My Mona Lisa....
Many of the women hid in their houses. Some men, like my grandfather, would wake up in the middle of the night screaming - still haunted by the threats and fears they carried in their souls from the old country.
I grew up very aware of these underlying stories of violence. At one point I even tried to dig a bunker in the back garden, convinced that they would come back - whoever they were. Completely unaware that they - the Russians - lived on the other side of an ocean and not on the other side of Chilliwack mountain.
I'm assuming that I was so aware of these stories because I was in such close proximity to the stories through my grandmother. She had never really gotten over the disappearance of her younger sister - pictured here - who disappeared just as the Russian Revolution began. We called her Tanta Lisa - but I always thought she looked like the Mona Lisa growing up.
Her presence dominated the living room - and my grandmother. She who would look at this old picture in an oval, wrought-iron frame and would tell me the story again and again - with tears in her eyes - as victims of violence are prone to do.
My father described Tanta Lisa as a Pied Piper of the village children. They followed her wherever she went. Today we would say she was a child whisperer, with a gentle yet compelling nature, who seemed to have a way with all children - my father himself confessed to being one of them.
It was only much later that I realized that Lisa was actually her "half-sister" born of a cruel "step-mother" and that she and my grandmother had obviously bonded in a very special sister way. All I knew at the time was that Lisa was one of the first targeted victims of the crazed revolutionaries who took her and a group of the children she was teaching -- knowing that once you take the children, you have crippled, traumatized and incapacitated an entire village with a single terrorist act.
Much later we learned that Tanta Lisa's body, along with the bodies of the children she was with at the time, were found near the Black Sea. By then my grandmother had already passed. She had lived all her life never knowing.
Even though that story is imprinted into my memory, it's not the only one -- not even the dominant memory of my grandmother.
I mainly remember my grandmother for her style and zest for life. Her house, though simple, had an elegance and grace that hinted of a former life of affluence. She and my grandfather knew how to live with an appreciation of the finer things -- beautiful antique furniture, a garden of roses, enough vegetables to make food nutritious and flavorful, an orchard of cherry trees, apple trees, a patch of blueberries, and a hedge of flowering chestnut trees. The winding path to the barn had a bridge over a tiny ditch -- that bounced just enough to give you a feeling of walking on air. How wonderful is that?
And my grandmother didn't spend all her time working. She was efficient in it all, giving herself time to read, embroider, crochet -- and visit with the many guests who came to hear her stories.
To me, there was no doubt that she had been traumatized earlier in her life. But, along with her husband, she took huge, courageous risks to start a new life -- pioneering in the mountains of the west coast.
They were not stuck. They cried - they wailed against the night - but they didn't wallow there.
In fact, they created a beautiful life, worked hard, and simply never gave up.
Best of all, they laughed and taught their children to laugh. When the family gathered together at special times, they, together with their adult children, would sit down in that elegant front room with their after dinner tea. And then my grandfather would, very deliberately, with a soft smile on his lips, close the French doors to the living room, and we would hear them laughing... and laughing.
It was a signal then that we, as cousins, could climb up the old narrow stairs that led to the most magical place in the house -- the attic. It was classic attic -- with distressed pirate-like chests, wardrobes of old clothes, dated wavy mirrors, little floor-level windows, soft warm wood floors and heavy dusty cobwebs. It held all the charming remnants of their dreams, complete with a bear rug -- head included -- with a dry tongue that still moved. Can you imagine what we did with that? Terrorized each other half to death. The stories we made up? The dramas we played? It was endless... as we listened to the adults laugh in the room beneath us.
I never thought once that some day my own child would disappear -- and that I would remember my grandmother - continuing to live - never denying her sorrow - never embarrassed about her tears - but determined to live! And how she never stopped making things beautiful. When others remained shell-shocked in the community, barely existing, she lived transformationally and intentionally - and together with her husband created moods and places to laugh.
And as a child, I watched her - transfixed!
"We forgive...." she said.
My father, as he explained the values of his people, would also say, "We forgive and move on." He himself always had dreams to move on... just in case. One didn't get stuck -- one always had a grand escape -- one moved. One even moved across the ocean in order not to get stuck.
“This wasn't prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods. Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion