One of the only vivid memories she has of her father is actually a memory of her brother’s, who has recited it so consistently, and with such detail over the past twenty-two years, that it is often one of the first things Emily mentions when asked about her childhood.
Emily’s mother divorced Emily’s father the year Emily was born and since then she has seen her father on exactly three separate occasions. The first — a birthday party– took place when Emily turned two, and the day, though largely forgotten, was encapsulated in the form of a 2×4 1/2 in. photograph which Emily saw for the first time at age 23, shortly after the death of her mother.
Emily found the photograph in the top left drawer of her mother’s dresser, but it wasn’t until flipping the photograph over, reading Sasha & Emily,1992 written in her mother’s sloppy cursive,that she identified the uncomfortable looking man in the picture as her father. Realizing this, Emily immediately ran downstairs to her brother, who was sat at the kitchen table surrounded by more stacks of their mother’s things, and showed him the photograph, at which point he almost instantly began to cry, but whose tears, Emily assumes, were caused more prominently by the simple task of rummaging through their deceased mother’s home, or maybe, in part, due to Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen, which had just begun playing softly through two small speakers in the corner.
The next time Emily saw her father was during a weekend trip she took with her brother one summer to Lake Erie, outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Emily’s father had persuaded Emily’s mother, via a long and eloquently handwritten letter,to let him have the kids for a weekend –that he would take them camping, fishing, or perhaps even to a Cleveland Indians game, who, after a 232-day strike initiated by the MLBPA (Major League Baseball Player’s Association), were actually playing quite well in 1995.
Emily’s mother, though hesitant, agreed to make the drive to Cleveland from their home in Columbus, provided that she have the chance to speak with Sasha first, to “ease her mind about the whole thing.”
Emily says she remembers feeling an “overwhelming sense of loneliness” upon first entering her father’s apartment. Her mother, who would not be considered wealthy, always managed to keep the refrigerator and cabinets stocked with at least a small amount of food, but it wasn’t until seeing her father’s kitchen that Emily understood how bare and empty a room could be.
It was the same with the rest of her father’s apartment. The living room consisted of a small bookshelf, an old record player, and a pullout couch, that Emily’s brother later pointed out, might have very well been purchased specifically in anticipation of their arrival. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, no decorations, no clutter of any kind. Emily walked around slowly, touching each wall for a second or two with an outstretched finger, trying to understand how a human being, her father in particular, could live in a place like this.
Emily’s mother sat in the kitchen speaking with Sasha while Emily and her brothers too hesitantly by their father’s bookshelf — its contents written mostly in Russian and completely incomprehensible to either Emily or her brother.
It became apparent however, while overhearing her mother speak to her father in the kitchen, that the bareness of her father’s apartment translated almost exactly to his personality. Sasha, who didn’t learn English until his mid-twenties, chose his words carefully and deliberately, creating almost no verbal waste-causing anybody who spoke to him to listen very closely, concentrating on each and every syllable.
Besides the Russian accent,(which was not represented by Emily, her brother, or her mother) Emily’s father looked as though he were perpetually experiencing some type of small physical pain causing his body motions to appear very awkward and misplaced. Emily noticed that whenever she made eye contact with her father he looked back at her, squinting a little bit, as though staring into a very large and very bright light.
It wasn’t until years later that Emily found herself thinking of her father as she went through life feeling as though she were constantly repositioning herself while being forced to sit for a very long time.
The only part of the weekend Emily remembers, or believes she remembers, took place the next day when Emily’s father took her and her brother fishing. The three of them drove to a popular part of Lake Erie where many other fathers took their children to catch fish.
Emily’s father brought one fishing pole for the three of them to share and Emily’s brother carried the pole enthusiastically through a small stretch of trail leading to the lake. Upon reaching the water Sasha clumsily demonstrated how to cast a line using the fishing pole, and after it was set the three of them sat silently while watching the bobber move up and down on top of the lake.
Sasha reeled the line in and cast it out again every few minutes for an undetermined amount of time without catching anything. He kept calmly saying “Fish not biting,” and Emily’s brother– who had never been fishing, and appeared to be very invested in the fish biting –looked extremely disappointed.
A few minutes passed and Sasha reeled the line in again. He set the pole down in the dirt and looked first at Emily, and then at her brother.
He said “My father used to fish. He used net and boat made of wood.”
Emily nodded at her father while feeling uninterested in fishing in general.
Sasha said “The man at store said I should use pole, not net. He said pole will not break and will catch more fish.”
Sasha laughed while picking up the fishing pole.
“Pole not break?” he repeated skeptically to himself while sort of inspecting the fishing pole.
Sasha then began to bend the fishing pole by pushing the top end towards the bottom end, showing it to his children. Sasha bent the pole multiple times, each time bending it more, until he had nearly bent the pole in half without it breaking.
“Pole not break!” he repeated again, this time appearing more convinced that the pole would, in fact, not actually break, even if bent in half. Sasha laughed very loudly at this before standing up and walking towards the car with Emily and her brother, taking turns playfully patting each of their heads with his large and calloused hands.
They returned to Sasha’s apartment where they sat on the couch listening to classical Russian composers, whose names Emily had rarely even attempted to pronounce.
According to Emily’s brother, Emily had been irritable and complaining for much of the trip, and Sasha, at a loss for ways to entertain his five year-old daughter, walked to his bookshelf, sliding his finger across the spines of each book. Sasha looked over long unabridged novels by Gogol, Tolstoy, Kundera, and Dostoevsky, before carefully pulling out a worn copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye –one of the only books on Sasha’s bookshelf actually written in English.
Sasha sat back down in between Emily and her brother on the couch, slowly flipping through the yellowed pages of the novel.
He said “Your mother read this to me when we first met.”
Emily and her brother said nothing as Sasha opened the book and began to read aloud, taking his time to pronounce each word correctly, running his large thumb across the page as he spoke. Emily says she felt as if time were standing still as her father read aloud to her, stopping for a moment after each sentence to catch his breath.
The next, and last time, Emily saw her father was at his funeral, which happened, tragically, six months after the death of her mother.
The funeral took place at Sasha’s apartment, which was the same apartment Emily and her brother had visited 18 years before, and it was attended by a small handful of Sasha’s immediate family members plus a few other people who Emily and her brother were never properly introduced to. Emily agreed to speak on behalf of her father, as she feared nobody else would have an awful lot to say.
Emily took a deep breath before getting the attention of the room, and began to recite, slowly and with detail, the time that she and her brother visited their father 18 years before, and Emily’s brother, who stood quietly in back of the room, didn’t question his sister’s memory for even a second.