By Joshua Aaron Siegel
I remember the birch trees. Their slender white limbs outstretched across the wide dirt path, casting shadows between our steady steps. A pale green leaf fluttered past me as we approached the entrance to our family plot. I squeezed the small wooden broom in my hand and began to sweep the rotten foliage away.
It was me and Baba then– walking step by step in the cemetery at the edge of the city. We met on the platform of Yugo-Zapadnaya. Baba always prided herself in taking the metro in her old age. In youth she ran grocery store. During the siege of ’43 despite there not being any supplies to pack the shelves, she refused to close. Yet, on those bitter December nights when the shelves were bare and the city was coming apart at the seams, the shop was never empty. Men of all sorts would visit and offer anything they had: broken candles, the bottoms of shoes, and even once a bent silver spoon all in the hopes of speaking to the woman for just a moment. She was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in the Arabat. But she never bothered their gaze– there was always too much work to do: bushels of dill to restock; containers of almonds, lavash from the baker across the way. She had no time for silly trinkets or false professions of love. That is until she heard a certain tune.
My Baba– not the one of family stories but the Baba I remember– waved me down to her height so that she could brush away my hair and lay a kiss on my forehead. We made our way past the flower venders who sold their brightly colored wares in the underpass on the way to the cemetery. I helped her up the cool cement stairs and through the iron gates.
Baba knew the way by heart. She made the trip like a devoted pilgrim three times a year: once in snow, once in rain, once in sunny skies. It was summer then with the sparrows calling and the tall trees creating a roof with their leaves. Baba squeezed my hand tight– stopping us in front of an immaculate marble grave. The effigy of a slender woman was carved into the white rock tightly clutching a wad of sheet music. I asked Baba who she was. Baba said the woman was once a radio singer known by everyone from the Baltic to the Black Sea. She told me that after all the years she could still hear those tunes. Papa would often rest his head in her lap and hum those simple melodies as they watched the streetcars roll by. She tried to sing a bit for me but gave up after the first few notes. Never had a voice as good as his.
The golden stars encasing the scripture of an ancient language glittered brightly in our eyes. They were labeled to every stone this side of the cemetery right next to an image of the deceased. As we made our way past the tattered plots the eyes of the dead flashed for moments before hiding behind the fluttering leaves.
Papa was printed into the black stone. His eyes beaming forward staring straight at us– Baba and Masha: one his love, the other he never got to meet. Baba lowered her eyes, said some silent words, and rubbed her wrinkled finger against the rusted gate. We stood there in pause waiting for the memories to quit. Waiting for the birches to bloom.
Baba never told me the story of how she met Papa. But if I had to make a family story of my own I would say that they met on a cool October night in the village. Both no older than 15– Baba with her long black hair and light brown freckles, Papa with his olive skin and ever-present smirk. I would say that they passed each other on a dirt road, Papa humming the soft notes of the radio singer to himself– just loud enough for the girl with the cream-colored frock to hear. As they passed she turned back her head and said softly: Now that’s a voice.