(from Taking Names)
My grandma, Baba, was the first great impostor in my life. She tended to me obsessively when I was young. She’d given up on my dad and sisters so I received the full brunt of her burnt-butter dumplings and shrill chidings about my TV addiction and socklessness. She always had a chore for me, her scraping voice saying, “To the driveway you must go. To shovel. Put on sock and boot, Johnny!” I felt smothered. That’s how she always loved, airtight.
Baba had distinctly Slavic looks: round face with broad cheekbones and an expansive forehead. Her grayish eyes and demure, never-smiling mouth give her a far-off, tired look. She walked with a limp and her hearing was shot.
We called her Baba because my older sister couldn’t pronounce babushka when she first started talking. Babushka is a metonymic Russian name for both grandmother and the kerchief a grandmother traditionally wears on her head. Babushka: the attribute defines the whole. Your name is kerchief. Your caste is trappings of female elder. While we’re at it, why not call grandfathers cane, or bifocals, or La-Z-Boy? Grandmothers are responsible for holding human civilization together, but let’s refer to them as a scrap of cloth. A rag. Schmatta. Baba. Some show I once watched said certain cultures name their newborns after inanimate objects, like shovel, to confuse evil spirits. That’s not my baby, that’s paper towel roll.
Baba was my dad’s mom—both of his parents lived in the downstairs of our house. Baba wielded Eastern European bluntness and a war-refugee’s despair. She didn’t even notice she constantly belittled my mom: I feed the children real food. Your haircut is no good. How you don’t lock the window? Want them to kill us at night? You are getting fat.
I’m named after my dad’s dad, Janusz Niekrasz, who is now dead. He was a Polish cavalry officer with a Hollywood jawline. He’d carried a goddamn sword on a horse in World War Two. A rifle, too, but Poland was fucked either way.
Baba told me how Janusz was captured and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. The Russian guards were impressed with his leather winter gear and beat him up and took it from him, even his boots. Then he escaped. You wouldn’t believe how.
The nine years I knew my grandfather, I remember he was fond of gardening and Baba’s eggy Hollandaise sauce on chicken aspic. He bounced me on his knee and practiced English by singing made-up ditties in sweeping tones:
The warrior gene
rearing its head
only every other generation
In the winter of 1986, Janusz mangled his fingers clearing the snowblower. He soaked his stitches in warm saltwater twice a day, and I joined him, my hand in the same bowl. We stared out the window together. I pantomimed stillness and healing.
But I was a wild sleeper. Baba snuck into my bedroom to re-cover me several times each night. I’d wake up in the morning and find my pajama shirt mysteriously stuffed with paper towels to absorb my night sweats. I was Baba’s only male grandchild, her sweaty little prince.
Baba spoke several languages. She had lived in the U.S. since 1952, but pronounced the plural of cookie cookieses, toes were fingers, and anything electronic was the machine. She used to waddle behind me while I did the grass machine in the front yard, yelling if I missed any sticking-ups: “Go slow! Go slow!”
Baba was born in another universe called 1914. In that universe, her name was Orysia Nowack. She was raised by her mother in the travelers’ spa they owned near Kolomyya, a Carpathian mountain town in the Ukraine.
Before Baba died, I would see her during the holidays and ask her about her childhood. She poured us steaming mugs of rye-based fake coffee, like the chicory tea she drank when they couldn’t get real coffee during the war. Once, I turned on my mini-disc recorder just as she started to talk:
“We were not wealthy, no, only had our beautiful villa. Worked hard, very much work. But our guests had some nice money. They come from Kiev, Minsk, Sevastopol, even Moskva, yes. We had nice-nice garden, orchard, good plums, vineyard.” She closed her eyes wistfully. “And our chef! Very good. Worked in restaurant in France before us. Showed me how to cook, to bake. A little bit every day.” Her gums had receded from around her teeth like a low red tide. “And we have a perfect concierge, Vasyl, perfect with the guests. He played our piano e-ve-ry night at dinner, a little concert. Bach, Rachmaninoff—good long fingers—Liszt. A show for the guests. He teach me, too. One hour each day. This how you learn, Johnny. Bit, bit, bit.” She eased down her mug and hobbled over to the piano. Orysia played the same six songs quite powerfully all her life. I recorded her playing Rachmaninoff. The veins on her forearms gave a standing ovation.
We returned to the kitchen table. She told me she’d lived with her mother into her late twenties and taught at the local school. She said she’d learned about the world from the traveling dignitaries and judges who flowed through her home.
She and her mother hid the fact that they were Jewish.
In the second year of the Second World War, she said, Russian soldiers banged on the door of her house after dinner. Baba scowled at me and said, “Young boys. Not good educated. They see my parlor, beautiful tables, dark wood, piano, they take everything. For Russian army. Throw us out into the cold. We take coat and boot—lucky.” She remembered her mother standing in the December night screaming at the soldiers inside until the pane was frosted with her breath. The young soldiers pointed long-guns at her, laughing and drinking her wine straight from the bottle. They couldn’t figure out the flue and filled the dining room with smoke. Orysia stared through the frost, through the smoke, at the piano she loved.
