Lisa Weeda – Aleksandra
When I first visited Odessa with my mother, in May 2015, Kolya had already been missing for two months. It was our first evening there, and we were all sitting in my great-aunt Klava’s living room. Uncle Andriy raised vodka glass number one, glass odyn.
‘Thank you all for coming,’ he said. ‘To our country, our city. We hope that, despite the present fragile circumstances, you will share our love for our country. Na-zdo-rov-ya! Or: Budj-mo! Russian, Ukrainian, whatever you like, between our ancestors and our Ukrainian passports, we’re kind of in the middle.’
We toasted. Nina closed her eyes, squeezed my knee, downed the contents of her shot glass (decorated with a picture of Volendam) in a single gulp, and banged it on the table.
‘Ay, Ljiesinka, I’m too old for this,’ she said.
Andriy poured another round, his hand maneuvering nonchalantly over the table. The vodka ran over the plates of herring and chicken, over slices of tomato, wedges of bell pepper, and stuffed eggs.
‘Odyn, dva, tri,’ he said to Nina, counting in the air with his thumb, index finger, and middle finger, and then holding his hand there like Jesus in the icon behind him. ‘Otherwise it will bring misfortune. We do not need that right now.’
‘Me, too?’ Nina asked theatrically, patting her chest.
‘You, too!’ the table chanted.
Glass number two, dva. ‘This is for Auntie Nina. That she dared travel here on her own, all the way from the East. She is invincible. Like our country. Like our houses. May she always be safe and may the war on all sides of her home soon be over. Auntie Nina, na zdorovya!’
It went just like at Aleksandra’s, like all the birthdays and holidays of my youth. If I so much as looked away for a moment, I turned back to a re-filled plate. ‘Eat! Do you want something else? Take more of this, it’s delicious!’
Meanwhile, round three was poured, and I realized as I glanced at the gold-colored clock on Klava’s windowsill: we’re just fifteen minutes in, this dinner has only begun. Aunt Natasha stood up and winked at me.
‘Mind, now, mind,’ she said, pointing at me and winking again, ‘everyone gets a turn.’
She straightened her blue dress with white flowers and exclaimed, ‘Tri!’ Three to ward off misfortune. Listen. Ljiesinka, Marie, I’m grateful you’ve made the journey here. I hope we’ll visit one another more often in the future. Then we’ll come to Holland! Na zdorovya!’
Cheers. Gulp. Bang on the table. Our family always says, ‘at least three vodkas to avert misfortune,’ but it never stops at three. The first three glasses are a road test, a trial run. Drinking continues in fits and starts, it burns the throat, elicits a stifled sputter. The first three glasses of vodka are a warm-up exercise for a perfect slider, the drink gliding down your throat, warming up your insides without prickling your stomach. I heard Nina laugh. To my left my mother said, her eyes closed and shaking her head, ‘Jesuschrist, that’s been a while.’
The next glass was longer in coming. Andriy built up the tension. He grinned a challenge at me from across the table, gave my hand a fatherly pat. We ate, Klava refilled my plate yet again with herring, sausage, and a hunk of bread with her homemade spread.
‘Vkusno,’ she said, making the ‘tasty’ gesture with her hand. I nodded, took a bite of bread, and was knocked backwards by the blend of mayonnaise, cheese, and garlic that bit into my tongue. And then, all of a sudden, came glass number four, chotyry, and by now the bottle was nearly empty, which meant that everyone had to leave their glass on the table while it was poured. Andriy meticulously divided the vodka over eight shot glasses. Fair and square. He grasped the bottle by its neck.
‘Another important ritual,’ he said earnestly, tugging up his trousers by his belt, pulling his shirt tighter around his protruding belly. ‘Someone must make a wish.’
He looked around the table like a game show host and handed the bottle to his daughter Anna. She took it, closed her eyes, blew into the neck, and passed it back. Andriy quickly screwed the top back on. We all made a toast to her wish. In the Netherlands, I learned during that first evening in Odessa, we are careless toast-makers. We say, ‘I’m so happy to be sitting here with you all, I’m so glad you’re here,’ far too seldom. I also learned, that first evening, how not to toast the dead: by saying ‘Cheers.’ The bottle went around in silence. We held our glasses not in our right, but in our left hand.
It was now Klava’s turn. She stood up, smoothed her dress, and pursed her lips briefly before beginning.
‘This is for cousin Igor, for our mother Anna, our father Nikolai, our brother Kolya, for Nina’s husband Aleksandr, our cousin Aleksandr. For our sisters Anastasia, Elena, and Nadya.’
