How I Met My Grandmother

I was born in 1961, only 16 years after the end of WWII, and spent my first three years living next to my grandmother. Or under her wing. Or in her kingdom. She presided over our household in a two-room suite, which was part of a large communal apartment shared by seven families. Our two rooms were in inhabited by me, my mother and father, my grandmother, my aunt Ninel, and our nanny Vava. This is how I remember my grandmother in those years:

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In 1995 I wrote a few vignettes, recollections of textures of my childhood, for an exhibition catalog (Layer: Contemporary Collage from St. Petersburg, Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland). This one was about my grandmother:

“On the wall of the alcove, above my grandmother’s bed, seven great elephants were marching through a jungle. Or perhaps they were deer in a forest. The old tapestry was dark but it came alive in the night when I would crawl into the bed and pass my fingers over the swellings and cavities of its surface. Once in a while a late tram, rattling along the street underneath the windows, would cast a moving, silvery shadow across the scene. The animals’ eyes gleamed for a second, then a tree would tremble in the flicker of light, then the pool of water in the right corner would shimmer as if it had swallowed the moon. “One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, ” my grandmother taught me to count before falling asleep. I was slowly sinking into a dream about the jungle and the moonlight. ” Four elephant, five elephant…”

It is in this shimmering pool that I imagined the terrible event to have occurred. A children’s rhyme went like this:
Our Masha is in bitter tears,
She dropped her ball into the river.
Hush, little Masha, don’t you cry,
In the river the ball won’t drown.
The blood froze in my veins–I suddenly understood the horror of despair, the tragedy of fear. To console Masha with silly diminutives and rational assurances seemed futile and immoral. Didn’t anyone realize that she was not crying for the ball? She too saw the mystery of the water, that chilly and indifferent surface capable of carrying away what was dear to her, the sound of the tram, the protection of the tapestry against the cold, bare wall, or the silence of the room. Masha and I already knew that dropping a rubber ball was just a wild chance; other things were not made of rubber, and we would surely lose them, watch them sink and disappear. “Six elephant, seven elephant, eight elephant…”

The tapestry hung over the bed, the bed stood in the alcove, the alcove was in a room, the room was part of a communal apartment shared by seven families. Beds in other rooms also had tapestries with scenes and ornaments. They enclosed the sleepers’ spaces, cocooned them in warmth and fantasy, absorbed and exuded the stuff of their dreams. “Nine elephant, ten elephant…”

Before she died, when she was puffing our her memories as random clouds of cigarette smoke, my grandmother often remembered the elephant tapestry. It was sold to an unscrupulous acquaintance much too cheaply, she lamented, when we moved out of the room. Later, she tried to buy it back but the woman refused to sell. For years, the two women stubbornly feuded over their treasure.

I had a new tapestry over my new bed in the new apartment, the walls of which shook every time the freight train passed on the nearby railroad tracks. Seven happy bearded dwarfs were making their home inside a giant mushroom. They were hammering, chiseling, sawing, and climbing ladders. The oldest sat under a flower, smoking a pipe; neat rings of smoke froze above him in the velvety air. When I dared to peak from behind, the stitches felt long and smooth, colors were in reverse, and the faces of the dwarfs looked purple. Silly little dwarfs, building a house in a rotting mushroom on a wall that shook every hour. To fall asleep I would braid the tassels on the tapestry edges. “Eleven elephant, twelve elephant, thirteen elephant…”

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