Her half-brother went off to fight and was never heard from again. I don’t know how she met my grandfather. She wouldn’t talk about some of those years. “We do what we must.” In the winter of 1945, Orysia and Janusz made it to the safety of Dresden, the last unbombed city in Germany. Two months later, the Allies fire-bombed it to ashes. Orysia’s hearing was permanently damaged by the explosions, the bombs fell so close. She showed me a photo of ruins in her WWII history book. Below it, I read:
In planning the extensive bombardment of Dresden, British officers predicted it would cause “chaos” and that the “great confusion in civilian evacuation” would result in “a multitude of additional deaths.” They were correct in this assessment.
The industries supporting the German war effort were located in the suburbs, but the Allies chose to area-bomb the civilian city center on February thirteenth. The assault employed more than 1,000 British and U.S. bombers, primarily B-17s and Lancasters, dropping hundreds of thousands of high explosives that blew off roofs and destroyed windows. The planes then released 200,000 fire bombs to incinerate what remained. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
The next day was Valentine’s day 1945. The Allies bombed Dresden again at noon. Low altitude dogfights between Messerschmitts and Mustangs sprayed what was left of the city with .50 caliber rounds.
Janusz thought these errant bullets were the Allies trying to pick off any surviving civilians. Their neighborhood was burning. Janusz and Orysia chanced it and ran to the park using their coats to shield them from the flames. Firestorms chased oxygen down the alleyways. “Like hell. Was just like hell,” Baba said. It was the only time I’d ever heard her say that word. Almost three square miles of central Dresden were incinerated.
“In the morning, everything covered in ash, like snow.” Baba went on to explain how Janusz had dug through dead people’s belongings until he came across a beautiful young corpse in a nice coat. He’d found identity and residence papers in her charred purse. He forced the papers into his wife’s hands. She read them and protested: the age difference would be a dead give-away. “I was thirty-one years old. But the dead girl—Marie Vonne—only twenty-one years old! So, is not good fit. Impossible. I say, no! But—” She threw her hands up. Baba—Orysia—Marie—went by that new name and younger age for the next seventy years.
My father was born a year later in a refugee camp in Nuremburg. Baba told me the new family was starving and her breast milk was thin. She had always been wracked with guilt about my father’s short stature, and then mine, and tried to make up for it by forcing food on everyone. I remember her waking me up to feed me in the middle of the night. She fed our family dog, Sonja, to death.
Baba told me the terms of surrender in 1946 required regular German families to house displaced people immediately after the war. When my father was still a stunted infant, he and his Polish Catholic father and Jewish Ukrainian mother were placed with a German family, the Kroners, for four years. In the deft absurdity of reality, they all became dear friends. Janusz was an outdoorsman and showed the Kroners how to identify king boletes. He grew potatoes and cabbage and caught tiny fish in the creek. These nutrients carried them all through the lean times.
When Marie took a steamship to America with her shellshocked husband and five-year-old son, she was thirty-six, not twenty-six as her passport said. Later, when she went in for her pacemaker at seventy-seven, my father had to whisper to the specialist that she was actually eighty-seven, to which the doctor said, “Oh! Well, then, she’s doing great! Aren’t you, Marie? You’re doing great!” Her ankles were already like elephant trunks from congestive heart failure.
In Chicago’s Ukrainian Village in the 1950s, Marie stopped making matzo ball soup, stopped observing the Jewish holidays, and instead focused on her husband’s love of Christmas and Easter. She put up a Polish cross in the dining room. Around Waspy new friends, she said things like, “I know the Jews,” and then frowned and see-sawed her hand like, so-so.
One of the nurses came in and tried to brush Baba’s clenched teeth. Her gums looked enflamed and mealy. The toothbrush immediately grew red with blood. Baba groaned. The nurse stopped, gave me a hopeless look that said, well, I tried, and left the room. I pulled my iPod and headphones out of my backpack. I slid the headphones over Baba’s baby-fine hair. She grunted. Her eyes didn’t open anymore. I cued up the recording of her playing the song she played most often and most vigorously on the piano, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor (Op. 3 No. 2). It starts with blocks of slow heavy fortissimo chords before declaiming an accelerando into wild complexity. I always thought it sounded apocalyptic. Doomy. Like an X-rated version of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.
I hoped that when she heard the piece she spent thousands of hours playing, the piece that must still have been in her body somewhere, deep in muscle memory—if no longer in her stroked-out brain—it would somehow snap her out of her compromised state entirely, or at least force her system to release a few seconds of nice chemicals. Trigger recognition. Familiarity on some animal level, like a years-lost dog suddenly smelling its old master again. I imagined she’d smile and rock and be swept away.
But the volume was up too loud for even her ancient, bomb-addled ears and she startled at each strike of the well-spaced chords. I frantically turned the volume down but she grimaced, groaning as the piano hammered on. Blue veins distended on her forehead. Her displeasure tipped into pain and anger. I stopped the track. I put the headphones in my bag and touched her on purpose for the first time. I held her hand. Her skin felt like baked parchment. I pet her head and she grew calm.
The nurses couldn’t keep the feeding tube down. Baba starved to death.
Photo by David Hilowitz, used and adapted under CC.