My grandmother had nerves of steel. My mother and I used to joke that if anyone were ever to tell her there was an imminent nuclear attack, she would purse her lips in that way she did when considering various options. Then she would say, “In that case, we needn’t lock the door when we leave the house.” There would be no panicking. Very little ever disrupted the perfectly controlled neutrality of her smooth, ivory face. Someone once asked to use that face to advertise cosmetic creams, but my grandmother declined.
Yekaterina Gregoryán was born in a small mining town just outside Rostov-on-Don, in Russia, in 1911. She said the coal dust turned the snow grey. An Armenian family, from a region that was technically part of Iran. From what I heard, she had a very happy childhood. I remember snippets from what she recalled about it. There was the bear cub her much older brother had once brought home after a hunting trip, who used to break into the cellar drink wine, then become drunk and aggressive. The dying cat the little girl put into the dolls’ bed by the fireplace, applied regular cold compresses to, and nursed back to health. Christmases with fir-trees so tall, their tips brushed against the high ceilings. During the First World War, Yekaterina narrowly survived typhoid fever. She said she had hallucinations about a Chinese man throwing a large spider on her. She sleepwalked in nothing but her nightgown, bare feet on the snow, to the outdoor lavatory, anxiously watched by her mother who was afraid of giving her a shock by waking her up. The war turned into the Revolution. One snowy winter’s night, the family woke up to noise outside the house. It was the fleeing White Guard, breaking into the stables to steal the horses. Yekaterina’s father forbade everyone to go out, saying it was better to lose the horses than risk their lives, since the White Guard was almost certainly armed. Some time later, it was the turn of the Red Guard to raid the house. My great-grandmother Gayaneh was baking bread when she saw them through the kitchen window, arriving on horseback. In a fraction of a second decision, she ran to fetch the two diamond rings in her jewellery box and slipped them on her fingers, plunged her hands back into the moist, sticky bread dough. The Red Guard took away everything of value. My grandmother remembers one of the soldiers crouching before her and her sister and removing their earrings. Lapis set in gold, like an Indian turban, she said. Nobody checked my great-grandmother dough-covered fingers hands.
One story I particularly like, is that of the family maid, who had an attack of malaria every other day, like clockwork, and so came to work at the house only on odd days. When the Communists forbade the practice of religion, all the churches were locked up. One day, the priests rebelled and opened the church doors and rang all the bells. Yekaterina was out with the maid. They were caught up in the disturbance. Bells peeling, crowds running, police charging on horseback. In the general panic, Yekaterina let go of the maid’s hand and ran across the street, right in front of a policeman. His horse reared up. The maid’s heart stopped. The child is about to be trampled, she thought. But, luckily, she managed to get her out of harm’s way just in time. The next day, the maid came to the house even though it was supposed to be her malaria attack day. “Why are you here?” my great-grandmother Gayaneh asked. “And you’re not shivering.”
The maid was just as puzzled. “I woke up expecting the usual shivers,” she replied, “but they didn’t come, so I thought I might as well come into work.”
There is an old belief that malaria can be cured with a violent emotional shock. Unscientific as that may be, after the panic of seeing my grandmother nearly trampled by a horse, the maid never had another attack of malaria.
Under the new Soviet order, the Gregoryáns – who owned a delicatessen shop – began to be viewed with suspicion as “bourgeois oppressors”. The school began charging the family fees that were three times as high as the “proletariat” had to pay. This was more than they could afford. As a teenager, Yekaterina moved to her grandmother’s house in Rostov, to continue her schooling there. The house was considered by the Communist committee to be too large for just one household, so most of it was requisitioned to shelter other families. Rooms were divided up into portions, partitioned by curtains. You were afraid to whisper anything potentially subversive even to your own kin, in case the stranger in the bed on the other side of the curtain overheard you and reported you to the authorities.
Although she was not academically brilliant, my grandmother more than made up for it with extreme hard work and dedication, and was highly respected by her teachers. She wanted to go to university and study to become a technical draftswoman. I think it must have appealed to her strong sense of precision. Still, the fees were way beyond the means of her family. Besides, further education was almost impossible unless you were a member of the Party. She didn’t want to join. With no money and no career prospects, there was little for my grandmother to look forward to. In 1933, she married a young foreign diplomat and left the Soviet Union. Prior to her departure, her mother took the two diamonds off the rings she had saved from the Bolshevik raid and Yekaterina swallowed them. When she arrived abroad, she sold the diamonds and got enough to buy table and bed linen. I guess they cannot have been large stones.
For the first few years, she corresponded regularly with her family, even though most letters arrived with much of the writing blacked out or cut up by censorship. Then, the letters stopped coming. She could get no news from the Soviet Consulate. She never found out what happened to her family.
I wonder if the stillness of her face was a way of keeping in check the pain of so much turmoil and of so much loss.
Yekaterina moved to Rome shortly after I was born, and helped raise me while my mother, a single parent, had to go to work. She was very strict. “Come away from the window,” she would say to me as I stood commenting on the neighbours‘ comings and goings. “Mind your own business. Do your homework or read a book.” When we lived in France, she used to collect shiny candy wrapper foil and we would spend an afternoon make Christmas decorations. She had extraordinarily skillful hands. Her knitting and embroidery were of professional standard; her cooking was famous among neighbours and friends. She had a talent for making everything look neat and beautiful – and cosy.
From an early age, I loved listening to her telling and reading Russian and Armenian fairy tales. However, when it came to teaching me to read and write Russian, she had quite a battle on her hands. I was lazy and, as a child and teenager, had a yet to be explained resistance to the Russian language. We had a volume of Pushkin’s complete works and she used his fluid poetry and entertaining novels to seduce me into deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet. I loved every minute and every word. Moving onto Dostoyevsky was quite another matter, though. I remember a summer, when I was about sixteen, when we spent a couple of hours a day on the terrace, taking it in turns to knit a blanket. One knitted, the other one read Crime and Punishment aloud. My knitting was no better than my reading. As I read, my grandmother undid my three inches of twisted, irregular loops and had to knit it all over again. Reading, and being corrected every few words, was pure torture for me. To this day, I don’t remember the crime, but the memory of the punishment is most vivid. Fairy tales, Pushkin and Lermontov were one thing, but Dostoyevsky almost sent me off screaming. Rebelling or complaining was no use because, sooner or later, I would end up doing as I was told. “Education is the one thing nobody can take away from you,” my grandmother always said. “Times change, wars break out, you can lose everything you own – but what’s inside your head is always yours.”
My grandmother was an impeccable judge of character. She could see through a person within seconds of meeting him or her, noticing imperceptible details of eye movement or body language. I still don’t know what made her say, when I was about eleven, that she thought I would grow up to be a teacher and a writer. At the time, I think I might have been planning to become a secret agent or a reporter. I promised her that, if she turned out to be right, I would take her maiden name as a pseudonym. Three decades later I did and not just as a pen name but my legal surname. Gregoryán was too long for the back of a credit card, and my heart sank at the prospect of English speakers prounouncing it with the stress on the second syllable, “Gregorian”, like the calendar or the chant. So I shortened it. Gregor.
Yekaterina Gregoryán, my grandmother, passed away in 2012, aged one hundred.