Books of Prose

Onegin’s Love for Grandma Clara


A novel, Carmel Publishing House

Two years before his death, Father gave me an old, dusty cardboard box. “They are our love letters, mine and your mother’s,” he said. “Want them? Or should I throw them away?”
Onegin’s Love for Grandma Clara is a novel based on my parents’ love story. It took place at the time that Stalin was planning to exile all Soviet Jews to northern Siberia.
It connects there to here and then to now, through the universal desire for freedom along with humankind’s unfortunate inability accept the unknown and make peace with the loss of the familiar.
Onegin’s Love for Grandma Clara is also a story of all those who weren’t born here but who make this their home, a story I have long wanted to tell. It is also a story about love – love between a man and woman, the love for the snows and forests of Russia, the longing for Israel, and also the love of a cat named Onegin for Grandmother Clara.
I had no choice but to write this story, my story, the story of my family, and of people like us. But if you read it, it will become your story too. “When a work of literature is good,” said Anna Akhmatova, “people say, ‘She wrote it about me.’” That is what I wish for here.

Mirie Litvak, a writer and translator, is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize. Her previous books are Russians Sleep in the Nude, The Sun at My Back, and Longing for the Dark (Sifriyat Hapoalim—Hakibbutz Hameuhad). She has translated volumes of poetry by Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Alexander Block.

Chapter 22
Other Rooms

That evening, Mother and Father called. Mother sounded very happy and relaxed.
She said, “Bobik, we’re getting back on Thursday, the time will pass quickly.” She tried to cheer me up, although I needed no cheering. I didn’t care that they had gone without me. Meanwhile, I was with Grandfather.
“It was nighttime,” Grandfather began. We were in his room, by ourselves. I don’t know who closed the door, or when, and he said. “She stood and stared at the wooden door as if she could see through it.” He dragged his words out, a contrast to his usual quick speech. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“The small lamp on the table was on. Behind it was a dark window, as dark as if covered with black-out cloth.” Grandfather stared out the brightly sunlit window as if staring at that image. “And they were already gone…”
I didn’t know who “they” were, but I waited. I squirmed a little on the sofa. It’s hard to stay still for so long and be patient, but I knew that Grandfather’s story was in place. He knew it accurately, remembered every detail, every jot and tittle.

Whenever I had asked him before, he always shook his head and said, “Leave it alone, Bobik, not that…” and even yelled at me. I saw his hand clench into a fist on the arm of the chair. But I didn’t recoil. I knew Grandfather sometimes got angry.
At that moment, Grandmother got up and left the room. If she had said, “Leave Grandfather alone, Bobik, don’t upset him,” I’d have known to back off, because Grandmother knows what Grandfather can and can’t handle, and where his limits are. But Grandmother did not stop me, so I knew I had to press on with my questions.
“It was very still, the dead of night,” Grandfather continued. “My Father was already gone. They took him.”
Grandfather stopped for breath. It was a different air, cold, the air of rooms chilled in the long nights, and outside it was very cold. For a moment, Grandfather lost his heavy and serious expression. His eyes searched all around like the eyes of someone weak and in need of help. At once I saw before me a little boy sitting on his bed, still warm from sleep, looking at his mother who stands by the closed door and first looks in.

I had already heard those words: “They took him.” Black automobiles drove on empty streets in a lightless city. They proceeded down wet streets between mounds of dirty snow heaped to the sides, and stopped with a loud siren at the entrance to a tall building. Tall men in long woolen coats with leather belts and epaulets showing their rank. They stepped out of the cars like lords. They exchanged words loudly, like street cleaners in Tel Aviv, shouting expressions into the night without regard for the darkness.
In the dark building, men cowered in their beds and listened to silence. They sucked it into themselves. Inhaled it with the air into their lungs. They did not sleep. They were afraid to sleep. They listened to the sound of the engine and waited for the car to pass or… stop at their entrance. “No, not for us,” they moaned with relief, and the rustle of their sheets under them terrified them. They heard footsteps on the stairs, heavy treads, confident, of someone sure he was protected, someone to whom nothing could happen.
“You never met your Great-grandmother,” Grandfather said to me. His story did not yet control him, and he had not yet forgotten I was there. “She was a beautiful woman, tall, statuesque.” He stretched out his hand. “She died a short time after you were born.”
I had seen pictures of her, of his mother. Grandmother Lera. She looked like an old-time Hollywood star. Her heavy hair stood elaborately above her forehead, like a wave, and her eyes smiled contentedly and sure of themselves. She seemed satisfied and happy, as if God had given her beauty in return for something difficult and complex she had done for Him. And now she did not have to do anything. She lifted her chin as someone who knows she is beautiful and thinks that is enough.
“She wasn’t an easy woman,” Grandfather carefully explained. “But one could not blame her. What a life she had!” He nodded his head. “A shattered life…”
This is not because of her life, I wanted to tell Grandfather. She was just like that, from the beginning. It shows in the picture. It seemed unpleasant for Grandfather to say anything bad about his mother. Perhaps that is why Grandmother Clara left the room, because my Grandfather usually says what he thinks of people, gives us all his thoughts, the good and the bad. This time, he kept control of himself.
“Mother told me she was so beautiful people came from all over the town to look at her,” I said proudly.
“Yes, from the whole area,” Grandfather said with a weak gesture, as if he regretted Lera’s legendary beauty. “She remained beautiful even in maturity and when she aged,” he added, “but that night her false composure broke, and her whole visage shrunk and shriveled all at once. Her hair, that she usually gathered in a tight bun above her neck, scattered and fell on her back like a black snake. I had never seen her hair exposed like that.” Grandfather hesitated and I was afraid he would not continue, but he had only paused. “I had not looked at the room.” With a broad sweep of his hand he indicated the space before him. “Only her, and she acted mad. One could see that…”.
The night was dark and solid, like a screen, and a tall woman, her dark hair like a waterfall behind her, stood tense, almost falling on the door in front of her, her faded nightgown showing through the hem of her untied robe, and the room spun dizzily around her. Papers and books landed on the floor like stricken men. The stiffly starched sheets folded like paper, mixed with kitchen stuff, and the closet door hung weakly as a sprained arm, and silence. I heard it, and a squeaking door. One of the neighbors had gone to the bathroom, and his slippers scuffed across the hall floor.
“I don’t remember much about what happened before and after,” Grandfather said, “but I remember that night.” He lowered his head, and his neck lengthened towards me. “’Mother,’ I whispered, and she turned as though surprised to see me. Only then did she register the things scattered around. They searched, you understand Bobik? They searched.”
“What were they looking for?”
“What could they look for? Bobik, my little one,” said Grandfather sort of triumphantly. “They just ruined and broke, they could have taken anything they wanted, but what did we have left? This was just to show they could step all over us… ach!” he waved his hand sharply. “To clear a path, she bent down and began to pick things up,” he continued the story that already churned in him. “I remember getting up and giving her the handle of the closet so she could try to reassemble it in its place…” He touched his face, and in his eyes was a vast sea from which emerged the destroyed, shattered room. “So we began to make order, moving slowly as if in water, not speaking, paying no attention to the time until we heard the neighbors and afterwards we saw sunlight in the window.”
“But why, Grandfather? Why?” I had to interrupt him. “Why did they do this? Why did they take him? Whatever did he do?” Grandfather didn’t answer.
His lower lip quivered. He looked in his pocket for his checkered handkerchief, but his hand couldn’t pick out the right place among the folds of cloth. Finally, he wiped his face on his sleeve. His jaw continued to move. The quivering in his lip moved up his face, and it began to dance like a building shaken by an earthquake, about to collapse. I understood that I had made a terrible mistake, that my thought that Grandfather needed my questions was false, that I was forbidden to ask such questions and had to leave Grandfather alone, as Grandmother Clara had told me in the kitchen. I wanted Grandfather’s face to relax, his eyes again to gleam mischievously, and his belly swell with laughter until his shoulders hit the back of the chair. I wanted him to tell me light things, that he did not have to seek deep within himself, things here, above, on the surface. I wanted to abandon the story and to tell him, It’s not important, Grandfather! Let’s do something else. Something happy. But by now, Grandfather was unable to stop. His story was close to him. He passed his hand across his throat as if the story was stuck there and bothered him, and he had to get rid of it.
