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Know what came before

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A wise man once said: In order to know yourself, you have to know those that came before you. That man didn’t just say those words; he lives by them, and I know this because that wise man is my grandfather. In 1996, he immigrated to the United States with the sole purpose of caring for me and my sister. The decision to leave behind sixty-five years of history and relationships was understandably difficult, and my grandfather was asked to fit his entire life into two tattered suitcases. The first he filled with clothes and books; the second with hundreds of photographs. Faded memories of long lost relatives gazing back at us in a sad nostalgia, and as I thumbed through the prints with my grandfather, I saw his face light up with a yearning to go back to those happy times.
In Russia, the affectionate word for grandfather is Atkai. It’s a word that conveys boundless respect and adulation. When I was growing up, he was both my teacher and my playmate; both my mentor and my friend. In the Soviet Union, he had published over 50 articles and held a PhD in microbiology as a respected veterinarian for forty years. In the United States, he was reduced to bagging groceries at Jewel-Osco for minimum wage so that my grandma could get health benefits. Even so, he would devote every free moment of his time to studying English with me, determined to keep me from falling victim to the crippling restrictions of a language barrier. As I grew older, our English lessons became more one-sided, and by high school I was helping my grandpa understand some of the bigger words in the New York Times (he considered himself too worldly for our local Chicago Tribune.) All of the time we spent together brought up more chances for me to bother him with questions about our family history.
Some of the photographs he showed me were dated to the nineteenth century, and as I observed the somber faces of my relatives, I came to a sad realization. Everyone I was looking at had long disappeared from the Earth, taking their stories and their memories with them. I examined these pictures with the sort of investigative stare used for reading history books, not the reminiscing gaze that comes with seeing old relatives. And I realized that I couldn’t look at these people as my relatives because I knew absolutely nothing about them. For everything that my family had gained by moving to America, I had lost any connection to my ancestors, and therefore a part of myself.
My grandpa refused to let this happen. “The most important thing you have in this world is your family,” he told me, “and when I’m gone, the most important thing I can leave you is your heritage.” Over the next two years, he would commit hundreds of hours to fulfill that promise. He made it his purpose to write everything he could find out about our ancestors, so that future generations would know where they came from. Hundreds of long distance phone calls were made; indifferent relatives annoyed. Two years and two hundred and fifty pages later, he continues to write.
The most gratifying aspect of helping my grandfather on this endeavor is the knowledge that I’ve attained during all of the hours we’ve spent together. I’ve learned so much about my ancestors, and consequently, I’ve reevaluated the importance that family has in my life. Those seemingly distant faces in the old photographs have come to life with an air of warm familiarity. Last summer, I was even able to make the trip to Russia to meet my relatives and visit the graves of my great grandparents. I’ve learned that my heritage is a part of me no matter where I live; that an ocean cannot separate me from the ties I have to my family all over the world. But most importantly, this experience has given me an opportunity to spend time with the family I have right in front of me. And it doesn’t take a wise man to understand the value of spending time with my Atkai.





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