Nearly every morning I walk past my favorite place in Philadelphia, Saint Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church, to say hello to my Pop-Pop. It has been twelve years since he passed away, but I feel his presence daily. He wasn’t a perfect man. For those who did not know him well, it was easy to write him off as mean, grumpy, and cold. But growing up I asked my Pop-Pop questions about his childhood and life experiences, I learned that his hard exterior was not an accurate reflection of his true character. His parents had emigrated here from the Soviet Union with eight children, and his father had abused not only alcohol but also the members of his family. His mother had struggled with her husband’s violent outbursts while staying focused on raising the children. My Pop-Pop’s cross demeanor was due to his inability to know how else to behave. He had never been provided the tools to grow beyond the confines of a difficult upbringing. Like a matryoshka doll, my Pop-Pop’s outward appearance told only a small part of his story. He grew to be the most loving person in my life.
To this day, I surround myself with matryoshka dolls for two reasons: to honor the memory of my Pop-Pop, and to remind myself that everyone has a story that’s not apparent from the outside.