I had a serious case of grandmother-envy when I was young. Nana wasn’t like my friends’ demonstrative white-haired grandmothers, or the nurturing women I read about who baked cookies for their grandchildren, and had big family dinners in homes that smelled like apple pie and hot chocolate. For one thing, Nana had vibrant auburn hair and lived thousands of miles away, in Barbados, where she ran a resort with my grandfather, so we only saw them once or twice a year. She sent us postcards from their travels—Bermuda, the Bahamas, Trinidad—exotic places with white, sandy beaches and shimmering turquoise water.
I looked forward to seeing her for I was her namesake. She gave me books I cherished, Nancy Drew’s from Barbados with unusual cobalt blue covers that my friends envied, a beautiful white blouse with colourful pictures she’d embroidered, and best of all, a gold signet ring adorned with an ‘S’ that I still wear every day. Yet she was reserved toward me, my brother, and sister, not one for hugs or kisses. It was as if she was afraid to get too close.
“Sweetie, can you get the sugar for me?” Nana would say every morning when she visited, as she sat at the kitchen table with a grapefruit and a bowl of cottage cheese. Her voice still contained remnants of her Russian accent, with the slight roll of her R’s, and her W’s pronounced as V’s, and it was raspy from years of smoking.
I watched her sprinkle sugar on the grapefruit and cut the reddish-pink flesh carefully into sections. Once, I tried a piece, which soured my taste buds for the rest of the day.
When I was eleven, Nana was diagnosed with the same insidious disease that had killed my grandfather years earlier. Lung cancer. The severity of her condition didn’t really register with me until I visited her in Toronto, where she had moved to receive intensive treatment. She lived in a tall building with stores and mirrored escalators beneath the condos. Coming from suburban Illinois, where we didn’t even have public transit, I was in awe of this upscale urbanity, the hectic, exciting pace.
The mood in Nana’s unit was a harsh contrast to the liveliness below us. Cancer had shrunk her formerly sturdy body; skin hung loosely from her bones, her hair was now grey and sparse, and her once perfectly-manicured nails were cracked and broken. My mother and I helped her to the bathroom and bathed her, and we guided her to the kitchen where my mother urged her to eat. Sitting at her small table, I remember meeting her dark, sunken eyes, seeing her look away in shame.
We moved to Canada shortly after my grandmother died, to a small town an hour west of Toronto. When I was in our kitchen one afternoon talking about an upcoming school dance, I told my mother that my friend Lizzie couldn’t go because she was Jewish and could only date Jewish boys. (There were none in our school.) As I grumbled about how unfair Lizzie’s parents were, my mother blurted out that my grandmother had been Jewish. My mother’s face turned red and she averted her eyes from mine.
“What? Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked.
My mother released one of her long sighs before answering. “Nana didn’t want anyone to know; she and her family had to leave Russia because they were Jewish, but that’s all I really know. She wouldn’t talk about her past. I only found out when I was in my twenties.”
“But why the secrecy? It’s not like we go to church. It doesn’t matter, does it?”
My mother shrugged and stirred something on the stove. Even though my grandmother had been gone for years, I got the sense that my mother felt guilty for saying anything, as if she was betraying her by revealing things Nana had wanted hidden.
This desire to understand more of my heritage surfaced with a vengeance when I had my first child, Amanda. The only person who could provide the information I needed was my great-aunt Nucia, my grandmother’s older sister, who lived in Montreal. But with her well-deserved reputation for being stubborn and uncooperative (one time, when her building’s fire alarm went off, she refused to leave her apartment), I had to choose my questions carefully or risk losing this valuable information forever.
“We lived on the top floor of a wooden two-storey house in Novosibirsk,” Nucia began, as we sat in her plant-filled apartment on a warm June morning. She smoked her cigarette and exhaled with a faraway look in her eyes, clouded over with glaucoma. If I closed my eyes, it was as if I was hearing my grandmother, for her voice and Nucia’s were almost identical.
“Why do you want to know about this?” she asked, turning to me abruptly.
“I told you; to give Amanda a sense of her past.”
“Hmmm.” Nucia inhaled deeply on her cigarette, looking unconvinced and skeptical. She bore a certain resemblance to my grandmother, only she had a lighter frame and more severe features. Her thin lips were outlined in red lipstick, smudged above her top lip; her eyebrows looked like they’d been drawn in with a pencil. And although she had smoked most of her life, Nucia hadn’t succumbed to the cancer that had taken her sister, brother-in-law, and husband.
“Our father made pickles and we were considered quite wealthy because we had indoor plumbing,” she continued. “One day, there were fires in our village, whole buildings burning, people screaming. It was a pogrom against Jews. We ran to the train station with our parents and younger brother, taking only what we could carry.” Nucia paused, put out her cigarette in the half-full glass ashtray, and gazed out the sun-lit window.
I wrote down every word my aunt said about the pogrom they’d endured, my hand shaking as I listened to how friends had been killed, how narrowly Nana’s family had escaped. If they hadn’t been as lucky, I wouldn’t be alive.
“Our mother ran a boarding house in Shanghai, and we went to a Catholic school, the Shanghai Gymnazium,” Nucia said.
“So you hid your faith in Shanghai?”
“No, Shanghai accepted Jews. We just didn’t go to a Jewish school.” She coughed, a phlegmy smoker’s cough. “Shelly had better grades than I did, and she wanted a career. So she worked in Shanghai for a couple of years, and saved money for university. Then she went by ship to California, to Berkley, and received a science degree in three years, in nineteen-thirty.”
I recalled Nana’s face in her apartment before she died, and realized how hard it must have been for such a strong, capable woman to give up her independence, to be seen as weak by her granddaughter.
My aunt explained that my grandmother gave up her Judaism when she met my grandfather, who was not Jewish. They eventually settled in Montreal.
“Do you think she ever regretted it?” I asked.
Nucia lit another cigarette before answering. “I don’t think so; it was the 1930’s and Canada didn’t welcome Jews.” She paused and gave me a hard look. “Your grandfather, he was in advertising, and if his clients had found out his wife was Jewish, they wouldn’t have done business with him.”
I asked my aunt if she had any photos of my grandmother as a young girl. She shook her head and told me again that she didn’t understand why I was interested in any of this. Before leaving, I went down the dimly-lit hall to the bathroom. Her bedroom was through a door on the left and on her floor was a pile of framed and unframed photos. I couldn’t resist, and after turning on the bathroom fan and closing the door, I crept into her room and began rummaging through the stack of black and white images. There were photos of my grandmother and her sister as babies, as little girls with their baby brother, and as young women, their hair down their backs in thick braids.
“Are you all right in there?” my aunt called out after I’d been gone a few minutes.
I put my hand over my mouth to muffle my voice and said yes.
My aunt mumbled something I couldn’t make out and I continued, stopping when I came to a photo of my grandmother standing beside her father, Max. He stared grimly into the camera, his eyes squinting behind wire-framed glasses, while my grandmother, her head tilted slightly toward him, had an almost sly smile, as if she knew something he didn’t, as if she knew her life would be anything but predictable.
This picture was taken in 1925, after her family had fled Russia, when Nana’s future would certainly have been tenuous, yet she stood tall and proud, like the grandmother I remembered before she got sick. I smuggled the photo out of my aunt’s apartment, determined to write my grandmother’s story one day.
Now, I wish I could tell Nana that her difficult journey to Canada inspired me to write my first book, that her struggle with religion has given me a healthy dose of skepticism, along with an acceptance of people, whatever their faith, and that her determination to get a degree in a foreign country and language has instilled in me a perseverance which keeps me going, even on my darkest days.
It will be years (hopefully) before I become a grandmother but when I am, I’ll be called Nana, I’ll tell my grandchildren about their great-great grandmother, and I’ll make sure they know that being different, anything but ordinary, is the best way to be.
–Shelly Sanders’ first novel, Rachel’s Secret, comes out April 16, 2012. Inspired by her grandmother’s experiences in Russia, Rachel’s Secret is about a 1903 pogrom that resulted in the exodus of Jews to Shanghai, the U.S., and Canada. In creating Rachel’s character, Shelly drew on her grandmother’s desire to overcome the boundaries set on women at the time.