Petersburg’s prosecutor opened a probe into the In Peter We Drink video for alleged “propaganda of alcohol abuse” after a local legislator complained. According to an article published in Billboard in May 2016, the probe was in line with a recent trend of introducing restrictions and in some cases bans on showing people smoking, consuming alcohol and using profanity in music, cinema, theater and literature in Russia. And Kovonov, who originally praised the video for promoting the city, had been fired. Of all the developed countries, Russia has an exceptionally low life expectancy, mostly due to high alcohol consumption and smoking. While American men have a 1-in-11 chance of dying before their 55 birthday, in Russia the odds are 1 in 4. Despite statistics a couple of years ago showing that Russia’s life expectancy is rising, deaths continue to outpace births. Maybe the city’s reaction to the song wasn’t wrong after all. In any event, Leningrad’s In Peter We Drink, with its ninety million views (last I checked YouTube), will never cross over. Too bad.
Russia is a country of juxtapositions; old world culture and alcoholism always have gone hand-in-hand here. I’m sure those drunks in the In Peter We Drink video can recite Shakespearean sonnets and hum Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. These are highly educated people turning to substance abuse but is it to cope with a difficult life? Or is alcohol consumption just a part of Russian life? Maybe it’s an essential component in providing comfort in discomfort and conflict. Or maybe to maintain the conflict.
Far too quickly our time together in Russia was coming to an end. My father and I had spent twelve days together. For the first time in decades. Every day. Just my dad and me and whoever we chose to invite into our day. Prior to the trip I worried how I would tolerate so much time with my father. My conservative, argumentative, passionate, sometimes-to-the-point-of-hysterics father. It was a gift. One that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I don’t remember the last time we spent so much time together. I must have been a child still living with my parents before they lost me to college, to high school before that and to America in general. The last time we spent so much time together was when we were living in Russia. And here we were again.
We had grown apart. It all started when we arrived at JFK Airport that early May, 31 years ago. I desperately tried to fit in to my new country as quickly as possible. It was easy for me; children are malleable and learn fast. My parents eventually learned English - my mother better than my father - but they never became American like me. It’s just the way it is. No one’s fault. And this trip, it made me more aware of the Russian me. As I sat at nightly gatherings of countless vodka toasts chased by homemade pickles and salted fish, I came a little closer to my father, and a little closer to accepting my place on the edge of the coin where both the American and Russian me reside.
With Kolbasa and wooden cane procured we were ready to return to the States. The sausage was easy. And the wooden cane? When I asked Maxim how he was able to find one when we looked everywhere and could not, he said that he whittled it himself, that whittling wood was a hobby. I chuckled out loud and he seemed hurt. He said he carved his initials on the cane, though he didn’t show where and I didn’t want to check in front of him. I was dubious but all that mattered to my father was that he had the wooden cane to bring back to Dima that he promised.
A long plane ride is the kindest way to acclimate to a new destination. A time to file all the fresh experiences into memories and prepare for the new; new because even if you’re returning home, it’s not the same. Time marches on. The people you left behind had new experiences, without you. Nor are you the same. Floating through space and time between two destinations prepares your return back to earth. Similar to how good movies help escape for a few hours into another world. And those hours feel like an eternity if it’s a really good film. Time stops and all your worries and anxieties are forgotten, at least during the life of the movie. But then once the movie is over, as though waking from a dream, the here and now slowly comes back into focus.
As I sit next to my dad in our premium coach aisle and window seats with the Russian flight attendant in her bright yellow fitted suit delivering us another round of white wine (vodka is too heavy on this long flight), all I want is to be like my dad. He’s stubborn and reactive and irrational at times. But he’s so damn comfortable in his own skin. So innocent in his honesty with others. I raise my glass and watch him wipe his face with his hand like a bear does with its paw.
“Za tvoyo zdorovye” (to your health).
“Cpacibo. I za tvoe tozhje (and to yours too).” Papa takes a sip.
“I can’t wait to have some of the kolbaska we brought back,” Papa tells me.
“Shhh.” I put my finger to my pursed lips and look around.
“Remember a long time ago that communist kolbasa we got from the government that we tried feeding to Chernushka?”
My parents were once house-sitting my grandparents' dacha while my grandparents were away. My grandfather was a member of the Communist Party and periodically received care packages from the Soviet government expressing its thanks for his service. Unbeknownst to the government, many people, like my grandfather, joined the party solely to receive the free sausage and cheese. One such package arrived on my parents’ watch. The cheese had the usual mold which once scraped off was edible. But the sausage looked questionable - the meat had shrunk away from the casing. A bad sign. My parents decided to try it out on my grandparents’ outdoor cat. In Russia, unlike in America, pets ate whatever they could get their paws on. Neither pets nor humans were picky eaters. All had strong stomachs. No one suffered from Selective Eating Disorder.
“Laura, cut a little piece of the sausage. Let’s see what Chernushka thinks,” my dad told mom. Chernushka had a beautiful silky black coat with a small white spot at the tip of her tail, a mark of distinction we always said. My parents weren’t trying to poison the cat. The cat was our food compass. If she ate it then it may be safe for human consumption. If she did not eat it, then it definitely was not safe.
Chernushka walked unhurriedly to her little porcelain saucer on the floor, the one with the pretty colorful flowers that babushka didn’t use anymore because of the chip on the side. The cat examined the grey piece of protein. Judging by her slow approach, Chernushka wasn’t hungry, but she would never refuse food, just in case there was a shortage in the near future. She had the same mentality as her owners. We all watched her next move with baited breath. Chernushka moved her snout close to the sausage, sniffed once, and looked up at us as if to say: “You people expect me to eat this shit?” Then she meowed in disgust and walked away with her tail straight up, pointing her white mark of distinction at us, like an accusatory finger.
I smile remembering that story. I look over at my dad and he is sleeping again. He tends to sleep more during the day. The once mighty and invincible Russian bear looks vulnerable. Fragile. The bear’s paw is deformed by Rheumatoid Arthritis. Crepey skin dotted with old age spots. And I can’t help but feel that I’m losing him when all I want is more of him. Like Denzel Washington’s character in “Man on Fire” responds when the man he is about to kill asks for a last wish, “Last wish? I wish you had more time.”
My wish? I wish we had more time.