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i confess: i lied to my grandma
the lie that tore my family apart jk it wasn't that serious but still
We’ve got a TREAT of an essay for you all today. But first an announcement — the top brass at Substack have foolishly asked me to be the guest of honor for a live workshop on how to use Substack Notes effectively! Look they even drew a little photo of me:
The other man pictured, Substack co-founder, said he’s going to start the session with a 10 minutes of standup comedy.
Sign up here for the workshop.
Have no idea what Notes is? You’re missing out it’s like Twitter for Substack or X for Y and yes that’s the level of joke you can expect from me on there because I post ALOT on there like too much.
OK ONTO THE SHOW
Some of you real ones may remember this essay from last month, when I courageously hid it behind a paywall after like two sentences and ya know what? that was dumb because no one got to read it, so without further ADU…
I’m sitting in my car and calling my grandma Nona’s landline, the same one she had when I was ten years old and eating Russian-style french fries in her apartment.
Does the ringtone sound different on a landline, I wonder, distracting myself from the horror I am about to inflict on us both.
It’s an earthier tone, yea, because it travels through the American dirt across these great united states, a landtone, a - “Alloh,” Nona my grandma says, irritated and ready to be let down by the tenth telemarketer of the day.
“Privet Nona.” / “Hi Nona.” I say, cheery.
“Ah Sashinka privet!” / “Ah Sasha hi!” she answers, her voice lit up like the fourth of July.
I clear my throat.
Lying to my own grandmother. And for what? For who? Or is it whom? For whom?!
a text heard round the world
The story begins thirty minutes earlier, back when the world still made sense.
My dad had texted me a link to a Chefman 1.8L Digital Precision Electric Kettle with Tea Infuser from Costco.
What’s strange about this text message is how normal it is. He and my mom semi-regularly send me links to products at Costco, usually smoked salmon, the subtext being “there is a sale so good, so unbelievable, that if you didn’t — what do you mean you don’t need it?? You do need it. You need it because of how good this deal is.”
Another text comes through:
We'll install it for Nona to use today.
Now you’ve got my attention. The text was not about a great Costco sized deal, but rather a simple, beautifully understated FYI that my parents are going to install a tea kettle for my grandma.
Color me intrigued, dear papa. Another text:
Please give her a call this morning and let her know that this is a gift from you guys
The heck? Before I can ask for, idk, clarity, another text:
Valentines day gift
The whole thing feels like a poorly run, shoddy escape room (so, any escape room). A few random, barely connected clues – tea kettle, Nona’s place, Valentine’s day - that make no sense on their own and even less together.
Now, a mystery must be solved, and there’s a clear first action to take: ‘call Nona.’
But it can’t be that easy. If there’s one thing my Soviet Jewish upbringing has taught me, it’s “If it's easy, it isn’t real. Trust nothing besides that which is impossible. Good luck!!”
I stare at the texts, scrolling back through to see if perhaps I missed something from a couple days ago. Nothing, except the non-iMessage green bubbles that perfectly represent all that stands between us: culture, language, and also phone provider. For context: we were not born on American soil. We came here when I was seven from Ukraine in 1994. Back then it had only been the Ukraine for a couple years after the USSR fell and couldn’t get up again.
i call my parents
who answer the phone as a unit - first my dad, then my mom right behind. There’s a breathiness to the hellos, so I know they’re on a walk, yet I also know they’re on speaker phone, talking loud and speed walking by the Atlantic ocean like Tony and Carmela Soprano, not giving a fuck as people pass them by, because come on, what the heck else do you want them to do? Their idiot son Sasha - yea the one in Los Angeles trying to be a movie star - the can’t get it through his thick skull that he’s supposed to call Nona. We are installing the tea kettle TODAY.
I am confused, I tell them. What are these texts, I ask.
They explain it to me slowly, like I’m the idiot, like this is as obvious as freedom itself — they’re buying Nona a new tea kettle - chaynik, in Russian – and they’re asking me to call and let Nona know that this chaynik will be a Valentine's day gift from me and Lauren to her.
