Voronezh, Russia, 26 December 2018
When I got off the bus, my grandmother was there at the bus stop in her brown fur hat and long mink coat. She had owned them both for decades, and they looked like an old, shedding animal. The bus stop was packed with people. With less than a week before the New Year’s, everyone was running around, desperate to buy presents, food and alcohol, and an evergreen tree to decorate, preparing for the biggest holiday of the year.
When my grandmother saw me, she acknowledged me, said hi, and we went to cross the road and headed to the market. Cut down pine trees of different sizes were scattered everywhere, with occasional spruces here and there twice the price. The last time I had a decorated tree for the winter holidays was when my grandfather died shortly before the New Year’s, and my maternal grandparents came for the funeral. They must have been the ones who bought the tree. That was years ago. No one else in my family had bothered since then. I hadn’t either.
My grandmother went past an evergreen tree vendor ignoring his lush spruces and pines. She stopped by the next one and studied pine branches lying on the ground in a pile.
“How much for these?” she asked in a rude and haughty manner she always put on when she spoke to strangers, especially to salespeople.
The vendor picked up several branches, assembled them into a bunch, and handed it to her.
“Happy New Year,” he said.
“How much?” she said even more rudely.
“Happy New Year,” said the vendor holding out the branches and this time there was irritation in his tone.
“He is giving them to you for free. Thank you,” I said to the vendor.
My grandmother lost her defensive appearances for a second and said “thank you” in a quiet voice as she took the branches.
“Let’s go and get some roses as well,” she said to me, her haughtiness coming back to her quickly. We headed to the small kiosks full of roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, and lilies. One of the vendors, a young woman, noticed us.
“Come in, ladies. Have a look.” She opened the kiosk door for us, and we went in.
It was warm inside and smelled of lilies and carnations. My grandmother looked around.
“How much are these?” she asked pointing at slightly wilted pink roses in the corner.
“50 rubbles each. But I will be honest with you. They will not last. What about these ones, only 100 rubbles each, but so much better?” The vendor pointed at a pile of white roses, beautiful and fresh.
“We don’t need them to last,” said my grandmother. But in the end she took two of the more expensive roses along with the wilted ones after the vendor offered her a discount.
“Happy New Year, ladies. Have a great holiday,” said the vendor handing us our flowers wrapped in old newspapers to keep them from freezing.
We walked out from the kiosk. It was a glim day. The sky was covered with thick gray clouds, no sunlight at all. It was cold, but there was almost no snow. Everything was dirty, colorless, and frozen. My grandmother walked slowly. I had to adjust my pace to hers, and I started to get cold despite all the layers and the puffer jacket I was wearing. We went away from the market and crossed the road again.
“What a terrible color for a church,” said my grandmother pointing at the newly build mint green church as we approached it. “It looks like a circus, not a church. And this is a domestic abuse shelter,” she pointed at another new building. “You probably haven’t seen it yet.”
We reached the cemetery, a giant piece of land surrounded by a concrete fence, and went in through the gate. The graves by the entrance belonged to the soldiers who died in wars and armed conflicts, their tombstones tall and shiny with small “ever-lasting” gas fires burning in front of them. It was getting quieter and quieter as we moved further into the cemetery.
“See, that’s where you turn, two lanes after the trash cans,” my grandmother told me, like she always did.
“I remember where to turn,” I said.
The cemetery was laid out like a miniature city, consisting of small square pieces of land that made up bigger squares and blocks, with narrow lanes in between them. Each small square belonged to a particular family and had a fence around it. The tombstones were all differently shaped. Some had portraits of the dead imprinted on them, others just names and dates of birth and death. Most of the tombstones were topped with crosses, but some with five-pointed stars instead, for those who had believed in communism, not god.
When we reached my grandfather’s grave, there were four red carnations and a shot glass of vodka in front of his tombstone.
“His university friends must have come,” said my grandmother. “I made sandwiches for them and brought them some cognac. I was hoping to see them here, give them the sandwiches and the bottle, so that they could go eat and drink and remember your grandfather.” She sighed.
“I wish I had chosen a different kind of marble,” she said after a while, staring at the tombstone. “Black is too somber. But at least I was able to give him a tombstone. Right now they are so expensive, I would not be able to afford even this one.”
My grandmother picked several branches from the ground, made a semblance of a broom, and swept the paved area around the tombstone. She then unwrapped the flowers and laid out the pine branches on the ground.
“Let’s give your grandfather two of the pine branches and two roses.”
