Scene Five: St. Petersburg

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky–Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35-1. Allegro Moderato

Grandparents are special people.

I was very close to my maternal grandparents for I was their first granddaughter of nine grandchildren. Their memory has been carved in my memory, especially now, as I take on their role. How well they showed me that a good grandparent can be an anchor for a grandchild, like a weathered mariner who has passed through turbulent seas.

That’s how I remember them – both born in St. Petersburg who came to America independent of the other. My grandmother wanted to be an opera singer as a young girl, but her ambitions were before history allowed this to be possible. I remember her as short and plump, with watery blue eyes and blond hair. Her cheek-bones were so high and chiseled that when she laughed, I could only see the slant of her eyes. She was a great cook and whenever I went to visit her, she’d prepare for me my favorite dish, warm blintzes, Russian-style crêpes, filled with raspberry or apricot jam. She loved to sing in Russian and I remember the small apartment was always filled with music. The foreign sounds from Eugene Onegin and Boris Godunov took over the entire space. Between the sweet smells and music, my grandparents’ home was a wonder to me.

Music was the love my grandparents shared. My grandfather had been a musician in the old world. He was always proud to show me the medal he had received from Czar Nicholas II, for my grandfather had played woodwinds and strings – flute, piccolo, violin- in the Czar’s orchestra. I have his violin and wooden flute, proudly, in my living room.

My grandfather was a great storyteller and I was his most enthusiastic listener. I loved to hear his stories about Russia, especially those about his father who would take his ladder and his youngest of eleven children, my grandfater, to the churches in St. Petersburg. Together, they’d restore the ceilings in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the jeweled icons in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the gilded onion-domes of the Cathedral of the Resurrection.

The role of Fate has always fascinated me and my interest about Destiny and Chance started with one of my grandfather’s stories:

“When I was a young man of twenty,” he told me as we shared warm blintzes together, “I wanted to go to America. I bought a ticket for the Titanic in April 1912, just two weeks before the steamship sailed from Southampton to New York. I didn’t have a passport but one of my brothers did. Being I was the only one in the family who wanted to go to the new world, my brother gave me his passport. That’s why I’m not the age everyone thinks I am.”

He laughed with his secret and he swirled his head in a way that his full wavy white hair flew in the air. He looked like a figure floating from a Chagall painting.

“A week before my leaving, my father came to me and said, ‘Josef, there’s a young lady in the village who wants to go to America. Her father asked me if you’d escort her. But she can’t get a ticket for the Titanic. No more places left. Take another boat, the next one, and accompany my friend’s daughter.’”

My grandfather was a gentleman and respectfully complied. He was rewarded by the gods. The young lady did not become my grandmother, but she certainly became my grandfather’s savior.

When my grandfather married and started to raise a family in New York, his work as a musician didn’t seem adequate to pay the bills. It was at this time that chance, or fate, once again saved him. A successful Polish cosmetician was establishing her empire in New York City. She had made a fortune as she climbed the ladder from Krakow to Melbourne to Paris to London with jars of beauty creams scented with herbs from the mountains of Eastern Europe.

I wish I could have been there to see my grandfather with his twinkling blue eyes charm Helena Rubinstein. His entire career was at the side of “Madame” as chief painter for her showrooms and private residencies. “A brilliant woman,” he recalled with deep respect. “Always working, thinking, doing … surviving.” And then he smiled as he told me her story: “In the early 1900’s when she was beginning her cosmetic salon in London, she couldn’t get a bank loan of a $100,000 because banks just didn’t give loans to women. So she used her own money. Just like years later when she wanted to buy a penthouse on Park Avenue and they didn’t allow Jews to buy co-ops, she bought the entire building.” He laughed, so proud of his Madame -“a force of nature.”

My grandfather lived until he was 94 and to his last day, he was tall and straight, with a full head of white hair. And he continued to tell his stories. When I’d bring my baby son, Gregory, to his apartment, my grandfather was thrilled to have another member of the family listen to his tales. He’d narrate again about Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra, Alexis and Anastasia. He even told Gregory that he shared the same name with Rasputin, the mystical monk whom he had played music for at the Czar’s palace.

Grigory Rasputin
Grigory Rasputin

My grandfather never told me about the Czarina’s love for diamonds. And I don’t think he had ever seen Simon Simonovich hiding in St. Isaac’s Cathedral discussing with Rasputin how to sell diamonds to the Russian aristocrats. It was my role, years later, to continue my grandfather’s love for storytelling and narrate that Mica’s blue diamond was Russian – it had even been the Czarina’s favorite. How strange the unconscious is that this blue diamond looks so much like my aqua marine from my husband’s Russian patient.

It wasn’t until many years after my grandfather’s stories that my husband and I were able to visit his city. We arrived in early June, the magical time of White Nights when

St. Petersburg stays light past midnight. How romantic it was to stroll down the Nevsky Prospekt from the Marinsky Theater after listening to Tchiakovsky. With the help of my Memory Chest, I pretended that my grandfather was near me, guiding me through the bridges and canals of his beloved home.

That evening as the night was still day, I remember the thrill of sitting in a café eating blintzes and listening to Rachmaninoff. The violin staccatos brought me back to my grandparents’ apartment and I tried to hold on to the world of my youth. The effort made me sad, and yet, happy as I remembered how my grandparents loved me and I loved them. It is this memory that has helped me be the grandparent I strive to be today. In this way, my grandparents live within me and I have become them. From their magic corner in my treasure chest, their inspiration never ends.