Without replying, she pushed her glasses up, then tucked her head down and scrabbled around in the shopping bags again. “I bought decorative balls to hang on the tree.”
Ella had changed the subject.
His mouth slanted. Had he really expected a different response? Or was it so hard for her to accept a compliment? He was growing more and more curious about a woman whom he wouldn’t have glanced at twice a week ago.
He refrained from pointing out that she’d already opened one box and smiled at her as she continued, “I ordered red-and-silver balls from an online catalog.” Ella drew out the second box. “They should look very pretty against the dark green foliage.”
He let her off the hook. “My grandmother had a collection of antique glass balls.”
That garnered her interest. “Your grandmother? Is she still alive?”
Yevgeny shook his head. “Unfortunately not. She passed away two months ago.”
Behind those ugly glasses, Ella’s eyes were perceptive. “You miss her.”
“Very much—she was a loving woman.” Unlike her daughter, his mother. But Yevgeny had no intention to brood about the past.
“She was Russian?” Ella was asking.
“No. She was English.” He picked up one of the red balls and hooked the silver ribbon securing it over a branch. After a pause during which he could sense Ella bursting to ask more, he said, “She married my very Russian grandfather after the Second World War—and taught him to speak English. In the process, she became more Russian than he was. The handblown glass decorations she treasured belonged to his family.”
“Did she ever return to England?”
“No.” But his mother had, taking him and Dmitri with her....
“Was she happy living so far from home?”
It took him a moment to shift his thoughts back to their conversation, and pick up the thread again. Ella was talking about his grandmother.
“She loved my grandfather. Her home was with him.” And she’d loved him and Dmitri. Babushka had brought some degree of normality into their lives, normality that had vanished once his mother had ripped them away from their father. Without Babushka their lives had been barren of feminine affection—because his beautiful mother had had little to spare. Every day Yevgeny remembered his babushka’s legacy of kindness. “She was one in a million.”
His words hung in the air as they continued to loop decorations onto the branches.
After a few minutes he added, “My babushka collected wooden decorations, too. She used to say she liked her tree to be a true yolka.”
Yevgeny smiled as Ella tried the unfamiliar word out.
“The traditional tree is called the yolka,” he told her. “The first Christmas tree was brought back to Russia by Peter the Great after his travels. The tradition became very popular, until Christmas was outlawed after the 1917 Revolution. It became known as a New Year’s Tree.”
“For most of my life Christmas celebrations have been allowed,” he said quickly, lest she feel pity for him, “although people had gotten used to celebrating on the first of January, so changing back to Christmas day came slowly at first.” Yevgeny changed the subject. “Your family celebrated Christmas?”
Ella hesitated. “Well, we always decorated a tree—and my parents gave us Christmas gifts each year. But they didn’t believe in perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus. They were older,” she said with a touch of defensiveness when he stared. “And when Keira was young I used to wrap something of mine for her to find on Christmas morning. I’d tell her it was from Santa.”
“My grandmother always made sure the family celebrated Christmas,” he said, “even in the Iron Curtain years when it wasn’t allowed. Although I don’t remember that time—I was very young when the prohibition against Christmas was lifted. We would put our tree up earlier than New Year’s Day so that we could have a Christmas tree, and we would decorate it with my grandmother’s collection of ornaments and tangerines and walnuts carefully wrapped in tinfoil.”
When he’d lived in London, even his mother had followed Western tradition and Santa Claus had visited each year. He and Dmitri had at least had the memories of finding gifts under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning—whatever else his mother had done, she had allowed them that small pleasure. What would life have been like for Ella and Keira? To be deprived of such simple joys? Especially when all their friends must’ve been visited by Santa’s sleigh and his reindeer.