Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Bust of Gold

As long as I could remember, this small bronze bust of famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky stood in my grandmother’s cupboard, among the tea sets, crystal, and other so-called family treasures. Even in my childhood, something did not seem right about this object. Why did our Jewish family keep this portrait of the most official and little-loved Russian classic? Why would my kind grandma always firmly say: “Put it back!” when I reached for the sculpture, on rare occasions when I was permitted to handle the contents of her cupboard?

Many years passed before I found out, quite by chance, a strange story of our bust.

By the late 1920s, the victorious Soviet power has declared war on its own citizens. One of the acts was a decree of confiscation of all people’s gold and jewels. Non-compliance could mean arrest, seizure of all property, and deportation to the newly established system of labor camps, the notorious Gulag.

My grandparents, of course, had a bit of savings, converted into gold coins so that it could survive inflation. They euphemistically referred to it as “something for a rainy day”. Keeping one’s own gold rather than surrendering it to the State, was not a matter of greed. Rather, it was an act of human dignity; perhaps, even an attempt at civil disobedience. They decided to sew the gold hoard into a mattress, where it laid untouched for the next twenty years.

By 1948, in the aftermath of the World War II, the aging and increasingly paranoid Stalin had initiated a statewide anti-Semitic campaign. Rumors were abound about the imminent roundup of all Jews for a forced resettlement far in the Eastern Siberia. In the face of these new dangers, our family gold in the mattress was no longer safe. It seemed unlikely that mattresses would be allowed to be taken along into the exile. My grandparents looked for a less conspicuous and more portable safe.

I do not think they saw any irony in picking the bust of Stalin’s favorite writer for hiding their coins. If anything, this seemed like an extra safety measure. They sealed the gold inside the sculpture with candle wax, where it laid hidden for another forty years, outliving the Soviet Union itself. The rainy day never came. In the 1990s, when possession of gold became a virtue rather than a crime, my mother melted the wax and released the coins, which were divided among the family.

Determined to bring this unusual souvenir back to New York, I was going through Moscow airport security when a customs official noticed a strange item in my suitcase. “It’s just a family thing, nothing valuable”, I showed him the empty bust. “Strange,” he said, “on our screens here it shows like gold”. I only smiled. The aura of gold was still there, detectable by their fancy sensors, yet the treasure itself had turned into memory, something that no State power could ever take away.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your grandmother had the right idea, and a great sense for subject matter. This is a far better design solution than burying the gold coins in the forest that my grandfather did, only to forget the exact spot and never see them again.

December 10, 2009 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger rwordplay said...

The notion of family treasure is exceedingly moving and the subject of much mythology. I'm delighted the gold in your story proved solid.

In the case of my family, there was a cursed star sapphire ring. The sapphire was the palest blue imaginable, blue before it fades to gray, and when held to the light, a large fully formed white star appeared in its center. My grandfather wore it and would lose his fortune; my father inherited it, and he would also lose his fortune and die a lonely, miserable death. My eldest Brother inherited and his wife became ill of lung cancer and died in her early 40s. My brother stopped wearing the ring and one day it disappeared. He assumed it was stolen by the housekeeper. Poor woman.

There was also a cursed set of seven golden razors. I had never seen anything quite like it. Across the top of each blade was the day of the week in red enamel, and the set fit in worn leather box that when opened, revealed an interior of Bordello red velvet or satin. It belonged to my great uncle who died young and whose wife went mad. The razors were passed them on to my grandfather, whose bad luck, in everything but love, was the stuff of legend. After the man died, my grandmother left them in the back of a draw and never touched them. Why she died, my first stepmother gave them to me. At the time, I wanted nothing of my grandfather other than the watch used to teach me to tell time. (Part 1)

January 26, 2010 at 11:01 PM  
Blogger rwordplay said...

(Part 2)
Both my brothers wanted the razors for the reasons people want such items, imagining them being of great value or possessing some talismanic power.
I decided the safest thing to do was give them to a store called Sui Generis on East 58th Street that sold, as the names suggested, expensive, one-of-a-kind objects. Not long after they accepted the razors, the store closed and the owners made no attempt to find me. I was greatly relieved.

There are families that retain items of sentimental and/or material value. My grandmother had many such objects, including the Gucci Wallet I mentioned in the next blog. When she moved, at the age of 85, from Los Angeles to Florida, a year of so after the Northridge earthquake, she was intent on running her own affairs. Toward that end, she hired a couple to run her errands, hang her pictures, and, I suspect, flatter her vanity.

As she had moved to a smaller apartment, she stored many boxes at this couple's house. We never learned their name or where they lived. When my grandmother died in 2002, we emptied her apartment but found none of her bone china, or Baccarat. We did find a length of opera glove, and black ostrich feather fan with tortoise sticks. (Charlotte also found her grandmothers and as it was in better condition, we had it opened and framed and it hangs above our bed.) I also found a little silk purse filled with French coins from the 40s, so light I think they float. In a battered suitcase, we found three fur coats, including a white one so abused by the Florida heat, it appeared to be made of squirrel not mink. (Charlotte wears an auburn one when the temperature drops below freezing. It's a little short on Charlotte but my grandmother would have looked very chic in it. )
Most of her good jewelry was sold years earlier to pay for my grandfather's medical care, and the best of the pieces that remained were auctioned with the exception of a few pieces judiciously given to each of her three granddaughters-in-law by my stepmother. As for the treasures—the Georg Jensen silver, lost.
As to remnants, scattered among her grandchildren.

Life is odd, your family preserved its inheritance by recognizing the totem powers to ward off a paranoid tyrant and the Kafkaesque system that replaced him. While most everything in my family was lost, and the best of it, recalled in a poem I wrote shortly after my grandfather's death:


We die with empty hands
That was your final lesson.

You might have taught:
We live with empty hands.
But that would have been too abstract
A gesture. Instead,

You wished me every bright object, everything
Sweet, everything ripe, but left nothing
Having lost everything
You accumulated over 80 odd years.

You should have told me:
We expand, contract, and in the end
Have nothing to show for our pain
But our pain.

Now, a year after your death,
I am no closer to understanding how things are lost
Or why it is necessary
We must lose them.

January 26, 2010 at 11:01 PM  

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