Sometimes I see her in Chinatown and follow her for a few blocks. I don’t get closer, because I don’t want to find out that she’s someone else’s grandma. I follow her from afar, so the illusion can last longer. When she grew older, grandmother Borka started to look like an elderly Chinese woman, droopy eyes, mouth like a leaf, round knots around the joints of her fingers, small and dressed to be warm and not good-looking. She used to dress to be good-looking, and to pinch her curls while they were still wet, so they would stay tight like springs. She taught me how to do it: you take all your hair in your hands and you squeeze, as if kneading dough. She had necklaces, earrings, and brooches, and didn’t mind when we played with them, and with her high-heeled shoes.
My grandma Borka had a seamstress who sewed her dresses from the cloth my uncle Eftim brought from abroad. He looked like Elvis and worked as a steward on big ships. He brought us chocolates, coffee, tins of Mister Peanut nuts and Spanish dancer dolls. He was divorced and loved to stay with my grandparents, my siblings, and me. We were the only family he had on land.
The seamstress used patterns from the German fashion magazine Burda. She knelt in front of my grandmother, and through the pins in her mouth she told the story of her dead daughter Marinka. Marinka’s beautiful face was looking at us from the portrait on the wall with a votive candle in front of it, like an icon. “Otgledano dete,” the word isn’t exactly “grown,” because one grows on its own, without external help. “Otgledano” means that someone was physically looking after it, cared for and raised it, and now when their work is done the child goes to summer camp and dies there. She swims with everyone else but feels sick, and pleads “I feel sick, I feel sick, please do something . . . ” and before they do anything, Marinka dies.
The dress is ready, we are all in tears. The seamstress gives us Turkish delight covered with powdered sugar, and we must reply, “God forgive Marinka.” My grandmother doesn’t like when we eat Turkish delight. She knows of a child who died suffocating on it, because he talked and swallowed at the same time. We cannot refuse it, since it is for Marinka. We chew in silence as though slowly turning Marinka’s death in our mouths, very carefully.
Grandma gave me one of her dresses and I brought it to America. My mother had a pair of folding scissors from her. There were also beds and cupboards and blankets, but my brother gave them all away to the gypsies when he went to live in her apartment. He wanted a fresh start. The only thing he kept was the barrel of moonshine my Grandfather bought and stored in the basement.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. How would you feel if the sales person had told you at the time you were paying for your purchase (a kettle, a chair, a barrel of moonshine, or a dress) that it would outlive you? Have I already bought mine? Do I already own that thing that will be physically stronger than me and stay after I am gone?
This piece of fine Italian cloth, which grandma will wear at every school concert and at every graduation ceremony of her students, as well as to all of the socialist parades, will end up leaving Varna and arrive in New York. I will wear it to parties, and keep mending the small holes in it until I realize that if I continue to wash it, it will dissolve. Now it hangs in the closet, wrapped in “We are happy to serve you” plastic from the cleaners. Museum-display-like, it is the only physical reminder that Borka ever was.