COUNTRY OF THE PAST
By Michelle Cacho-Negrete
My husband Kevin and I drift along the Finnish-Russian border as though suspended on the edge of a dream, my dream of Russia, or perhaps my mother’s or grandparents’ – the dream’s architecture designed by immigrants burdened with want, dreams entangled with folkloric memory.
We ramble about in cool summer wind, time inexplicably permeable, food, smells, faces, all passports to the country of the past. The boreal forest of Ilomantsi is a construct of white, green, brown: birch, pine, spruce, larch, cedar, some oak for good measure. Dachas appear like roadside shrines beside the overgrown lakeside.
“Russia merely twenty kilometers from here,” the Finns tell us when we stop for petrol. “You know Russia?” they ask. “So much trouble to go to, so much trouble to leave.” They shrug again.
Indeed, we were told when first planning this trip after an invitation for Kevin to speak in Lapland that visas were particularly difficult to acquire right now.
So close this dream; so far.
“There’s a way through the forest where you are no longer in Finland but in Russia.” They point to tree-darkened depth, the lofty canopy, the chaga fungi spotting the rough brown bark like clumped charcoal, the shadowed path you can’t see.
“Every year, picking berries and mushrooms, Finns wander into Russia, Russians into Finland.”
“You want to go to Russia?” They laugh. “Too hard to get visa; have instead a bowl of kasha, maybe with some spring onions.”
We pass signs in Finnish echoed by Cyrillic beneath, curves and lines like mysterious symbols. Here somewhere my grandparents fled Russia, traveled the path to the mountains, my grandmother’s wooden bowl cradling the last of the Karelian pies and wrapped inside a ragged babushka of faded red and gold flowers, my grandfather tugging the hand of my seven year old mother while her sister rode in a sling on his shoulders. How much snow then? How cold? What shoes? What coats?
It doesn’t matter.
What’s a little snow? A little cold? Worn boots?
Here somewhere on the other side of the border they stuffed hay into their shoes to absorb moisture and warm their feet. Somewhere else they found the boat to take them over the water to another somewhere else that would lead to different mountains and then, at the next somewhere else, another path to yet another border to yet another alphabet, to yet another ship to the Lower East Side of New York, where everyone it seemed spoke Russian and played sidewalk baseball.
But then, how else would a Jew in 1920 flee Russia?
We sit on the fire escape, my mother tending her plants. Her hair is covered with a babushka, her arms brown from the sun, her flowered housedress sprinkled with rich loam. The Russian station at the farthest end of the radio dial plays some lonesome song of violins and minor keys and a woman’s voice filled with longing while my brother sleeps in the summer heat. I’m ten, examining a page in the textbook from my geography class. Russia is big; it swallows the page, swallows every country around it, swallows those same borders my grandparents crept over.
“Where Mama?” I ask yet again, pointing to the map. “Where were you born?”
“I told you. A shtetl in Russia.”
“But where was the shtetl? Tell me the story.”
“That is the story. The story is the shtetl. The story is Russia. The story is leaving Russia. The story is my two American children.”
The song ends and a man’s raspy voice announces something; he chuckles, then there’s static, then another song.
My mother smiles and shakes her head.
“What did he say?” I ask.
“He says they don’t play this song any more in Russia; too many lines about freedom,” she answers and loosens the dirt around a pot of pansies with a fork.
Her lips smile, but her eyes are sad. I look down at the map of Russia and feel a strange tug inside me.
“Should we try to get across the border?” my husband asks, pointing to a sign that says thirty kilometers to Kostomuksha.
He takes my silence as assent.
The sky is blue, gulls circling like children’s kites, the summer air crisp with the last of the newly melted snow. The road ahead of us twists, curls around a rotary, a curve in the story of my life, then we cross a line distinct as a border, asphalt turns to dirt pockmarked by sharp stones, then finally thick mud, our rental car small and complaining and refusing to make the journey. Russia is thirty kilometers and a whole lifetime too far.
Would I recognize Russia? Would it be familiar? When we arrive at the border would I see some faint ectoplasm of my grandparents determinedly making their way to the freedom of forbidden Russian songs?
We turn, stop instead at a tiny store and buy a Karelian pie, a small fragrant furnace in our hands. What we can hold of Russia is butter dripping down our fingers.
“What we brought is what we could carry in our hands and on our backs” my mother says, pointing to her wooden bowl, the past scarring it with the deep wounds of the chopping knife, fresh American fruit covering the remnants of Russia, but not quite. And in the corner of her bedroom the scarf, so faded it tells only the story of time passing. Ah, but she’s wrong, that’s not all she brought; the rest is invisible except in unguarded moments when I see in her eyes the longing for forests turned crystal with ice, and the sun burning orange in the mirror of the Volga River, and the Caucasus mountains gone green and lush, fertile with berries.
