WHEN MY GRANDPA WORKED IN KAZAKHSTAN
My Grandma always makes Popradská coffee. Popradská is an adjective from Poprad, which is the name of my hometown under the mountains in northeast Slovakia.
Popradská coffee has a distinctive smell and is dark like graveyard dirt. In her kitchen, my Grandma serves it hot, thick, and so strong your heartbeat threatens to tear your chest.
She pours boiling water into five chunky cups, just to the edge of the cup, despite my protests that I need some space for milk. But that’s not the way you drink Grandma’s coffee. You don’t pour milk into your cup; you take a full spoon of powder creamer, which my grandma buys in Zakopane, Poland, and a full spoon of crystal sugar. I don’t like creamer, and I take only sugar. My Mom drinks her coffee black and bitter. My Grandparents and my two Uncles take plenty of sugar and then a hilly spoon of creamer on top of that.
The five of us are sitting around the kitchen table. Grandma doesn’t like it. In her mind, a proper visit by the relatives takes place in the living room. Ideally, we would sit on their large, fiercely blue couch, delicately sipping coffee and biting into her homemade cakes. Instead we’re hanging out in the kitchen, eating the cakes right from the baking tray, and talking at the same time.
My Mom is finishing a crossword in yesterday’s paper that Uncle Edo started but couldn’t finish. She looks funny wearing Grandpa’s reading glasses on top of her nose. Uncle Edo is doodling a caricature of Grandpa onto a piece of paper in Grandma’s memory pad. Grandma likes to call her memory pad the stupid’s pad. With a dose of self-irony she likes to say: when you’re stupid, you need to write things down. But Grandma isn’t stupid, she just likes to keep track of everyone’s deadlines: Uncle Vlado needs to pay his car insurance; Grandpa has a doctor’s appointment; my Cousin Borka has a job interview....
The way Uncle Edo draws is actually brilliant, but it’s a skill that neither him nor my Grandparents ever considered worth any attention. Uncles Edo and Vlado spent their teenage years dragging around guitars, playing in various bands, hoping for rock’n’roll stardom. Vlado still plays in a band, sometimes at weddings, while Edo quit music completely. They both make their living installing air ventilation systems.
My Grandparents live on the third floor of a communist housing estate building developed in the 70’s. These buildings all look the same; they are ostentatiously ugly to underline that they were designed to serve the purpose, not to look pretty. Pretty is useless and distracting.... Too bad that the purpose was never met and all that remained was ugly. After the revolution, people raised money and painted all over the uniform communist gray and green with pastel colors, triumphantly showing the evil regime a middle finger, and making the buildings, if not exactly pretty, at least less ugly.
From the kitchen you can see the hospital across the street. I remember feeling a strange sorrow observing the hospital lights when I was little. I used to think of all the sick people in there. My brain would fight back the unpleasant thought of disease. I thought about everyone forced to lie in a hospital bed, possibly undergoing some kind of pain....
Just like when Grandpa was sick couple of years ago. Ironically, he wasn’t staying in the hospital across the street, but in a hospital in Kežmarok. I can’t remember why in Kežmarok; or what my Grandpa’s diagnosis was, but I can vividly remember how Grandma bribed the doctor and all the nurses, making sure that Grandpa got the best possible care. I also remember how Grandpa looked wearing striped pajamas in a gray hospital bed. He was skinny, weak, a little sad, and very grumpy.
These days Grandpa is healthy, grumpy—naturally—and a little forgetful. He smells like a garage; like mechanical oil, tools, screws and heavy-duty soap. He is sitting at the kitchen table right next to me and he just took off his reading glasses. He takes a deep breath to make use of this rare moment when nobody is talking, to say his favorite line: “When I worked in Kazakhstan...”.
Usually my Grandma is quick enough to hush him right away. Sometimes he manages to continue and add something incoherent about taking a helicopter to the desert, or about how militia was strong those days.
This time my Grandma is really quick. “Nobody cares about that, Grandpa.”
“Yeah, everybody has heard those stories like a million times,” says Uncle Edo.
“When I worked in Kazakhstan!” Uncle Vlado imitates my Grandpa.
Everyone starts to laugh and Grandpa is still saying something, more to himself than to anyone else. I try to listen, but I can’t hear him because of the general chaos; my Uncles and Mom are cracking jokes, mocking Grandpa, and Grandma is annoyed by the mention of Kazakhstan.
It’s been some time since I realized that I’ve never actually heard any of the stories that everybody has supposedly heard a million times. As a child I accepted that we are not interested in how Grandpa worked in Kazakhstan. I didn’t think about it, simply because Grandma was the brain of the family and—naturally—always right. But in my early 20s, I finally started to travel independent of my family, whose wildest adventure was to travel to the beach in Croatia, and I became curious. Once you find the wisdom and refuge in a distant village, you know it’s forever; and I knew that Grandpa knows that too!
“Grandpa, how was it when you worked in Kazakhstan? When was it exactly?” I’m thoughtlessly collecting breadcrumbs with my thumb off the yellow tablecloth on the kitchen table.
“Oh no, not again!” Uncle Edo says with an ironically theatrical voice.
“He’ll be so happy that he finally found an audience,” Grandma says dryly.
My Mom puts Grandpa’s glasses back on her nose and starts to fill the gaps with letters again.
“I’ve never heard any Kazakhstan stories....”
“Well, your Mom was just born that year,” Grandpa says as he tries to locate his two-year adventure on the family time line.
“What are you talking about? Katuška, don’t listen to him. He doesn’t remember properly!” Grandma hushes Grandpa right away. “Your Uncle Vlado was born that year. Your Mom was a teenager already.”
I remember my Mom saying once how happy she was when Grandpa was away for two years. She said it was because he was nervous and argumentative, and he wouldn’t allow her to wear make up or jeans. “He’s being nice now, but that’s only because you don’t have to live with him,” she said.
Grandpa mutters to himself that Grandma doesn’t know anything either.
“I’ll show her some photos! This is going to be the best!” Grandpa gets an idea. I couldn’t remember ever hearing about photos from Kazakhstan. As a child I would browse through our family photo archive from time to time. I remember a number of black and white photographs documenting Significant Family Moments and frozen smiles of the family members: couples getting married, babies being born, birthdays being celebrated. I recall a wedding photograph of one of my great-great-aunts, whom I don’t recall ever meeting in person, although Grandma insisted that I knew her because I met her one time when I was four. Grandma also revealed that my great-great-aunt married and subsequently divorced a short guy, and that’s why she had to sit down on a chair at the photo.
“Katuška, don’t ever marry a short man. They are contentious and never satisfied with themselves.” She sighed, thinking of my five-foot tall Grandpa.
Grandpa opens a deep, varnished drawer under the television in the living room. Hundreds of my relatives’ eyes look at me from a messy pile of photographs. The images range from black and white photos printed on a thick matte paper taken shortly after the War, to color photos printed in a drug store on a cheap shiny thin paper in the early 2000s. A wedding photograph of my teenage Grandparents catches my attention. They used to be an exceptionally good-looking couple that met on their daily bus commute to their jobs in Svit. Grandma was 17, and had just started as a waitress. She would take a bus from Franková, a picturesque village between the hills, so ridiculously beautiful it makes you want to cry. Grandpa was 18 and worked as a cook. He used to take a bus from Slovenská Ves, which was five stops after Franková. They got married because Uncle Edo was on his way.
In another photo my Grandma is holding a baby. I can’t tell if it’s my Mom, Edo or Vlado, and Grandpa can’t tell either. I pick up a photo of my Great-Grandpa, dressed in his best suit, eating a soup at someone’s wedding. Great-Grandpa died a couple of years ago. He had a strong charisma, watery blue eyes, and smoked a lot of cheap tobacco. He loved children, but never trusted adults after a neighbor reported him to the secret police in the 50’s. As an owner of a small business, he was automatically suspicious to the regime and held in a prison for interrogations for two years. Grandma says he was never the same person after he came back. They kicked out his teeth and he was never as healthy as before.
I had waited for a heroic dissident story about my family for ages. I wanted to hear that they fought for freedom, that they had opposed the regime and had not just accepted it passively. I have never gotten one, until Grandma recently told me about Great-Grandpa. She told me the story in a quiet voice, as if she was a little ashamed that her father was in jail, not as story of a heroic political resistance.
My Great-Grandma, who took care of eight children by herself while Great-Grandpa was in jail, was still alive: thin, weak and sleeping quietly next door, in what used to be Uncle Vlado’s bedroom. Grandma has been taking care of her for four years now. Great-Grandma has gotten worse lately. She stopped recognizing people, stopped paying attention to the children playing by her bed; she even stopped requesting a radio mass twice a day. When I arrived from Brooklyn, Grandma said that Great-Grandma probably wouldn’t recognize me. She was lying in white bed sheets with tiny pink flowers looking fragile like a child. I sat on the side of her bed and kissed her cheek. Her skin was soft, almost transparent. Her voice was little shaky but she said, “Katuška, my girl.” I smiled, not knowing that she was going to die in two days.
Grandpa and I are both distracted by our own thoughts while we look through the photographs. Then he finally finds what he’s been looking for: an old, almost yellow envelope containing photos taken in the 70’s documenting his Kazakhstan trip. The envelope is not a secret; you can easily find it in the drawer. However, nobody has touched it in years. Grandma put it under the spell of disinterest; nobody was to admire Grandpa for his irresponsible adventures when she was left alone taking care of two teenagers and a baby....
I take the photos out of the envelope. Grandpa took them with a Fed 3, a Russian rangefinder camera that he had purchased in Moscow between his flights from Prague-Moscow and Moscow-Almaty. I once begged him to give me the camera, which he did, proudly explaining that he used to be a great photographer. Grandma commented that he was talking nonsense because everyone in his photos looked like a vampire. Grandpa made an annoyed ‘pf’ and told me to take also his darkroom equipment. I declined because it was too much to take on an airplane.
I am looking at the photographs. They are significantly different than the rest of the photo-archive. These are the first photos that were taken simply because something was pretty or because someone had a good time, not stimulated by any social obligation: Grandpa with his buddy relaxing on a bench in front of a merry-go-round... Grandpa at the seashore... Grandpa and his buddies raising a Czechoslovak flag on the roof of their desert cabin... waves of endless ocean....
I realize that my family wasn’t used to enjoying life. My ancestors were simple people and the life in Communistic Czechoslovakia wasn’t easy. Their decisions were always pragmatic; the way they spent their lives was pragmatic.
Why would you go to cafes and pay money for coffee and cake when Grandma makes just as good coffee and her cake is even better? Why would you study in a city different than your sister when you can share a dorm room and a microwave? Why would you accept an offer to work in a Kazakh desert when you can stay in the town you’ve known your whole life?
Grandpa is happy when he puts on his reading glasses and describes the photos.
“This is Jirí.” Grandpa makes sure he pronounces the Czech letter R distinctively. “From Plzen.” He points to a bearded guy posing with a camel.
“And these are our cabins.” He’s showing another photo proudly. “This used to be the office, and here we kept the equipment.”
“And here we’re taking a helicopter to Karajambas. To the desert. Once a week, we had to take it.” Grandpa is busy explaining, sharing bits and pieces of information.
“Oh, and look here. This is Jirí and me, we’re washing up. It was midnight. The nights in the desert were as bright as days. Would you believe how bright it was, Katuška?”
fiction poetry "fact" photography