This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Maggie Levantovskaya | Longreads | August 31, 2023 | 20 minutes (5,624 words)
It’s been a month since Russia fired its missiles on the city of my birth, unleashing full-scale war. I’ve come to San Francisco to arrange burials for my grandma and grandpa.
The funeral home is in the neighborhood I hated all my childhood in America. It made me feel like I would never get the sound of Russian out of my ears, like we had emigrated just to be among more Soviets. Across the street is the apartment building that my mom and I moved into the day we arrived. Next to it is the golden-domed cathedral we saw from our windows. On this side of the street, there is the bus stop where I wasted countless hours of youth, waiting to go to more exciting parts of town.
My grandparents are still alive and Grandma is with me. My grandpa has a hard time walking and prefers to stay glued to the war, though how he handles seeing childhood streets reduced to rubble perplexes me. He also likes it when my grandma makes decisions for them both. She is pragmatic to a fault, but I’m not confident that she can handle this.
“We’re vaccinated and boosted in this office, so you can take your mask off if you want,” the funeral director says.
He is a tall, broad-shouldered man who speaks a honeyed, easy Russian, almost a different language in his mouth. I’m pleased because he’ll understand my grandma, but also envious that he can speak so fluently, despite not being from the Soviet Union. Only in death will I stop measuring my Russian against others’ and find mine lacking.
I don’t remove my mask, throwing a glance at Grandma that says “Keep it on.” The last thing I want is to put her at risk while doing this. Her mask, handmade by someone else, hangs down below her nose. Because I tower over her, I glimpse her painted cherry lips. They’re part of a whole look, complete with flowy pants and coat, a cloche, and freshly painted purple nails. It tugs at me that she dressed up. I want to do her proud in front of strangers. How strange that we put on our best when meeting people who will see us naked, sick, or dead.
We’re shown into a room that has a dining table made of oak and topped by glass. We sit down and make small talk while the funeral director hands us papers. He even makes some jokes that get a chuckle from my grandma. I watch in admiration as he puts at ease the person who is here to face her own mortality.
“Did you come from Ukraine?” my grandma asks, bringing the small talk to a stop.
I freeze. She has no problem saying what is on her mind, but this is not a provocation. My grandma’s voice is low, more plaintive than questioning. The funeral director has a name that couldn’t be more common in Ukraine, but names get stuck to us in different ways and they don’t necessarily correspond to politics. My mother told me that this neighborhood has many Putinists and that one can’t be sure of the response when uttering the word “Ukraine” in Russian. Some people let out tears pooling below the surface, while others shrug and make vague statements about propaganda. The funeral director says he had a grandma who came over long ago.
My grandma shakes her head and says, “This war, if someone told me, I would not believe them.”
He nods, his face a solemn mask. I understand now why she asked him. She had the urge to know whose hands she’d put her body in.
After a tactful beat, he leaves us to look at the “menus” for the different services. I feel a little like I’m ordering for Grandma at a restaurant. The pressure’s on to translate and to help her choose while honoring her tastes and inhibitions.
I tried to talk to Grandma about all this for months. Initially, her plan was to give me stacks of dollar bills she’d put away little by little since our immigration. She said that I could figure out the rest when the time came. This seemed daunting and inadequate. I wanted to do more, to let my grandma make decisions. I also didn’t want to fill out forms when the time to fall apart had already arrived. My partner had suggested I make arrangements now. We could prepare, avoid some of the cruelty of logistics. This made sense and still I dragged my feet, not knowing how to plan for death. But when the war came, for a reason unbeknownst to me, I felt the need to hurry.
“What do you want?” I asked her months ago over the phone. My cursor clicked between sites that had words like “hills” and “view” right in their names.
Customization is a love language in this country, even when it comes to death. You see this on webpages with taglines like “My Funeral, My Cremation, My Way®.” But all my grandma could assert was what she didn’t want. She didn’t want to be cremated, per Jewish interdiction, I assumed. She didn’t want to be embalmed. She didn’t want to be displayed. This I was thankful for. I read a book once that talked at some length about embalming—the way the jaw is wired shut, orifices filled with cotton to prevent the body purging brownish fluids. This is some of the work it takes to make what the morticians call the “memory picture,” a final image of the loved one looking calm, at final rest. Since I knew what occurred behind the scenes, I didn’t want to picture it when looking for the last time at the people who helped raise me.
“Do you want it to be religious?”
She said a service was too much, though she did want a Russian-speaking rabbi to say Kaddish at their graves.
“What about us?”
“If you have words to say, go ahead,” she said.
I rolled my eyes but felt them well with tears she’d thankfully not see over the phone. My grandma, who had saved and scraped but always gave me extra cash, feared that a headstone would cost too much money.
“What about clothes?” she asks the funeral director, who comes back with two folders stamped with gold foil font.
At last, something my grandma cares about, despite not being what you’d call a clothes horse.
“Sure, sure,” he says. “But we can also cover you in shrouds, per Jewish custom.”
An image of my grandma’s lifeless, swaddled body flashes through my mind. I’ve never pictured her this way before, not even when she had her bypass surgery. I look at her to swap that image for the one of her alive, but now the images have fused, a terrible double exposure.
“No,” Grandma says, “we’ll pick our clothes.”
My thoughts spin out. When will they do this? Who will dress their heavy, lifeless bodies? And what if they die without the chance to pick out what to wear? I realize then that I had started to imagine I would lose my grandma and my grandpa at the same time. But the improbability of this is even sadder. One of them won’t escape losing the other. For years, I’ve wondered who’ll go first, knowing the whole time who would take it better.
I knew that making these arrangements would be hard. I took them on to spare my mom some of the preparatory grief, a phrase newly added to my lexicon. She can’t do anything related to her parents’ deaths. Her job is keeping them alive. She shops for them and washes dirty linens. She bathes my grandma. She carries Grandpa’s walker even when her own leg drags behind due to old age and inflamed joints. She chides them when they don’t obey her orders and do risky, unsafe things.
“I have two little children,” my mom says, and she won’t plan her children’s deaths.
Whoever says Americans don’t talk about death has yet to meet my Soviet family. We’re all too superstitious, afraid to let death dance around our tongues as though saying it will make it happen sooner. We knock on wood. We spit over our shoulders. Sometimes we even wear those little evil eyes around our necks. When death can’t be denied, we’re terrified it will consume us. My family waited months to tell me my great-grandma had died because they didn’t want grief to distract me from my studies. But I am middle-aged now and it is my turn to absorb the pain while tying up loose ends.
After I drop off Grandma, I drive back to Oakland. I crawl through several San Francisco neighborhoods, each one with its own blue and yellow flag. It’s a fresh shock to see Ukrainian flags. I’ve never seen Americans root this hard for another country. The fact that it’s the country I am from—the country whose name I’ve said many times, only to have Americans ask “Where’s that?”—makes this show of support surreal. As I get on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, its clanging, booming sounds drown out my stereo. I think about my grandma and I wonder if today was harder for her than she made it seem. I think about not knowing how I’d feel making arrangements for my and my partner’s deaths. I wonder if I will regret that I won’t have a child or grandchild to help me plan my end of life.
“What would’ve happened to us?” My mom calls and asks.
Before the war, I told her that she called too much. Now we talk every day. Though she can’t talk about her parents’ deaths, she needs to talk about the war and I do too, even if talking just means asking questions we can’t answer.
“I don’t know,” I say, pulling weeds in my front yard.
She didn’t want to leave Ukraine—her job, her friends, her lover. I don’t remind her of this in our conversations. That would be mean and pointless. I didn’t understand her at the time, but then I wasn’t even 10. To me, America was home to Disneyland and people who could stomach Jews. But I have come to understand why, at the age of 30, she didn’t want another language and another country. Her life is split in half now, half of it there, half of it here.
I’ve often said “we fled Ukraine,” but this sounds false when there is war. The images of people fleeing with their bags, their kids, and their pets are different from the scenes I see when thinking of our emigration. As difficult as leaving was, we didn’t have to outrun tanks and missiles. We didn’t have to risk returning to apartment buildings hollowed out by bombs. We got to choose the things we packed. We got to say goodbye over the course of weeks and months.
A few days after I made our first appointment at the funeral home, a photo of a group of people who did not outrun a mortar appeared on my Twitter feed, a place where corpses can go as viral as memes. It showed four people, bent and lying in a gutter, with soldiers squatting nearby. The dead wore puffy jackets, with backpacks on their shoulders that suggested they were mid-escape. The photo made the front page of The New York Times but by the time I saw it, someone had identified the people it had captured—a woman named Tetiana, her two kids, and a man who tried to help them to evacuate. Their bodies tell the story of a sudden end, of death unplanned and unarranged for viewing.
The photo made my throat close up. I was ashamed of being privy to somebody else’s tragedy without permission. The likes and comments on the photo made its existence seem a violation. Why did these murdered people have to be subjected to the gaze of the masses? What kind of memory picture will their loved ones get as a result? Later I read that the woman’s husband said the photo was important as evidence of war crimes. He, too, had first seen the photo online because he was away, helping his mother. He couldn’t bury his slain wife for days, her body “lying in a black bag on the floor” because the morgue was overfull with other bodies. Even in death, some have to queue for their resting place.
The funeral director sent me home with paperwork. I call my grandma after reading the first question.
“Where were you born?” I ask and chuckle.
I know she wasn’t born in Kyiv like the rest of us. I’m ready for her to say Khmelnik or some other former shtetl in Ukraine, but she does not. She makes a sound that I don’t recognize. I barely hear her over her TV in the background. I can’t make out the words but I assume it’s news about the war. As if on cue, she yells at Grandpa to turn down the volume.
“Chir-chik,” she says again, this time breaking the word into its syllables.
“Where’s that?” I ask, and type it into Google.
“Uzbekistan,” she says, “in the evacuation.”
I see the city on a map and realize that for nearly 40 years I didn’t know my grandma’s birthplace.
“And Grandpa, was he also in Uzbekistan?” I ask.
“Hey Roma, you were in Sverdlovsk during evacuation, yes?” my grandma shouts because my grandpa barely hears these days.
I learn that when the Nazis came into Ukraine, my grandpa’s mom fled East with him and his two-month old sister. My great-grandpa put them on the train and went to war. My grandma’s father was permitted to accompany her mom and their three kids to Central Asia. His vision was so bad the army wouldn’t take him. In Chirchik, he repeatedly tried to enlist; he didn’t want to known as the “zhid who hid under his wife’s skirt.” They finally took him after my great-grandma became pregnant with another child, who would one day become my grandma. He fought at Kursk, a battle that the Soviets won but called a meat grinder; the notice that he had died came not long after his departure for the front. My grandma never met her father.
The paperwork in front of me is nearly blank, but I have my own questions. I want Grandma and Grandpa to back up and tell me more about the process of evacuation. When did they get to leave? What could they take? How long did it take to put thousands of kilometers between them and the people who sought to destroy them?
My grandpa says he was too young to keep good track of time but he remembers seeing sky above their heads from open cattle cars. And he remembers when the sky was streaked with airplanes ready to spit bombs and it was time to run like hell into the trees. I’m shocked, at both his words and my naiveté. Somehow, I didn’t think beyond the notion that evacuation meant survival, safety, life. Perhaps because most of our relatives had been shot or burned, or buried alive because they couldn’t make the trains in time, or got sent off to become the meat in the meat grinders. I want to know more from my grandma too. She gives me scraps she heard after the fact and sends me to go see her oldest sister.
“Ask her about the soup,” she says.
Intrigued, I make a mental note, but doubt that I will make the effort to rekindle the connection.
Like other families, ours has attachments so fierce that, in caring for each other, we fight and nurse long grudges. Some years ago, my mom, my grandma, and her dearest sister came into conflict. I didn’t want to get involved, so I withdrew. Somehow this ended in my breaking contact with the person I had worshiped since our immigration. She was our sponsor, teacher, guide to the new country. I grew up within walking distance from her home, not thinking it would one day be a house I’d drive by without stopping.
Now I sit at her kitchen table with my questions. It’s the same table where I’ve sat a thousand times, absorbing grownups’ gossip.
Before she tells me anything about “the soup,” she feeds me soup, a brothy fish-based thing that proves surprisingly delicious. As I eat, I note the ways she has aged, her body now a folded concertina. And yet she opens drawers and flips on burners with the same intensity that always marked her words. Her burgundy-mopped head waves like a flag around the kitchen as she fusses with the second course, assuring me it’s all health-conscious.
When she sits down, she tells me that they left their home in Khmelnik with such breakneck speed that my great-grandma could only grab some money and her keys.
“She may have had some cloth to wrap the baby,” my great-aunt says, referring to the middle sister.
Together with close relatives, they made a group of nine. They suffered through a journey that my great-aunt thinks took months because the trains took detours to avoid Nazi territory. They also paused at stations to camp and allow trains carrying wounded and supplies to pass through.
At one such stop, the family made a fire and gathered round a metal bucket to make soup. The kids were famished, catching whiffs of steaming liquid that would probably seem tasty only to malnourished people. I brace for horror as she sets this scene, and it comes fast: When the airplanes arrived and bombs hailed down, everyone ran in all directions, some grabbing kids, some hiding under wagons, some falling to the ground, not knowing what to do. At three years old, my great-aunt didn’t register the war as urgently as she did hunger.
“I’m always starving, even to this day,” she says. Thinking the bombs were “just a game,” she seized the opportunity to fill the void inside her belly: “I wanted the soup, so I ran to it.”
The crush and chaos caused the bucket to tip over, spilling the boiling liquid on her body. She screamed from burns but no one could hear her through the blasts that shattered cattle cars and murdered people in an instant. Her mother, with a baby in her arms, somehow found her. My great-aunt’s screams were so unbearable that others started pulling off her clothes, and with them skin. She cried from pain for days. Back on the train, she wailed so loudly that some passengers told my great-grandparents that they would throw her from the train if she wouldn’t stop.
“That little girl,” she says, and for a second I don’t realize that she means herself. “My whole life I have seen her from above, running as bombs fell all around her.”
“I didn’t understand it at the time,” she resumes. “The bombs were toys to me, but I would see them in my sleep and scream and piss the bed. I see them still. It’s as if my brain took a picture.”
A few wrong steps and they all could’ve died during the shelling. The thought that my great-grandma’s death would mean I wouldn’t be alive occurs to me but doesn’t make me shudder. Not being born, to me, is not itself a tragedy. It’s tragic to be alive and have one’s future cut short by an act of cruelty; to be a child so hungry and in so much danger as to risk her life for drops of soup; to have to try and save a loved one from a rain of bombs; to wake up pissing and screaming in the middle of the night, yet be considered lucky for surviving. What’s tragic is to die in terror, to the soundtrack of explosions.
I think about the photo of Tetiana, her kids, the stranger who had tried to shepherd them to safety. They almost made it, but did not. I think about the people who walked by their mortar-stricken bodies, but hurried on because it was too dangerous to stop. I wonder how my great-grandparents felt when the dust settled and they saw the corpses. Did anybody say some words over those bodies? Was there the time to bury them?
My great-aunt’s eyes shine with the tears she keeps at bay. I didn’t think doing the paperwork for grandma would bring this much buried pain, but that was my mistake. Maybe there is no way to fill out forms for someone from Ukraine without revisiting the dead.
When I began to visit websites that advise on “advance planning,” I became struck by their pragmatism and cheeriness. So many offered visitors an “end of life checklist,” a string of words I’d never thought to put together. They warned that too few think about their death, and promised that those who do feel good about this thinking. Setting affairs in order, drawing up one’s will, declaring medical directives—these give agency to those who’ll die, and peace of mind to loved ones. Those who will die must make things easier for their survivors. Make your death neater, the sites say, so that no one’s undone by the mess that ensues. This sounded right to me, but it was also so American, so middle class. To sort out one’s estate requires having one. My grandparents do not. They don’t own homes or even cars. There’s nothing of financial value to split up, just objects to clear out or save for sentimental reasons.
When I think about my inheritance from them, I think about the bungalow that they, along with my mom and my partners’ parents, helped us buy. I think about the tools my grandpa started giving us as soon as we moved in, two years before I would think about his burial. His hands were already too weak to grip the gadgets and appliances. My uncle didn’t want the stuff, so I was grateful that my partner said he’d take them. Even though I helped Grandpa with his projects when I was a child, I cared only about spending time with him, not about learning how to build things with my hands. While we prepared for emigration, my grandpa’s “instrument” caused several fights. We couldn’t take a lot of weight, and grandpa’s tools were heavy and, in our eyes, inessential. But he insisted and we all knew why. To him, they were identity and purpose. He was a worker his whole adult life, an electrician and a jack of all trades.
It crushed me that, in his last years of life, my grandpa wanted to give up what I saw as extensions of his body. I thought it was a sign he’d lost the will to live. But he did not shed all his tools at once. For the first phase, we stood with him inside his closet and helped him pull plastic bins, repurposed jars, and cardboard boxes from the shelves. I reached up where his hunchback posture wouldn’t allow. The boxes contained drills and clamps and squares and screws and pencils stamped “USSR,” their prices marked to hinder profiteering. He rummaged in them with his meaty hands, those stamped too, with dark and map-like spots.
“Does he need this? Or this? Or this?” my grandpa asked, referring to my partner but unable to ask him in English.
The process was chaotic, awkward. My partner smiled and took it all, though most were objects he already had or never would make use of.
As I helped clear closet shelves, I faked a smile.
“Can you believe he has all this?” I asked my partner with feigned delight. Inside, I squirmed in disbelief that this was happening.
Now that I’m thinking more about his and my grandma’s deaths, I see the scene a little differently. I don’t think he was giving up on life, but instead recognizing that its end would not include the objects that had once defined him.
There was one thing my grandma did that showed she needed some control, some advance planning: She bought her and Grandpa’s cemetery plots not long after arriving in America. She and her oldest sister did this when their mother, my great-grandma, was alive. They wanted to be buried side-by-side in their adoptive country. Plus, there was the money issue. My grandma would need to pay off the plots over the course of many years.
But before we could arrange for the burial, we needed to locate the cemetery; my grandma didn’t know the name. She’d visited her mother’s grave, but had been driven there. She had misplaced the paperwork and had no proof of purchase, which caused me frustration that I couldn’t share. I called the cemeteries I could find online, a grandchild pleading, “Do you have my grandma and my grandpa?”
I stumbled on the place eventually, but almost hung up when they told me they had no one by the name Svetlana. Apparently, she’d given them her Jewish first name, and not the Slavic name she took to hide her Jewishness. She also spelled her birth name “Sarra,” likely not knowing standard English spellings for the name. We never called her Sara, preferring “Sanya,” a nickname my grandma gave herself during her student days, but in all documents, my grandma was known as Svetlana. It made me pause to realize that she used her Jewish name. Did she do this because she thought she had to for a Jewish cemetery, or was it meaningful to her to reclaim her birth name?
“When did you change your name?” I call my grandma yet again, afraid I’d started to annoy her with all my questions.
She tells me it was a few years before we left Ukraine. I am surprised. I had assumed it would’ve been in childhood or in youth, from knowing many Soviet Jews who changed their names.
“They tortured me my whole life for that name—at school, at work, wherever you can think of.”
By “they,” she means Ukrainians. I have heard comments like this from so many Jews I’ve known, both there and here. “Ukraine was like my evil stepmom,” someone in my family once said, and I knew what they meant. To grow up Jewish in Ukraine was to be hated. Even when I was little in the ‘90s, I knew my Jewishness was something that I had to keep a secret from my friends who weren’t Jews. “My family told me that you’re Jewish,” a playground friend had told me once. She didn’t seem to know exactly what that meant, but her face said she knew that she had something over me.
“Abraham and Sarah! Abraham and Sarah!” my grandma says in mocking singsong, not rolling her r’s but keeping them inside her throat.
I flinch. The sound is terrible because its purpose is humiliation and I imagine children taunting her this way. The joke was that Jews couldn’t roll the Slavic r, instead making it guttural. It was a tell-tale sign that one was dealing with a zhid. It is ironic that my grandma chose to spell her name with not one but two r’s in English, drawing attention to the sound that people of her ilk allegedly transformed from pretty trill to grating groan.
I want to ask how, given all of this, my grandma’s and my grandpa’s hearts bleed for Ukraine. I’ve seen them suffer to the point where I have been afraid the stress would end their life. But I can’t get my mouth around the question. To do so seems obscene when I think of Tetiana and her children, when I know that her husband had to see her body in a bag.
