One of my first childhood memories: New Year’s Eve, Leningrad, 1976. The doorbell rings, my mother opens it, and a bear walks in on his hind legs. Four-year-old me starts trembling. Bear! Bear! Soon I will be eaten. No, my mother tells me: “It’s Grandfather Frost,” the secular, socialist-friendly Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, with New Year’s standing in for Christmas. And it’s true. On top of his shabby gray-white fur that makes him so uniquely ursine, the bear sports a red hat and a flowing white beard made of cotton balls.
“I have gifts for a little boy,” says the Holiday Bear, hefting a heavy sack, “but first he must sing me a song.” I tremble like a poplar in early autumn, when the outrageous Leningrad winds slam off the Neva and into the riverbank upon which our newly built but already exhausted-looking apartment house stands, like a factory worker at the end of a sausage line. Soon a New Year’s fight between overexcited comrades will break out on the street below us and a slick of blood will run halfway down to the river. But for now all I can focus is on our visitor’s familiar light brown eyes and the strong baritone of his voice. Where have I met him before? What does he want from me? My mother prods me on. “Sing Grandfather Frost your song.”
My weak-voiced performance begins: “May there always be sunshine,” I warble the lyrics to the famous Soviet Pioneer song. “May there always be blue skies. May there always be Mommy. May there always be me!” Grandfather Frost is pleased. He empties his sack beneath the nondenominational New Year’s Tree and suddenly I’m rich in caramel Little Cow candies, a police car with a nonfunctional siren, and a model of the LK Lunar Ship, the Soviet version of America’s lunar lander, which, sad to say, never quite landed on the moon.
Age 4 is too old not to recognize your father beneath a fur coat and some cotton balls. But I have no clue. Grandfather Frost’s voice booms like my father’s, he smells of cabbage soup and contaminated street frost as does my father, his eyes shine with the half-extinguished coals of Soviet life as do my father’s, his knuckles are covered by the same dusting of dark Jewish-grade hair that would identify him as my best friend, i.e. my father — and yet … I continue to tremble before our bearlike visitor. So tiny is my world that unless my father comes to me with his small naked lips and goateed chin, I will refrain from throwing my arms around his neck and burying my face in the dense eternity of his itchy scarf.
In three years our family will leave for the United States. The nondenominational New Year’s Tree and equally secular Grandfather Frost will be gone — the local Jews of Kew Gardens, Queens, will tell us both traditions smack of a certain Christian holiday, making them verboten. No more pine smells at the end of December, rather a seven-fisted candelabra that someone at the local synagogue is kind enough to throw our way. And no more sacks bulging with caramel cow candy and lunar rovers. We are poor enough that my main toy is a pen, followed by a donated Chewbacca action figure, missing half of one paw.
What remains is my mystification. For someone who will one day earn his bread as a writer, I have a painfully difficult time figuring out what exists beneath people’s disguises. The middle-class children of a Queens Hebrew school marinating in relative wealth and arcane ritual. The fellow immigrant strivers of Stuyvesant High School, who seem so much better adapted for a lifetime of professional success. The polyester-clad elites of Oberlin College, who seem to relish the make-believe version of the poverty from which I escaped.
Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, every person in my life manages to confound me, my parents included. Even as I grow up with them in the tight, tiny and desperate three-person formation that constitutes most Russian families, I never understand who they are. All I can see is my father bearing down on me in love and anger, my mother choked by a spume of anxiety and concern.
During New Year’s I feel the sadness the most. My mother misses her New Year’s tree and her mother and sister, left behind in Leningrad. When I enter high school and Americanize in earnest, both of my parents must miss the child I would have become had we stayed behind in Russia — so obedient, so unquestioning and single-minded in love of family.
We can’t do Christmas because we’re Jewish, and we never really get the full gist of Hanukkah beyond the candle lighting and the spiel about Jews conquering Greeks. New Year’s remains our holiday. As I grow older I try to celebrate with my parents every year, the vodka toasts and the sturgeon and the beets, but gradually life takes me elsewhere. Until the December night, a year after college, when I find myself on the pay phone of a trendy Belgian restaurant in Manhattan, my best friend waiting for me upstairs, as I dial their number to coincide with the last 10 seconds of the year, so they can hear my voice reaching out to Queens, if not see my face red with drink and joy. Even as I’m learning to read people, my parents remain partly unknowable. I speak their language, but they no longer speak mine.
And yet, eventually the bear suit comes off, as my father’s finally did on that Leningrad New Year’s to both my confusion and delight. (How can Papa also be a bear?) And there it is: the strange fidelity of fathers and sons. Now my 2-month-old son is reaching out to me with a chubby hand and a single-minded smile. I know his game; he’s checking to see whether or not I have a nipple that will give him milk, and on that score I have already failed him.
But, oh, the amazement in his eyes as he surveys the amazement in mine.
The 41-year-old creature he is staring at, me, has crossed the statistical halfway point of his life (in Russia, nearly the two-thirds point), and now he has been made soft and content by the soft, content bonanza in his arms. He’s not wearing a bear coat or a beard made of cotton balls, but his stubble, his too-thick glasses, even the professional cultural life around him that helps keep his son in burp cloths and Bugaboos, the marketing feints and self-promotion, are their own kind of disguise.
Will my son see through it? Or will he, like most sons, just keep guessing?
Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story and a forthcoming memoir, Little Failure.