From time to time, I search online photos of the streets I lived as a child. We can do that now. When I see the photo of the address of the house I lived in from Kindergarten through the 4th grade, the picture is framed to look right down the alley that ran alongside the flat on Ring Street. As a little girl, I played in that alley with other kids in that working class neighborhood. I was Dale Evans to Randy Larson’s Roy Rogers.
As a girl, I watched as my small grandma, wearing a long, black coat, her hair covered with a babushka, slowly walked to our house through that alley, her eyes toward the pavement, while I hung perilously over the edge of the upstairs railing. Grandma did not speak English well, and so I don’t remember having conversations with her. Was I afraid of her, this strange woman only a generation removed from me, illiterate in both Ukrainian and English? I don’t remember.
I have only a few pictures of my Ukrainian grandma, but one is a favorite. The year is 1955, and the photo is in black and white. I am sitting at the kitchen table of that flat on Ring Street, the table ringed with little girls, paper crowns atop our heads, celebrating my birthday. I have dark circles under my eyes. In the chair behind me is my Grandma, and I see in her eyes a brightness, the brightness I might see in the eyes of a child. Did she love me? Was she happy to be at the party? Did she enjoy the little girls gathered in that small and dark upstairs kitchen? Only that picture frames the possibility that she had a light in her, a light that even years of alcohol and violence could not, did not extinguish.
As I grow older and encounter the lessons of this time of life, I remember those I have loved who have not been with me for many, many years. I think about their lives, and sometimes I remember something I had not remembered before, a long-ago moment with dust on its edges, which I rub off with my hands as I remember. Sometimes, my memory does not shift; the details I have carried with me for many years remain the same. Sometimes, I know something I have always known, although that knowing has never been spoken, not even by me. Sometimes, a feeling accompanies the memory, and I am sad again, and again.
This much is true: the ancestors are in us, in our genes and in our memories, in our eyes and in our hearts. They live in us. They live, bigger than our memories. I like to think of them hanging out in my life, observing, without judgement, who I am. They are there for all of us, but it makes my life richer and deeper to remember them being there for me, too.
I love my Grandma. I always did, and I always will.