My uncle is currently in Eastern Europe trying to dig up our Russian roots. This is on my paternal side: my dad's father can trace his lineage back to the Mayflower, but my dad's mother was born under the tsars. Her father was an officer in the royal navy, the story goes, and when the Bolsheviks took power, he and his wife and their two small daughters had to flee the country. When I was young, I always imagined their living in Moscow, with the onion domes and red brick and desperate, gray winters. I imagine my great-grandmother burning my great-grandfather's white uniforms with the fringed epaulets and acquiring for them peasants' clothes. This I know for sure: she sewed rubels behind the buttons of her wool coat and into the linings of her clothes; she stuffed my grandmother's teddy bear with coins wrapped in cloth so they would not jingle. At the border, they were stopped by revolutionists and separated for interrogation: my great-grandfather in one room, my great-grandmother in another. If their stories didn't match, they would be taken outside, where whole, trembling families were being shot against the wall with rifles. I think of the rubels pouring from the holes in their clothes like blood. My grandmother told me she could still remember the screaming, the noise, the nosehair-singing smell of gunpowder.
My grandmother's Russia was full of stories like this: hard, tragic, romantic, terrifying stories, like the one about Uncle Fedot, an orthodox priest who owned a stable of much beloved horses. One night the stable caught fire, killing every one of them. Uncle Fedot went mad--legitimately mad, a madness that never left him for the rest of his silent, haunted years. I imagine him that night as one might picture Rasputin: a tall, thin, cooked, with a long beard. His mouth hangs open in horror, allowing bits of ash to land unnoticed on his tongue made useless now by the deaths of his horses. My grandmother told me Uncle Fedot never spoke again.
So as children, we were Russian. Growing up in Louisville, KY, in a town full of O'Donnells and Kurzendoerfers, this was special, different, exotic. And then another revolution came in 1989, and suddenly we were no longer Russian but... Azerbaijani.
It turns out my great-grandparents never lived in Moscow at all but in Baku, a city on the Black Sea, the capital of the recently minted Azerbaijan--a country that borders Iran, which makes it technically in the Middle East. In Baku there are no candy-striped onion domes, but stone-colored mosques and minarets. Is it cold there? I didn't know, but I pictured sand dunes stretching long into the horizon. My great-grandfather buries his turban and scimitar; my great-grandmother sews dinars to the edge of her veil that clink below her nose. Her great dark eyes--like Princess Jasmine's--are barely visible above her nose and below her brow. My grandmother had a toy camel stuffed with rubies, and she went with her mother into a small checkpoint, where she could see people whose stories didn't match up having their throats cut, the blood pouring into the sand, which clumped like kitty litter.
I imagine Uncle Fedot now, a bare-chested, open-vested, fez-wearing Imam screaming before a flaming stable of haughty Arabians, their eyes bulging, veins straining in panic as they tried to break free. The desert wind only encouraged the fire, until there was nothing else to see.
So my uncle is in Eastern Europe researching all these stories. Russian stories. Stories with heritage, haunting and gruesome. My uncle called my father last night to let him know what he had found: While my great-grand-people lived in Baku, apparently their great-grand-people lived in Poland. Which makes us now...
I know nothing of the Polish other than everyone seems to enjoy making fun of them for some reason, and that I am fond of their sausages at the state fair. I have no problem being Polish; nor do the hundreds of other people I know with Polish heritage. That I know hundreds of people with Polish heritage, though, makes me no longer feel exotic.
Now re-imagining my heritage as a movie for the third time, I picture the Polish to look a lot like the Germans for some reason. I'm sure the Polish would object terribly to this, but hey: it's my movie. Great-grandfather dons his most humble-looking lederhosen while my great-grandmother weaves sausages into her long, blond braids. My grandmother has a stein filled with sauerkraut, and they are taken to a checkpoint, which is for some reason made of gingerbread. Outside, people in puffy sleeves are bayoneted with candy-cane spears.
Uncle Fedot, no longer thin and haunted but a ruddy-faced man with a substantial paunch and auburn mustache, sees his stable catch fire and, sipping from a beer, turns and goes out for wurst.
For some reason, the addition of Poland into this memory drama just makes these stories seem less... Russian. Am I overreacting? Is it possible that these stories are interesting no matter where they take place, or am I just too hung up on the scenery? I don't even know what Poland looks like: it could be as beautiful as a silver Moscow winter or as tan as a Middle Eastern desert. Perhaps I should do some research and re-re-imagine, for the fourth time, what my people looked like and did. Alternatively, I could just wait a few more years. By then I'm sure I'll have become Chinese, my grandmother with a stuffed dragon full of noodles, my Uncle Chin in his thin mustache weeping before a pile of ashes along a lonely, smoke-scorched stretch of the Great Wall.