“My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner“
Penguin Random House
You know how in The Princess Bride the story comes alive as the grandfather reads the tale of Buttercup and Wesley to his grandson, contently tucked into bed, eyes wide as he listens?
That’s how reading My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir feels: like you’re a little kid, listening to someone tell the stories of his family, with new characters introduced at every turn that in the end feel as familiar as your own aunts and uncles.
Meir Shalev’s memoir — translated by Evan Fallenberg — is not your typical memoir. Sure, it covers the story of his birth and growing up on Israel’s first moshav and details of his own life, as memoirs usually do.
But it can be argued, as the title suggests, that, in fact, the main character of his memoir is not him at all, but his grandmother, Tonia, a feisty woman with an incurable dirt phobia.
Even further, you’ll never see a character written in such detail as the vacuum cleaner — or sweeper, or “svieperr,” as Tonia calls it in her Russian accent — in the title. This sweeper traveled great lengths, from California, over the Atlantic Ocean, across the continent of Europe, until finally it reached Nahalal, the moshav on which Shalev’s family lived.
It delighted Tonia at first, until she realized this cleaning machine, too, needed to be cleaned, and the dust it collected could be released on her spotless floors at any moment. Betrayed, she locked it in a bathroom for 40 years, not to be used again for a very long time.
It provides fodder for stories the family tells again and again, each with their own spins of the matriarch’s cleaning habits, of her stubbornness, of her inability to be anything but herself despite these seeming faults — which is why she was so loved.
So, it is therefore appropriate that the book is classified as “a family memoir.”
In his writing, Shalev often breaks the wall between writer and reader, promising jokes to come in the following pages or harkening back to stories told earlier in the book to remind you of important details.
He recounts hearing his mother, particularly, tell the stories of his family, which are always prefaced with, “This is how it was: [insert family story here with details that may or may not be dramatized].”
The characters have such quirks (like the rag always laying on Tonia’s shoulder to pick up the slightest speck of dust she finds) they almost seem made up, even though you know they are not. The family photos interlaced throughout the story provide further proof of that. There are verbalisms and family expressions that Shalev still uses to this day that he heard growing up.
The moshav itself comes alive so dazzlingly it feels like turning the pages of a pop-up picture book. Here sprouts up Grandpa Aharon’s special citrus tree. There is the cowshed. The fields, the dirt, the cucumber patches all come to life in such vivid detail — you feel the affinity for the land the author had in comparison to the apartment in Jerusalem in which his family lived for a few years.
Tonia’s house is its own story. The front door is not for entering the house, lest you leave a trail of dirt behind you. The bathroom is not for its predetermined purposes, you use the backyard for that. There is a room — “the holy of holies” — in which furniture sits, covered and untouched, and not meant for house guests, or any guests.
As Shalev writes the story — including all the details you’d expect in a memoir, like how his parents met (which is a lovely story featuring a poem his father, a writer, wrote in response), his school years, his love life (including an American girl who may or may not have bought Tonia’s sweeper off of her all those years later), his career — you, the reader, feel as though you’re tucked into bed, listening to a new but familiar chapter of a family saga.
When it ends, with most of its characters passed and gone, you feel the retrospection and deep love Shalev holds for them, despite the arguments and accusations that the stories he tells in this memoir are not, in fact, “how it was.”
But it is certain that this is how reading the story was: You will feel eager to hear more of these family stories — as well as perhaps appreciate for the quirks and stories of your own family just a little bit more.