Confessional: What I Discovered in Long Island
For the past four months my grandmother Baba Alisa has been staying in a big, sunny, carpeted room on the first floor of my parents’ house in Long Island. She’s decorated it with pictures of my mother and me back when we still lived in the Soviet Union (in one of them I have a bowl cut. I’m wearing a bright orange jacket and climbing a bronze statue of a wolf); postcards of paintings by her favorite painters (Chagall, Miro, Egon Schiele and Aivazovsky); poems ripped out of books by her favorite poets (Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Blok, Severyanin and Voloshin); and a faded Russian Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary.
When I got to Long Island last night, she was sitting on the edge of her bed, pressing her lips together, and listening to Rachmaninoff’s second concerto on the computer with her eyes closed, her right hand waving like a conductor’s.
I startled her when I walked in—my parents were still in the city and I don’t think she was expecting me so early. I wanted to come before they got there so that I could talk to her without any interruptions.
“Oh malysh,” she said (I’m turning thirty next year, but she will always call me “little one”). “You scared me walking in like that.”
Then she patted the bed, gesturing for me to sit next to her. “Just listen to how he hits those notes, he can do it like nobody else, bum bum bum, just listen to that . . .” she said and closed her eyes again, it was like I had never even come into the room. (My dad showed her how to use the Internet while she was visiting last summer, and I gave her my old iBook and taught her how to search for music; now she can find YouTube performances of her favorite movements and concertos. Sometimes she watches them for the finger-work, other times she just listens with her eyes closed like she was doing then.)
I sat next to her, the YouTube screen showed a still of the pianist Andre Watts leaning against a piano. I only knew who he was because of Nathan, who’d really get along with Baba Alisa because all he does is listen to classical music and read Dostoevsky (I think he was born in both the wrong decade and the wrong country).
Baba Alisa took my hand (hers felt so soft it was like her skin was made of silk) and squeezed it. “Ping!” she flicked her other hand and shook her head to an especially high note.
“Babulya,” I said, “I hate to interrupt, but can we talk for a little while? I have some questions about Lev Vassilynikov.”
She momentarily opened her eyes, the blue stood out against her pink face and her white hair, “Vassilynikov?” she said. “I love Vassilynikov . . .” but before I knew it she was narrowing her eyes again, “bum, bum, bum,” she sang, “just listen for another minute, this is your culture, you have to learn how to appreciate Rachmaninoff.”
So I sighed and also closed my eyes, and the music was actually quite beautiful, but I felt like I always do during Savasana in yoga class—no matter how much I tried to clear my mind and feel the music, thoughts about Bobbins and Lev Vassilynikov kept barging in.
It wasn’t until after dinner, once my parents had arrived, that I could get Baba Alisa to talk to me. But, because grandma knows so much about the Silver Age of Russian culture, she kept getting distracted. I’d ask about Vassilynikov, and she’d start talking about his influence on Tsvetaeva, about the Russian literary salons, and before I knew it she was whipping out her art books and showing me photographs of Modigliani paintings (we got to him because he had a brief affair with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova . . .)
While grandma took a break to measure her blood pressure (she does so every evening) I tried to prod my mom about stories from her childhood, her memories about the great writer, but she didn’t care to talk about it. She said she doesn’t really like Vassilynikov.
“Your mother has no understanding for the absurdist narrative,” my dad explained. He has an understanding, but he was no help either because his family has no connection to Vassilynikov whatsoever, only a distant relation to Joseph Brodsky . . .
Thankfully, after she was done with the blood pressure monitor, Baba Alisa finally gave me a lead.
She was wrapped in a fuzzy maroon blanket on the couch, shuffling a deck of cards (she and my mother like to play durak every night. It’s a Russian card game; the name means “idiot.”)
“Babulya,” I said, “before you get distracted with the game, I still want to hear more about Vassilynikov.” My voice was getting whiny, and I was done beating around the bush. Before, I wanted to see what I could get out of her through casual conversation. Now it was time to be direct. “Didn’t great aunt Katya have an affair with him or something?”
“Oh Mashunya, don’t be silly,” Baba Alisa laughed. Her voice is still quite soft and high for a grandma and when she laughs it sounds like little jingling bells, “how old do you think your great aunt was? If she were still alive, God rest her soul,” (here my grandmother crossed herself) “she would have to be at least 105 to have dated Vassilynikov!”
My heart was sinking. How could I have been so stupid? Obviously! Vassilynikov was born in 1891; my great aunt was at least forty years younger than him . . .
“No, I don’t know anybody who’s had an affair with the great Vassilynikov, though he did love his women. Those writers, they always love their women . . .” she turned to me and raised her index finger. “Mark my words Marusya, don’t ever marry a writer, their hearts are all over the place. Scattered in the winds, a little piece for everyone.” Then she paused, thought for a second and looked at me again, “and don’t marry a journalist either.”
I heard the tea pot whistling upstairs. This meant my mother would soon be coming down to join Baba Alisa for a card game. I wasn’t going to get anything. I would have to rely on the library. Or maybe there was someone at Columbia I could talk to, I mean I do work at the Harriman Institute . . .
“There was one thing though,” Baba Alisa said. “A curious thing, and I don’t know quite what to make of it. You know of course about Vassilynikov’s encounter with Nicholas II?”
I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t.
“Oh malysh, where is your knowledge of Russian history?” she sighed, then smiled at me and squeezed my shoulder. She knows every piece of information about every Russian writer, poet or artist. My mother’s like me, though, she doesn’t know anything . . .
“I did read about the Silver Age in this book called St. Petersburg once, perhaps there was something about Vassilynikov and the tsar, but no . . . I think that was Pushkin,” I offered.
“No, Volkov didn’t write about Nicholas II and Vassilynikov, he didn’t have enough information” (of course she knew exactly what book I was talking about). “In 1912, Nicholas II offered Vassilynikov the greatest honor; he loved his stories so much, he wanted the writer to come for a ceremony at the royal palace. But Mashinka, Vassilynikov was brave, he thought of Nicholas II as a bloody tyrant, and he refused to come.” Here my grandmother’s eyes welled with tears (she is very emotional). “This should have gotten him killed, but for some reason Nicholas didn’t harm Vassilynikov, he let him go, and no one really knows why that was, but Vassilynikov stayed alive.” (Now this I knew—Vassilynikov died much later, in the GULAG).
My grandmother stared into the distance, pondering this miracle in human history . . . then she turned to me and smiled, looking mischievous. “Now this is something my grandmother always loved to talk about, she would tell me stories for hours and hours when I was a little girl . . .”
It turned out, that my great-great-grandmother, Baba Svetlana, who spent a summer in St. Petersburg in 1912, was very close friends with a woman named Marfa Adropovna, a young poet the czar was rumored to be in love with. Well, Adropovna was in turn in love with Vassilynikov (though the Czar was not aware of this) and, according to my great-great-grandmother, she was the one who managed to convince Czar Nicholas to let Vassilynikov go.
Unfortunately, my grandmother was hazy on the details . . .
But she promised that once she got to Russia, she would go through her grandmother’s diaries.
“It’s all in there malysh, I guarantee you I’ll find it. Your grandmother is just getting old and starting to forget . . . I’ve heard this story god knows how many times!”