This morning I learned that my paternal grandmother, Polina Grishpul (aka Baba Polya, aka Bubbe, aka Maman), passed away. I have complicated feelings about this loss, of course, because grief and family and life is messy.

My father’s side of my family lives in Toronto. I try to get out there every other year or so. I had the pleasure of attending my cousins’ bat mitzvahs over the past few years. The photo above is from Sarah’s bat mitzvah in 2017. Leeza’s was last year in 2019. Both times it was great to see the ‘East Coast Grishpuls’, as we call them. Seeing as the rest of my family is in California, it’s been tricky to stay close with the ECGs, especially since my father passed away in 2011. But we’re doing our best to keep in touch. It’s nice that Ember and Cambria are around the same age as Sarah and Leeza, and they got along well when they met last year.

Growing up, I would spend occasional summers with my grandparents at their ‘dacha’, or summer home, on Lake Huron. It was a beautiful place, and a nice escape. The RV park was a funny mix of Russian seniors, their grandchildren, sometimes their children, and local Canadians. There are two sets of memories of this place that stand out to me.

The first memories were from when I was probably ages 8-10. My brother Jonny and I were really into learning magic tricks, and would circle up all of my grandparents’ friends and put on shows for them. It was really silly, we had a good time. I hope Baba was proud of us for entertaining the community. Thanks Jon for the reminder of that time :) There was also a lot of Bingo and swimming. And kasha (buckwheat), so much kasha.

The second most vivid memories I have with her were when I was in middle school. I was such a bratty kid, always running off with the neighborhood teenagers and getting into trouble. Baba had no problem disciplining me. My 13-year-old stubbornness was no match for her stern, grandmother-ly, fear-inducing tone. But, while I was under house arrest, she would enlist my help to make tasty food and we would watch soap operas and play dominos and end up having a pretty good time together.

Her cooking was incredible. That will undoubtedly be my most lasting memory of her. How much care and time she put into complicated, ridiculously unhealthy, ridiculously delicious Russian food. Napoleon cake. Meringues. Blintzes. Pierogie. Pilmeni. Probably a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting at the moment. Extra sour cream and butter on everything. I remember how she would alway sit at the kitchen table to chop food. Sometimes I sit when I chop food and think of her.

The generational, cultural, and linguistic barriers between us made it difficult to connect with her as I got older. My Russian was already pretty weak as a kid, and over time I practiced it less and less. When I called her on birthdays and holidays, I stumbled through the same, limited phrases – ‘hi Bubbe’ / ‘how are you’ / ‘happy birthday’ / ‘happy [insert holiday name here]’ / ‘I’m well’ / ‘thank you’ / ‘love you’ / ‘bye’. A few times, with the help of my uncle Roma, we connected through video chat, which was nice – at least to be able to see each other and feel connected despite the geographic and verbal distance between us. She would always make some variation of the same two comments whenever she saw me: 1. you’re so beautiful but you should probably lose some weight, and 2. when are you going to get married? Not gonna lie, it was awkward.

When my cousins were born I felt some relief that I didn’t have to be a model Russian grandchild anymore. I’m glad she had grandkids closer to her. But of course I still regret not being able to have more of a relationship with her as we both got older.

There’s a lot that I still don’t know about my grandmother’s life. I know that she worked as a ‘computer’ (yes, it used to be a job title) back in the Soviet Union. I don’t know the details of it, but I believe at some point the company she was working for was taken over by the State, so she had to join the Communist Party to keep her job. I imagine this was particularly difficult as a Jewish person, working for a decidedly antisemitic institution. There’s so much about her life that is a mystery to me. The last time I was in Toronto, my uncle Roma was packing up photo albums, so I looked through a few of them. Unfortunately, Baba was already too deep into dementia to know who I was, who the photos were of, who she was… sigh. Why do we only gain interest in family stories when it’s too late?

Below are a few random photos I had saved in email/on my computer. I’ll add more stuff here as I get it from Roma.

Baby Baba, second from the left, with her mother, father, and older sister, Anna. Those eyes!
Russians love big banquet hall parties. I’ll always remember Baba’s fire-red hair <3
Another banquet hall affair, 2013 I think?
From the left, Baba’s older sister Anna, (we think) her sister-in-law Natasha (behind the flowers), my Pops, and Baba at the summer home

I’m sad that I can’t go to Canada to mourn with my family. I don’t blame Canada for not wanting Americans to cross the border because we are literally THE WORST, but UGH. I hate this country, I hate this pandemic, hate this situation. Awful timing.

2020, feel free to drop some good news, anytime.

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