I was fifteen when I learned that the old Russian matryoshka maker was my father.
The descendant of fur traders, he swept into our little corner of San Francisco once or twice per year, bringing with him the wooden dolls which he had carved himself with his frail and trembling hands. When he smiled, all the creases and wrinkles on his weathered face deepened. A kindly smile. The smile, I had always assumed, of a stranger who knew what it felt to be an outsider; but nothing more than that. My mother and I were the only Greeks in a slum full of Latinos and Italians. When Greece turned upon itself in 1946, Mana fled with nothing but her suitcase and her address book. A distant aunt awaited in San Francisco. She arrived to find that the aunt was dead and the country was hostile to her; this strange new immigrant who didn’t speak their language or follow their customs. Mana clung to our Greekness as if it were a tangible thing that they could take away from us. When I lost my eye teeth, they were thrown onto the roof so that the new ones would grow in stronger. When I came of schooling age, I was educated at home: she taught me Homer and Plato before my peers had even touched on Steinbeck and Twain. We believed that onions could cure all ailments, that leftover bread could never be thrown away, and that arguments could be avoided by touching something red.
Whenever he was in town, the Russian came to visit, and they would make sweetened coffee in a copper briki. They spoke in fractured English, usually running out of words after they had exchanged pleasantries about the weather. He was fluent in the language; she knew very little. I would wonder for years why their friendship continued when they had so little in common and even less to discuss. After I learned my true parentage, the past came back to me with shifted focus: the abundance of matryoshka dolls which sat on every available surface in my bedroom; the pride in the Russian’s eyes every time he handed me a new set, with a stammering, blundered “a gift for you”, which was once the only phrase he knew in Greek.
By 1963, I thought I knew everything about the world. It was the kind of casual arrogance that only a fifteen-year-old could possess. My knowledge came to me third-hand. We couldn’t afford a television and I did not speak much English, so I relied upon the other girls of the apartment building to keep me up to date. They overheard conversations between Spanish and Italian-speaking adults, who had themselves gained their information from their faulty translation of news broadcasts, and they passed them on to me in English. Being young and arrogant and knowing more about current affairs than my own mother (she had never even heard of the Day of Wigs invasion before I told her all I’d heard about it) made me cocky; conceited.
I was playing soccer in the street with friends when I heard the news third-hand: Tio came sprinting around the corner to tell us he had heard our president was dead. No, we said, it couldn’t be. Was he sure? Had he misheard or misunderstood? But soon we were hearing that the president was muerto from other sources, too. People were falling down weeping, openly mourning for their golden boy; their great leader. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me all the way home, thinking of Mana and her “Kennedy for President” button; remembering her rapt attention, three years ago, as I filled her in on my fragmented knowledge of the election. “I like this Kennedy,” she’d said. “I do not like this Nixon.” She couldn’t vote, but she wouldn’t let a technicality like that stop her from calling herself a Kennedy supporter.
When I arrived home, she was already seated at the kitchen table wearing black; sobbing into her hands. So she had heard, somehow; I thought. I placed a hand reassuringly on her shoulder.
“Sit down, Cyrilline,” she said, dabbing at her eyes.
I sat, keeping my gaze fixed upon the crack in the table so that I wouldn’t have to see her tear-stained face. If I looked into her eyes, I would cry for our President, too.
“Cyrilline, the Russian died this morning.”
She ruined two pots of coffee – the first she over-stirred and it lost its foam; the second did not have enough sugar – so I was given the task of brewing a new batch.
“His name was Nikolai,” she said.
I carefully measured the sugar. Two and a half spoons per spoonful of coffee, the way she’d taught me.
“We were very good friends, years ago. He was kind to me when no one else was.”
I stirred until the sugar dissolved.
“He was your father.”
The coffee boiled over and dried up in the briki.
He was nearing fifty-six when they met; she barely thirty, still finding the United States alien and strange after two years in San Francisco. A gang of youths cornered him in an alley, beat him, spat in his face, called him a commie Cossack bastard and stole his wallet. Mana witnessed the whole thing from her kitchen window, and went running down the fire escape to bring him into her home and give him coffee. She didn’t speak a single word of English then; and he not a word of Greek. They communicated in grunts and smiles and nods. A week later, he showed up at her door with flowers and a “thank you”. She invited him in again. When he next visited it was with a notepad and a Russian-to-English dictionary. Mana blew the dust off her Greek-to-English volume and they wrote to each other, from across the kitchen table, to tell their stories. They each wrote in English – he wrote mostly from the heart; she sed her dictionary – and then re-translated the letters to their native tongues. Mana handed me the box of letters now, and the past slowly revealed itself to me.
In my country there is war. I run away and come here, she wrote.
His first letter lacked basic grammar. It was written in a way that Mana, translating each individual word from her dictionary, could understand. It began I born in America. Parents come from Russia long ago. Now Russia the enemy and everyone hate me.
The letters were stained in places with cooking grease, coffee, red wine – subtle watermarks of friendship; of two people who shared meals and coffee and drinks together. They were undated, but it was clear they spanned several months: though they lacked the poetry and complexities of the English language, the grammar improved as I continued to read. This was my youthful Mana, slowly learning the American way of life and the English language. I could picture her face softening into a smile, her cheeks pink from the wine. I could picture the old Russian’s hand reaching for hers across the table. Fascinated by this Mana I had never known, I devoured the letters, looking to find within their pages the love she deserved. Instead, I saw a friendship of convenience blossoming.
You are American because you born here? I am scared they will send me back to Greece.
His reply, they will not.
To which she wrote, I think if I had a child, an American child, they will not send me back.
That was the last letter. What happened next was not put into words, but they weren’t necessary. Mana was not already pregnant with me when she left Greece, as she had always said; neither was my father an anonymous Greek man back home. She wanted a child to be born on American soil to tie her to the nation; the Russian wanted to pay her back for her kindness and their bizarre friendship. And every few months, it had been me, not my mother, he was visiting. The matryoshka dolls were not the craft of a stranger, but a gift from parent to child.
Like Mana, I cling to my Greek heritage; I will not let anyone take it away from me. I have taught my children Plato and Homer. They know the healing properties of the onion; they know that a bat’s wing is good luck and that knives should be picked up from the counter, never handed to another person. I am sure their first teeth are still stuck up on the roof somewhere. They are more like Americano than glykys coffee: they speak English with American accents; their Greek, despite my best efforts, is not fluent. But my son makes a spanakopita that Mana says tastes like it came from a bakery in Konitsa. He also makes good borscht, and helps my daughter and I to make a paskha every Easter. They speak basic Russian, and every year, on what would have been his birthday, they take flowers to their grandfather’s grave.
They are mutts, the both of them. Russian-Greek-Americans. If I have any say in it, no part of their triad heritage will have more weight than the other.
They share a bedroom. Money is tight, and for the moment, we are stuck in the two-bed apartment with Mana. For now, my children sleep in twin beds positioned close enough that they can reach out to each other across the divide. Although they are old enough now to protest my babying them, I tuck them in every night with a prayer in English. Their grandmother’s mati amulet hangs on the wall between their beds, to protect them from harm.
On the shelf beneath it, Russian matryoshkas watch them dream.