Butter drips down my fingers, and the smell of it is drenched in nostalgia, and I am homesick now for this place I’ve never been.
Murmansk/Mypmahck the sign on the rotary announces. We are leaving Sodankyla, going to Rovaniemi, and the sign offers an alternative, forty kilometers to Russia, to Murmansk/Mypmahck; merely turn to the right, so easy, yes? We’re eating cabbage strudel; who remembered how sweet the strudel, how good, the rich pastry rolled just so.
“This is what you ate as a child,” my Anglo-American husband says in wonder and takes another bite.
He pauses at the sign, turns to me, asks, “Should we try again?”
And what would be our incredulous greeting if we arrived at the border without papers; You come to Mypmahck without a visa? Without permission? Without a guide? For what purpose?
What would we see if we craned our necks over the border crossing, past the guards, into the forest? Would we see the synagogue, the one so far north it’s the last stop for Jews before they fall into the Baltic Sea?
I shake my head and he drives past.
Eat instead this delicious kugel from the Russian bakery in Sodankyla where the woman with ruddy cheeks and full breasts and hair hidden under the old woolen scarf looked at my face and recognized my grandmother and spoke to me in Russian. It is becoming, and becoming, and becoming again that this language I never learned I almost remember. The words hide on my tongue like playful children. Listen hard, listen carefully, I can almost understand it; the syllables and vowels and inflections rearrange themselves in my head, a jigsaw puzzle fitting itself together to form some inscrutable sentence.
But there is more. Finland is a multicultural country after all, everyone following the brief summer and the twenty-four hour brightness, the sun curving off the fields leaving just enough warmth to dispel winter. Each day now I spin in a kaleidoscope of languages, each linguistic lens of the same word different. In each city we pass through each nationality divines their own meaning from a single sentence, then the laughter, the explanations, this is like home, yes? Back home, in the New York of the 1930’s and 40’s and 50’s; they brought to the tenements those languages and explanations and jokes, with the bowls and the candlesticks and the babushkas and the worn little books and the few photographs and the stories of Diaspora: Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, a pushcart of countries wheeling boisterously down the street.
This is what happens when traveling the border of Russia, I enter the country of the past. This morning in the mirror was my mother’s eyes and then, like falling through a tunnel of time, my grandmother’s and her grandmother’s and then the grandmother before that and for the first time, I have met everyone – so pleased to make your acquaintance, have a blintz, have please a glass tea, sugar cube to rest between your teeth? Eat a little, then a little more.
In the shop in Petkeljarven in Finland, not to be confused please with Petrozavodsk in Russia, the Russian shop owner wears a suit, shirt, tie, all a little worn, all perfectly tailored – who is your tailor please to tell. He offers us “a glass tea.” He holds out a plate of vareniki. “Please to have two, my wife’s specialty.”
The pastry is poignant with memory; fat little envelopes of my childhood come to rest temporarily in the here and now. He watches us, smiles. When we’re done, the last crumbs finished, the “glass tea” empty, the plates and glasses and napkins whisked off to who knows where – “So now business.” He turns to the glass cabinet behind him. With drama, with the air of a man exhibiting his most precious belongings, he removes two matryoshka. Their painted faces observe us serenely, denying the turmoil of their homeland. He opens the series of nesting dolls, lifts them out one by one from their fitted places like revealing carefully considered thoughts, and lines up on the counter these rows of lacquered icons.
“From before the revolution,” he says. “Such quality, today such quality is not available. Today Russia is ruled by….” He stumbles for a word and finds a particularly American one; “By hooligans.” He shakes his head and sighs.
“Cossacks,” the old man upstairs said. “Russia was ruled by Cossacks. You lowered your eyes, you made your body small when you passed; your greatest aspiration was to get through a day without a kick.” He shrugs.
It’s the middle of summer; the blistering stale wind from the East River invades the neighborhood. I’m on my fire escape and he’s on his. I lean back and crane my neck to see him. He sits at the edge of the ladder, feet dangling, looks down at me. He’s old, forelocks tucked behind his ears, yarmka a little askew, clothes a little shabby, but ah the tailoring of his shirt, of his pants, impeccable; this is workmanship, this is the workmanship of the old country, not available except in certain shops, hidden down side streets, shadowy places without signs that only a few know, affordable to only those few. The haze of the day imparts a dreamy quality to our exchange. I want him to tell me the things my mother won’t – so Cossacks, a beginning, yes?
“Where are you from Mr. Palatnik?”
“Where?” he’s startled. “From the shtetl, where else?”
“But which shtetl, where was it?”
“In Russia; where else? You think I’m Polish maybe, or Ukrainian?” He shakes his head.
