The Brilliant Present

We called her Babushka, but her name was Zinaida, my wife’s 103-year-old Russian grandmother, and when she died, her body was flown from Rhode Island, where she had been living in a nursing home, to San Francisco, so she could be buried next to her husband, Nicolai, whom we called Dyedushka, the dashing cavalry officer she had met and married in Harbin, China, in 1924. Zinaida, a true child of the twentieth century—she was born in 1900—witnessed the rise of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, the subsequent civil war, and the retreat before the Bolsheviks of Admiral Kolchak’s White Russian cavalry five thousand miles across Siberia and into exile in China: a century of hardship, bloodshed, and privation.

Zinaida and Nicolai lived in Harbin for many years, but on the eve of World War II, trying to stay ahead of the Communists, they moved to Shanghai, only to run into the Japanese occupation. Through all these tribulations, they raised a child, Olga, sending her to a British-run convent school, where she learned English. When the Americans arrived at the end of the war, the army turned to the exiled English-speaking Russians to fill administrative jobs. Olga, her skills in demand, found a job as a secretary with the American Army and married an American army officer. With his help, the family eventually made its way to America, where they continued to witness history unfold—Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and finally 9/11. They must have felt that they were barely outrunning the apocalypse trailing them around the world.

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