In Ukrainian, ‘grandpa’ is ‘didus’, pronounced ‘deedooz.’ My brother Ethan and I had lived with our grandparents since I was two, when our parents were killed in an auto accident. Grandma (‘babusya’) Nadiya and Viktor took us in and became our parents. Ethan, who was six when mom and dad died, sometimes talked about them, but to me they were just blurry memories of warmth, of being held, of candles on a birthday cake, of laughter.
Ethan and I lived with didus and babusya in a little white house with green trim and roses in the front yard, on 2nd Street in a part of Brooklyn called Brighton Beach, which everyone I knew called Little Odessa.
Ukrainians celebrated Christmas, called Rizdvo, on January 7, because Eastern Catholics wanted to be different from everyone else. During the holidays, other houses on 2nd Street had Hondas and Chevrolets parked in front, the street in front of our grandparents’ house was filled with Mercedes, Caddies, Humvees and Lincolns. When I was little, I thought it was normal, you know?
I realized just how different we were from other people in our neighborhood when Ethan was in eighth grade. I was coming home from school and I opened the squeaky front gate, when my brother brushed by me, bumping me, covering his face.
“Watch it, stupid!” I said. Ethan just hurried up the wooden steps into the house.
I ran up the front steps after him and into the house. Ethan was headed upstairs when Grandma came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, “Ah vnuchko, vnuk,” she said, smiling as she always did. “How was school today?” Ethan ran up the stairs, and I heard his bedroom door slam. Grandma frowned. We had a ritual: at least five minutes each day, telling her what we had learned, and how our friends—the cousins, second cousins and other relatives—were doing. Grandma asked, “What is wrong with your brother?”
I shrugged. “I’ll find out, Grandma,” I said taking the stairs two at a time. I knocked on his door. “Hey, Ethan. What’s up?”
No answer. I knocked again. “Open the door.”
“Go away!” he said. I knocked a few more times, and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Being the bratty sister that I was, I knocked and knocked and knocked until the door opened. Ethan had a bloody lip and a red bruise on his cheek. “I said go away!” he slammed the door shut.
“You had a fight! And I bet you lost!” I said to the door. I went down to the kitchen where Grandma was at the old iron and porcelain stove, standing over a pot that smelled of cabbage. In our house you either liked cabbage or you went hungry. I told her. “Grandfather will talk to him,” she said, shaking her head.
Grandpa Viktor usually got home around five from his job at the shipping company owned by his brother-in-law Teodor, whom we called Uncle Teddy. But Grandma must have called him, because he came home early that afternoon. I was in my room doing homework when I heard the front door slam. After a few minutes, I heard Grandpa Viktor’s heavy tread on the stairs. I came out of my room as he knocked on Ethan’s door. “Later, zaichik,” he said, smiling at me.
The door opened and Grandpa went in, closing the door behind him. I went down the hall to listen, but I could only hear Grandpa’s growly voice.
After dinner, which just was weird because no one was talking, Ethan stared at his plate, and Grandma and Grandpa exchanged looks, the doorbell rang. Grandpa got up and opened the door. A red-faced curly haired man stood there with a red-faced curly-haired kid of about thirteen. I ran to the window and looked out. A black Lincoln was at the curb. Volodymyr, my 2nd or 3rd cousin or something, was leaning against it, his giant arms folded, watching. Tattoos climbed up his neck above his shirt collar, and onto his shaved head. He looked up, saw me and nodded, almost but not quite smiling.
Grandpa let the man and the kid into the house, and showed them into the living room. Grandma took Ethan’s arm and led him in, where he stood by the door to the dining room, not looking at anyone. Grandpa gestured to the sagging maroon couch and they sat. I went to sit down on the leather chair, but Grandma shook her head and with her thumb, pointed to the stairs and raised her left eyebrow. One raised eyebrow meant “Do it!” Both eyebrows raised meant DefCon 3. Reluctantly, I went upstairs, stood in the hall outside my room and noisily shut the door. Then I tiptoed back to the head of the stairs. I couldn’t see the living room, but I could hear.
Grandpa: “Mr. Cogosin. And this is your son Grigori?”
The dad (I guessed): squeaky voice: “Da…” Clearing of throat. “Mne tak zhal’—”
Grandpa: “English, please. And let your son speak.”
The kid: another throat clearing, higher voice: “Er, I’m sorry, Ethan.”
Grandpa: “For what, Grigori?”
Grigori: “For calling you a kogoot.”
I knew that word. Russian kids in our neighborhood would yell it at us Ukrainians and spit. No clue what it means.
Grigori: “And for punching you in the face.”
Grandpa: “I think we must leave behind the differences between Russians and Ukrainians. Here we are all Americans. Do you agree?”
No voices, but I bet the dad and the kid were nodding their heads.
Grandpa: “Very good. Now, Ethan, Grigori, shake hands.” Then: “Voly will take you home.”
And that’s how I knew we were different.