“Where in Russia, Mr. Palatnik?”
“This matters, for why?”
This is familiar…too familiar.
“Did you know my mother in the shtetl?” I try another track.
He looks at me in astonishment then laughs. “My dear little girl, Russia is big country, from north to south, from east to west. How might I have met your mother, please to tell me?” His eyes are very humorous, very patient, very tired, filled with longing.
“You miss Russia, Mr. Palatnik?”
“What’s to miss, the kicks, the curses, the stealing of your property?” He sighs. “Yes, I miss.”
“Where in Russia are these from?” I ask the shop keeper.
“These.” He strokes them, touches them lovingly, caressing his children; “Naturally from Serviev Posad.”
That is where the most expensive and finest and oldest are from. I know instantly he’s lying. His eyes are without guile, his face empty of deceit, his voice sincere, the look of an honest man.
He asks an impossible price, waits for us to bargain. We surprise him and turn to leave. This is what I haven’t inherited and what Kevin never owned; this love of bargaining.
We reach the door and he runs after us, grabs my husband’s hand and puts something into it; a business card.
“Here on this card is my email. Anything you want, anything Russian, you email, I find it; anything. Good price too.”
Desperation, didn’t we escape desperation? I think. Didn’t we leave the ghetto, the shtetl, the pogrom?
He hangs onto to Kevin’s arm until Kevin nods quietly. “Yes, thank you.”
We leave. We stand outside the store and look at each other.
“Let’s get something to eat,” my husband says.
“Potato piorgi from the Russian vendor in the food market,” I suggest and he nods.
The food market extends for streets and streets and more streets: food, crafts, clothes, musicians, but mostly food. This food market; it shimmers in the sun like a busy mirage, the sheer noise of it rising all around us, it is color itself, a rainbow swirling through the streets in a dance of pleasure.
The grass is littered with people eating ice cream or lunch or fruit, drinking beer or water or even, hidden a little in a bag for the sake of discretion although nobody cares, vodka or other spirits, clear and icy. Such noise, such joviality, such a feast, such a celebration of life, yes? Such accordion players, so good like you’ve never heard anywhere else, such melody.
“Have a second piorgi, what could it hurt; eat, eat up.”
And I do, with greed, with gusto, wanting more even as my stomach hurts and why not; this is the manna of my childhood, this is my inheritance, my own little piece of the collective unconscious.
Something is completing itself in me; I’m assuming my mother’s loss; I’m ready to sing Korobeniniki, that old love song about a peddler and girl, except…except, I could never learn the words; the song always sung so fast, but also with such feeling, that I could get, yes, the meaning, so the words are irrelevant. This song is a fairy tale after all; a Russian fairy tale so of course a tragic ending.
“Like fairy tale,” the old, nearly-blind woman in the apartment next door tells me. How long has she been living here? How many mountains, how many ships, how many borders, how many languages to escape to this run-down tenement with its smell of decay and desolation, its gangs running rampant on the street like Cossacks.
I’ve come to leave potato latkes my mother made.
“сидеть, сидеть, sit, sit” she says in Russian.
I sit in the old chair with the cracked plastic seat. Her kitchen is a cave, the walls around the stove smudged dark from matches; I see in those smudges secret Cyrillic dreams from some ancient time.
“The palace outside St. Petersburg, mid-summer’s eve, such a party.” she says.
She smiles, her blind eyes watching something I’ll never see.
“The palace, so lit up, so many lights, too many to count, brighter than the stars.” She nods with pleasure. For one fleeting moment I see the child enchanted by the lights, the jewels and dresses on the women, the uniforms just so, always proper, such fabric, such tailoring. She watches out the kitchen door while her mother, a cook in the court of the czar, hurriedly piles caviar on plates, slices white fish, fills crystal decanters.
“Here, taste,” her mother tells her and puts in her mouth a little white fish, a little caviar on slice bread, even the tiniest taste of cognac. “Who’s to know, there’s so much here,” her mother says, all the while looking out at a guard who winks at the little girl; who’s to know; eat a little and a little more.
“Swans and bears and reindeer carved from ice; giant ice statues, fire from bonfires shining on them,” the old blind woman tells me.
I see the hot orange flames rising, casting flickering shadows so the ice sculptures are animated, alive, eyes glittering with the joy of being the center of attention, oblivious to the slow melt of their limbs. I see the platters, endless platters, silver, only the best please, the laughing, the dancing, the music thick as fog. The bonfires lighting it all before that world went up in flames, trampled under the boots and the promises and the lies.
I tiptoe out, leave the old woman with her mother’s kindness, with the festivity, with the lingering taste in her mouth of caviar and white fish and rum cake; leave her trespassing into the country of the past while the country of today is busy going about its business.
