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The box arrived on a snowy afternoon two weeks before Christmas. It was neatly wrapped, tied with string, and was sitting on my doorstep when I came home with the children. We had stopped in the park on the way home, and I had sat on a bench, watching them, thinking of her again, as I had almost constantly for the last week since her service. There was so much about her I had never known, so much I had only guessed at, so many mysteries to which only she held the key. My greatest regret was not asking her about her life when I had the chance, but just assuming it wasn't important. She was old, after all, how important could it be? I thought I knew everything about her.
She was the grandmother with the dancing eyes who loved to roller-skate with me, even into her late eighties, who baked exquisite little cookies, and spoke to the children in the town where she lived as though they were grown up and understood her. She was very wise, and very funny, and they loved her. And if they pressed her to, she did card tricks for them, which always fascinated them.
She had a lovely voice, played the balalaika, and sang beautiful old ballads in Russian. She always seemed to be singing, or humming, always moving. And to the very end, she was lithe and graceful, loved by all, and admired by everyone who knew her. The church had been surprisingly full for a woman of ninety. Yet none of us really knew her. None of us understood who she had been, or where, or the extraordinary world she had come from. We knew she had been born in Russia and that she arrived in Vermont in 1917, and that she had married my grandfather sometime later. We just assumed she had always been there, part of our lives, just as she was. As one does about old people, we assumed she had always been old.
None of us really knew anything about her, and what lingered in my head were the unanswered questions. All I could ask myself now was why I had never thought to ask her. Why had I never sought the answers to the questions?
My mother had died ten years before and perhaps even she hadn't known the answers or wanted to know them.
My mother had been far more like her father, a serious sort, a sensible woman, a true New Englander, although her father wasn't. But like him, she was a woman of few words and impenetrable emotions. Little said, little known, and seemingly uninterested in the mysteries of other worlds, or the lives of others. She went to the supermarket when there were specials on tomatoes and strawberries, she was a practical person who lived in a material world, and had little in common with her own mother. The word that best described my own mother was solid, which is not the word anyone would have used to describe her mother, Granny Dan, as I called her.
Granny Dan was magic. Granny Dan seemed to be made up of air and fairy dust and angel wings, all things magical and luminous and graceful. The two women seemed to have nothing in common with each other, and it was always my grandmother who drew me to her like a magnet, whose warmth and gentleness touched my heart with countless unspoken graceful gestures. It was Granny Dan I loved most of all, and whom I was missing so desperately that snowy afternoon in the park, wondering what I would do without her. She had died ten days before, at ninety.
When my mother died at fifty-four, I was sorry, and knew I would miss her. I would miss the stability she represented to me, the reliability, the place to come home to. My father married her best friend the year after she died, and even that didn't particularly shock me. He was sixty-five, had a bad heart, and needed someone there at night to cook him dinner. Connie was his oldest friend and a sensible stand-in for my mother. It didn't bother me. I understood. I never pined for my mother. But Granny Dan . . . the world had lost some of its magic for me, knowing she was no longer in it. I knew I would never hear her sing again, in the lilting Russian. . . . The balalaika was long gone by then. But with her went a special kind of excitement. I knew that my children would never understand what they had lost. She was just a very old woman to them, with kind eyes, and a funny accent . . . but I knew better. I knew exactly what I'd lost, and would never find again. She was an extraordinary human being, a mystical kind of soul. Once one had met her, one could not forget her.
The package sat on the kitchen table for a long time, while the children clamored for dinner and watched TV as I prepared it. I had been to the supermarket that afternoon, and bought what I needed to make Christmas cookies with them. We had planned to make them together that night, so they could take them to school to their teachers. Katie wanted to make cupcakes instead. But Jeff and Matthew had agreed to make Christmas bells with red and green sprinkles. It was a good night to do it, because Jack, my husband, was out of town. He was in Chicago for three days of meetings. He had come to the funeral with me the week before and had been warm and sympathetic. He knew how much she meant to me, but as people do, he had tried to point out that she'd had a good, long life, and it was reasonable that she move on now. Reasonable to him, but not to me. I felt cheated to have lost her, even at ninety.
Even at ninety, she was still pretty. She wore her long, straight white hair in a braid down her back, as she always had, and wrapped it tightly in a bun for important occasions. All her life she had worn her hair that way. In my eyes, all her life she had looked the same. The straight back, the slim figure, the blue eyes that danced when she looked at you. She had made the same cookies I had planned to make that night, had shown me how to do them. But when she made them, she wore her roller skates and zipped gracefully around her kitchen. She made me laugh, she made me cry sometimes with her wonderful stories about ballerinas and princes.
She had taken me to the ballet for the first time. And if I had had the chance as a child, I would have loved to dance with her. But there was no ballet school where we lived in Vermont, and my mother didn't want her to teach me. She had tried in her kitchen once or twice, but my mother thought it was more important to do homework and chores, and help my father out with the two cows he kept in the barn. Unlike her mother, she didn't have much whimsy. Dancing was not part of my life as a child, nor music. The magic and the mystery, the grace and art, the curiosity about a broader world than mine, was brought to me by Granny Dan as I sat listening to her for hours in her kitchen.
She always wore black. She seemed to have an endless supply of frayed black dresses and funny hats. She was neat and precise, and had a kind of natural elegance. But she never had an exciting wardrobe.
Her husband, my grandfather, had died when I was a child, from an attack of influenza that turned into pneumonia. I asked her if she loved him, once when I was twelve, I mean . . . really loved him. . . . She had looked startled when I asked her that, and then slowly she smiled at me, and hesitated for a moment before she answered.
"Of course I did," she said with the gentle Russian accent. "He was very good to me. He was a fine man." It wasn't really what I wanted to know. I wanted to know if she had been madly in love with him, like one of the princes in the stories she told me.
My grandfather had never seemed particularly handsome to me, and he was much older than she was. In the pictures I'd seen, he looked a lot like my mother, serious and somewhat stern. People didn't smile in photographs in those days. They made it seem very painful. And it was hard for me to imagine him with her. He had been twenty-five years older than she was. She met him when she arrived in America from Russia in 1917. She worked in the bank he owned, and he had lost his wife years before. He had no children and hadn't remarried, and Granny Dan always said he'd been very lonely when she met him, and very kind to her, but she never explained it. She must have been beautiful then, and in spite of himself, he must have been dazzled by her. They were married sixteen months after they met. My mother was born a year after that, and they never had any other children. Just one, and he doted on my mother, probably because she was so much like him. I knew all that, always had. What I didn't know, not clearly anyway, was what had come before it. Who Granny Dan had been when she was young, precisely where she had come from or why. The historical details had seemed unimportant to me as a child.
I knew she had danced with the ballet in St. Petersburg, and met the Czar, but my mother didn't like her to tell me about it. She said it would fill my head with wild ideas about foreigners and places I would never see, and my grandmother respected her daughter's wishes. We talked about the people we knew in Vermont, the places I'd been, the things I did in school. And when we went ice-skating on the lake, she would look dreamy-eyed for a moment at first, and I always knew she was thinking of Russia and the people she knew there. It didn't matter what she said, or didn't say, they were still very much a part of her, a part I loved and longed to know, a part I sensed even then was still important to her, more than fifty years after she'd left them. I knew that her entire family, her father and four brothers, had died in the war and the Revolution, fighting for the Czar. She had come to America and never seen any of them again, and made a new life in Vermont. But still, for a lifetime, the people she had known and loved had remained woven into the fiber of her being, part of the tapestry of her life, a part that could not be denied, even though she hid it.
I found her toe shoes in the attic one day, looking for an old dress of hers to wear for a school play, and they were just sitting there, in an open trunk in the attic. They were well-worn, and seemed tiny in my hand. The threadbare toes seemed magical as I gently touched the satin, and later I asked her about them.
"Oh," she said, looking startled at first, and then she laughed, looking suddenly young as she thought about them. "I wore them on the last night I danced with the ballet in St. Petersburg at the Maryinsky. . . . The Czarina was there . . . and the Grand Duchesses." This time she forgot to look guilty as she said it. "We danced Swan Lake," she said, her mind a million miles away as she thought about it. "It was a beautiful performance. . . . I didn't know it would be my last then. . . . I don't know why I kept the slippers. . . . It's all so long ago now, my love." She seemed to shut the door on the memories, and then handed me a cup of hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream on it, and little shavings of chocolate and cinnamon.
I wanted to ask her more about the ballet, but she disappeared for a while, and came back with her embroidery while I was doing my homework in her kitchen. I didn't get the chance that night, and it didn't come up again, not for years anyway. And eventually, I forgot about them. I knew she had danced with the ballet, we all did, but it was hard for me to imagine her as a prima ballerina. She was my grandmother, Granny Dan, the only grandmother in town with her own roller skates. She wore them proudly with one of her plain little black dresses, and when she went downtown, particularly to the bank, she always wore a hat and gloves, her favorite earrings, and looked as though she were going to do something important. Even when she picked me up at school in her ancient car, she looked dignified, and so happy to see me. It was so easy to see who she was then, and so much harder to remember who she had been. But I realize now that she had never wanted us to remember. She was by then who she had become, my grandfather's widow, my mother's mother, my grandmother who made Russian cookies. Anything beyond that was too much to dream, too much to even fathom.
I wondered if Granny Dan lay awake at night, thinking of the past, and remembering what it felt like to dance Swan Lake for the Czarina and her daughters? Or had she let it all go years before, grateful for the life she had with all of us in Vermont? Her two lives had been extraordinarily different. So much so that it allowed us all to forget her past, to believe that she was someone different now, rather than who she had been in Russia. And she let us believe that, for all the years we knew her. In turn, we allowed her to forget about it, or forced her to, and we made her be the person it was comfortable for us to think she was. In my eyes, she had never been young. In my mother's, she had never been beautiful and glamorous and a ballerina. In her husband's, she had never been anything but his. He didn't even like hearing about her father and brothers. They were part of a world he no longer wanted her to be part of. Perhaps he didn't want her to remember.
She was his, until he died, and left her to us. But she was mine, more than my mother's. They were never close, but we were. The beloved grandmother who meant everything to me . . . whose whimsy made me what I am, whose visions gave me the courage to leave Vermont. I went to New York after college, found a job in advertising, got married eventually, and had three children. I am married to a good man, have a life I love, and haven't worked in seven years. I'm planning to go back to work one day, when the children are a little older, when they don't need me at home so much, when I no longer feel I should be at home with them, making cookies.
When I grow up, when I grow old, I want to be like Granny Dan one day. I want to wear roller skates in my kitchen, and go ice-skating, which I did with her and still love to do. I want to make my children and grandchildren smile, and remember the things I did for them. I want them to remember the Christmas bells, and decorating the tree with me, and the hot chocolate I make just like hers, while they do their homework. I want my life to mean something to them, and I want the time I spend with them to make a difference. But I want them to know who I was, too, and why I came here, and that I love their father very much.
There are no mysteries in my life, no hidden stories, no victories like hers, dancing Swan Lake in the final hours of Imperial Russia. I cannot even imagine now what her life must have been, or how much she must have given up when she came here. I cannot imagine never speaking of it again, and losing all the people you love. I cannot imagine moving to a place like Vermont when you come from Russia. And I wish I knew why she never spoke of it to me, more than she did. Perhaps only because we did not want her to be Danina Petroskova, the ballerina. We only wanted her to be Granny Dan, we only wanted her to be our mother and wife and grandmother. It was easier for us that way, there was nothing for us to live up to. We didn't have to feel that we were less than her earlier life had been, or than she was. We didn't have to know, or feel, her pain, or grief, or loss, or mourn who she had been, if we never knew her. But now, as I think of her, I wish I had known more about her. I wish I could have seen her then, wish I could have been there with her.
I put the package aside while I made the Christmas bells with Jeff and Matt, and got the green and red sprinkles all over me. And then afterward, I made cupcakes with Katie and she managed to get the icing all over herself, me, and the kitchen.
It was late by the time I got everyone into bed, and Jack called me from Chicago. He had had a long day, but his meetings had gone well. I had forgotten the package completely by then, and only remembered it when I went to get something to drink in the kitchen after midnight. It was still sitting there, off to the side, with a little cupcake batter on the string, and a thin veil of green and red sprinkles.
