Thursday, October 31, 2013

Grave Matter: The Privilege of Proper Burial

Many, if not most, Americans I know generally put off planning for funerals, picking burial plots and selecting tomb stones as long as possible. I’ve known people who have had to make final arrangements for elderly loved ones, something unthinkable for my mother and her parents. Leaving that responsibility – financially, emotionally and socially – to another person would be cruel, unfair and well, unthinkable. Beyond the added benefit of the cost savings that comes with paying in advance and the comfort of knowing that everything will be executed properly, there is a compelling reason why people like my mother and her parents take pride in such morose tasks. My mother’s brothers – among dozens more family members and childhood friends – were dumped into mass graves that have never been marked, unearthed or in any way recognized as burial places.

Of all the villages I’ve researched in Vitsebsk Oblast, Lemnitsa is by far the most elusive. My (for lack of proper term) cousin, Tanya Grishayeva (her paternal grandfather was my maternal grandfather’s younger brother), who was born in Mozyr, Belarus, and now lives in Minsk, helped me cobble what little information – mostly photographs -- is out there.

Perhaps one day the government or an organized group in search for bodies of fallen soldiers will get around to excavating Lemnista, the burial place of my mother’s three brothers who died in infancy. In September 2011, the remains of soldiers of the Red Army were discovered near the village of Noviky, Vitebsk, as part of the CIS International Memory Watch 2011. The effort includes volunteers from Belarus and Russia seeking unearthed remains that will be re-interred in one of the mass graves in Vitebsk Oblast.

For now, the village of Lemnitsa seems lost in time, with a grainy image of a 19th century
water mill that was destroyed and mention of a church in honor of Saints Kosmy and Damiana (Orthodox Saints Cosmas and Damian, or Kosmas and Damianos in Greek) built in 1836 but destroyed around 1910, among the little evidence such a place exists.

There is a haunting consolation that comes with learning that the ghosts of brothers (in some stories, twins) Kosmy and Damiana share my uncles’ burial place. Their history represents a trinity of stories, one for each of my mother’s brothers: Pyotr (Peter), Mikhail (Michael) and Ivan (John.) The Holy Trinity is a key belief in the world’s second-largest (yet most often neglected and ignored by the West) Christian church, and the theme permeates culture, literature and secular life. By the 4th century, a polarity developed between Eastern and Western Christians over their respective understandings of the Trinity. The West viewed God primarily as one essence (the Trinity of Persons being conceived as an irrational truth found in revelation), while the East considered the tri-personality of God the primary fact of Christian experience. The Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea) were accused of being tri-theists because of the personalistic emphasis of their conception of God. Modern Orthodox theologians tend to emphasize this personalistic approach to God.

Orthodox Christians celebrate three different sets of saints by the name of Cosmas and Damian, each with their own feast day:

·      Saints Cosmas and Damian of Cilicia of Arabia on Oct. 17. Legend claims the brothers were beaten and beheaded together with three other Christians: Leontius, Anthimus and Eutropius.
·      Saints Cosmas and Damian of Asia Minor or Mesopotamia on Nov.  1. This story offers some solace with the twins sons of Saint Theodota dying peacefully and being buried together at Thereman in Mesopotamia. Note that my mother’s brothers Mikhail and Ivan were twins.
·      Saints Cosmas and Damian of Rome on July 1. In another Christian tradition, the brothers were martyred outside Rome by a jealous pagan physician during the reign of Roman Emperor Carinus (283–284).

St. Michael's Church in Munich as well as the convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid claim to have the skulls of Cosmas and Damian. For Orthodox Christians like my mother, the need to worship and believe in the authenticity of such relics is powerful. Imagine as a young child not only watching all three of your siblings suffer and die, but also to never know exactly where they were buried or have any way of paying proper respects.

This makes the opportunity to choose and arrange for your own final resting place something of a privilege. I do respect anyone’s desire to decide how their own body will be treated upon death and how they will be remembered. But I always shudder when I learn of people who bury loved ones without any sense of tradition or ritual, assuming that is what the deceased had intended. I believe that those who want no ceremony or guests clearly state such desires long before their demise, and such requests are to be honored. But the notion of simply cremating or arranging for burial without even a dinner featuring the departed’s favorite food or a gathering of some kind, albeit secular and informal, is to me a form of neglect.

Most of the images that exist online of Lemnista are of a railway station connecting the village to routes into Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. A photo of the passenger building at the station is especially eerie, as there are two rectangular cement-enclosed flower beds in the parking lot that resemble the open grave covers filled with flowers at the cemetery at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, N.Y., where my mother’s parents and my father are buried. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Brief Period in Lublin Has A Lasting Impact

My mother has lived in the same split-level ranch atop a steep hill on a quiet cul-de-sac that empties into a town nature preserve which was an active apple and peach orchard throughout my childhood. She has many excuses for not moving out after my father died in 2002, all while acknowledging that it is a burden to clean a three-bedroom house (where she lives alone) and to maintain a large lawn with many trees. My mother is not the type to hire a housekeeper, ever. (Her mother worked as a housekeeper for many years, including when I was an infant and I went to work with my babushka while my mother studied.) As stubborn and strong-willed as they come, my mother also is reluctant to hire anyone to clean the gutters, rake the leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the snow, trim the shrubbery, clean the garage, haul large objects to and from the basement or perform myriad strange cleanup tasks that arise from the wave of unusual weather events, including tornadoes that touched down in 2011, that have hit Western Massachusetts in recent years.

My Western mind insists she’d be better off in a nice condo with other self-sufficient retirees where she could trade manual labor for activities that don’t require a hard hat. But my Eastern soul sympathizes and understands that for my mother moving comes with a lot of baggage that you can’t hire someone else to haul. (Save for a really great therapist.)

By the time she was four years old, my mother had moved to three neighboring, yet warring, countries: Belarus, Poland and Germany.

Now the ninth largest city in Poland and regarded as a European cultural capital, Lublin was a very different place when my mother and her parents were forced to relocate there.

Majdanek, a concentration and forced labor camp, and briefly a death camp, located about three miles outside the city, opened in September 1941, initially for Soviet prisoners of war. It is estimated that 360,000 people, including 120,000 Jews, died or were murdered at Majdanek. The inmates represented 54 nationalities from 28 different countries, including the Soviet prisoners of war and Jews from Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Hungary, Belgium and Greece, as well as non-Jews from Belarus, Ukraine and across Poland, who were taken to the camp as political prisoners and slave laborers. 

“I remember the house, the room, that we lived in,” she recalls. “It didn’t have a floor. It was a dirt floor. That much I remember. And the people whose house we were living in, that woman had a baby and they had a christening and they had food there, and drinks, and so I came up to the table and I took what I thought was a glass of water, but it was actually vodka! Homemade vodka!” 

Laughing, my mother says she was “Four, something like that, four and a half. I don’t know, maybe even five. I don’t really remember how old I was. But I do remember we were living there, and one of my aunts (my mother’s sister, Marta) was living in another house close by, but we could see it out the windows.”

“It was really a big chaos. The Germans would come and try to kill us, and the Partisans, I guess, would try to kill us. They used to take usually men. Men would be hiding and I just remember –- sort of remember -- how they would take someone and there'll be like two soldiers on each side and one walking with a gun after them. And it was just very, very terrible. But then one time, when they were taking us further and further, towards Germany, we had to sleep outside. I only had one set of clothes, which I wore all the time, I slept in it … It was like a jumper, I guess, and some kind of a shirt or blouse underneath and I guess I did have a coat. I must've had a coat because it was cold at times. We lived that way for a long time, and I got lost one time from my mother and father.

The passing of time for this brief but life-altering period in my mother’s early childhood was measured only by changes in weather and the deaths of her brothers and other friends and loved ones. 

“We at that time somehow had a cow, and I was holding onto the cow and they pushed me away, and this must've been after the spring, after my brother died … There was grass on the ground and the cow was eating the grass, and then after looking and looking for my mother, I didn’t find her, and I just laid down in the grass crying, but I was still holding onto the leash of the cow, and then my mother found me. But then after, shortly after that, the Germans took the cow away from us, too. They took everything. Whatever we had, we didn’t have anything anymore.” 

The next thing my mother recalls is boarding a freight train when she was about five years old.

Lublin changed rapidly and dramatically when the city was taken by the Soviet Army on July 24,1944, and it became the temporary capital of a Soviet-controlled communist puppet government, the Polish Committee of National Liberation. The Polish capital was moved to Warsaw in January 1945. After the war, Lublin’s population quickly grew and it became a major scientific and research base and home to large automobile factory. After the war, Jewish Holocaust survivors in hiding or in Soviet territory had re-established a small community for a short time but most quickly left Poland for Israel and the West. Survivors like my mother and her parents were herded to a displaced persons camp in Germany.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sole Surviving Sibling: The First Four Years

My mother’s mother, Alexandra Dimitrievna (Dimitrieva) Grishaev, was born March 3, 1913, in Dubrovka, a village in Vitebsk Oblast. My mother’s father, Grigori Ustinovich Grishaev, was born Nov. 18, 1907, in Lagi, also Vitebsk Oblast. Both villages are located near the Russian border, and my maternal grandmother would walk to Russia's Smolensk Oblast to attend services at the closest Russian Orthodox church. The oblast (which means administrative region) borders Russia, Latvia and Lithuania, and is a major railway center with stations for lines between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and Poland, and Russia and Lithuania.

Her maternal grandparents were Dimitri and Matrona, and her paternal grandparents were Ustin (Justin) and Natalia. She only recalls that they were born “in Russia someplace.”

My mother was the oldest sibling, the only girl and the only survivor. Her brothers all died as infants, and are still remembered as such in daily prayers. She doesn’t recall exactly when or where her brothers were born.

In her words: “One of my brothers was born a year or so later than me. His name was Pyotr, which is Peter in English. And my mother had twins; they were probably like two or three years younger than me. One of them was Michael (Mikhail) and one was Ivan, which is John. And actually one of them didn’t live that long. And I, for some reason at that time, liked the name John better. And when they were lying on a bed or something I used to switch them because I thought my mother and father wouldn’t know the difference. [laughter] (My parents)  said something that one of them was weaker, and probably wouldn’t live too long, but they knew (I was switching the babies).” 

All the boys shared names with tsars from the House of Romanov: Michael I, ruled from July 26, 1613, to July 14, 1645; Ivan V (jointly with Peter I) ruled from June 2, 1682, to February 8, 1696; Peter (I) the Great ruled from June 2, 1682, to November 2, 1721. My babushka (mother’s mother) had predicted that Mother Russia would rise again, and would be ruled by a Tsar Michael, the first tsar. My mother told us this after my husband Mike and I named our son Michael Alexander. In the 18th and 19th centuries, three Alexanders ruled Russia as emperors. Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich Romanov (married to Natalia Brasova) was the youngest son of Emperor Alexander III of Russia, and at the time of his birth, his paternal grandfather (Alexander I) was emperor of “All the Russias.” Michael was fourth in line to the throne following his father and older brothers Nicholas and George. After his grandfather was assassinated in 1881, he became third in line. When his father died in 1894, he became second, and then the heir to the throne when George died in 1899. The birth of Nicholas's son Alexei in 1904 would have edged back Michael one spot, but Alexei was a hemophiliac and was expected to die. When Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917, Michael was named as his father’s successor, but he refused the throne until ratification by an elected assembly. He was never confirmed as emperor, and he was sent to prison and murdered following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

I’m not a historian and have no authority here, but people in general have very strong opinions about the Russian royals and often present passing and erroneous comments as fact. An older woman (with no trace of a foreign accent) I’d encountered in a Manhattan elevator informed me that my son “has a regal name.” “You know,” she said. “Alexander was tsar of Russia.” I smiled and said, “Yes, and Michael was the first tsar of Russia.” She grimaced, bowed her head, and informed me, “No, dear. I don’t think so.”

The births and deaths of the tsars are widely, if not always accurately or consistently, documented. Any evidence beyond memory of my mother’s brothers may exist only in their unmarked graves, which may or may not remain today.

Says my mother: “I don’t know how my brother Peter died. I don’t know anything about that. He was an infant. And John died when the war was almost to start, it was like 19 … I don’t know … when the Second World War was starting. And John died soon after that. And Michael … we did not have any, hardly any food, to eat, and he got very sick. There were no doctors. He had pneumonia. And he was 2 ½ when he died.” 

My mother says her brothers were buried in the tiny of village of Lemnitsa in Vitebsk Oblast, some 158 miles northeast of Minsk. There is nothing online but serial maps of Lemnitsa, searching in English or in Russian. It’s as if it exists only as a tiny pinprick on the massive expanse of a geographic region and only in the memory of the few survivors like my mother.

For my mother, Lemnitsa serves literally and figuratively as a giant grave, where nearly all members of her family perished along with all its other inhabitants. “That's where also my father's mother and sister were harshly killed, and his sister was 16 at that time,” my mother says. “That's where they are buried, too.” 

When asked for earliest childhood memory, my mother bites her lip as tears trickle down her cheeks, chin and neck. She’s able to compose herself enough to reveal this rare moment when she was about three years old. 

“Afterwards, when we moved into this house that was built, and I was very little, we didn’t really have that much food, usually, always, you know. And the people across the street, they had these … they made them for me… it was like hamburger meat or  meatballs. Just a little bit of meat and potatoes. And they gave me some. I thought that was the best thing I ever had.”

“And the other thing that I remember myself -- I really don’t remember too much of my childhood at all -- I do remember someone giving me candy one time, and ironically, I must've really wanted the candy for some reason, but I really don’t think I remember much of my childhood except a horrible war. And when the war sort of ended, but it wasn't ended yet, the Germans were still there and had let open some churches, and my brother Michael was still alive at that time, and that's when he was baptized in the church when it opened.” 

She doesn’t recall the name of the church or the priest, but she speaks of a mystical experience, which punctuates her lifelong passion for Russian Orthodoxy and guilt, even now, over her tardiness to liturgy, even when she’s ill. The girlhood hunger for faith was as intense as the need for food to survive. My mother still thinks this way. It’s an inescapable passion. 

“Oh, it was beautiful, big church,” she boasts, the tears drying, her eyes glistening with delight and a smile spreading quickly across her face. “And I think, in my opinion, I saw angels singing on top of the church, but when I was telling someone they said I probably just heard people singing, and because there were probably paintings (of angels), so it was like a very large church. Yeah, to me it looked very good.” 

She doesn’t remember anything about the cupolas, or onion domes, whether they were wooden or gilded. “I don’t remember the outside. I just remember the inside of it. And, oh yes, there were a lot of people!” Most were strangers, bonded only by faith in Orthodoxy or at least a transfixion with the church itself, finally erected, open and serving a safe place to seek refuge for the soul or body. “I was too little. I didn’t really know anyone there. The church was full.” 

My mother’s memory shifts suddenly to retrieve another visceral early childhood experience, one she’d likely repressed. 

“And then I do remember something which I'm very upset about. When my little brother was sick, Michael, I was a little bit older, and well, actually, before he got sick, the reason he got sick is because there was this one room where four or five families of us lived because we all lost our houses and everything. But it was not where I was born or where I lived, it was somewhere farther. (Possibly closer to what is now the Polish border.) And what happened is, my mother, she was in quarantine because she had typhoid fever, and my little brother was still breast-fed at that time, and because she wasn’t with us and the two of us were left there, and this one woman that had a cat in there, and it was a cold, a very, very cold autumn day. It was very cold outside. And of course, he wasn't dressed, he only had a shirt. Like a T-shirt, some kind of an undershirt on, and she threw him outside, and I wasn’t able to pick him up or anything because I was too small yet, too. And then that's when he got very sick. And he had to leave late in the night. I don’t know if it was like a crib or something like that, for a long time he was very sick, and there was another girl that was my age that lived in that house, and we were playing cards with her, and my little brother would cry, and I would get very angry at him because he was disturbing me, and so that actually to this day tortures me. That I did that.” 

I hate too push my mother when she tells this story, but I am compelled. If I don’t ask now, I know it will be forever lost, existing only as the pain she felt compounded by all the other pain that she endures every second of every day. I ask her about the woman with the cat.

“The woman with the cat, she was actually in the other room, but she was Polish, and her daughter had affairs with the German soldiers, so they had everything. We didn’t have anything.” 

I push mother more, even though I can sense from her curt response that it isn’t something she wants to elaborate. I ask her about the daughter, her age, her name. 

“Well, I don’t know. She was a woman at that time because she did have a daughter, I think. She was not a young girl. She was probably in her twenties. No. No, I don’t remember that woman's name. And then at the same time, when my little brother Michael died, that's when my grandmother, my father's mother, and his sister were very brutally killed.”

Michael died in “either October or November. I don’t know. I don’t know what year it was. Maybe 1944, probably 44. And the thing is, we were actually living at that time where the German soldiers were, but my grandmother, my father's mother and his sister that were killed, they were in a killed (by the Partisans) in a place that in the daytime, the Germans would be there at night. The Partisans were there, or vice versa, I don’t remember. But anyway, somehow, I remember, I do sort of remember going to the cemetery, and they were all, as far as I know, all killed and just buried in one grave. And but it was the cemetery, where we lived before the war started.” 

