On Christmas Day, Mom, Dad, and I get up early and open our presents from each other, then go to my grandparents' house. We arrive to find Grandma Hazel in the kitchen and Grandpa William sitting on the sofa.
"Hi, Dad!" Mom says as she goes to him and gives him a hug. "How have you been?"
"Much better, thanks," he replies as he hugs her back.
Grandma Hazel emerges from the kitchen.
"We came early to see if you needed any help," Mom explains.
"Oh no, thank you," says Grandma Hazel. "I've got it under control."
When she finishes cooking, I help carry the bowls of steaming food to the table, while Mom helps Grandpa William to his chair, even though he keeps insisting he can make it just fine.
"Something really exciting happened," I tell my grandparents as we're eating. "Remember how I told you about meeting a guy named Viktor in Russia last year? Well, he and his family live here in San Francisco now! His sister cut my hair, and they went to Lisa's party with me."
"Tanya, my word!" Grandma Hazel laughs. "You and your mother are just alike - both of you and your European men!"
"You too, Mom," Mom reminds her.
"Well, I didn't know Kolya was Russian when I first met him," Grandma Hazel points out.
Sunday is two days later. I put on my white dress with the different colored flowers on it. Mom makes my favorite, lasagna.
When the doorbell rings, I jump, then get up to let my guests in.
Viktor is wearing brown slacks with a beige shirt and black dress shoes. Valeria has on black slacks, a red blouse with ruffles, and black flats.
"Come on in!" I tell them. "This is my Mom and Dad."
Dad, who's sitting on the sofa, stands and goes to shake hands with our guests.
"It's lovely to meet you," he tells them. "Tanya has told me so much about you."
Mom appears in the entrance to the living room.
"It's so good to meet you!" She shakes hands with them, too. "Please, come to the table. Dinner is almost ready."
We all take our seats at the table, and a few minutes later, Mom brings out a large bowl of steaming lasagna. The tangy aroma wafting from it makes my mouth water.
"You're gonna love my Mom's lasagna," I tell my guests.
Dad says blessing - a habit from his childhood - and then we all dig in.
"This is delicious," Valeria tells Mom. "I have never had it before. It is similar to makaronnik s tvorogom, only better - much better."
"Thank you," says Mom. "I'm glad you like it."
"What do you do as a profession, Viktor?" asks Dad.
"In St. Petersburg, I was a police officer," Viktor replies. "Right now, I am learning to repair cars. I have applied to become an American citizen, and when that process is complete, I will be able to attend the police academy here in San Francisco."
"You seem like a fine young man," says Dad. "From first hand experience, I know it isn't that easy to start over again in a new country. It takes courage and determination, which I can see you have, and I admire you for that."
It occurs to me that, in a way, Dad and Viktor are kindred spirits.
Viktor and I begin to date regularly, and one day in late winter, I receive the welcome news that I passed the civil service exam. I get a telephone call a couple of days later, and to my surprise, it's Carmen. I haven't heard from her since the babysitting episode.
"Guess what!" she says, right after I say hello. "I just found out I passed the exam! Did you find out yet if you did, too?"
"I did as well," I reply, too startled to be peeved about what happened that night. "I just got the notice a couple of days ago."
"This calls for a celebration!" she says. "You and I should have lunch together at the restaurant where I work. I get an employee discount, so I will pay for both of us."
"Sure, that would be fine," I say.
The restaurant she works at is called The Whole Enchilada and is only a couple of blocks from her home. Thankful that I'm headed for a lunch date rather than a dinner date, I drive past the familiar scenery to the address she gave me. The building is painted pink, and a Spanish arch is over the door. I enter to find the interior is painted bright yellow, and the walls are filled with colorful paintings. A matching rug covers the floor. Carmen calls to me from a table, and I join her.
"How are your children?" I ask.
"They are fine," she replies. "Anita made the honor roll, and Gabriel is also doing well in his special school. Pilar has so much energy! She really keeps us on our feet."
One of Carmen's co-workers brings us a plate of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa.
"How's your mother?" I ask.
"She is doing much better. She is on a new medication, and it has helped her a lot."
"I'm glad." I remember her remark about men and wonder whether or not to mention Viktor.
"How are things with you?" she asks.
"Busy," I reply. "I'm still taking care of birds. It gets really messy sometimes, but I know if I left the job, I'd miss it."
"And what do you like to do for fun?"
"I've been spending a lot of time showing my boyfriend around San Francisco. He just moved here last August."
Her smile disappears. "Oh, so you have a novio."
I can feel my cheeks burning as I clear my throat.
"He's a very nice person. He's an immigrant from Russia, and he's learning to work on cars."
"Just be careful." Her voice is almost a whisper.
Viktor finishes his training and gets a job at a local auto repair shop. Meanwhile, Carmen and I both get entry level positions at the Federal Building.
One Saturday, Viktor and I are strolling along the Ben Johnson trail in Muir Woods. All around us, the redwoods reach so high up into the sky you can't see their tops.
"It always makes me feel like an ant to walk through here," I remark.
"I know how you feel," Viktor replies. "When I consider the vastness of the world, I feel very insignificant by comparison. Only one person among many, but if there are two people together, like you and I, then you feel much less alone."
"I never thought of it like that before," I reply.
"There is something I have been wanting to ask you, and right now seems the perfect time." He removes and object from his pocket and then drops to one knee. "Will you marry me, Tanya?"
"Oh, yes!" I cry.
He stands and slips the ring onto my finger. It's a small diamond on a plain gold band, but to me, it's beautiful.
I tell my parents and grandparents as soon as I am able to. They've gotten to know Viktor well and are happy for me. Next, I write to my grandparents in Germany and tell them. A few days before the wedding, I receive a letter from Grandmother Ursula.
Thank you so much for your sweet letter. Congratulations on your upcoming wedding. I am so happy you have found someone to share your life with. You deserve all the happiness in the world.
Your grandfather and I are still deeply in love, living life to the fullest and never taking a single day for granted. We don't mourn for all the lost years. Instead, we thank God every day for His many blessings and for providing a way for us to at last find happiness together.
I shared your letter with your grandfather. He laughed and said how fitting it is that the grandson of the former hall boy will wed the great granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas II. We both know your great grandfather is looking down from heaven and smiling.
All my love,
I put the letter with the one from Great Aunt Alisa. I know I will always keep them both.
Viktor and I exchange vows on a beautiful summer day, in the same park my grandparents were married in last year. In his black tuxedo, Viktor is so handsome I just want to melt inside every time I look at him. I am wearing the same gown Mom wore when she married Dad.
Everyone from both families who lives locally is there. Lisa, Heather, Valeria, and Carmen are my bridesmaids, and Anita and Pilar are our flower girls. Gabriel is the ring bearer. Everyone remarks about how darling the children are.
As Viktor raises my veil and kisses my lips, I know that whatever the future holds for us, we will face it together.