My grandmother had to go and die in her sleep the day before my story about her was up for workshop. This was inconvenient, to say the least. The story, which was about a girl and her grandmother who visit Yalta to work out their love troubles, was my favorite thing I had written, and now, I wouldn’t be able to absorb any of the feedback my peers would give me in class. Also, my parents had decided that because I was wrapping up the first year of my MFA program, I couldn’t attend her funeral in Kiev, and they had booked their flights without consulting me. Though I fought them bitterly, they refused to budge. I made it to workshop the next day, armed with wine and snacks, willing myself not to cry when the conversation about my Baba story began.
I didn’t tell my classmates or my professor what had happened, because I didn’t want to influence their perception of my work. Somewhere, deep down below my mutant grief, I wanted to hear what they thought without pretense. I helped myself to a generous serving of wine and listened.
Though what usually stuck with me after a workshop was the criticism, for once, I was focused on the praise. “I loved the grandmother character,” a classmate said. “She’s hilarious!” Another told me he loved the relationship between the granddaughter and her grandmother, how you could tell they loved each other even though they were always fighting. I nearly broke down when a friend said, “I don’t get why it seems like the grandmother might die soon? She’s only in her seventies—she isn’t that old.”
Just as my classmates were commenting on the setting of Ukraine, wondering if it could be developed more, my phone buzzed, telling me my parents had arrived in the ancestral city. I thought: I would never write a fictional scene like this, because it was too obvious—the art butting up against reality, as though my story held some kind of portentous power.
I told my classmates what happened as soon as class was over, and then in a manner Baba would have appreciated, I got very, very drunk at our post-workshop bar. I toasted to my grandmother’s atheist soul and hoped she had plenty of cognac wherever she was. A classmate asked what my favorite memory of Baba was. His wife nudged him and said it was too soon, but it felt good to talk about her.
Baba was famous for her frank pronouncements. There was the time she told me, “When I saw how gorgeous you looked at your wedding, I truly understood the power of makeup.” And two decades before that, when I brought home a painting of a bird I had made for her, she gave it one quick perusal and then declared, “Well! You’ll never be Picasso…”
But that evening, the memory I settled on telling was when, during a middle school sleepover, Baba had taken one look at my friends and declared, “Girls are so hideous at that age!” It became clear that this was not the story my classmate had expected—but telling it made me laugh for the first time since I got the news. It took me a moment, though, to make sure I was talking about my real grandmother, not the kinder, more ostentatious one I had written about for class.
My grandmother was a hardened Soviet woman: she nearly starved to death during The Great War, had an impressive career as a microbiologist, lost a sister in her thirties, her husband in her forties, and, five years after his death, her daughter, a twenty-four-year-old poet, died tragically before the collapse of the Soviet Union. She somehow maintained her cheerful disposition even after that.
Baba decided to leave our home in Kiev and follow my family to Gainesville, Florida for my father’s shaky physics career. There, at fifty-five, she shared a bedroom with me, a six-year old. She taught herself English so she could continue her career, eventually landing a part-time job in a lab after sending out over two hundred applications. As a bratty maladjusted ESL kid, I did not find my grandmother particularly resilient or impressive. I just wished I could have my own room like all my friends did—one that did not smell like perfume or cigarettes—and that she would stop embarrassing me everywhere she went, sharing her wild opinions with perfect strangers without a second thought.
Which was exactly what she was doing during the trip we took to Yalta the summer after I graduated from college, eight years before she died in her sleep. For what felt like an endless two weeks, Baba told everyone in sight that I was her granddaughter from America and loudly tried to re-explain things to me that did not need explaining, in Russian. We spent that time walking to various tourist attractions that made their way into the story, like Chekhov’s house, and talking about Baba’s past, which she described without ever waxing sentimental: the summer trips she took to the same hotel with her husband and children when they were young, and how she chose my grandfather over another compelling suitor who pursued her for years after she was married.
Unlike the characters in the story I put up for workshop, neither of us had romantic prospects in Yalta. There was no married man for me to call, and no dying suitor to pay her a visit, which was probably for the best. Baba did have suitors at some point after her husband passed away. I know this because she once told my mother that the man she was seeing was “only interested in one thing—the bedroom!”, a statement so horrifying that I later built an entire character around it.
After dinner at our industrial Yalta hotel, we would read in bed until we hit the lights. This was the first time we had shared a room together since Florida, which we had done for three years, until Baba had moved to California to work at a genetics lab at UCLA. The job allowed her to retire with an American pension a decade later and live out her glory days back in Ukraine. There, she lived an active life that included being on the staff of a literary journal, a member of a Toastmasters club, and treating her friends to the theater and opera every month.