My mother says they were killed by the Belarusian Partisans, resistance fighters who fought the Nazis and collaborationism during World War II. 

“My aunt, at that time, was in school in Russia where they had to learn German. The German soldiers took her and another 16-year old, and they were asking who is living in this house and this house, and they had a list of people who they were told to burn down the houses. She was 16, so of course, she's going to say whose house it was. She was lucky because her father was also a Partisan, and of course he wasn't there at that time, but he was in their party. And my father was against the Bolsheviks and everything else, and he was in a German zone. And so when the Partisans came after them they told him whose house it was, they came to get my aunt, they wanted just her. My grandmother, she ran after her daughter. And then they would go and take them a few miles away from there, but they had to cross some kind of a river, and they were going to be interrogated there by the Partisans, where their headquarters were. But what happened, it became close to nighttime, and they had to get out of that region because I guess that's when the Germans were coming or something, so the Partisans said that we know what's going to happen with them, so they didn’t want to waste the bullets, I guess.” 

At this point, we pause during an emotional discussion so my mother can collect her thoughts. 

“And so they used the other part of the gun (rifle), the wooden part, and they beat their heads open. That's how they were killed, and when my father saw that, it really affected his mental state for the rest of his life. And so – [sobbing] then we had to just, I guess, put them in ground and we had to leave there because the fighting between the Germans and Russians would start. And then when we got back to the place where we lived, and the second day or I don’t know maybe it was the same day, I don’t really remember, I was outside. And I saw my brother who was all in white, that's not the way he was buried. I guess I don’t know what he was buried in, that I don’t remember, but I saw him outside and to me he had represented an angel. That, I think, I just made up. No one was able to tell me that. I think that I remember myself.” 

My mother pauses again. 

“I think I do remember, I saw when the fighting was going on between the Germans and Russians -- I'm not sure if it was Partisans or the or the, Russian Army. I don’t know, I never asked my parents what army it was. But I know at that point I just saw the Germans afterwards because they're the ones that took us as prisoners after, so I really didn’t see any Russian soldiers after that. And there was a wagon full of stuff and we were walking on one side, and this other girl, about my age, was walking on the other side, and the grenade was thrown, and she was very close to me, and she got killed, and I didn’t. And of course there were other people that were killed but I remember her because she was a friend of mine, you know? And that was very, very tragic.” 

Perhaps a combination of the survivor’s guilt and the desire to block out such a traumatic childhood memory made my mother forget the girl’s name. 

“And then, after that, Germans were moving us from one place to the other. And I remember we lived in Poland for almost like nine months. In Lublin, which was going back from the Russians to Poland.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Great Date Debate and What’s in a Name?

My mother was born in somewhere in Vitebsk Oblast in Belarus. A birth certificate later issued in Germany lists Lagi, the village where her father was born, as her place of birth. But my mother says she was born in another nearby village where her maternal grandmother lived at the time. (I’ll get into the geographic significance later.) To the best of her recollection, she was born June 21st or 23rd by the Gregorian calendar (now internationally the most widely used civil calendar) in either 1936 or 1938. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, my mother observes holy days, or moveable and immovable feasts, by the Julian calendar, a reform of the Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The Julian calendar served as the civil calendar in some countries until as late as the 20th century. But her birthday, for all practical intents and purposes, has been July 5th since she immigrated to the United States in 1950. It has nothing to do with the differences between the two calendars. “When my father was interrogated, when we were prisoners in Germany (circa 1946), he had made a mistake about (some other fact) and he got scared and that's what he gave as my date of birth,” she explains.

The notion of a birthday being a movable feast would be social sacrilege to the typical American today. As a first-generation American who was raised Russian Orthodox, I’ve long been bewildered by the American obsession with one’s own birthday after age 10 or so. That some people promote their “birthday week” on social media, inviting all their Facebook “friends” to attend multiple celebrations in their honor is at odds with how I was taught to treat that day. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I encountered the very common practice of inviting out other people with the expectation that “friends” will pay not only for their own food, drink and entertainment, but also pick up the tab for the person celebrating a birthday. I’d known only the social custom of treating the people you invite out as guests, regardless of the occasion. This behavior has now extended even into business relationships. A recent interaction with a wealthy (“I’m more mass affluent than upper affluent, by New York standards,” he bragged) work “source,” who invited me to meet for drinks and then made it a point to say he “relies on reporters to buy him drinks,” rattled my roots in etiquette and egoism. In the tradition carried down by my mother, it is self-centered and self-congratulatory to focus on one’s own birthday. It’s the Saint’s Day which is feted, but as a religious feast, not as an opportunity to receive gifts.

