My father loved Charles Dickens. More than anything, perhaps. It was a fact of life simple enough for me to understand in my earliest moments of conciousness. Papa is tall, wears glasses, has brown hair, and loves Charles Dickens.
Both my parents were immigrants, my mother from Bohemia, along with her mother and seven siblings, and my father from Russia, alone except for his English language collection. They met on a boat from London and were married in Manhattan in time to live together in the top room of the house my grandmother bought from the state of Minnesota. As Europe exploded into the Midwest, our family spun little webs of nations through the Twin Cities; my father, a doctor, could translate the twenty most common illnesses into German, Polish, and Hebrew, and my mother spent most of her time downstairs speaking rapid Bohemian with her siblings, all of whom remained in my grandmother’s house except for my uncle, Ludvik, who had dedicated his life to the Minneapolis Communist Party and moved across the Mississippi to St. Paul.
The unity of immigration that bound our family ended there, however. In strict accordance to his bible, Great Expectations, my father vowed to bring me up with all the posterity of Miss Havisham raising Estella, which is to say in stark contrast to the carelessly emotive passion of my cousins. When my aunts and uncles sent their children to the big brick public school a few blocks down, my father hired me a tutor whose back he had fixed a few years ago and who believed heavily in the power of censorship. As my cousins learned the alphabet, I learned the detailed lineage of the Romanovs from Mikhail I to Alexei, and that Lenin was likely the first horse of the apocalypse.
Both my tutor and my father also shared the belief that books were the best way to learn about life, and agreed I was old enough to choose my first Dickens story as soon as I was able to string words together into comprehensible ideas. I chose Oliver Twist because it was about a child, but after stumbling through that first reading, decided that Charles Dickens had never been a child.
Regardless of the emotional scars the tale left me, I was entranced by Oliver’s story. One evening in October my grandmother’s brother sent a set of dollhouses from the Old World, mistaking the amount of time it would take for a parcel to reach us by Christmas. My cousins and I spent the evening constructing a little village that, because our oldest cousin, Madlenka, voraciously claimed it was the capital of Bohemia, we named St. Prague. We shared our American-made dolls and invented an idyllic community around the front parlour of my grandmother’s house.
Madlenka doled me out two dolls. One wore a faded blue suit and had the pink paint of his face mostly chipped off, and his partner had a red dress and one leg. They lived together near the river, and when Madlenka tossed a little china dog to me to complete the family, the connection between St. Prague and the slums of London was clear.
“Careful, Willa, you’ll break her!” Madlenka cried out as my blue suited doll clashed again against the other harshly. “What are you doing?”
“She tried to protect Oliver, so Bill’s killing her,” I explained.
Madlenka stared at me for a moment, then laughed unsurely. “Whatever you say, ty vole. But if you break her, you’ll have to buy me a new one. With both legs.”
I doubt if she ever thought of it again, but all at once I realized that I was not growing up at the same rate as my cousins. We lived in the same house as each other, shared the same blood, but the public school, crowded dialects, and streetcar stories of my cousins pulled their branches of the family tree into western eruption, while steadfast tradition, Old World lessons, and Charles Dickens held mine close to the heart of the east. I saw my cousins every day, but after Bill Sykes murdered Nancy in my grandmother’s parlour, a continental and impassable divide went up between me and my family.
My consolation prize for betraying Bohemia was my father’s pride. While my cousins invented stories without me, my father and I discussed scenes, characters, lines, plot points I had undoubtedly missed, until it felt as if our upstairs apartment was London in the nineteenth century.
On my fourteenth birthday, my father purchased a brand new set of all of Dickens’ works in chronological order, bound in red, green, and navy blue, with golden letters wrapped tightly over their covers and spines.
“You’ve chosen the path of the heart that never hardens, Willa,” he told me in his doctor voice. “These books will teach you far more than I ever could, and I only expect that you adhere to their reason.”
I ran my fingers over the delicately ridged spines. “One’s missing.”
“Yes, A Tale of Two Cities. You’re not old enough to understand it yet.”
This I accepted, but when I heard him tell my tutor he was afraid I was “impressionable enough to accidentally become a Bolshevik,” the logic lost a bit of gravity.
That summer my uncle Ludvik moved back into my grandmother’s house. Ludvik was shadowy and smooth, with greased hair, two clean, black suits that he alternated between every other day, and a gray cap that used to belong to my grandfather. At dinner he smiled and listened but never spoke, except to my grandmother, in a low, thick voice that reminded me of oil. More interesting than his return was that of his son. My cousin Anton was a physical reflection of his father, but what Ludvik lacked in social skills, Anton made up for in abundance. He was sixteen, told stories, taught us songs and poems, wore velvet ties, wrote plays for us to perform, spoke Russian, English, and the mother language, sewed up buttons and rips in his clothes himself, liked orange juice, knew the old Bohemian national anthem by heart, and remembered everything anyone had ever told him. He was ignorant to the ocean between me and the rest of our cousins, and for the first time since I learned to read, I was a part of the family again.
My mother didn’t say anything about the return of her brother, but my father the tsarist made no attempt to mask his discontent.
“As if this country hasn’t been good enough to us. He makes his money on socialism, for God’s sake.”
“Well, he had to move back in with my mother. He can’t be making much.”
My father said “hm” from the back of his throat and turned a page.
One day Anton knocked on my bedroom door before breakfast. “Good morning, Willa. We’re going downtown to the river.”
“Can I come?”
“No, I’m just over to ask your permission. Of course you can, ty vole. Come on.”