The war has made me wrestle with my own connection to Ukraine. Because we left when I was 9, and I never called myself Ukrainian, it is disturbing to feel differently about this war than other wars I’ve witnessed from afar. I hate being reminded that we have more sympathy for people who we think resemble us or live in places we have been to. But where exactly does resemblance lie for me, an emigrant who never went back to her birthplace? In childhood, I was told that I was neither Russian or Ukrainian. We, Jews, were a third thing—mysterious and parasitic. Now people come to me and offer sympathy because they think the place you’re born is also where you feel that you belong and I don’t have the time to school them about Soviet Jewish problems. I want to tell them that it’s complicated. The war feels personal but words like “nation” and “identity” fail at an explanation. There is no easy answer to the question why, but I still grasp at reasons. Because I walked those streets, because I grew up with a homesick mom, because when my grandparents say Ukraine, I hear their longing and their pain, and I will lose them soon….
The war is now a month and twelve days old. We’re back in San Francisco to return the paperwork and make final selections. The funeral director takes us to the modest showroom with the caskets, urns, and tchotchkes whose connection to the end of life eludes me.
“Jewish coffins must be made of wood,” he says. How deftly he can use his tone to make this comment and still sound sensitive instead of condescending.
The truth is that he knows much more than us about what makes a Jewish burial. Despite my years in Hebrew day school, I never learned this detail about wooden coffins, maybe because I was too young. Does Grandma know? Her knowledge about Jewish laws and rites is patchwork, Soviet-style. I’m glad this funeral director has to know such things to serve the immigrants in this community.
She goes to use the bathroom so I’m temporarily stuck, surrounded by the coffins, or the corners of the coffins that are there as swatches. I don’t know how to move my body in this space. Am I supposed to walk among displays as if in a department store? Am I supposed to squint at specs and make it seem like I’m considering the options? Should I be taking mental notes on what I’ll want one day? I know I want cremation. Like most, I’ve vaguely thought about this question many times in life. At times, I’ve thought about it more concretely. When I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, I feared an early death. Now I’m not worried about death. I’m worried about losing those I love. I’m worried that I’ll live so long I’ll die alone.
My grandma reemerges and picks out a pair of simple wooden caskets from the budget section. It is exactly what I’d guess she’d choose. I’m thankful that she did it quickly and I’m eager to get out, to take her home. I’ve been exposing her to something hazardous. She’s been a sport but there’s no need to keep reminding her about her death.
But when we get in the car, my mother calls and says that we should all go out to lunch because the sun is out and it’s a sin to waste a windless day in such a windy city.
We’re sitting on a San Francisco terrace eating avocado toast. My grandma doesn’t know this is considered a bougie snack, she just likes avocados. We don’t say anything about the funeral arrangements. Instead, we talk about the war. We’ve read about the massacre in Bucha, a suburb that is less than 20 miles from where we all once lived. My mom talks loudly, per her habit. My grandma curses the perpetrators for rape and the corpses in the streets. I take some joy in seeing them get angry together, as opposed to at each other, but I feel the other diners’ eyes dart in our direction. Maybe they wonder if we’re Russian and, for a second, I imagine asking them to let us be; this is our language too. And yet it’s true that since the war began, the language has grown bitter in my mouth.
A few days later I will watch a video of bodies dug out of a mass grave in Bucha after locals buried them in haste. The video will show a pit with boots and hands that stick out of the dirt, as if intending to crawl out. Now, at least some of those killed will be named and buried in a cemetery “humanely.” The video will show a cemetery worker saying that he recognized his friend when opening a body bag. This friend he will describe as: electrician, jack of all trades, a good person.
But now, I’m outside in the warmth. I’m thinking of the fact that I have done what Grandma asked of me. A part of me feels lighter and relieved. Another part of me feels that nothing is as it should be in this fractured world. This is my memory picture. It contains sun, a terrace, and three women set apart by 20 years of life, respectively. It also contains all the planned and unplanned grief. It contains war, invisible, but on our lips.
Maggie Levantovskaya was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and grew up in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, the LA Times, Current Affairs, and Lithub. Her day job is teaching other people to write at Santa Clara University. You can find her on twitter @MLevantovskaya and maggielevantovskaya.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Peter Rubin