Chapter 5: St. Petersburg

(Tchaikovsky, “Violin Concerto #1, 1st Movement”)



 Grandparents are special people.

I never knew my paternal grandparents, but I was very close to my maternal grandparents. I was their first granddaughter of nine grandchildren. Their legacy has been important to me, especially their being my role model. How well the showed me that a good grandparent can be an anchor for the grandchild, like the “ancient mariner” who has passed through turbulent seas and emerges with clear eyes.

That’s how I remember them – both born in St. Petersburg and came to America independent of the other. My grandmother had been an opera singer in Russia. I remember her as short and plump, with watery blue eyes and blond hair. Her cheek-bones were so high and chiseled that when she laughed, I could only see the slits of her eyes. She was a great cook and whenever I went to visit her, she had warm blintzes, Russian-style crêpes, filled with raspberry jam waiting for me. She loved to sing in Russian and I remember the small apartment was always filled with music. The foreign sounds from Boris Godunov took over the entire space. Between the sweet smells and music, my grandparents’ home was a wonder to me.

Music was the love my grandparents shared. My grandfather had been a musician in the old world. He was always proud to show me the medal he had received from Czar Nicholas II, for my grandfather had played woodwinds and strings – flute, piccolo, violin- in the Czar’s orchestra.

My grandfather was a great storyteller and I was his most enthusiastic listener. I loved to hear his stories about Russia, especially those about his father who would take his ladder and his youngest child of 11 to the churches in St. Petersburg to work. Together, my grandfather and his father would restore the ceilings in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the jeweled icons in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the gilded domes of the Cathedral of the Resurrection.

The role of fate has always fascinated me and my interest about destiny and chance started with one of my grandfather’s stories:

“When I was a young man of 20,” he narrated, “I wanted to go to America. I had bought a ticket for the Titanic in April 1912, just two weeks before the steamship sailed from Southampton to New York. I didn’t have a passport but one of my brothers did. Being I was the only one in the family who wanted to go to the new world, my brother gave me his passport. That’s why I’m not the age everyone thinks I am.”

He laughed with his secret and he swirled his head in a way that his full wavy hair flew in the air. He looked like a figure floating from a Chagall painting.

“A week before my leaving, my father came to me and said, ‘Josef, there’s a young lady in the village who wants to go to America. Her father asked me if you’d escort her. But she can’t get a ticket for the Titanic. No more places left. Take another boat, the next one, and accompany my friend’s daughter.’”

My grandfather was a gentleman and respectfully complied. He was rewarded by the gods. The young lady did not become my grandmother, but she certainly became my grandfather’s savior.

When my grandfather married and started to raise a family in New York, his work as a musician didn’t seem adequate to pay the bills. It was at this time that chance, or fate, once again saved him. A successful Polish cosmetician was establishing her empire in New York City. She had made a fortune as she climbed the ladder from Krakow to Melbourne to Paris to London with jars of beauty creams scented with water lilies and energized with herbs from the Carpathian Mountains.

I wish I could have been there to see my grandfather with his twinkling blue eyes charm Helena Rubinstein. His entire career was at the side of “Madame” as chief painter for her showrooms and private residencies. “A brilliant woman,” he recalled with deep respect. “Always working, thinking, doing … surviving.” And then he smiled. “In the early 1900’s when she was beginning her cosmetic salon in London, she couldn’t get a bank loan of a $100,000 because banks just didn’t give loans to women. So she used her own money. Just like years later when she wanted to buy a penthouse on Park Avenue and they didn’t allow Jews to buy co-ops, she bought the entire building. Bought her Parisian building and 5th Avenue as well.” He laughed, so proud of his Madame. “A force of nature.”

My grandfather lived until he was 94 and to his last day, he was tall and straight, with a full head of wavy white hair. And he continued to tell his stories. When I’d bring my baby son, Gregory, to his apartment, my grandfather was thrilled to have another human being listen to his tales. He’d narrate again about Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra, Alexis and Anastasia. He even told Greg that Rasputin was a magician!

Yet, he never told me about the Czarina’s love for diamonds. And I don’t think he ever met Simon Simonovich hiding in St. Isaac’s Cathedral plotting with Rasputin. It was my role, years later, to continue his love for storytelling. It made sense that I would name Mica’s blue diamond, the St. Petersburg diamond. And of all Mica’s 20 colored diamonds, the 30-carat blue St. Petersburg was the most precious of all.

It wasn’t until many years after my grandfather’s stories that my husband and I were able to visit his City. We arrived in early June, the magical time of White Nights when St. Petersburg stays light past midnight. How romantic it was to stroll down the Nevsky Prospekt from the Marinsky Theater after watching the Kirov Ballet. And to wander through the bridges and canals of the Neva River pretending St. Petersburg is still the City of my grandfather’s youth. As we laughed through the night, the day seemed never to end.

I remember the thrill of sitting in a café while eating blintzes and listening to Tchaikovsky. The violin staccatos brought me back to my grandparents’ apartment and  raspberry jam. The beauty made me sad and happy all at once as I remembered how much my grandparents loved me and I loved them. It is this memory of my grandparents that has helped me be the grandparent I strive to be. In this way, my grandparents live within me and I have become them. Perhaps this is my way of making the day feel as if it will never end.