I thought of Aleksandra and what she always said if I asked if we could go there together, to the house where she was born, to her old country. ‘What’s there for me now? Whenever I was there, all I did was visit graves. And now there are only more of them.’
We raised our glasses in silence.
‘And for Kolya?’ my mother asked cautiously. Everyone at the table flinched back and vehemently shook their head.
‘God almighty,’ Klava groaned, and raised her eyes heavenwards.
‘No, Marie, don’t, we can’t,’ Nina said. ‘We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. We mustn’t kill him off like that.’
‘You always have to keep hoping a person is still alive,’ Natasha explained. ‘To drink to Kolya now would only invite misfortune.’
We drank, but not to Kolya.
Then we moved straight on to glass number six. ‘After toasting the dead, you must immediately drink to good fortune and good health, to love, to good work, a nice house, and the children’s future. Na zdorovya budjmo na zdoroya!’ We toasted, drank, shifted a bit on our chairs and the sofa, ate, and did not talk about war, nor about Igor, who was found a year earlier hanging in his bathroom by his belt, nor about Kolya, nor about his wife Larissa, who had searched high and low for him and had even gone to Russia to see if he wasn’t keeping company with a sometimes-business associate, because he had cheap refrigerators. After two stuffed eggs, my mother nudged me. I asked Andriy to fill the glasses.
‘Seven. Sim,’ I said hesitantly and stood up. My head was spinning, and I was reminded of my best friend, who also has Ukrainian blood and before I left exhorted me, ‘If you want to survive, make sure you’re always sitting next to a potted plant.’ There was no potted plant. There were only my aunts with their dresses and their gold teeth. It was Auntie Klava’s living room, filled with garish Soviet cupboards, wall hangings, family photos, sparkling Svarovski swans, and small wooden panels with sad-looking saints. There was an old calendar with a Dutch tableau of a windmill with two girls picking tulips. And I was here. Here, in Odessa. Here, in the country of my grandmother’s birth, the country everyone warned me about before I left: ‘Watch out, there’s a war going on there. And they’re as corrupt as anything.’
‘Dear great-aunts, Andriy, Natasha, Anna. I have come home, and I am grateful. That, after all this time, I’m learning to speak the language. That you all have given us such a warm welcome. That there seems to be an endless supply of vodka in this house. Thank you all so much. Nina, Klava. Last summer, when you and Lida, who is now back in Kazakhstan, came to visit us in Holland, babushka Sasha did not go to wave you off at the airport. Later, I asked her why she didn’t. I said that it might be the last time. She stirred her tea and replied, “Girl, you can only say so many farewells. But you must keep on going.” So here I am, in her motherland, to make a toast to her. To Sasha. Budjmo. Na zdorovya.’
When I sat down, Nina put her hand on my knee again. She has aged a lot since last year, when she was visiting us in Holland and her house in Stanitsya Luhanska was hit by a mortar shell. Her cheeks were fuller that summer, her eyes less hollow, her expression less tired.
‘Well spoken, girl.’
She pushed herself up from the sofa and leaned on my shoulder.
‘Andriy,’ she commanded my uncle with her gentle voice. ‘Davai, come on, vodka, just a little for your old auntie. Chut-chut.’
Andriy got up and topped up the glasses for the eighth time, leaving Nina’s slightly less full. Nina’s hand holding the shot glass moved exactly the way my grandma’s hand moved when she had a small late-afternoon nip. Like Aleksandra, she kneaded her wrinkled skin as she listened to us.
‘Spasibo,’ she began. ‘Thank you. I am so grateful to be able to be here this evening. That I could travel to be here with my family. That despite all our differences, we can still sit together. I wish you all much happiness, syelayu vam shastche.’
We sat silently as she scraped her throat. She had been sleeping in her basement ever since the bombardments intensified, and as a result had acquired a raspy cough.
That cough refused to go away. She talked less than last summer. If I asked her something, those days I was in Odessa, she would shake her head and point to her throat. Then she would hook her arm in mine and we would walk through the city, along the beach and the far too flashy boulevard, or through the outskirts with their low-rise buildings. We walked in silence and looked around us at everything that wasn’t bullet-riddled, like in her town. I was aware of the stories about when her voice disappeared. Aleksandra told me that in the sixties, Nina lost her ten-year-old son. He had been playing outside in the streets of Stanitya Luhanska and grabbed an electricity cable that was buried in a mound of sand. Turned out to be a live cable. He was dead instantly. Nina did not speak for a year—something people criticized her for. The only one who understood her silence was her husband, Uncle Sasha. My mother told me that his head would go as red as a tomato whenever he got angry. ‘Uncle Pomidorski,’ they called him.
‘You weren’t supposed to show your grief for long,’ Nina told me when she was in Holland. ‘You bowed your head for a moment, then you raised it up straightaway. In my house I wept, but outside I worked in silence.’
After hearing the news of her nephew, my grandmother, at the other end of Europe, stitched black thread into Nina and Sasha’s lifelines. It was the second black stitch in Nina’s lifeline since Nikolai’s death. Nina and her tomato-headed husband silently continued to work on their house. They put in a tidy garden, a veranda, and a second floor. They painted the iron fence enclosing the vegetable patch blue and yellow. A mortar explosion that hit the house on that September afternoon in 2014 destroyed much of the house. And yet they returned. They did not want to go live with Kolya in Luhansk, or with her sister Klava in Odessa, or with her other sister Lida in Kazakhstan. ‘I built this house with my own two hands, my children were born in it, my husband died in it. It is all that’s left of our life together,’ she said.
My uncle Andriy refilled Nina’s glass.
‘And, peace,’ she said. ‘Let’s drink to peace.’
17 April 2014
[…] A few weeks later, when the special forces and militia started shooting with real bullets rather than rubber ones, we listened in on the first conversation between our cousins.
‘Are you there, too, Andriy?’
‘In Kyiv? No, I was only there in November, with Natasha. Then it was still rubber bullets, smoke bombs, tear gas. I’m home in Odessa. It’s quiet here, for now. But listen, it’s unreal. So many people—millions—came together! All to demonstrate against that rat Yanukovych. We’ll win this, brother. We’re moving towards Europe.’
‘Win? Against who?’
‘We’re not turning back to Russia, are we?’
‘Watch what you say, Andriy. Watch what you say. People are making different noises here. Don’t forget your birthplace.’
When, in February 2014, people started dying on and around Maidan Square, there was nothing strange about Kolya, but in these parts, it can happen fast. A pillar tips over somewhere, and suddenly everything can collapse with it. After more than one hundred dead and 150 missing, the Revolution of Dignity was over. It had lasted for ninety-four days, until the president left. The people celebrated, looked forward to a new government. But on Kolya’s turf, where for centuries we have been on our guard, they were less euphoric. Here, not only the word ‘revolution’ echoed, but something else, too: what’s this hard-won dignity going to do for us, so far from Europe’s borders? What’s in it for us, the thousands of forgotten miners who, right after the collapse of the Union, trekked en masse to Kyiv to be heard but got only corruption, poverty, under-the-table deals, mafia operations, and chaos? Aren’t we always the frontier, here in the East, the last strip of Ukraine?
Just as Kolya unlocks his shop door and sees a young man walk by carrying a machine gun, he receives a video from Larissa via Viber. We peek at the phone, one of us cranes her neck to look over his shoulder and get a glimpse of what’s happening. What Kolya sees is so chaotic that after a minute, he swipes back to the beginning, stupefied, and watches it again. Every few seconds he pushes pause. The camera darts through a cluster of men, moves down a broad sidewalk and approaches the lower windows of the regional government’s headquarters in downtown Luhansk, where Larissa works. Men in balaclavas and dark glasses smash the windows with clubs, iron bars, and sticks. They’ve got black-and-orange ribbons pinned to their sleeve. They climb in through the broken windows, and, standing on the windowsills, they hoist up their comrades up. The camera is likewise pulled inside. In the stairwell, a group of uniformed policemen stands watching, doing nothing, just staring silently at the camera. They let the men with the clubs and balaclavas pass. In the last ten seconds of the video, the policemen exit the building, loudly applauded and cheered by yet more rioters standing outside.
‘There are stacks of car tires everywhere,’ Larissa types to Kolya, ‘banners and barbed wire, too. They’ve built a bar. I couldn’t take anything with me and can’t go back inside. The men screamed but were nice when they came to get me from my office. I don’t get any of it.’
Kolya opens his shop door. We see him looking for the guy with the machine gun. He’s vanished. The street is quiet, as though nothing has happened, as though the young man was nothing more than a mirage. Kolya goes back inside and calls Larissa.
‘Where are you now,’ he asks.
‘Drive over to Nina’s. Take Mariia and Anja with you.’
After Larissa has hung up, our cousin sends a text to Andriy.
‘It’s started, they’re here,’ he writes.
Translated by Jonathan Reeder