She was utterly content during the trip, pleased to have her granddaughter sleeping by her side. Meanwhile, I was weeks away from starting graduate school in California and was dying for my life to start. I didn’t realize it had started a long time ago, that I would spend years writing about my eccentric childhood as an immigrant kid of nomadic PhDs, or that the first chapter of my novel would open with Oksana—my sluttier, brattier alter ego—mortified by her grandmother flirting with the school crossing guard. I didn’t realize that the weekly trips Baba and I took to the Pic ‘N Save back in Florida, where I was allowed one toy for one dollar if I behaved, would come to be a highlight of my childhood, or that I would miss sharing a room with her the moment she moved away, finding my own space eerily quiet and unnerving.
I don’t remember a single thing we talked about when we shared a room when I was a kid. I just remember hearing the police sirens and cicadas chirping at night along with the sound of Baba’s steady breathing. I’d like to say she would declare, “Another day closer to oblivion, here we go!” but that wasn’t her—that was the fictional Baba of my novel, the one who loudly proclaimed the things I was sure my grandmother was thinking during her rare moments of quiet. I mix them up a lot, the two Babas. Sometimes I think the one I wrote about was more real to me—I certainly feel like I know her better, that I know how to love her better, too.
That strange workshop took place almost three years ago. A lot has happened since then. I gave birth to a little girl who, when she seems particularly displeased, looks exactly like my grandmother. I finished the book I had been working on. The grandmother character and her relationship to the narrator is the book’s beating heart, though I can’t say that would have been the case if my grandmother hadn’t passed away in such a memorable fashion while I was working on it.
In a later workshop, one classmate noted, “Oksana and her grandmother are actually a lot alike,” which stunned me, because all my life I had defined myself in contrast to my grandmother. I tried to make people happy and comfortable, hoping everyone would think I was funny and brilliant and kind. I constantly told Baba to stop embarrassing me, not realizing I was the embarrassing one. By the time my classmate made her comment, I couldn’t have thought of a higher compliment.
My novel ends with Baba’s funeral, the one I did not get to attend in real life. In that scene, Oksana’s mother declares that she and her grandmother are “like two drops of water,” though I don’t know if the real Baba and the real me are anything alike. My grandmother was incredibly strong. I persisted in writing three novels in ten years before finally getting one published, but that’s not exactly surviving The Great War or the deaths of my spouse and child. I’d like to believe Baba would be proud to see me today, even if she would have leveled her share of criticism at me.
I’d also like to believe that all of her criticism was made out of love. After all, it was clear I had no talent as a painter as a child—and wasn’t I better off knowing I would never be the next Picasso early on? And I really was hideous in seventh grade. So were all my friends. What mattered was my writing, which she always encouraged. I’d like to think it was because she saw how much poetry meant to her sick daughter before she died, and she knew that writing was everything to me, too.
But it’s hard to know if she intended to give me a realistic sense of the world or if she just said whatever was on her mind. I worry that I’m creating a narrative about her after the fact. Then again, back when we lived in Florida, I wanted to be a fairy princess for Halloween, but we were quite poor, and I only had a frilly yellow dress for a costume. Baba, grieving and jobless in a foreign land, spent an afternoon making me a wand using a coat hanger, tape, and the shiny inside of a box of Pops cereal. It’s hard to fault anyone who did something like that for you.
The last night of my trip to Yalta, we returned to my grandmother’s apartment in Kiev, where Baba’s sister and niece came to see me off. I felt guilty for being bratty during most of the trip, for walking slightly ahead of Baba to cast doubt over our affiliation, and that night, I tried to be on my best behavior, knowing that a year or two could go by before I saw her again.
As the evening wore down, Baba lifted a finger, disappeared into her bedroom, and returned with a short story that had recently been submitted to her literary journal. The story was only one page long, about a dying mother watching her children play in the yard. Though as Baba always pointed out, my Russian lacks nuance, even I could tell it was a moving story, sad but free of sentiment. My grandmother stood in the center of the room, her red hair glowing from the lamp behind her, and read the story until all of us had wet eyes.
“Not bad, am I right?” Baba said.
“It’s enough to make you shoot yourself,” her niece Natasha said by way of agreement.
“Indeed!” my grandmother said, not without glee. To her, this might have been the highest compliment about a piece of art, or a mode of living. After all she had seen, she believed that devastation and ecstasy were close cousins.
I’m pretty sure she would have gotten a kick out of being discussed during my workshop while her body was being cremated half a world away. Maybe it’s wishful thinking.
I imagined her popping out from under the seminar table when someone said she was too young to die. “Indeed!” she might have declared, before draining my glass of wine and returning to her atheist heaven. “Stop taking everything so seriously,” she might have told me. “Just keep living, foolish child.”
As for the grandmother in the story? She would have told me the same thing.