Rachel’s Promise wouldn’t be possible without the information provided by my late Aunt Nucia, my grandmother’s older sister. Though Nucia smoked like a proverbial chimney, she somehow managed to outlive her younger sister by some 20 years. Since my grandmother died when I was 12, this meant I knew Nucia far better than my grandmother. But it was still a difficult relationship to build as I lived in Chicago and Nucia lived in Montreal. Luckily, we trekked to Montreal yearly on very long car trips, where I was able to spend time in Nucia’s smoke and plant-filled apartment near the University of Montreal.
Nucia was unforgettable, a colorful character, different from anybody I’ve ever known. Impeccably dressed. Always in heels. Perfect red manicures. A dry sense of humor. Well-versed in politics and world issues. Stubborn.
One time, when my dad and I were visiting her, we suggested going for Chinese food. “I couldn’t eat a thing,” Nucia protested. We convinced her to come anyway. She ended up cleaning her plate and eating more than either me or my father. Another time, when the fire alarm went off in her building and residents were told to evacuate, she refused to leave. Stubborn.
The last time I saw Nucia, was when my firstborn, Amanda, was six months old. Since becoming a mother, I’d felt a sense of urgency in recording my ancestors’ heritage, to understand the difficulties previous generations had encountered.
Nucia, who had glaucoma at the time, seemed reluctant to discuss her childhood. Like Holocaust survivors, she, my grandmother and their younger brother, who I’ve never met, had experienced horror at such young ages, that they wanted to lock up their memories and throw away the keys. Now, here I was asking my aunt to re-open her wounds.
I felt bad but the journalist in me wanted answers. Nucia lit a cigarette, inhaled and exhaled, and looked past me with glazed-over eyes. She began by describing their tall, narrow wood home in Novosibirsk, Siberia. It was the only house in the village with indoor plumbing. Her father, Max, made a decent living as a pickle maker. To keep food cold, they had an ice cellar, and they salted it. I recalled reading Little House on the Prairie books as a child, and realized there were some real similarities between growing up on the prairies in the U.S. and in small-town Russia. Nucia went on to talk about the samovar that had boiled night and day in their home.
“What’s a samovar?” I asked.
Nucia looked at me in disbelief. “You don’t know about samovars?”
Sadness washed over Nucia’s face. So much more than samovars had been lost over time. Though she and my grandmother had been born in Russia, were at one time defined by this vast country, they’d been forced to leave it all behind when their lives were threatened by a pogrom. Taking only what they could carry, they left their home and many members of their extended families, when their village was being attacked one night. Fires burned as they fled; their mother, Sonia, had three sisters who were not able to leave. Nucia has no idea what happened to them. They made their way across Russia to Shanghai. China took in people of all races and religions without question and without papers. It was a safe haven for years. Thousands of lives were saved because of Shanghai.
But many traditions could not be salvaged. The samovar, a large kettle filled with water that sat over wood or coal-burning stoves, boiling water for tea, was one of these traditions. It was a symbol of generosity in both Jewish and non-Jewish homes. Another was the refugees’ Judaism, which often faded over time. Nucia and my grandmother attended a Catholic school in Shanghai, and did not openly practice their faith even though there was no fear of persecution.
Money was scarce. There was not enough to send any of the three children to university. Nucia, who enjoyed parties and a busy social life, become a legal secretary and married the son of a rabbi. My grandmother worked her way to California where she graduated from Berkeley in 1930. She ended up marrying a Canadian, a non-Jew, settled in Montreal, and hid her Judaism from then on. Nucia didn’t come to Canada until the 1940’s. Sonia, their mother, came to Canada after Max died. She is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Montreal.
It had been a couple of hours since we’d begun talking. Nucia’s apartment was getting warm and stale as the afternoon sun gleamed through the windows and her ashtray overflowed with cigarette butts. My mother had returned from a walk with Amanda. Now was my chance. I whispered to my mother to distract Nucia while I went to the washroom.
Earlier, I had noticed boxes of photos in Nucia’s bedroom. Yet when I’d asked if I could see some of them she said no.
“I have to go through the photos myself and organize them,” she told me.
But you have glaucoma, I thought. How can you organize them if you can’t see the images? Stubborn.
Instead of going to the washroom, I crept into her bedroom and began rummaging through the black and white photos, many yellow with age. It was like finding a buried treasure. There were photos of my grandmother and Nucia as little girls, with their father and mother. Photos of their brother Monia who had settled in Australia. Portraits of my great-grandmother, Sonia, with her sisters.
“Why is Shelly taking so long in the washroom?” my aunt said to my mother.
I stifled a giggle as my mother told her I must be having problems with my stomach. Quickening my pace, I gathered several photos and pressed them against my chest.
“What do you have in your hands?” Nucia asked me when I finally emerged from the bathroom.
“Just some notes I took with me into the washroom,” I said, exchanging a puzzled glance with my mother. I thought she couldn’t see!
“How’s your stomach?” Nucia asked.
“Better,” I replied, stuffing the photos in my bag.
I never saw Nucia again. She had a series of accidents, including a fall while in the bath. She wasn’t found for a couple of days. In the end, she died of pneumonia, avoiding the painful, drawn out agony of lung cancer my grandmother had faced. I like to think that even cancer couldn’t bring Nucia down, that she went on her own terms, when she was ready to go.
And I’m not sure what she’d think of my books, based loosely on her past. That day I spent with her, she kept asking me why I was interested in her past, and what I was going to do with the information. I told her the truth, that I wanted my children to know where they came from. I never imagined that this would lead to a book, that people all over the world would read it. I wonder what she’d say, probably that I shouldn’t have exposed the family’s secrets, and that she was annoyed with me.
I would shrug and tell her that I inherited one of her best traits…stubbornness.