I was 9 when my grandfather died. For a year or two after his funeral, bruises would appear on my body. Large or small, yellow or blue, round or misshapen. My mother was concerned. She kept asking me if everything was okay at school. I said yes, everything was okay; I just bumped into things a lot. What I didn’t tell her was why I bumped into things a lot. It was too scary and embarrassing to admit.
I bumped into things because I was scared of the mirror reflections in the dark, and I would always close my eyes whenever I had to pass a mirror. There was a huge mirror in the hall en route to the bathroom from my room, so when I had to use the bathroom at night, I made the entire journey with my eyes closed, groping at the walls. I did that because I was told that in Jewish homes, dead people lived behind the mirrors, and at night you could catch a glimpse of them.
My grandfather had three children: my mother and my two uncles. My grandmother asked them to help her give him a proper Jewish burial. Being raised in the Soviet Union, none of them had any idea of what this would entail, but all three agreed that it would be very unwise to do anything conspicuously Jewish. After a series of cajoling discussions, they managed to talk my grandmother into accepting a compromise funeral. My grandfather had to be cremated. There had to be an open casket ceremony for our grandfather’s Russian neighbors and friends so that they could say proper goodbyes and not ponder our Jewishness too much. We couldn’t have the Mourner’s Kaddish at the funeral. My grandmother could say the prayer silently, in her mind. But we had to skip a vodka reception afterward. And in the privacy of our home there would be seven days of peace and quiet, and we could walk barefoot and have all the mirrors covered.
At that time I knew nothing about Judaism. Teachers taught us that all religion was poison, and in my family we didn’t talk about faith at all. Plus the very concept of us being Jewish was baffling to me. From the remarks made by my Russian schoolmates and my Jewish relatives, I gathered that being Jewish in the Soviet Union was something like a handicap, which made people look down on you and hampered your progress in life. It also had a hidden advantage of meaning you were very intelligent, but you could never ever let on. That concept of blending in by being invisible ruled my family’s life. I don’t remember us doing anything Jewish except for reading Sholem Aleichem and eating matzo once in a while. My grandparents could exchange an occasional phrase in Yiddish. But one time my mother overheard me yelling: “Goyim khazerim,” and prohibited the use of Yiddish in my presence.
The concept of death was just as baffling. My grandfather went to buy groceries one day, collapsed on the supermarket’s floor, was taken to a hospital and died three days later. This was called a stroke, and I imagined my grandfather being “struck” by something horrible and invisible. The next time I saw him was in the open coffin propped on the bench by the entrance of our apartment building. He looked exactly like he’d always looked: He had the same mouth, the same nose, the same eyes that wouldn’t close, and yet he didn’t look human at all. “Take the little girl away,” somebody said. My aunt took me back to the apartment, where I spent the rest of the funeral with her and my slightly older cousin. “Why all the mirrors are covered?” I asked my aunt. “Out of respect for the dead,” she said. “So you wouldn’t stare at yourself and think how pretty you look in that dress, but focus on the memories of your dear grandfather.” I didn’t buy any of that. First of all, I wasn’t pretty, and I certainly wasn’t pretty in that ugly, tight “good for the funeral” dress. And my grandfather wasn’t dear! He was mean and crazy; he yelled at us, he pushed my grandmother around, and he once threatened to kill us all because the wrong dish was served for breakfast. My cousin confirmed my suspicions. He said that his mom was lying to me. He said that his father told him all about the mirrors, and he would now tell it to me. My grandfather’s ghost was inside that mirror, and we covered the mirrors with sheets so that he wouldn’t break through the glass and come into the apartment. I asked if he would go away after the funeral. My cousin said no, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t try to break in anymore, but he would be there watching us, visible in the dark.
I ran into my mirrorless room and stayed there until the funeral was over. My mother, my grandmother and my uncles came back. The friends and neighbors soon followed. They couldn’t grasp the idea of a funeral without a reception. I guess they thought that our family, like all Jews, was too cheap to honor my grandfather the right way. Each of them came with their own bottle of vodka. My mother and grandmother had no choice but to provide whatever food was in the fridge. My grandfather turned out to be very popular. The guests kept coming, kept drinking, eating and making speeches, becoming increasingly rowdy. The evening culminated with our next-door neighbor walking to the middle of the room, pressing her hand to her chest as if to say a heartfelt speech, then falling face-down to the floor with a frightening thud. My uncles had to take her to a hospital. My mother had to give my grandmother extra heart medicine. But the rest of the guests, even the Jewish ones, left happy. “This was a good funeral,” they said to us. “Your grandfather would’ve loved it.”
I did hope he was happy with it, because if he wasn’t, who knew what he would’ve done from one of his hiding places behind the mirrors.
My bruises eventually went away, not because I stopped being afraid of the mirrors, but simply because I learned to navigate my way in the dark without bumping into things. I’m still obsessed with the presence of the dead. I can’t help but feel lurking between the pages of my novels. I still close my eyes when I pass a mirror in the dark
Lara Vapnyar’s latest novel is “Still Here” (Hogarth).