I took the box in my hands, dusted it off, and sat down at the kitchen table with it. It took me a few minutes to undo the string and open it. It was from the nursing home where Granny Dan had spent her last year. I had already picked up all her things, when I stopped by, to thank them after the service. Most of her things had been well-worn, and there had been very little worth keeping, just a lot of pictures of the kids, and a small stack of books. I had kept one book of Russian poetry I knew she loved, and left the rest of them for the nurses. All I saved of hers, of importance to her, was her wedding ring, her gold watch that my grandfather had given her before he married her, and a pair of earrings. She had told me once that the watch had been the first gift my grandfather had ever given her. He'd never been particularly generous with her, in terms of gifts or trinkets, although he had provided well for her. There was an old lace bed jacket that I had brought home with me too, and slipped into the back of my closet. But everything else was donated. So now I couldn't imagine what they had sent me.
As the paper peeled away, it revealed a large, square box, about the size of a hat box, and as I picked it up, it was heavy. The note said they had found it at the top of her closet, and they wanted to be sure I got it. And as I lifted off the lid, not sure what I'd find, I caught my breath sharply when I saw them. They were just as I remembered, the toes worn and a little frayed, the ribbons that had gone around her ankles pale and faded. They were her toe shoes. Just as I had seen them years before in her attic. The last pair she had worn before leaving Russia. There were other things in the box as well, a gold locket with a man's photograph in it. He had a well-trimmed beard and a mustache, and in a serious, old-fashioned way, he looked very handsome. He had eyes like hers, which all these years later seemed to laugh out of the photograph, in spite of the fact that he wasn't smiling. There were photographs of other men as well, in uniforms, and I guessed them to be her father and brothers. One of the boys looked incredibly like her. And there was a small, formal portrait of her mother, which I think I'd seen once before. There was the program from her last Swan Lake, a photograph of a cluster of smiling ballerinas, and a young beauty at the center of them whose eyes and face had never changed in all the years since then. It was easy to see that it was Danina. She looked breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly happy. She was laughing in the photograph, and all the other women were looking at her with affection and admiration.
And in the bottom of the box was a thick packet of letters. I could see at a glance that they were in Russian, in a neat, elegant hand that looked both masculine and intelligent. They were tied together with a faded blue ribbon and there were a great many of them. And I knew as I held them that the answer to the mystery was there, the secrets she had never told, or shared, once she left Russia. So many smiling faces there, in that box, so many people she had once cared about, and had left, for a life that couldn't possibly have been more different for her.
I held the toe shoes in my hand, and gently stroked the satin, thinking about her. How brave she had been, how strong, and how much she had left behind her. I couldn't help wondering if any of them were still alive, if she had meant as much to them, if they still had pictures of her. And I mused silently about the man who had written the letters to her, what he had been to her, and what had happened to him. But just from the careful way she had tied the bow, saved the letters for nearly a century, and took them to the nursing home with her, I knew without being able to read them. He must have been important to her, and from all he had written to her, I guessed easily that he must have loved her dearly.
She had had another life before she came to us, long before she came to me. A life so different from what we had seen of her, in Vermont, a life once filled with magic and excitement and glamor. I remembered how stern my grandfather had looked in his photographs, and hoped that this man had brought happiness to her, that he had loved her. She had taken his secrets to her grave with her, and now left them to me . . . with the toe shoes . . . the program from Swan Lake . . . and his letters.
I looked at his photograph again then, in the locket, and knew instinctively that the letters were from him. And once again, I burned with a thousand questions. There would be no one to answer them. I thought instantly about having the letters translated, so that I would know what they said. Yet at the same time I sensed that invading the secrets held in them would be a kind of intrusion on her. She hadn't given them to me. She had simply left them. But knowing how close we had been, I hoped she wouldn't mind it. We had been kindred spirits. She had left behind a thousand memories for me, of times we had shared, things we had done, legends and fairy tales she had told me. Perhaps along with the legends, she would not mind sharing this part of her story with me. At least, I hoped not. And my excitement over finding the letters and the photographs began to burn like a flame I could not dim. There was no running away from the truths she had hidden for a lifetime.
In my eyes, she had always been old, always been mine, always been Granny Dan. But in another time, another place, there had been dancing, people, laughter, love. She had left only a whisper of it with me, to remind me that she had once been young. And as I finally came to understand that, I sat looking at the smiling face of the young ballerina in the photograph, and a tear of longing for her rolled down my face, as I smiled, and held the faded pink toe shoes she had left me. And as the ancient pink satin touched my cheek, I looked at the neat stacks of letters tied with ribbons, hoping that at last I would know her story. I sensed with my entire being that there was much to tell.