“We’re making borscht today,” my dad proclaims this morning. Caught off guard, I slowly agree, but remember I’m the one who requested to receive this knowledge upon my last tasting of the family recipe soup. And to be truthful, I can’t think of a better day to do it.
Ten years ago, around this time of year, my dad and I drove to Chicago to pick up my grandpa – Deda, as it is in Russian – from the airport. He had taken the overnight train from Kostroma to Moscow, traveled to the Sheremetyevo airport and boarded a plane for the U.S. for the first time in his life, curious to see how his daughter and her family lived on the other side of the world. I don’t remember much from that drive, but I remember the clashing feelings at meeting my grandpa in the airport – joy, as well as shock, seeing him in an environment completely different from his own. The drive home from Chicago was filled with anticipation to show him our world.
We took him everywhere – the zoo, the state Capitol building and even drove to Colorado, hiking around Estes Park and marveling at the Garden of the Gods. Back home, he made some wooden benches and a little playhouse for me in the backyard, as well as a cat house for Tigger. He had been keeping journals his entire life and was unrelenting here, scribbling down his new experiences and soaking in all life had to offer.
The beef, pork and onion have been boiling in the big pot for some time now, excreting their flavors into the broth. My dad peels three large carrots and two beets that will go in the mix, leaving them on the cutting board for now. I wander over and marvel at the vegetables’ color, bright orange and deep magenta, remembering my grandparents’ dacha.
Every good Russian has a dacha – a second home located in the countryside, complete with a small cottage and a plot of land for growing vegetables, berries and flowers. Deda and my uncle Tolya built the dacha from the ground up after my grandparents settled in Kostroma. It’s the place I spent my summers growing up, visiting Russia every other year or so. There was always an endless amount of things to do: swimming in the river, picking currant berries, playing with the neighbor kids, gorging myself on my grandparents’ favorite fresh peas, getting family and friends together to eat and drink and sing songs, staying up late playing cards and then sleeping in the little room where an exotic bird cross-stitched by my great-grandma watched over me all night. This is the place I will always remember when I think of my grandparents – a place in my childhood memory that’s filled with love, laughter and light.
We’ve already taken out the meat, cut it up and put it back in with potatoes and cabbage. There’s onion sizzling on the skillet as we cut up tomato and pepper and the boiled beets and carrots. We put it all in and mix it around, the whole of it turning that deep magenta color and the carrots adding pops of orange. I close my eyes and inhale, eager to eat.
Last night, I was driving home from Chicago, much like on the trip with Deda and my dad ten years ago. This trip to Chicago had been with friends, for the purpose of obtaining a visa to France, and a welcome vacation from the chaos of this summer. On the last leg of the journey, I received word from my dad that Deda had passed earlier that day – around 2 in the afternoon in Russia, 5 in the morning here. Hot tears slipped from my eyes.
Later, while appropriately listening to Sufjan Stevens’ Chicago, I meditated on the fragility and inevitable demise of life. All things go, all things go.
Vladimir Kuzmich Alexandrov lived a long, full life. Born in 1926, he was 88 when he died. In his 20s, he married the love of his life – my grandma Rita, my namesake. He served in the Russian army for a number of years as a paratrooper, jumping from airplanes 287 times and achieving a rank equal to colonel by U.S. standards. He believed everyone should exercise and eat right to be healthy and happy. He was a do-it-yourself kind of man, handy with wood and most of anything else his hands touched. He responded to others with immediate attention, dropping whatever he was working on to help out.
At the beginning of this year, we learned he had stomach cancer. He put up a fierce long fight, never complaining about the increasing pain that was finally too much to handle. He died surrounded by his family – my mother, his other daughter and her husband, and his wife. He will receive a military funeral, recognized for his achievements and commemorated for the strong, kind, giving individual he was.
My dad and I ladle the borscht into bowls and sit down at the kitchen table. We say a prayer for Deda’s soul and all those affected by his death, then clink glasses and sip cognac in his memory. The soup is rich in taste and color. We quietly slurp our share in the afternoon sunlight. A tradition has been passed from kith to kin.
This isn’t the place to complain about Russian bureaucracy and the fact that I have been waiting to renew my Russian passport for over a year – without it, I can’t go to Russia and haven’t been since 2010 – but I want to state how powerless I feel and have felt in the months following the discovery of Deda’s sickness. This is the first person I know to have died in my adult life, and while I wasn’t incredibly close to my grandpa, I have many memories I cherish with him. The last time I saw him was four years ago, saying goodbye before getting on the train to Moscow. There was a group of men from the Russian army there, whom he inevitably befriended.
I’m still figuring out how to grieve, but I know I won’t feel at peace until I return to Russia, return to Kostroma and my grandparents’ apartment, and return to the dacha, climb up to the second floor, and sit with Deda’s soul on his dusty bed, inhaling the stale, sweet sunshine of July.