It was only two years ago that I found out that my paternal grandparents were from Moldova, a neighboring country to the Ukraine. I know nothing much about it, and not more about it now, except that the person who finally researched this genealogy (from which I had been estranged) explained to me that it was a desolate, destitute place. “One of the worst places on earth,” she said. Moldova was once part of Greater Poland but then annexed by the Soviet Union was then part of Putin’s “Mother Russia.”
I lost my father at the age of seventeen and with him, most connections and threads to his familial heritage line. I knew that my grandfather from Moldova wore spats , that he was a “scrapper” (which meant a “jack of trades )” and did, in fine American tradition, make his fortune which moved his poverty-stricken family to more comfortable surroundings in White Plains. I also knew Grandpa lost his fortune in the crash of ’29, and that my father read voraciously, books he hid under his mattress because my grandmother, having never really learned proper English, condemned my father as a dreamer and ne’er-do-well in her estimation—she was all pragmatism and cynicism, having come also from that desolate place of Moldova and the pogroms, not even to mention having to work as a seamstress in East Village until my grandfather made enough money to move the family out to White Plains. She wanted nothing of my father ’s passion for Proust, George Gershwin, nor his jazz club visits to the Cotton Club in Harlem and his Jewish intellectualism. As for me, it was what I loved most about my father, that dreamy part of him. That embracing of freedom of thought and passions. One of the first Jews at Columbia University and later Columbia University Law School I do think all that reading did him, eventually, a great service and invited him into America’s larger dream.
I hadn’t thought about their beginnings in Moldova for a very long time. I tucked away the information my friend dug up. It had become, at best, a source of personal biography, not very important. Until I heard about the Ukraine in the news recently. There it was: history. The history of not only present Ukraine but of a vanished Greater Poland and personal history. Why had there been so much silence? Why did my grandparents never want to think of where they immigrated from? What don’t we, as Americans, know about the history of these regions? About the Ukraine, Mother Russia, Crimea, the whole chessboard of power exchanges and current situations? This feels like only the beginning of a story I want to write.
In a new book I am almost finished with, I wrote about a famous short story writer, based on Grace Paley, who never abandoned her Russian roots and whose photos of early Odessa I had become fascinated with as a young student, mostly because my own grandparents never talked about Moldova and their Russian (Greater Poland became Russia) heritage.
“Allegra had always preferred the author’s photo of Faith in a paisley dress, when her hair was so long. The photo peeked out from a shelf in Allegra’s living room now, over her writing desk. An Afghan was over Faith’s lap in the photo. Once years ago, Allegra saw pictures of the Russian city, Odessa, on a silver tray on top of Faith’s chest of drawers in the vestibule of the West 10th apartment, black and white photos showing the shabby lettering on the Odessa signboards, the stones of the houses, and there were women with tall hairdos. It was the city too of Allegra’s father’s parents, though she had not known a word of it since he died when Allegra was very young. Once, she fantasized that Faith was a Russian woman in Odessa, the city facing the Black Sea, Faith, sunning in a vast field of sand at the seaport. Light Russian winter and all around hawks, predatory blackbirds. The snow falling harder, mercilessly but as if in a dank basement, the musty warm sweat because she was under Faith’s skirt, and the snow could fall, the howls of wind and swooping birds could sound, but Allegra could hear her own voice breathing. The places where Faith’s sex might have been terrifying to encounter for Allegra in the long voyage down to lie much lower hugging Faith’s knees on a ground by Faith’s feet, she consoled herself, no, she had told herself this was a different kind love, this was not that kind of love, though there was excitement and trembling in Allegra’s body. Faith’s high breasts were like two small, tight sacks stuffed with feathers. And in this tent of Mother, Allegra remained safe.”
Thinking of Putin, that lost heritage, I went back to a passage I had written in this new novel, tentatively entitled for now “Stealing Faith” which might encapsulate some feelings I had once I had, feeling an invisible history around me after so much silence and repression. I think one’s “Mother” isn’t country or nation, as Putin seems to believe in his justifications of returning his Ukrainians to Mother Russia as this passage was meant to express, but this seems an obvious fact, the truth my grandparents and my father had known so long ago.
Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Hystera. You can learn more about her at our website.