My grandfather made me a cedar chest when I was a baby, as he did for his other grandchildren, and over the years, my mother curated a mini-museum of my childhood. I’ve kept it close by all of my life; for the past decade, it’s served as a coffee table in my home office. I don’t often browse the contents, but my father asked me recently if I had an old film reel that he’d given me when I was 18 and so I moved the towers of books, shooed away the cat, and opened it up.
A short list of the paraphernalia inside: the Dirndl dresses with aprons my mother bought while I was gestating in Germany, the Mickey and Goofy figures that adorned my first birthday cake, a stack of cards my parents received upon my birth–including a clever telegram from my father’s colleagues at the Ramstein Air Force Base referencing the receipt of an intracompany shipping delivery, several tiny sweaters knitted by various great-aunts, a lovingly detailed baby book, the Atlanta newspaper delivered on the day of my birth, a book of poetry I’d written in elementary school, an album of certificates and awards–including one for a Ready Writing contest, and my favorite thing of all–a stack of letters that I’d sent to my maternal grandmother from the time I was pre-literate until adulthood. She’d saved them all, and returned them to me just before she died.
In most of them, I expressed either my never-ending desire for her to fly from West Virginia to visit me in Texas, or gratitude for a recent visit. I often drew pictures or wrote poems in the margins, and it was interesting to see how my interest in creative writing was so much a part of my nature even when I was little.
But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?
This drawing on the back of a letter to my grandmother was dated 1975. I was six years old. What could I possibly have known of my beloved Alex back then?
Did I know that he was brought up by his mother, who worked as a shorthand-typist, in the town of Rostov on the Don, where he spent the whole of his childhood and youth? Or that even as a child, without any prompting from others, he wanted to be a writer? That in the 1930s, he tried to get his writings published but couldn’t find anyone willing to accept his manuscripts? Or that he was a dissenter and based on certain disrespectful (but disguised) remarks about Stalin in his correspondence with a school friend, was arrested? That in 1970, just five years before I declared my love, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Of course I didn’t. But when I grew up, I minored in Soviet studies in college, I read his books, was enamored of his bravery and tenacity. I dropped the titles of his books into two of mine, 11 Stories and The Weight of a Piano. And yet somehow, I’d forgotten about my early crush. Why I even had one will probably forever remain a mystery. But forty years later, I look back on it–along with all the other treasures from my childhood–and smile.
The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature.