I stood in a Russian Orthodox cemetery on a cold, spring day in 2004, next to a headstone inscribed with “KIWAK”. It was a stone my father had bought when his father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1962, years before I was born. My older brother remembers hearing the phone ring late one night after he was in bed. Then my father came in his room, sat down and said oddly, “You remember your grandfather? Well, he just died.”
My husband was with me in the cemetery. I was skinny, having lived almost exclusively on drive-thru lattes during the 9 months of my dad’s final illness. I was in a dress too thin for the season and sandals. Cold. The Orthodox priest was waiting in the car with his wife.
Strangers stood at the graveside, people my father’s step-sister must have invited, strangers bearing the faces of people I had known all my life—a petite woman with the broad cheekbones and big blue eyes of my sister, a tall, thin woman with the face and curly hair of my father. To suddenly see someone you are grieving in the face of a stranger is a little unnerving.
Their names were Nancy and Leona. They were my father’s first cousins, family hidden from me, hidden even from my father, by choices his mother made in 1927, cousins my father had not met until he was in his seventies. Months before, I had called my little Russian Auntie, my father’s stepsister, asking if we could bury the ashes there. My little Russian Auntie was a founding member of the parish. Easy. Nancy, the cousin who resembles my sister, is married to the caretaker of the cemetery, Mike. (Just like in Russia, it’s who you know.) Mike pulled back the sod, dug the hole, arranged for the priest to say the graveside blessing after the ashes were interred. After they were interred, since Orthodox doctrine frowns upon cremation.
My father was not Russian Orthodox, not Christian, not religious in any way. Perhaps his parents had baptized him; I don’t know. Nancy and Leona’s mother, Love, “Люба”, was still alive and in her nineties that day in the cemetery. I asked Nancy if I could meet her. She was the sister of the grandmother I never met, of my father’s mother who abandoned him in infancy. She had stories, stories of this shadowy grandmother, of why she left and where she went. If my father had been baptized in the Orthodox church, Love likely witnessed it. But she didn’t want to meet me.
“She’s embarrassed,” Nancy told me the next time I visited.
“She’s embarrassed by what your grandmother did.”
“But it has nothing to do with her. Or with me.”
“She doesn’t see it that way.” It was a strange logic of shame and honor from another generation, a moment in 1927 still relevant between strangers seventy-six years later. To Love, I was one of the hidden.
I dreamt frequently of my father in the year after he died. In one of the happier dreams, he is sitting in the pews of my Catholic church in Scottsdale. The priest is saying Mass, bells chiming, incense wafting, the people around my father kneeling-standing-kneeling. Irreverent but present, my father is leaning back in the pew with his legs crossed, reading the Sunday paper.
Likewise is he buried, hidden essentially, in St. Mary’s Orthodox Cemetery, contrary to doctrine. Irreverent, but present.