5 December 2012

Where you may be now

Dear Grandmother Glanya, my gentle babushka --

Never in my life I wrote you a letter before, and now that it's been three months since you are gone I can't help it. I still can't accept the fact that you are no more. There are many things I want to tell you now, but nothing is more important than this: I love you. Hard to tell what's gnawing at me more now: the fact that I didn't tell you as much when you were there to hear it or that I'll never, not in this lifetime, be able to again. I was thousands of miles away when you left. You went so quickly. That time when I hugged you goodbye this May, I should have hugged you more, I should have said I love you. After my mother called to tell me you'd left, I went out onto my balcony and looked up at the sky. It was dusky and the air was smoky, fluffy clouds unhurriedly drifting across the lavender sky. I watched planes ascending, and a few bird flocks heading somewhere far. I kept thinking, looking, even, where amidst all those clouds and birds and planes you may be now, the images getting distorted and blurry from tears.

You ended but I have yet to visit your grave. And your home. It must be so empty of you there now. Before, you would be in your kitchen hunching over your flower pots or shredding cabbage for your signature sauerkraut with redcurrant berries, or in your living room reorganizing your limitless cache of medicine or reading a history book with a magnifying glass, stating loudly it's not working but turning page after page after page. Today, no one there. Your winter coat and a couple dresses must be hanging purposelessly in your wardrobe, sharing spare space with this summer's jams and jars of pickles (you and your canned goods!). I can't believe you are gone. I
know you are, yet in some sort of a haze I sometimes secretly dial your number to see that maybe, just maybe, you would pick up and ask when I would come to visit and I would loudly say that I would come soon, please wait for me.

I've told Anthony so many stories about you. His favorite is that about your two names. He finds it incredulous that when for some reason you had to renew your passport in your mid-thirties, a consulate clerk told you she didn't know of such name as Aglaya and so she typed in Alla instead. You said you didn't want to waste more time to re-new your renewed passport and carried on -- so nonchalant! -- with Aglaya, or Glanya, for us and Alla for everybody else. And everybody else it was. I recall running errands with you. It seemed that every other passer-by was somebody you knew, a former colleague, a friend, a friend of a friend, an old neighbor. You stopped for a
hello, how's life? with everyone.

It snowed here today. Winter holidays are coming up. I miss the way we used to celebrate. Annually, we would have you over at my parents' place for New Year's, and come Christmas, January 7th, we would all go to you for a flamboyant meal. Even these years when you grew weaker and weaker to cook, the table still moaned under all that food: herring, boiled potatoes, shashlik 
(cooked on an upright grill set up right on the table!), chicken tabaka, pickled wild mushrooms, salad olivier, napoleon cake, and so much more. I loved it all, except for what had mayonnaise and sour cream, but your fresh cabbage salad was the best thing in the world for me. You turned that tight-lipped cabbage so juicy, and you could cut it into paper-thin shreds even with the dullest of knives. Utterly delectable. At the table I always chose a seat closest to that glass bowl, the one with tiny spikes on the outside, you used to pile the salad into. A week later, on the eve of Old New Year, my mother and I would come over, and the three of us would spend the night forecasting our fortune. We each burnt a piece of paper on an upended saucer, and after the flame had ceased we had to make out what exactly the shadow from the paper's silhouette resembled. I remember the shadow often looked like a standing bear, but I don't recall what it meant. Or candle wax, we would hold a lit candle over a bowl of cold water to see what shape molten wax will form into. Mostly it would coil into bizarre abstractions, but occasionally we could see a tea cup, an open book or a horse. One time we tried the cards -- they said you would live to see your ninetieth. Grandma, you came only six years short.


My Grandmother's Fresh Cabbage Salad with Carrot and Apple
Yield: 4-6 servings

1/2 small to medium white cabbage, outer leaves and core removed
1/2 tsp table salt
1/2 medium carrot, coarsely grated
1 medium to large apple (such as Jonagold or Golden Delicious), peeled, cored and coarsely grated
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
a small handful of finely chopped fresh dill

Slice the cabbage as thin as you can. Place in a large bowl, add the salt and mix by hand for a minute, kneading and crushing the cabbage to release the juices. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Adjust the seasoning, if needed, and serve.

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