She took out two pink roses and arranged the flowers on the grave, moving the carnations aside. She then poked the ground in front of the tombstone with the pine branches until they stood on their own, supported by a thin layer of packed snow.
After there was no more housekeeping to do, she started talking to my grandfather, saying how another year since his death had passed and recounting recent family events to him. His grandson was in the army, in the southern part of Russia. He was almost done with his obligatory year-long military service. One of his granddaughters works in Moscow. The other one studies in the US, but she came to visit him, all the way from across the world. His son was still alive, despite all the doctor’s prognoses and all the new conditions he accumulated because of drinking.
I stared at my grandfather’s portrait outlined in white on the black marble and his birth and death dates, both starting with 26. He looked tired and old, unhappy. I wondered if he had already had cancer at the time the portrait was taken, but hadn’t known it yet. I tried to remember what it felt like having him in my life as a live grandfather, not as a person from photographs with a designated spot in a cemetery, but I couldn’t. I was a child when he died, not old enough to understand the permanence of his death.
As we were leaving, my grandmother touched the tombstone and said “Happy New Year.” After she let go of the tombstone, I touched it too, trying to get close to someone who had been dead for years.
We then went to visit the rest of my grandfather’s family buried at a different spot nearby. There was a fresh grave, his nephew and my uncle who had died suddenly only several months prior in his early fifties, leaving a young, special needs child behind. My grandmother took out a rose and a pine tree branch and placed them on his grave. She then gave another rose to my grandfather’s sister. I remembered her only vaguely, although I always suspected that my memories of her were not real, that they were concocted by all the people who told me I must have remembered her. I was five or six when she died. I knew that she had been beautiful and that she had died from an aggressive form of cancer very rapidly, just like my grandfather. Only she died at even a younger age and unlike him never smoked.
“Let’s try to go see my family now,” said my grandmother. “I hope we will be able to do that. I hope I still remember where to find them.”
I threw one last glance at the tombstones, and we left.
My grandmother’s parents were buried at an older section of the cemetery, filled with unkempt abandoned graves. Several fences and tombstones fell down, barricading the way and disrupting the carefully planned system of blocks and lanes. A few graves were still being visited, and the families took matters in their own hands and placed new fences and tombstones in wrong places, blocking the access to some of the graves, including my grandmother’s family. To top all of that, several years prior a large tree nearby had fallen down, its trunk broken in half, obstructing the way even more. Every year, it was more and more difficult to find the graves and to reach them.
After a bit of wandering, my grandmother spotted a familiar last name on one of the tombstones. “There they are.” She repeated the last name for me. “I always try to find these graves. That’s how I know where to turn.”
From then on, we had to climb over fences, bend down behind tree branches, make our way through shrubbery. My grandmother panted. “One of these days, I will not be able to make it there at all.”
But it was not that day, and we found the graves. The gate was rusty, and we had to squeeze ourselves in because it barely opened. There were three people buried there, my grandmother’s parents and her brother. The tombstones had no portraits imprinted, and the names and dates of birth and death were barely legible.
My grandmother unwrapped the flowers and took out the last two roses, the white expensive ones, and put one of each on her parents’ graves. She then gave the remaining pine tree branches to her brother.
Later that day back in her apartment she would take out the old black and white photos in a photo album and show me the faces of her parents and her brother again, would tell me their stories of displacement, hunger, and loss during the Russian revolution and the World War II. When she’d reach the newer photos, the ones of my father as a child, back then when he hadn’t hated her yet, she would pause.
“I didn’t want to have children,” she’d say. “I never wanted to marry. But I felt like I owed it to all the people who lived before me, to my parents, grandparents, to all of my ancestors. Otherwise, what was the point of their lives? What would be left of them?”
She wouldn’t press the matter any further. She no longer bothered me or my siblings with questions about children. Perhaps like me she suspected that none of us would start a family. We hadn’t seen too many happy families. We wouldn’t know where to even start.
As we were climbing out of the old section of the cemetery, back to the sounds of traffic and the flickering lights of New Years’ decorations, back to the people running around making sure they had enough champagne and all the ingredients for the Olivier potato salad, I stared at my grandmother in her shabby furs and wondered when would be the last time I would see her. I couldn’t imagine that, just like I couldn’t remember what it felt like to have my grandfather alive.
Tatiana Duvanova is a writer, a Fulbright alumna, and a scholar. She holds an MFA degree in creative writing from the University of New Mexico and is currently working toward her PhD in English at the University of Rhode Island. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Southword, Notre Dame Review, Invisible City, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She is writing a dystopian novel. You can find her at https://www.instagram.com/tatianaduvanovawriter/