“He didn’t do anything, my dear…,” said Grandfather in a scratchy voice and coughed so that I heard all the phlegm in his throat. “Nothing… nothing… like all the wretched people who died, who were murdered, who were butchered by that cannibal. Masses, multitudes, millions, you understand? Millions! His only sin was being born in Lvov, a city in Poland before it was conquered by Russians. So Stalin considered him a dangerous spy! Do you understand?” Grandfather touched my shoulder, drew me to him and hugged me firmly. It was too crushing a hug, like Mother’s. I felt the smell of his armchair, the smell of the room, the familiar odors of Grandfather and Grandmother’s house that had in it something closed – they often kept the shutters and the windows shut.
I gently extricated myself from his embrace and looked at him. He inhaled deeply, expanding his chest to the sides, as if making a supreme effort to calm himself down. I was afraid. It seemed to me that I was about to start trembling too, but Grandfather brought his palms together and interlaced his thin fingers as someone about to fall who grabs onto something stable. The skin on his hands was dry and pale, covered with splotches and reddish capillaries, but his fingers clutched one another with gripping strength.
“’I’ll get the stove going,’ she said, ‘go get some wood.’”
Grandfather’s voice, too, tried to steady itself.
“But when I came back, she was lying in bed, not moving,” he continued in a whisper, as if telling a secret nobody knew and I was the only one in which he dared confide.
“She was long, and pale, as if made of wax. Only the line of her closed eyelids was dark, as if drawn in black ink. I wanted to shake her, to scream, to call somebody, but I just stood there, hugging the damp firewood. When I put it on the floor, the sticks made a dull clatter that echoed harshly in the silence.
“She opened her eyes. They seemed to be covered by a milky membrane, like an animal’s. I thought, All I had to do was wake her, and I touched her hand. She raised herself a bit, leaned on her elbow, and said, ‘Yes, my child. I’ll get the stove going. We’ll have some tea…’ and again put her head on the pillow, as if falling into a coma. I don’t know how long I stood by her side.”
Grandfather was leaning against the back of the armchair and looking through the window. He didn’t want to see me at that moment.
“Afterwards, I remember a grayish, dirty light, and her kneeling in front of the stove door. The familiar warmth filled the room. She came to the table – I again saw her tall and straight – and poured boiling water on the tea leaves in the teapot. The strong scent of the tea tickled my nostrils and mingled with the odd smell in the room.”
At that moment, Grandmother Clara opened the door and peeked inside, as if she knew precisely when Grandfather was getting to the end of the chapter of his story.
“Are you coming to have some tea?” she asked.
The tea’s pervasive scent followed her into the room. I thought about the gray tin teapot in the hand of that tall woman, with its curved spout, like a bird’s beak, and the vapor spreading a warm moisture though the cold room.
“I made it from the English tea Natalia brought me from London,” Grandmother Clara added in a trilling voice. “Let’s see if it really is better than ours.”
Grandfather nodded curtly. He exhaled loudly, and settled into the armchair as if having completed a difficult and important task. His face grew calm once again. His yellowish-brownish eyes cleared, as if changing to gray-blue. Maybe his blue sweater lent them its intense color. “I never saw him again,” Grandfather concluded. “He came back from there an old man.”
I didn’t need any explanation anymore. I knew that “there” was enormous and mysterious, at the edge of the map, vast spaces without borders, virgin forests, rushing waters, and the northern lights. Everyone knew what “there” meant. “There” was whiteout blizzards and log cabins with no electricity, a penetrating and dreadful cold, and poverty-stricken villages spaced widely apart in the immense expanses of whiteness, and Grandmother Lera went “there” to be with Berl, her husband. “When he returned from there…” they said of Grandfather Berl. “When she went to him there,” they said of Grandmother Lera, without explanation. But I saw the line of people with numbers on their backs, moving and refracted against the infinite whiteness, like a line of ants on a whitewashed wall. The blizzard romped over the frozen river like the hem of a gigantic witch’s dress, and large dogs harnessed to a wooden sleigh stood on the bank, panting and waiting.
“He seems to have been a gifted accountant, and thanks to that he stayed alive,” said Grandfather with a new firmness in his voice, as if transmitting dry information. “It’s what saved him.”
