My Armenian grandmother, Yekaterina Gregorian, passed away in March 2012, at the age of one hundred. Several years ago, when, blind and almost deaf (but her mind as sharp as a needle), she was moved from my mother’s to a nursing home, I raided her cupboards and drawers, grabbing anything I thought should be kept safe, intending to go through it at a later date. Although that was, technically, my mother’s job, I was worried that – with all the pressure of her own frequent house moves – she might overlook something. Or else that she would discard something as merely sentimental and, therefore, not worth holding onto. I come from a family who has not owned a property since the Soviets confiscated the little my great-grandparents had, nearly a hundred years ago, and who has moved from country to country for now three generations. We have moved through marriage, political unrest, lack of opportunity, or simply because we heard it said that such-or-such a country was better than the one we were currently in. I, for one, have moved house forty-four times, so far. I imagine if you do not have the security of a place to live from where no one can boot you out, there is nothing stopping you from chasing after dreams over mountains and over seas. After all, if you have no solid roots to anchor you to a piece of soil, then you ride on any alluring gust of wind.
Among my grandmother’s personal possessions, there was not much. Certainly nothing of any financial value. The upside of having nothing, is that there are never any family fights over bequests. There is nothing to fight over when there is nothing material to inherit. I know that is where both my grandmother’s and mother’s quasi obsessive thirst for knowledge and education comes from – one that was drilled into me from at early age. Learn, learn, learn – languages and skills. You have nothing except what is inside your head. At any moment, you could lose your home, your spouse, your friends. But your knowledge is yours. No change in government or affections can take that away from you. Gold is too heavy to carry, banknotes lose value, but acquiring a new language is always a good investment – because every new language gives you a new perspective.
When The Red Room posted the theme of finding something in your attic that reveals a fascinating piece of family history, as a blog challenge, I decided the time had come to spill the contents of the plastic envelope containing what I had salvaged from my grandmother’s things, on the kitchen table. There is a small cloth-bound notebook with recipes transcribed, out-of-date documents (one with a picture of my grandmother at the age of seventeen), letters her mother sent her from the Soviet Union after my grandmother married an Iranian diplomat and moved to Teheran. A couple of the letters are cut up, with paragraphs missing beneath jagged edges. Soviet censorship. There is also a land deed, dated 1902, complete with the Russian Imperial seal. Several pages of thick yellowed paper, sewn together with a cotton thread. I have difficulty deciphering the old legal Russian language but understand it testifies as to the acquisition through inheritance of a plot of land containing a small house and a vegetable garden. It belongs to a man whose name I do not recognise. There is also a map, traced in different coloured inks, outlining this plot of land. Where this land is situated, though, I cannot work out. The names written in the legal document no longer exist, probably changed by various incoming political regimes. What is someone else’s land deed doing among such personal family keepsakes? I studied the map, wondering. Then a word, and image, a recollection at a time, a memory began to take shape. I remembered odds and ends from something my grandmother used to tell me, long ago.
Your grandfather helped this man.
He always helped people.
This Russian man fled from the Soviet Union. They had taken everything from him.
He wanted to go to America.
Your grandfather helped him get the papers.
The man was so grateful to your grandfather. He left him the land deed – what good would it be to him in America? He gave it to your grandfather for safe-keeping in case, one day, the Soviet Union collapsed, and borders would be opened once again.
My grandfather gave the documents to my grandmother, and told her to keep them safe. “You never know,” he said, “life can be strange. Perhaps, someday, our children or grandchildren will meet an American, by chance. He’ll tell them his father or grandfather once owned a piece of land in Russia. Our child or grandchild can then give him good news, say he still owns this land, and hand him the deed back.”
And so it seems I have in my possession that land deed, for a plot which belongs by rights perhaps to an American of Russian descent, somewhere across the Atlantic. Life is strange. Nobody in my family has ever owned land in living memory, and here am I, a nomad, yet unwittingly the guardian of someone else’s land. Life can certainly make you smile.
I will find someone to help me translate the deed, and find out exactly where this land is, and whom it belongs to. Then I will have all the information I need to be ready and wait. Wait for a gust of wind to blow me to the rightful owner of this land – or to blow him or her to me.
This is a slightly edited version of the article which first appeared on Wordpress in July 2012