My grandmother had nerves of steel. I used to joke that if anyone were ever to tell her that there was about to be a nuclear attack, she would curl her lips over her teeth in that way that she did when considering options. Then she would say, “In that case, we needn’t lock the door when we leave the house.” There would be no panicking. Very little ever disrupted the perfectly controlled neutrality of her smooth, ivory face. Someone once asked to use that face to advertise cosmetic creams, but my grandmother declined.
Yekaterina Gregoryan was born in a small mining town just outside Rostov, in Russia, in 1911. She said the coal dust made the snow grey. The family was Armenian. From what I heard, she had a very happy early childhood. I remember snippets from what she recalled about it. There was the bear cub her much older brother had once brought home after a hunting trip, who used to break into the cellar and become aggressive after getting drunk on wine. The dying cat the little girl put into the dolls’ bed, and nursed back to health. Christmases with fir-trees so tall, their tips brushed against the high ceilings. During the First World War, Yekaterina narrowly survived Typhoid fever. She said she had hallucinations about a Chinese man throwing a large spider on her. The war turned into the Revolution. One snowy winter’s night, the family woke up to noise outside the house. It was the fleeing White Guard, breaking into the stables to steal the horses. Yekaterina’s father forbade everyone to go out, saying it was better to lose the horses than risk their lives, since the White Guard was almost certainly armed. Some time later, it was the turn of the Red Guard to raid the house. My great-grandmother Gayaneh saw them arrive on horseback from the kitchen window. She was baking bread. In a fraction of a second decision, she ran to fetch two diamond rings from her jewellery box, and slipped them on her fingers before continuing to knead the bread dough. The Red Guard took away anything of value. My grandmother remembers one of the soldiers crouching before her and her sister, and removing their earrings. Nobody noticed that my great-grandmother dough-covered fingers hid the diamond rings.
One story I particularly like, is that of the family maid, who had an attack of malaria every other day, like clockwork, and so came to work at the house only on odd days. When the Communists forbade the practice of religion, all the churches were locked up. One day, the priests staged a rebellion. They opened the church doors and rang all the bells. Yekaterina was out with the maid. They were caught up in the disturbance. Bells peeling, crowds running, police on horseback charging. In the general panic, Yekaterina let go of the maid’s hand, and ran across the street, right in front of a policeman. His horse reared up. The maid nearly died of fright, thinking the child would be trampled but, luckily, she managed to get her out of harm’s way just in time. The next day, much to my great-grandmother Gayaneh’s surprise, the maid came to the house. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Isn’t this your malaria attack day?”
The maid was just as puzzled. “I woke up expecting the usual shivers,” she replied, “but they didn’t come, so I thought I might as well come into work.”
There is an old belief that malaria can be cured with a violent emotional shock. Unscientific as that may be, after the shock of seeing my grandmother nearly trampled by a horse, the maid never had another attack of malaria.
Under the new Soviet order, the Gregoryans – who owned a delicatessen shop – began to be seen with suspicion, as “bourgeois oppressors”. The school began charging the family three times as much for fees, as the “proletariat” had to pay. This was more than they could afford. As a teenager, Yekaterina moved to her grandmother’s house in Rostov, to continue her schooling there. The house was considered by the Communist committee to be too large for just one family, so most of it was requisitioned to shelter other families. Rooms were divided up into portions, partitioned by curtains. My grandmother recalls how you were afraid to whisper anything potentially subversive even to your own kin, in case the stranger in the bed on the other side of the curtain would overhear you, and report you to the authorities.
Although she was not academically brilliant, my grandmother more than made up for it with extreme hard work and dedication, and was highly respected by her teachers. She wanted to go to university, and study to become a technical draftswoman. I think it must have appealed to her strong sense of precision. Still, the fees were way beyond the means of her family. Besides, further education was almost impossible, unless you were a member of the Party. With no money and no career prospects, there was little for my grandmother to look forward to. In 1933, she married a young foreign diplomat, and left the Soviet Union. Prior to her departure, her mother took the two diamonds off the rings she had saved from the raid, and my grandmother swallowed them. When she arrived abroad, she sold the diamonds, and got enough to buy table and bed linen. I guess they cannot have been large stones.
For the first few years, she corresponded regularly with her family, even though most letters arrived with much of the writing blacked out or cut up by censorship. Then, the letters stopped coming. She could get no news from the Soviet Consulate. She never found out what happened to her family.
I wonder if the stillness of her face was a way of keeping in check the pain of so much turmoil and of so much loss.
Yekaterina moved to Rome shortly after I was born, and helped raise me while my mother had to go out to work. She was very strict. “Come away from the window,” she would say to me as I stood commenting on the neighbours‘ comings and goings. “Mind your own business. Do your homework, or read a book.” When we lived in France, she used to collect shiny candy wrapper foil, and we would sit and make Christmas decorations. She had extraordinarily skillful hands. Her knitting and embroidery had no flaws; her cooking was famous among neighbours and friends. She had a talent for making everything look neat and beautiful – and cosy.
From an early age, I loved listening to her telling and reading Russian and Armenian fairy tales. However, when it came to teaching me to read and write Russian, she had quite a battle on her hands. I was lazy and, as a child and teenager, had a yet to be explained resistance to the Russian language. We had a volume of Pushkin’s complete works, and she used his fluid poetry and entertaining novels to seduce me into deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet. I loved every minute and every word. Moving onto Dostoyevsky was quite another matter, though. I remember a summer, when I was about sixteen, when we spent a couple of hours a day on the terrace, taking it in turns to knit a blanket. One knitted, the other one read Crime and Punishment aloud. My knitting was no better than my reading. As I read, my grandmother undid my three inches of twisted, irregular blanket, and had to knit it all over again. Reading, and being corrected every few words, was pure torture for me. Fairy tales, Pushkin and Lermontov is one thing, but Dostoyevsky almost sent me off screaming. Rebelling or complaining was no use because, sooner or later, I would end up doing as I was told. “Education is the one thing nobody can take away from you,” my grandmother always said. “Times change, wars break out, you can lose everything you own – but what’s inside your head is always yours.”
My grandmother was an impeccable judge of character. She could see through a person within minutes of meeting him or her, noticing imperceptible details of eye movement or body language. I still do not know what made her say, when I was about eleven, that she thought I would grow up to be a teacher and a writer. At the time, I think I might have been planning to become a secret agent or a reporter.
Yekaterina Gregorian, my grandmother, passed away in 2012, aged one hundred.