The tall forest trees touching the sky leaned and collapsed until falling to the ground like many Twin Towers. The people cutting and sawing them into large stumps were invisible next to them; they were too small to be seen. But Grandfather Berl was not among them. His small, constricted body moved with evasive speed among the cabins huddled together at the edge of the camp, near the barbed wire. He entered one, sat down at the desk, and bent over papers, his slender fingers moving the wooden beads of the abacus: tack-tack, tack-tack, tack-tack. The rhythm grew faster, he bent more deeply over the desk. Tack-tack, tack-tack. I heard the sound keenly amid the roar of the buzzing saws: zzzz-zzzz-zzzz-zzzz… tack-tack, tack-tack…”
“I only have a few fragments of memory of him.” Grandfather’s voice pulled me back from the fields of white. “Were it not for them, I’d have said I never had a father. I remember walking with him, his hand stroking my own decisively, forcefully, pulling it upwards, till it hurt. Here,” Grandfather lifted his arm with surprising momentum and pointed to his armpit. The room constricted for a moment, and Grandfather took on larger than usual dimensions in it.
“So where were you going?” The question rushed out of my mouth before I’d had a chance to think. But Grandfather only shrugged. “That’s all I remember,” he said, “I must have been very young.”
“What was he like, Grandfather Berl? Who was he? Do you know?” I asked when Grandfather’s silence lasted too long.
There was only a single photograph of Grandfather Berl among the old picture. His face, sharp-featured like a bird’s, faced the camera diagonally. His skin was dark, and his eyes stretched towards his temples, like the eyes of Asian laborers. But instead of being narrow and flat like theirs, they were large and round, and protruded from their sockets. Tiny letters at the bottom of the picture spelled out the name of the photography studio, and a scalloped white edge decorated it like lace.
“I don’t remember his young face,” said Grandfather. “I close my eyes and try to see it, but I only remember a dark face and jowly neck.” Grandfather squinched his eyes shut, as if he were “it” and counting in a game of hide-and-go-seek, and his face became covered in tiny and deep lines. Then he opened them again and looked at me. “No,” he said, “nothing.” He shook his head. His pupils quivered very slightly. “And I also remember the circus,” he added, as if hurrying to finish the story.
“Circus?” I wondered. Grandfather’s stories flow and scatter in every direction and without Grandmother there’s no one to sort them out.
“Yes. When I was a boy, there was no TV, see? Adults had the theater and kids had the circus! That’s what we had.” Grandfather stretched his legs out, and his eyes started to smile. “A circus is a wonderful thing! I remember the big top in the square, and the festive atmosphere, the acrobats flying from one trapeze to another, way up there, till you couldn’t breathe from terror and awe!”
I immediately saw the round circus arena bordered by red velvet and heard the cheering crowd.
“After the show, my father took me behind the scenes. He spoke with the animal tamer, who didn’t look at all like the impressive, glittery artiste who had stood on the stage just a few minutes ago. He looked exhausted, and had wrapped an old bathrobe around himself and tied its belt sloppily. The seal that had rolled the ball on its snout looked like a balding man who had swept his hair back.” Grandfather’s hand move to his neck, and right away I saw the seal’s black, gleaming head, his bristly mustache like Onegin’s, except in silver. “The animal tamer petted its forehead and snuck a sugar cube into its mouth,” said Grandfather. “I noticed that my father spoke to the animal tamer as if he were a friend, rather than somebody famous…”
Onegin, who was sitting in the open window, interrupted Grandfather’s story. He made a funny noise, as if grinding the sound in his jaws. It was a bright day, of the kind that only happens in the winter after the rain and dark clouds. The sun returned slowly, hesitantly. It gradually grew stronger, and was now shining brilliantly, as if lifting a heavy curtain.
“Soyka,” Grandfather explained. “She comes to visit us in the afternoon, and Onegin is excited, see?” But Onegin didn’t look like someone who was often excited. He didn’t even get up, but stayed where he was, legs folded under him, precisely in the splotch of light the winter sun warmed just a little. He only lifted his head at a bird hopping from one branch to another near the window, and settling on the air conditioner unit sticking out of the wall.
“See how she’s unafraid?!” Grandfather asked. Onegin again made his sound, as if expressing an opinion. “She has an ugly voice. Screechy. But see how beautiful she is,” Grandfather said. But I hadn’t had time to see the pretty bird, because suddenly I noticed that Onegin was sitting right on the edge of the windowsill, like the acrobat in Grandfather’s circus, and that his gaze, following the bird, was liable to endanger his balance. “Don’t worry, he won’t fall,” Grandfather reassured me when the saw my concern. “Despite it all, he has the genes of a beast of prey, even if he is a spoiled housecat.”
Grandfather got out of his armchair and shook himself, like Onegin waking up from a nap. “Let’s have some tea, Bobik,” he said. “Grandmother is waiting.”
The guest room was glaringly bright. I slid the balcony window open and felt a sharp, cold gust of air.
“Winter, but a hamsin,” Grandmother noted. “Dry.”
I sat down in the window and looked down. From above, the trees in the garden underneath the building looked enormous. They swayed wildly.

Translated into English by Ed Codish.

חמוטל בר יוסף על “אוניגין שאהב את סבתא קלרה” מאת מירי ליטווק

מירי ליטווק, מחברת הספר “אונייגין שאהב את סבתא קלרה” קוראת מתוך ספרה

השחקנית ליביה חכמון קוראת מתוך “אוניגין שאהב את סבתא קלרה” מאת מירי ליטווק

כתוב את הכותרת כאן

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