My father is nostalgic.
Things were different, he says. People were different; people cared about what you had to say. They paused and listened, sometimes cocking their heads in interest. We sat and talked long into the night over steaming glasses of black tea, pausing only to refill the samovar, throwing kindling into the stove pipe, he says. For me this conjures an image of old men in rags hunched over charred wooden tables. Old men with sweaty brows and bushy mustaches, speaking quietly, with the occasional sounds rising above the still night air. Old men, speaking of important things. But they could not have always been old men. He could not always have been an old man; I suppose he was once young like me, and, indeed, he often reminds me of this unlikely truth. For some reason I picture him and his brothers as perpetual old men, growing old into their lives, as I know them now. I imagine a widow-peaked head crowning out of his mother’s womb and his tiny wrinkled hands emerging, clutching an ebony pipe. I imagine him calmly asking for a box of matches. I imagine an elderly infant rolling miniature dice onto a backgammon table and yelling “Penge!” at a frightened neighbourhood child.
Still, I enjoy sitting with my father and reminiscing. This usually happens after birthday parties – his, mine, or my mother’s. The gifts would be piled up in a corner, unopened, and my mother would be in the kitchen washing dishes. We would be sitting quietly at the table – he at the head of the table and me just to his right – and drinking some post-tea Brandy. He has a handful of events that he recalls fondly. My father smiles and stares at some point just beyond my left ear when he speaks of his post in the Soviet Army, patrolling the mountains along the Iranian border. He doesn’t speak of the training. He doesn’t speak of the brutal conditions. He mostly speaks of silly details, like how he taught himself to cook in the large vats the army provided and how the troops loved him because his cooking was much better than the expired canned cabbage and rancid meet slabs they were accustomed to. He speaks of the views – the wonderful views of the unforgiving rocky terrain. He likes to pull out this blurry black and white photograph. The photograph is taken on a hilltop. There is a small cluster of huts below and the faint outlines of distant hills in the background. He points to it and says proudly, “This picture was taken at midnight. This is most amazing thing I have ever seen. Up in the mountains of Guba, it’s the only place in the world where the moon can be so bright.” I usually squint at the picture and nod in approval, but my eyes are accustomed to megapixels of image data and I cannot feel his wonder at this vague outline of a city.
Other times he speaks of growing up near the Bazaar and how, before he was sent to school, he would venture to the many shops and stalls with his mother, nervously clutching at her skirts and cowering from the booming voices of the market sellers advertising their goods. Again, I find it hard to imagine my father as a small child, but mostly I find it hard to imagine my father cowering. I think it is difficult for anyone to do this. Even as my father grows old and his fragility makes him seem almost child-like, it is essentially impossible for me to imagine this powerful figure, the protector of the family, shying away from anyone. So instead I picture myself, hiding behind my grandmother’s shawl and shuffling my small feet to keep up with her long and purposeful steps. I imagine the gruff shopkeepers with their leathery skins, smiling at me and handing me fresh wild pomegranate. I imagine my grandmother laughing, her stomach rising and falling in jerks, as I try to bite into the hard rind. My father tells me how he used to help my grandmother carry the bags of food, meant to feed him and his six brothers and sisters, so I imagine this too. I imagine my arms growing tired, but my heart being filled with the sense of duty that only a child can feel.
His favourite memory is probably of the time that he and his friends swam to a tiny island in the middle of a cold, clear lake in the mountains near his ancestral home. Ten meters by ten meters, he says. He’s always using numbers to describe things. He really wants me to understand that things really happened, so he often gives me specific metrics. I guess he wants to make sure that I believe him; I believe him anyway, but I appreciate the gesture. Anyway, when he is feeling particularly nostalgic, he relates the story of the rabbit that he and his friends found on the island. After an evening of sitting around a fire on this isolated island, drinking cheap homemade samagon, and telling jokes about the Russians they loathed (my father still loathes them, in all honesty), the group of friends heard a rustling in a nearby bush, and immediately trained their flashlights on the spot. There, frightened, stood a fat gray rabbit. “Juicy,” as my father describes it. What ensued seems to me like a frantic, drunken skirmish – an impromptu game of flashlight tag. I imagine laughter and as the group of friends hurried to surround the rabbit. In the end, they caught it, skinned it, cooked it over an open flame, and ate it. To this day, my father doesn’t know how that rabbit got on to that tiny secluded island. He shakes his head, his eyes widened, and asks, “Why was the rabbit there?!” I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the rabbit is no longer there.
All this makes me wonder (and how can it not?), if all that will be left in the future will be a handful of random memories. Not even the important ones, it seems, are stored – only the ones that trigger something in the mind, the memories that contain some important but tragically indecipherable kernel of universal truth, whatever that is. Perhaps when I am old and my brain is a patchy tapestry of still photos, all that will be left will be the image of my elementary school’s side wall, where we used to play handball, and how the French teacher Madame Dorn (Doorknob, we would call her, but never to her face!) would pop her head out of a second story window and yell, “doucement, mes enfants!” Or maybe all that will be left will be my Army memories. Like the feeling of rocks digging into my palms as I performed pushups on the crushed stone walkways while NCO’s rather rudely informed us all of our worthlessness. I suppose thinking about the past fondly, or even ambivalently, is better than the bitterness of regret. That’s why I can’t help but feel some fondness for my quickly aging old man; I guess I am grateful for his memories.
My father is nostalgic, and I am bound for the same fate. I think I’m okay with that.