Since Anton’s arrival, the twelve of us behaved like young children again, and now under the rising sun and cloud of loving freedom, we filled the streetcar station with copper laughter and the smell of warm hair and wilting flowers. My younger cousins chased each other around newsstands while Madlenka and Anton bought a dozen tickets, the latter smiling at his long lost bloodline like a proud father.
Somewhere near the Mississippi, Anton led us off and onto the streets. I followed him blindly, as we all would, as we all did. We stopped in front of everything interesting- yellow birds in big cages lined against a window, piles of wool scarves imported from Ireland, a machine breathing in cakey circles and exhaling perfectly powdered doughnuts. For lunch we climbed down near the river’s edge and Anton unveiled sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. As Madlenka piped out warnings about the water, Anton and I sat together on a bench under a dark green tree that dyed our skin in shades of emerald and gold.
He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. “I won’t offer you one, little cousin.”
“I wouldn’t want one. I prefer cigars.”
He laughed out a billow of smoke. “All that wit wasted on your big empty apartment.” He cleared his throat quickly. “Sorry.”
“It’s true,” I said, for Anton’s approval had made me suddenly bitter for how much simpler his was than my father’s. “It’s like I’m not even part of the same family as you. If I went to school with everyone else, I’d really be your cousin. I feel like a stranger to Bohemia.”
“Only because you act so much mightier than everyone else.” He didn’t say it coldly. “Everyone thinks you’re better than us.”
“Of course I’m not. No one’s better than anyone.”
“Spoken like a communist, cousin.”
“I don’t really know what that means. My father says politics are only for people who have lived through a revolution and come out without joining the socialist cult.”
“There’s your fatal flaw, Willa. Who cares what your father says?”
“I do!” I said with immigrated indignance.
Anton was quiet for a moment. “Your father doesn’t like me, does he?”
“He doesn’t like our family?”
“Well, what does he like?”
Anton looked at me the same way Madlenka had years ago in my grandmother’s parlour. “Charles Dickens? Why?”
He turned to look me in the eyes. I thought of the golden letters on the spines in the library, of the nightmares of becoming a pickpocket, of constant competition with David Copperfield, of great expectations hung in our living room and raised daily, of my father, the ghost of approval past, present, and future, and suddenly, in my cousin’s eyes, they were all meaningless histories of someone else’s child who would never fit into the New World, coincidental collections of antiquated letters that could not possibly define this moment, or the way love feels, or family. They were just words.
“- grievously overrated,” I finished.
And finally, Anton laughed.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself, ségra. You know what was especially awful? A Tale of Two Cities. Do you like the French Revolution?”
“My tutor doesn’t, so probably.”
“Eat slow and I’ll give you the short version. Don’t tell Charles Darnay, which is just about the most pathetic attempt at glorified self insertion I’ve ever read, by the way. And you can’t care too much what your father thinks, or else I wouldn’t be your favorite cousin.”
After lunch, we piled back onto a southbound streetcar and fell asleep on each other’s shoulders. I thought about the tennis court oath my parents signed in London, and I thought of the tyranny of King Louis the Traditionalist, and I thought if Anton was Robespierre, I would be Saint-Just, and I would follow him to the guillotine or to paradise, and I wished with all my heart that I could have grown up like this.
In August, Uncle Ludvik announced that he had taken on a job in Chicago writing for a newspaper. He and Anton would move at the end of the month. I would be alone again.
On their last night in St. Paul, my grandmother and my aunts prepared a holiday meal and threw a Bohemian goodbye. Heartbroken, I tried to summon anger and lay outside in the grass while the rest of my family played charades. It was hot, but the stars were cool in the blue velvet sky, and music drifted out through the open windows. Tonight it tasted like kaleidoscopes and museums and the feeling of relief after you cry.
Anton came and lay next to me quietly. He was the only person I ever met who knew how to just be quiet.
“I’ll run away,” I said suddenly. “I’ll go to real school with you and we’ll be a regular American family and no one will know anything different.”
I could hear him smile. “We are a regular American family, Willa. And there are schools here. All you have to do is ask.” He coughed and handed me a little brown package. “Anyways I got you this.”
It was a dimestore copy of A Tale of Two Cities. The pages were yellow and thin, and the font blurred in some spots, the complete opposite of the secret story my father kept locked in leatherbound idealism.
“You can’t be afraid of what you don’t know, ty vole,” Anton said.
Dependably, words failed me.
Around midnight we gathered on the porch to say goodbye. I had hoped to have something clever to say when Anton reached me, but when he passed from Madlenka’s arms to mine, all I could do was hold him with the warmth of falling asleep on Christmas Eve.
He said one thing, and it was the last thing I heard him say until I saw him the next month in Chicago. “Remember, it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Then he was gone.
As we climbed the stairs that night my father slowed down to speak with me. “You know, Anton told me something tonight.”
“He said tutoring is bourgeois nonsense and that the only way to truly gain an education worth having is by living.”
I looked up.
My father smiled. “What a thing to tell your uncle. Do you think it’s true?”
All you have to do is ask.
“I think I’d like to go to school, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hm. It does seem to do something for your cousins, doesn’t it?”
He twitched his moustache in a little circle. “Then it’s settled.”
I don’t love Charles Dickens. I don’t pretend I ever will. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from him, it’s that love is awfully hard to lose. It’s just too big. Love is greater than acceptance, than money, than death, language, streetcar stops, tsarism, my father, Anton, life, me. And always, it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, and one day and forever there is a far, far better rest that I will go to than I have ever known.
Kathryn Ward is a senior at Minnetonka High School. She works at the Minnetonka Writing Center and presented her research conducted there at the National Conference for Peer Tutoring in Writing in 2016. Writing has been the backbone of her life and will continue to be in her impending post-secondary education in English. This is her first publication.