But even then, at her door, I hold it open, hand on the doorknob, wondering if there is a way to slip through the cracks of her memory and into her world, bypass the fissures of passing time that dominate our lives and move beyond them into the blind woman’s Russia which she keeps alive even as bits of it vanish with each refugee’s death, flames of memory snuffed out like blowing out candles at the Czar’s party till it is only a page in a history book.
But none of us can return to the past, especially one not ours, except in dreams and memories and sometimes in madness.
The fair is to celebrate Mid-Summer’s Eve. We happen upon it while wandering the streets like nomads, admiring the architecture, the curving roofs and carved owls and sense of antiquity. We turn the corner and suddenly there is a quality to the air, such a festive blaze of joy; twenty-four hours of sunlight crowding out the darkness. Clouds dance in the sky with gratitude for the light that embraces the city with the promise of a few weeks more. The fair is flooded with people so dense we can scarcely move, all going about the business of celebration. We are in the thickness of crowds and the smell of perfume and perspiration and beer, but also the competing scents of fresh bread and salmon and roasting meat and thick soups and pastries so flakey and sweet with summer fruit you could weep with joy.
Such a gift.
I try on enameled necklaces, admire woven shawls, run my fingers over silver candlesticks, sip a tiny taste of clear spirits so strong I cough as it hits my throat to the delight of the Finn who brews it. Kevin, always the scientist, wanders from stall to stall to count the tree rings in wooden platters and cups and cutting boards sanded to satin perfection, to examine the obvious wounding and infections of the trees that has created such beautiful patterns, to compare it to those at home, to note the universality of everything. The vendors whose stalls we stop at are hopeful, the economy is bad after all and this is a hard way to earn a living, but when we shake our heads after admiring their products, they smile and say, “Enjoy the sunlight and the holiday and the city.”
And then drifting over me – Korobeniniki played on a violin with the nearly too-much passion of a legendary melodrama; radio waves from a long ago Russian station beaming a siren song into this tiny bit of universe. Will I turn and see my mother nodding, eyes filled with desire for what once was?
I’m in a hypnotic trance, called home to a complex layering of continents and countries and cities bonded by the dispossessed’s need for once more please to see my childhood.
It’s a café in a little tent, sun shining through the white canvas, diffuse light illuminating people crowded around little tables filled with borscht and sorrel soup, fish and glasses of tea and an array of deserts so laden with memory I can barely breathe. There is a menu in Russian, but it’s not necessary; the food is its own explanation. At the entrance to the tent is an accordion player, a man with a balalaika, but most lively, a violin player in his fifties, eyes filled with mischief as he warms the crowd with a new and lively song. Children dance in front of the tent, the swirling and kicking and bending of intuition; the special gift of the young who obey the desire to move and who understand that all of it is grace.
The violin player has closed his eyes, his face wistful, his mouth tinged with sorrow, the notes are so sweet, so reminiscent that the world falls away and there is only this little tent, and the children dancing. I am a matryoshka, my years in America being lifted off one by one till all that remains is something I experience through instinct. The country of the past shimmers like a mirage I can almost touch and there is the promise that for a few moments I can reverse the Diaspora, I can fulfill my mother’s dream. I understand that my children will never experience what I feel. I am one of the last descendents of a very specific group of émigrés, the final bridge, the vanishing repository for their memories and the inheritance of this particular yearning.
Standing opposite me is an elegant woman in her eighties; such jewelry, such carefully coiffed hair, such tailoring of her simple skirt and blouse, and who please to tell me is your tailor? Her eyes are closed and she sways, cocooned by the music and the longing and her face mirrors my own and when she opens her eyes and sees me she recognizes that. She nods at me before closing her eyes once again. I want to move closer, to take her hand, kiss her on both cheeks, so pleased to make your acquaintance, to exchange muttered feelings of condolences and desire, but there is no need to, we are joined by our mutual love and loss. The Russia of my mother’s childhood, of the Lower East Side’s childhood, of this elegant woman’s childhood, have long vanished, and I will most likely never see what has replaced it, still I have temporarily come full-circle, crossed back over the rivers and mountains and the paths and borders to a wild and beautiful place left long-ago. I too will close my eyes and pretend that she and I have traversed generations and time and expulsions to stand together, though only briefly, in my dream besides the Volga River.
About the Author:
Michelle Cacho-Negrete is a retired therapist who lives in Portland Maine by way of Brooklyn New York. She’s been published in North American Review, The Sun, Silk Road, and a variety of others. Michelle’s essays have been selected four times for Most Notable of the Year and she has won Best Non-fiction on the net. She’s I five anthologies, but is especially proud to be in Thoreau’s Legacy; Writers speak on Global Climate Change. She is currently non-fiction editor for Solstice Magazine.