Nothing changes in the apartment. The same gauzy curtains let light filter into each of the tall-ceilinged four rooms, but we get so little light most of these days of late winter in Ukraine. Elaborately patterned dish towels from the old textiles factory parade down the hallway on the clothesline like pennants. I weigh flour using the ancient manual scale that makes me tare by sliding a piece of metal to the right. In the living room where we sleep, we push suitcases together to prevent Miro from reaching the side table that permanently holds some variety of decorative cookies and nuts in cut-glass bowls, a bouquet of fake flowers, cognac, an old cordless phone, a framed photo of the previous Pekingese, and a hand-painted Soviet “lava lamp” (essentially glitter suspended in oil that circulates when heated up). The wallpaper is cream and embossed with flowers; all of the floors and some of the walls are covered in Oriental carpets. The clock in the corner ticks very loudly, and is the only evidence of time moving.
Anthony’s aunt Nadiya has lived in these rooms for most of her life. The family of five moved here from what is now Kazakhstan in 1963, but now only she and her father Fyoder are left. While Anthony’s mom went to live in Moscow after university, Nadiya studied music in nearby Lviv and then returned to the apartment in Rivne. Just past seventy, she works a few days a week as a piano teacher at the music conservatory, but her primary job is taking care of her father, who is almost one hundred and four. There are pills and herbs to be administered and favorite foods to be prepared. There is excrement to be dealt with. There is hair to be cut and nails to be clipped and skin to be washed and a face to be gently shaved. There is the helping to get out of bed and pee every couple hours every night, or the talking-out-of-peeing, or if neither of those things has happened, a rush of aid if Fyoder tries to get out of bed himself and falls. Sometimes she’s so tired that she doesn’t wake when he calls her, even when she’s right next to him. It’s a life of constant care that binds her to the apartment.
On our trip, Anthony has taken over some of the night watch while Miro and I share the small bed in the living room. Through the wall, I can hear their conversations in the latest, darkest hours. They speak in Russian, but Anthony says Fyoder talks to him about his death. “It’s overdue,” he says. He is frank and accepting. He’s glad that we made it here to show him the baby within “the last minutes of his life.” The faraway look on his face breaks with joy when Miro’s head pops up over the foot of his bed.
Miro is the perpetually-moving target of all of our attention. He takes immediate possession of the space in the way only a baby can. He bumbles down the hallway heedless of whoever is trying to nap, he rifles the kitchen cabinets and bites holes in the tangerines left out in a bowl. He opens drawers in the bedroom vanity and finds conch shells and a painted fan from Japan Airlines and a pocket watch that Anthony’s mom used to throw to the ground back when it was shiny and precious. In the living room, there’s a basket of walnuts from a tree that Fyoder planted. Miro takes one walnut in each hand and clip clip clip clop crawls around the apartment like a little horse. We have all been expecting this, because Anthony did the same thing as a baby. (It’s a good thing the downstairs neighbor is one of our closest friends.) Everyone laughs and claps for him and calls him a khoroshiy malen’kiy while he gleefully destroys objects and scatters walnuts to the furthest corners of the apartment.
Nadiya’s birthday falls during our visit so I make a quiche. While she spends the day answering the phone and receiving gifts of flowers and chocolate, I take over her kitchen. I put in everything I find — onions, garlic, thawed white mushrooms from the freezer, a huge bunch of parsley and dill, and big globs of smetana for a very Eastern European take on the French tart. My crust is a disaster and I have to press the pieces together in the pan, but still I have never had a pastry so well-received. After all the lessons on Duolingo, I can still barely speak Russian, but baking is its own language and for once I feel completely understood. Food is the centerpiece of celebrations here, or rather: a cake may be the reason to celebrate. Nadiya blows out the candles we stuck in the quiche and we toast to her health with sips of cognac, then open the box of chocolates my parents sent with us for dessert. She says that she used to celebrate her birthdays with a big party, but now she is happiest with something small.
Often after dinner, we all end up in the big bedroom, where the two twin beds pushed together take up the majority of the room. It’s warmer in here because of the space heater. Elk, the Pekingese, runs madly around the perimeter of the beds and Miro tries to throw himself off the edge when no one’s looking. Sometimes Miro falls asleep there on the bed and, once, while leaning against Fyoder. Anthony told his grandpa to pretend he was sleeping too, to take a picture, but by the time I came into the room both of them were asleep for real.
I was reading about a surgeon in Bakhmut, who works day and night now trying to repair all the people who have been hurt in the war. “Before the war, I wanted all these things,” he said. “Now I know that the only thing worth wanting is peace.” When the Russians invaded I felt afraid, naturally, for Nadiya and Fyoder, but I was also selfishly angry that something as ridiculous as Putin’s ego could threaten the most stable place I know. Thankfully very little has changed so far. All I want is to bring Miro back here year after year and let him be the thing that is changing.
Sometimes it feels like there is more space here than in other places. There is a capaciousness to the four rooms, like I could bring with me any tragedy or any joy and it would fit inside the walls. Fewer things happen here, but I seem to feel it all more. What’s left when you take away the busyness is only what was there all along: birth and death, flowers and neighbors, dogs and cake. On one of the more difficult nights, Nadiya cries about her father while Miro plays next to her. We all sit together and somehow it’s okay. I feel closer to death here, but death feels closer to life.
On the last, short night before our 5am train back to Poland, Fyoder asks to see his jacket decorated with medals from WWII. He selects a gold and red star to give to Miro. He says that when we have another baby, we can get another medal (this becomes a joke because his coat has so many medals). He tells us that Miro will be walking before long and then talking and somehow this feels like a blessing. I want to tell him that he’ll see the baby again soon but I can’t (I don’t speak Russian, but also I can’t). Instead I say I love him and hold his hand. I go to Miro in bed, where for the first night during our visit, we hear air raid sirens. I curl around him and wish for peace.
It’s not true that nothing changes here because life is change and this is a place full of life. Somehow during our brief visit, the interminable European winter dreariness begins to crack and trees that were all sharp elbows and knees yesterday are suddenly soft with ornament. From the small balcony where it feels like I can see the whole world, I show Miro his first breaking of spring.
What I’m Cooking
Nadiya’s Berry Sharlotka
As long ago as last summer, Nadiya froze sour cherries for us because Anthony likes them so much. She defrosted a big bag, most of which we ate icy straight from the bowl, but some of which were saved for this sharlotka, a fluffy angel food-type cake that’s leavened only with eggs. You can make it with any kind of berry, which is very exciting because berry season is coming up.
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Thank you for being so attuned to this old world life and bringing me back to when I used to be part of a family in Poland, not much different than what you describe in space, size, and activity.
"All I want is to bring Miro back here year after year and let him be the thing that is changing." This is such a beautiful passage.