Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Soviet Spirits

The other night a friend gave me a flight of Soviet vodka bottles from the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Although I'm not quiet certain that even 40 proof Vodka can kill off the germs that might have accumulated over the decades, I cannot resist the urge to try something that will form a visceral link to the Soviet past.  The ties that bind us to the past are a strange blend of the tangible and the spiritual.  And life is full of strange, unexpected portals to seemingly ancient history.  If we're open to the experience, we're bound to stumble upon the ghosts of our ancestors many times a day.

Take my recent move from the South Side of Chicago to the wilds of Northwest Indiana.  As I spent the day packing, I paused for a moment to consider an object that took me back in time over twenty-five years, a plant that my uncle had sent to my family from Japan upon the death of my mother, his sister.  This plant, which wasn't looking too long for this world, had survived for a very long time at my dad's home, and then eventually wound up living a peripatetic life with me. How odd then that during the move it vanished forever, a lost physical link to a world which included--almost--the physical avatar of my mom's spiritual essence.

The phrase physical avatar sounds peculiar, but it reminds me that I'm now much, much more acquainted with mom the ghost than with mom the concrete, flesh and bones, human being.  At any rate, the plant is gone, but I'll continue to stumble over physical reminders of this absent family member for years, or decades, or perhaps forever.  I'm reading the autobiography of Fidel Castro--a series of interviews really--in which Castro happily, nostalgically relates the fact that some curator or local librarian or archivist had managed to uncover a book of pictures of Napoleonic generals   with which he had played endlessly as a child.  He thought the book was either the actual book he had owned fifty years previously, or at any rate an exact replica of the one he had once possessed.  Castro feigned indifference on this question of whether the book was the one his former self had touched so often, but he couldn't help but ask the question:  was this the very same book he had once won in a trade with a friend?  Could this book be a message from the past, or conversely, a message from the future into the past, that things had turned out alright, that Castro the boy would prosper and become one of the world's longest-serving dictators?

The plant, my uncle's gift, is now gone for good.  And the loss can't help me but think of the original loss of that thing which this plant replaced.  But history will continue to resurface in my house.  I will find pictures, and objects, and perhaps a piece of furniture that will transport me back to that magical time when mom lived.  And if there aren't many physical objects left, I will be more creative about inventing them.  Wasn't this one of mom's books?  No?  Did she at least read it?  Was this the dish mom used to own?  No?  Had she had least owned one much like it?

I'm in the suburbs now.  It's deadly quiet.  The windows are open.  The stars are visible, the crickets chirping, the yard is wide and long.  I used to live in a house much like this one.  As a child, my family lived on two floors, as I do again.  My mother and I were suburbanites, as I am again.  What does all this have to do with the Soviets?  Not much.  But when mom lived, the Soviet Union lived.  I conflate the two things.  Faulker once wrote:  My mother is a fish.  I sometimes feel that my mother is the USSR.


  1. Enjoy the vodka, and may all ghosts find their rest in peace. Za Vas!