My maternal grandfather, Anatoly Vyortkin, was blind. He was in a car accident, and he hit his head. I guess, in a way, he was lucky. The guy next to him in the car was killed. But over the next few weeks, my grandfather, started to notice that his vision was getting worse and worse, dimmer and dimmer. He consulted a doctor in Minsk, who referred him to a specialist in Moscow, who recommended an operation.
During this operation, the specialist nicked one of the optic nerves, resulting in my grandfather seeing only a fraction of some light for the rest of his life. He never saw my mother grow to be an adult, and he never saw me at all. He lived in a world of near-darkness.
As a child, I would often close my eyes and navigate our apartment at night by memory, trying to live in my grandfather’s world. As I got older, old enough that I could actually leave the house at night and eventually live on my own, I would use the shadows of the night, doing to my best to walk quietly, to breath through my mouth, to blend with the darkness and use it as a cloak of invisibility. Because of my grandfather, I have learned to love the night, and find comfort within it.
My grandfather never let his blindness either deter him nor define him. An outgoing, gregarious person, he enjoyed going dancing with my grandmother; calling his friends and shooting the breeze with them. He was very social. He loved hearing me read to him; loved my grandmother’s cooking, savoring his meals and praising his wife’s cooking skills. He was a man passionately in love with his wife, he called her “my little hands, my little feet” in Yiddish. He loved taking walks with his daughter, my mother. My grandfather was the hardest worker I have ever met. He used to say that he would cheerfully murder the person who invented weekends — in Soviet Union’s case, it meant Sundays, the only day of the week off. He worked in the Factory for the Blind, and was proud of that.
While my parents were never members of the Communist Party, my grandfather was. Not a Stalinist, he was the old-time Trotskyist, one of those Jews in the mold of the Jews who created the party, full of optimism and hope for it, and who were later killed for that.
As I read Animal Farm, by George Orwell, I could not stop crying after they carted the old horse off to the glue factory. Because that was my grandfather, working himself pretty much to death, all for the good of the Party, never complaining, never saying a bitter, bad word against anyone.
My grandfather was a heavy smoker all his adult life (and probably before that). How heavy? During the war he used to trade his ration card for bread for a ration card for tobacco. That’s right — he would rather smoke than eat. I loved hugging him, his clothing permeated with the smell of cigarettes. He died of lung cancer when he was 70 years old.
I, myself, quit smoking more than 17 years ago, when I became pregnant with my son. And when he was born, we gave him a middle name of Avery (A for Anatoly, V for Vyortkin, a sort of loose anagram of my grandfather’s name). But to this day, passing someone smoking, I would take a deep inhale of second-hand smoke and miss my grandfather.
My grandfather didn’t want to come to America. “In Belarus I am blind. In America I am going to be blind and deaf,” he said. But he was out-voted, and since his only child, and his only grandchild was leaving, there was no way he was going to stay behind.
He lived long enough to “see” his daughter learn to drive, get a car, get a house. He was learning English, using his monumental memory which was compensation for the loss of his sight. He was also learning to put key chains together, a sort of a job he was doing for someone at the Jewish Community Center. Even in America, where he was well-cared for, he did not change his nature — he had to work.
My grandfather had the kindest, softest heart. I have seen my grandfather cry often. He was never afraid to show his feelings. He used to say that when his heart would get full, it would overflow and come out through his tear ducts.
Once, here, in the U.S., we went to services in a synagogue. The cantor’s daughter, a girl of about 20 years of age, was pointed out to us because she was blind, as well. She was beautiful, her skin like cream-colored porcelain, with a long, delicate neck — she looked like a swan who took human form, graceful and elegant, like a ballet dancer. When my mom told my grandfather about her, he cried, he pitied her. Because he had been sighted and was blind, but she had never seen.
This most generous of men taught me that when visiting people, I should always accept their hospitality, for two simple reasons. If people were true and generous givers, it would bring them pleasure — and that would be a great reward. If people were stingy, it would bring them pain — and would serve them right. My grandfather had a good sense of humor, too.