Early memories of grandpa. Walking through the forest, dusk, sunlight filtering through the pines, setting ablaze the dust particles and gnats, golden hour bliss. We stop at a pull-up bar installed high between two trunks, grandpa hops up, I stand watching and dreaming. Legs at a 90 degree angle, he huffs out with each pull, “20, 21, 22…” Down on the ground again, arms up, shaking lose the wrists, and down to the ground with a satisfied exhale. Grins at me and we continue walking home.

Phone ringing at the grandparents’ place on Obvodnyi Canal, the dimly lit hallway with the linoleum squares and those slippers, sitting leg over leg in sweats, intently squeezing the receiver to his ear and speaking loudly in a lecturer’s booming, authoritative voice to his invisible interlocutor. The radio on during news hour, grandpa relaxed on the couch, listening to the latest. Or watching the news each night at 9pm sharp.

After bath time, me all cuddled up and steamy and pink, grandma toweling me down and calling grandpa for the special assignment of carrying me to bed.

Another memory. Us in our new apartment, talking about maps. “Can you draw the map of Africa from memory?” Of course not…”But I think I can. Let’s see now…” and he begins. Humming an unidentifiable war song under his breath, he traces the lines carefully, his pens, his somewhat wrinkly hands and those bulging veins we loved to press down and see fill up again. He is done and triumphant, his carefully drawn out map of Africa, including all of the land-locked countries, with names of all the capitals, just for kicks. “Geography was always my favorite subject in school.” He says, beaming. I am blinking, astounded. “Let’s talk more about maps,” he proposes.

Grandpa holding me under the belly and letting me float gently on the ebbs and flows of the Gulf of Finland. Explaining about breathing and holding your breath, me mastering underwater swimming first, excited. Him hoisting me up into the gnarly fir by the edge of the beach, sun setting, me climbing higher and higher, him below asking me if I see Finland across the water.

Playing chess on the smooth formal dining table in the Big Room. Him patiently guiding me, “Now are you sure that’s how you want to move? Because if you do this…I will do this. You see?” Now I can see. “And then you have to wonder – what are you going to do next? You have to think several moves ahead, and always think about the other player – why did they go here? What is their secret plan?”

Much later – sitting in their make-shift guest room in the basement of our first apartment in America. Teaching him English, enthused by the opportunity to be the one leading. Him – a great and dedicated student. Many smiles and laughs shared. A thousand and one charades acted out, many poems listened to and recited, war stories shared (his), and piano music played (mine). In the end, the conversations, trying to understand, all grown up and talking about the more important things. Grandpa still my grandpa, but also an individual, a human being with foibles, fears, hopes, aspirations.

Thirty three years of memories will surely not fit onto this page. But if this is a tribute to our friendship, our alliance and mutual respect, then this is not a tribute to something that has ended. Though it breaks my heart to know that thirty three years is all the memory-making I get with my one and only grandfather, I know the relationship will continue. For love is a gift that keeps on giving. And giving into the deep dark of evening.


A few days ago I joined the Texas Gourd Society. I’ve been in love with these creatures for a while, so it’s only right to make it official.

Gourds seem an artisan’s universal canvas. They provide great surfaces for oil and acrylic paint, are ideal for pyrography and wood carving of all caliber, and are all-around pleasant entities. The gentle undulations in their form, the soft, smooth finish, the fibrous innards and sweet, earthy aroma make working with them a soothing, rhythmic exercise as much as a meditative practice. They’re also great for embellishing with weaving, and encrusting them with beads, glass, sea shells, and much more. But what really attracts me to them as an art medium is the fact that they are round.

When you paint on a flat surface, the story you tell has a definite beginning and end. In Western art, I would postulate, it reads from left to right. For instance, the traditional reclining nudes typically have their heads on the left half of the canvas and their feet point towards the right side. That way, as you’re scanning the painting, “reading” it by force of habit from left to right, you first see the head, the key element and then the rest of the body. The edges of the canvas serve as the frame of the composition, a focal lens through which the artist shows us a specific, limited reality.

With gourds, the story depicted has no beginning or end. It goes on and on, or it doesn’t go at all. It is as rhythmic as a musical round or chant, it ebbs and flows and you can grow mesmerized, turning it about its axis, following the patterns with your eyes. Besides offering this unique medium on which to create, the gourd adds flavor and dimensionality to your piece with its shapeliness. A narrow, curvy top doubles as a neck inclined in perplexity. A fat, full-bellied bottom makes a lovely foundation to weave on.

Incidentally, the idea of a perpetual decorative field is not limited to the well-shaped pumpkin. The concept of ornament, prolific in many ancient cultures and reaching into modernity, is the most wide-spread attempt to create a sense of an unending, rhythmic motion on a two-dimensional surface. The patterns and designs repeat with no visible end in sight, often finishing where they started, turning in on themselves, fractalling or transmuting across the borders of wooden carvings, friezes, church walls, dress hems. A more contemporary example of squeezing the perpetual into a flat rectangle of space can be seen in M.C.Escher’s work. Hands continue drawing hands ad infinitum, stairs descend with no visible plan to reach the bottom, birds morph into fish that morph into birds that morph…

But still, the gourd is better suited for this type of work. Plus, you can even use its internal space to embellish the pictorial message on the outside surface. The only problem posed by the unusual shape is how to display it: you can’t hang it on a wall, you can’t put it in a frame. You can’t really even set it down because the artist might have painted or decorated it all the way around on the bottom. But I am certain that those creatives who tackle gourds in the first place, will come up with appropriate ways to display their craft.

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Some things you only understand about your parents when you become one.

For example, my mama. She would often start cooking dinner when returning home from work, while still wearing her work clothes. Memories blissfully embedded in my mind have her facing the stove, barefoot but still in her nice business semi-formal, amber earrings, hairdo and all. I would wonder, in my practical, child-like mind, why not just change out first? What is the rush? Won’t Mama get her clothes dirty? Of course, all of us were very glad when dinner was ready, thankful and oblivious to the fact that it took actual time and effort to make it.

Now, all too often, I catch myself putting the water on for the potatoes, lighting the other burner for the fish (and forgetting about it when starting to peel said potatoes), and yelling for the kids to start setting the table all before I’ve even taken off my shoes. Well, maybe I’ll get one of them off. The having and the raising of the progeny has taught me that things always take longer than planned, and that hungry, grumpy kids and hungry, stressed parents make a volatile combination. I am thinking about us, and about them, and about getting something nutritious into the family before it begins convulsing with after-school activities. These last until 7 or 8pm, and only then do I remember to take my work badge off and hang those earrings.

Or, the work-out plan. Mama started going to the gym only when we were mostly grown. But she was always exercising. Doing a few stretches outside before breakfast. Downward Dogging it in the wee hours of the morning. Lifting weights. Forgetting weights on the counter. Feeding cat. Packing lunch for Papa, lifting a couple more times. Doing a couple more stretches. Why not just take half an hour out of the day and do a solid work-out routine, I wondered. It seemed to make sense – more efficient and more productive.

Ha! Somehow it doesn’t work that way with kids. Maybe it’s a learned behavior I’ve inherited from her (the exercising while doing everything else), maybe it’s the only thing left to do? The insight that I have now is that if I don’t do it this way, I won’t do it at all. I’ll wake up, make breakfasts for all, make lunches, sign permission slips, usher our joyful bunch out, drive them to school or rush to work, at work sink into the work things, and then we already know what post-work looks like. So I find myself dragging my medicine ball to the office with me. Leg-lifting while the children are telling me about this and that. Bending down to pick up trash with a straight back and lingering in that position a few extra seconds for the stretch benefit. Ultimately, all the body parts get a workout, only differently.

The truth of the matter is that, as children, we see our parents as two-dimensional care providers. They are fun, and strict, and warm, and comforting. They are the centers of our world, but we remain egocentric, and as such, we only see them in relation to ourselves. At some point, if we are the thinking types, we realize that parents are actual people, foibles, nose hairs, quirks and all. It seems that the only action following this revelation would be to get to know your parents as people – to ask them personal questions, to probe, to discover. Unfortunately, for us kids, that would mean that we would have to lose the parent, in a way. And unfortunately for the parents, few kids are willing to do this.

In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 


The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.



You see them and try not to see them, but there they are: standing on the intersections of boulevards and roads, with dog, child or crutch in tow, and always with a sign. You may think that they are lazy, or unwilling, or you may feel sorry for them, or you may dig into your reliable trove of excuses and explanations and then the light turns green. Few who have not actually stood on corners asking for help and sending cardboard blessings know what it’s like. I have an inkling, and every time I see them, I cringe.

At a certain point in my life, for reasons still unclear to me, I ended up working 15-hour days, 6-times a week, for a full summer. Almost the entirety of each day was spent outside, in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, selling educational study-guides door-to-door. Baltimore summers are toasty, and sometime mid-summer I noticed that I had formed burn-scars on my knuckles from knocking on so many white-hot doors. But what I also noticed, from the very first day, was the inordinate toll that being outdoors, in a man-made environment, takes on a human body and on a human psyche.

Let’s start with the obvious: the elements. You are out there rain or shine, and sometimes you wish it was the rain because after being outside in 90+ degree weather in 100% humidity for a couple of hours, you start seeing things. You are lucky if you come across a McDonalds or a kind person who will offer you water. Mostly, though, you suffer. The wind messes up your hair, the drivers splatter you with puddle-grime, mosquitos sting you, as do bees, spiders, nettles and sometimes dogs. By three in the afternoon you are lobster-boil red, by five your blisters have popped. If it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. But whatever the weather, you are completely vulnerable, completely unsafe and mostly helpless against it.

Before all of your senses are dulled as a survival mechanism, the smells are as abrasive as the sensations of freezing and heat. You are bombarded with olfactory information that you do not need: gasoline and fumes, garbage odors, toxic whiffs of $5.99 perfume. The tantalizing aromas of fresh, sugary donuts and coffee wafting out of Starbucks wannabes are no better. You are hungry and have no place to sit down and eat your food. And when you have eaten, you have no place to relieve yourself.

The sights, too, are overwhelming. Hundreds of eyes bore into you: questioning, suspicious, misunderstanding, empathetic, apologetic, frustrated, disgusted. Before they know what you’re about, they have already passed a judgement. We all do this, don’t we? Standing precariously close to oncoming traffic, those in need must see a thousand averted glances, a thousand cars, busses, cyclists, trucks, vans – within a span of a few hours. They see everything, and, what’s worse, everyone sees them. There is no place to hide. No place to be alone, to be safe.

You’d think the visual overload would be the worst, but for me, walking up and down the streets of those subdivisions that are now permanently charred into my cerebral cortex, the worst was the noise. The cars screech, the gusts of wind howl menacingly, there is a general hummmmm to the city that insidiously bores into your sub-consciousness and slowly replaces everything else. By 7pm, there are no more songs running through your head, no thoughts, no worries; nothing at all. And this is just the first day.

For years afterwards I had nightmares that I was lost in those streets, alone and helpless and drowning in the intensity of it all. I cannot imagine what such a life does to someone who is forced to live it for months or years. Unable as I am to solve the problems of poverty, when I see folks out on the street, my heart goes out to them because I know that they must be hurting.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 239 other followers

%d bloggers like this: