Lessons in language and culture from my grandmother

A small child learning Russian from her grandmother in a grassy field
Olivia Staser/Staff

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When I was little, I couldn’t pronounce my grandmother’s name, Galina, only the word “Galika,” so that was what I called her. I never gave much thought to it — she was simply Galika to me. I don’t know why I favored this over the traditional “babushka” (grandma), but it stuck. To this day — I’m 22 years old — she’s known as Galika to me and to everyone else in our family.

I have no recollection of when I started speaking Russian; it just happened. Language acquisition is fluid — a baby’s blubbering forms into words, then sentences, then full-blown conversations, without anyone really giving much thought to it. But I moved to California when I was 3 years old and lost the Russian language in the pursuit of learning English. So while I can’t remember learning the first time, I do remember the second time around.

After my family moved to the United States, I completely lost my grasp on what little Russian I had had as a toddler. By the time I was 5, the first summer that Galika and Deda, my grandpa, came to visit, English was no longer foreign to me — instead, Russian was.

That first summer, Galika and I would go on walks together in our suburban neighborhood, and she would point to objects around us saying the word in Russian. “Trava,” she would say as she pointed at the grass. “Neba,” while pointing at the sky. “Trava! Neba!” I would enthusiastically repeat. And slowly but surely, these random words came to symbolize objects, materializing into sentences, and soon I was once again able to carry on conversations with Galika and Deda.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents because they watched me while my parents were away at work. My childhood summers are sweetly nostalgic, marked by their visits. We would go swimming every day, sometimes twice — once in the morning and again in the evening. At lunchtime, I would sit at the kitchen island reading the book Galika had laid out for me or writing the words she dictated as she cooked, with the green-colored Russian alphabet template I used for help beside me.

Galika would bring back board games from Russia, all cleverly disguised teaching opportunities — crosswords and puzzle games that required me to spell out the names of fruits or animals. At times, I would groan about these lessons but quickly acquiesced when bribed with “konfeti” — candy. At night when I was supposed to be sleeping, I would beg Galika to tell me stories through my open window before she and Deda went on their evening walk together. During the afternoons, when we had to be quiet as my baby brother napped, she would read me short stories by Pushkin and Chekhov.

These seem merely like memories from my childhood, but they aren’t. I learned a few years ago from Galika that my dad asked her to reteach me Russian that first summer my grandparents came to visit back in 2002. Growing up, my dad was always encouraging me to read, taking me to the library, having me write journal reports on family excursions we went on. I always knew that without him, I wouldn’t have the love I have for literature, and I likely wouldn’t be an English major pursuing a publishing career. It’s curious looking back on my childhood, realizing the languid summer days, the familiarity of the routines implemented by Galika, were part of something bigger. That the lessons were a joint effort fueled by two people’s love for me, two people who wanted the best for me but ended up giving me so much more.

I don’t see Galika every summer like I used to. But every so often, we Skype. I tell her about my classes, my stress with job searching. She tells me about the latest symphony concert she attended and sends me pictures of my hometown during Christmas, snow blanketing the roads and lights glittering across the buildings. I talk to Deda about the Slavic literature classes I’m taking; together, we debate Raskolnikov’s motive for murder.

I know so many Russian American kids who can barely communicate with their grandparents and some who simply don’t care enough to. I realize that without Galika’s guidance that first summer, I wouldn’t have the bond I do with my grandparents. I wouldn’t listen to Russian music or follow singers on Instagram. I wouldn’t gravitate toward courses on Russian authors when putting together my class schedule, or even appreciate literature in the way that I do, without my grandparents.

Knowing another language isn’t just another skill to add to a resume; it’s a means of so much more — it welcomed me back to a culture I would have lost, to people who would have just been far-off, unknown family members, to a world of literature that I would never have discovered without these influences.

To my dad — thank you. And to Galika — spasibo.

Katie Lakina is an assistant night editor. Contact her at [email protected] .