Russia in the news, remembering my grandparents

With the Russia imbroglio in the news, I’ve been thinking about my grandparents. My father was orphaned when a child, so I only ever knew my mother’s parents. As an only child raised by a single mother, my grandparents were a big chunk of my tiny family.  Phil and Sally were life long New Yorkers, and starting when I was 10, when my mother moved us out of Manhattan, I would take the MetroNorth train, by myself, in to the city to spend weekends with them. I remember my favorite meal being fried flounder with mashed potatoes, and peas, and falling asleep to the radio in their dark bedroom, and my grandfather carrying me half asleep to my bed in the TV room. My grandfather taught me to play chess, “no mercy,” he would say at the beginning of every game. And we’d play cards and practice music. We’d watch ships coming up the Hudson River from the bay window of our co-op apartment on the 16th floor.My grandfather played the cello and the mandolin. My grandma would say, “if people ask me what instrument I play, I tell them, ‘I applaud.'”

Until I was a young adult, if I would bring a friend to meet my grandparents I’d have to prepare them a little. they did not fit the Hallmark stereotype of older cookie baking and gardening retirees.  My grandfather was a fiery, argumentative intellect, a civil engineer, and my grandmother a self-employed stenographer and accountant. They were literally card-carrying communists and staunch atheists. They lived through the Depression and my own views about money and debt were influenced by their caution and spend thriftiness. When my grandfather said that he bought something in his “favorite store,” it meant he found it in the trash. My grandfather was never out of work, but had to travel the country for his job and saw the devastation all over. They viewed the United States as having failed its potential by embracing and celebrating capitalism since then. They were not liberals. They felt the dream of a workers world hard, and I remember them saying often in response to something in the news that no person is worth a million times more than another. They would have thought Bernie Sanders socialism weak tea indeed.

As a rebellious kid, I remember thinking, “I’m worth a million times more than a lot of people.” By the time I got to my teenage years, I identified a little with Alex Keaton of family ties, the oddly conservative teenager in a liberal family, but shifted: I was a centrist among real leftists.

My grandfather died in Vancouver when I was in high school. My grandparents were spending more and more time there in retirement, and after his death, my grandmother returned to their co-0p apartment in Chelsea on the lower West Side. After I graduated from college, I moved in with her for a year and a half as I worked in a laboratory at Columbia P&S, Physician & Surgeons, the medical school, a 20 minute #1 red line ride uptown. It was a fun time in my life, but I won’t lie, we fought like cats and dogs. She was highly intelligent, but emotionally distant. When I came home one day devastated from an argument I’d had with my unreasonable boss, she said, “you must have done something wrong.” She also refused understand why a young man living in New York City might want to venture out of the apartment after dark.

She died before the Berlin Wall fell, and I remember thinking that she was rolling over in her grave. She and her husband so hoped that the USSR would win the cold war.

And now? A former KGB agent turned kleptocrat has taken over Russia and appears to have taken over our current administration as well. My grandparents, the inveterate political arguers, I think would be speechless. Heartbroken that greed, selfishness, and exploitation are ascendant in our age. They were an odd couple, Sally and Phil, but they were fiercely loyal to one another, and had a profound sense of social justice. I think if they were alive today, I would show them the young people on social media who share their desire for social justice and a skepticism of capitalism. It turns out that the Cold War hasn’t ended, but it has mutated.


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