Luba is short for Lubov (more commonly transliterated as Lyubov), and means Love. Along with Faith (Vera) and Hope (Nadezhda), Love is the youngest of three daughters of Saint Sophia the Martyr. The girls were named after virtues mentioned by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Born in Italy, Sophia is venerated by all the Eastern Orthodox churches. The story goes that Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138) ordered the three young girls to be tortured by being burned over an iron grating, then thrown into a hot oven and finally into a cauldron with boiling tar. Lubov was tied to a wheel and beaten with rods until her body was covered with bloody welts. Sofia was forced to watch as her three daughters were beheaded. During my mother’s own lifetime, her father watched as his sister and mother were brutally tortured and killed. My mother herself witnessed countless brutal murders and sudden deaths of many of her loved ones and fellow ethnic Russian friends throughout her early child. My mother still lives her life as a martyr, sacrificing everything for her own daughters. This, after caring at home for her father, her mother and her husband, while all three suffered debilitating and consecutive illnesses over a period of decades.

I, too, was named after a martyr, or holy sufferer, Natalia (Natasha is the most common Russian diminutive and is my legal first name), the wife of Saint Adrian, also known as Hadrian, or Adrian of Nicomedia, a Herculean Guard of the Roman Emperor Galerius Maximian. They were married for a year before being martyred March 4, 306. March 4 (by the Gregorian or as my mother calls it “American” calendar) is the day my maternal grandmother died.

Such details have been a prominent part of my life, and often the topic of ridicule by those who shun any such coincidence as evidence of some greater force in the universe. This is why I rarely speak publicly about mysticism or other spiritual pursuits for conscious awareness of an ultimate reality. My study of Russian literature was one of the few periods of my life when I could indulge such ideas and examine, from a scholarly perspective, the deep, layered meaning of names, dates and anything that can be tied to a person’s destiny. Readers of 18th and 19th century Russian literature know that names are extremely significant and are chosen deliberately and carefully. Perhaps the most blatant name symbolism is found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Kara come from the Turkish meaning "black" and maz in Russian means "paint" or "smear,” so the name is loosely (or tightly, if you choose to make the argument I did in undergraduate essays on the novel) means smeared in black or, more symbolically and obviously, just destined to darkness or cursed. Though in the years since I left grad school I’ve meet a shocking few people who have read this literary masterpiece, it is interwoven into the cultural fabric of all our lives via its influence on a cross-disciplinary group od highly influential figures including Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Cormac McCarthy and Kurt Vonnegut. The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most profound and complex ethical debates of God, free will and morality, and the meaning behind each name is an intrinsic part of the intricate story that frames the intellectual discourse. The exploration of the dialectic is not undermined, but enhanced, by an appreciation of and respect for the chosen names.

 “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.” _ Part II, Book V (Pro and Contra), Chapter 3 (The Brothers Make Friends.)

Oh, if only.

More like this:

"I'm a Karamazov... when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn. Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed; let me be following the devil at the same time, but still I am also your son, Lord, and I love you, and I feel a joy without which the world cannot stand and be." _ Dmitri (Mitya) to Alyosha, saying he has fallen in love with a "low woman,” Grushenka, Book III (The Sensualists), Chapter 3 (The Confession of a Passionate Heart.)

Now for a little comic relief. In her single years, my mother had a male admirer who called her Grushenka. She took great offense, because the lusty character is a depicted as a contemporary Mary Magdalene. My mother, a virgin until she married my father, viewed herself as the opposite of a Grushenka. Most women might have considered the comparison a compliment. Dostoyevsky’s Grushenka evolves from a free spirit to a faithful companion who accepts her role in the murder of Fyodor and agrees to share the guilt with Dmitri, only to become the personification of the ideal Russian woman. No wonder Marilyn Monroe wanted to play her in the movie. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Shifting Emotion of an Immoveable Feast

To the modern American, or global citizen, the notion that for the last 11 years I have begun contemplating what to prepare for dinner on October 18 weeks in advance may seen obsessive or silly, unless of course, I am a caterer or planning some fabulous fete for the beautiful people. (The latter, of course, would require my hiring the perfect caterer.)

My father was born on Oct. 18, 1926, and died in 2002. Planning what to make for dinner, generally one of his favorite old world meals – the old world being some mix of what was born of my Ukrainian, Polish and Russian roots.

Call it comfort food, but most certainly not in the mainstream America-meets foodie way of indulging in the food itself. It comforts me to commemorate his memory by creating and serving something he would enjoy. Of course, growing up dirt poor in the slums of Newark, N.J., my father learned to appreciate – or at least to never waste – any food.

My father was not religious in the go-to-church-every-holy-day-or-feel-really-guilty-about-it-way, like my mother. There are 13 major holy days in the Russian Orthodox Church and a much longer list of secondary holy days to commemorate various events in the lives of prophets, apostles, fathers of the Orthodox Church, martyrs, saints and others who have aided the propagation of Christianity and the Orthodox religion, as well as certain events in the life of the church. Those days are divided into movable feasts, which have no definite days or even months appointed for their celebration, and the immovable feasts, which are always celebrated on definite days of the year, by the Julian calendar.

Suffice it to say, commemorating the dead, both on their death days and birthdays, is an immovable feast.

My father, who felt more kinship with Buddhists and Sikhs, practiced meditation mostly at home (though sometimes he’d visit a gurdwara with his best friend, a Punjabi Sikh). He attended Russian Orthodox services on the highest holy days, namely Pascha, and of course always for funerals and other services for friends of the family. In the end, my father, who died of Stage IV colon cancer metastasized to the liver, requested to be buried alongside where my mother will be laid to rest and in the plot next to her parents, at one of three cemeteries at Holy Trinity Monastery in the hamlet of Jordanville in central New York State’s Herkimer County, northwest of Albany and east of Syracuse. Blink or sneeze while driving on remote winding roads past sprawling farmland and nothingness -- save for the monastery with the cathedral’s imposing gilded cupolas and bell tower -- you will miss Jordanville. Founded in 1928, the monastery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and is the first Google hit for Jordanville.

Family friends who have made what most call the pilgrimage to the monastery and cemetery have alluded to the mystical, otherworldly qualities of a place so alien from any America (or present time) they’d ever experienced. This includes hardcore atheists and agnostics.

Why my father chose to be buried there will always elude, even haunt, me. Most people closest to me say it’s because he wanted to be besides my mom, at least in the end. Those who have witnessed the terror of Stage IV colon cancer know what it does to the brain. Those who have read Russian literature know what happens to men facing their own mortality. The deathbed confession is not fictional in my world, if not quite as dramatic. My father was a philosopher and intellectual, and in many ways was like Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky (the character in Dostoyevsky's “The Devils”), although my father cared deeply and dutifully for his children while Stepan put his own interests first and was a scumbag to his son. And I doubt my father picked his final resting place because he considered himself immortal since his love for God will never die.

Why my father chose the church burial and ongoing mourning process, with all their ancient and elaborate rituals, I will never know. I do know that his decision impacted me deeply and profoundly and rattled my own beliefs – or lack thereof. If I am not compelled to follow the church rules as a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, I can at least provide a fitting memorial tribute – just twice a year – to commemorate his life on the dates of his birth and his death.

This all now sounds even sillier to most Americans, or global citizens, I’m sure. But I do derive some comfort, some closeness to my father’s legacy and my ethnic heritage by making a special meal.

Along with the menu planning comes an annual bout of profound sadness, if not deep depression. My therapist, who is far removed from this old world where I dwell emotionally, says I need to overcome this depression and to create a celebration where I invite friends over for a feast without telling them why. That’s funny, as Russians (the Russians who raised me, not the people hail from there now) never tell other people about their own birthdays and would never, ever, invite other people out with the expectation of others paying any part of the bill. It is equally wrong to not prepare and present a meal in honor of the dead on “their day,” religiously on the day they died and culturally on the day they were born.

I do not know where I stand in this cultural framework – trapped somewhere between the vast divide of a bygone Russia and a hypersocial world where people celebrate themselves on any and every platform, posting old photos of departed loves ones as a substitute for traditions they have shunned. I'm not eager to revert to a world where the closest women come to heroism is martyrdom in the form of Nastassya Filippovna. I’m also not ready to embrace a soulless world where the number of characters you're allotted dictates the depth of your musings.

I think I’ll make piroshki, to start.  

--- NOTE: This entry is the first in a series of ideas, themes or stories that will eventually appear in a novel based largely on my mother's life. Working novel title: Lubachka