This is one of my parents’ signature moves, the ‘ask-by-tell’ bait and switch. Like putting the phone up to my ear and saying “talk to your grandpa for a sec?” as the phone is already ringing, it's a demand masquerading as a question, a wolf dressed in the soft and fuzzies of a sheep.
It’s not like we usually send Valentine’s Day gifts to the grandparents and, on account of my boofing it and forgetting to send mine, my parents swoop in and save me with a tea kettle. No, this is a first.
I want to fight it and yet, I do not fight it. I used to — I’d scream and cry and rage against the famchine, but to what avail? No avail, that’s what. No avail.
So eventually I gave up, and I gave in. Like a good little captive. And soon, much to my chagrin, I began to love my captors. Stockholm Syndrome some call it, though I know it by a different name…
Privet / Hi
Welcome back. Nona and I, remember, are on the phone, her voice a fireworks display of love, my mind unable to see anything but the smokey aftermath, spent casings floating in the lake, sad and broken.
“Kak ve / How are you?” (formal) I ask.
“Harasho, staroshinki. kak ovas fso, kak Valdik? / Good, living the old life. How’s everything with you guys? How’s Valdik?” Nona responds and asks about our son Wilder (who she calls Valdik).
“Horosho, begayut mnoga mnoga / Good, running around a lot,” I respond.
“Da da on kak evo papa. / Just like his daddy.”
“Ya hatyl skazat – ya vam koopil padarak na valentine day, y radetele vam dast evo zaftra. / I wanted to say, I got you a gift for Valentine’s Day. My parents are gonna give it to you tomorrow.”
“Aah ne nada bela. / You didn’t need to do that.” I did not, in fact, do that, so we’re on the same page there.
“Ya hatyel. / I wanted to.” False.
“Spaciba. / Thank you.”
“Nezashta. / It’s nothing.” It was nothing, Nona. It was. Now, sweet Nona, it’s a whole lotta something.
I imagine Nona there, in her second story apartment of this hefty 4-unit apartment building at Briar Farms. We hang up, she puts the receiver down and goes back to her Sudoku, none the wiser or richer or whatever you are none of after someone pulls the wool over your eyes. You’d have to be a sheep, in that case, right?
Or am I the sheep? No, I am a wolf, dressed in the finest sheepskin, there to see his Baa Baa Baabushka.
Nona’s lived in that apartment for her entire life in America. Twenty five years. Back in those olden times, everyone had a phone number, just like now, except back then we stored everyone’s numbers in our heads. Our brains could just do that, sort of like how we now know everything about Vanderpump Rules.
Of the two and a half phone numbers I still know by heart (my dad, Nona, and most of my wife Lauren’s number), Nona’s number, which hasn’t changed from when I was a youth, is the only one I still dial, digit by digit. 793-458-3327. Yep, that’s actually the number. Call her if you want, just don’t pretend to be a telemarketer.
Back in the days when you knew everyone’s phone number, I’d take the bus to Nona’s every day after school. I’d eat as many Russian french fries as I could, then ask for “more zaraney kartoshki,” or “more french fries” and eat those and then I’d sit two feet in front of the TV, criss cross applesauce, whatever the hell that meant, and play WWF Raw on Sega Genesis1.
I always played as Kevin Nash, aka “Big Sexy” aka the leader of the baddest boys in the WWF — the Wolfpac NWO. I wanted to be part of their New World Order so bad, to roll with their wolfpac and tell everyone to ‘suck it’ by placing my hands in a criss cross x-sauce across my groin area. I was 112.
Fast forward twenty five American years and there my parents are, sending their own son into the ring with…his own grandmother!?
I can hear the announcer Mean Gene Okerlund calling it now – “He’s really gonna - I can’t believe what I’m seeing! This kid’s gonna lie to his own grandma!”
A few days later
I don’t hear from Nona about the chaynik, which isn’t a surprise — she’d reached the “incoming calls only” part of her life, so we’d talk about it when I called her next.
But my parents? No mention? No, that’s…no. That’s not right.
I feel myself getting nervous and then immediately getting mad, that familiar mix of emotions that feels like home. How dare my parents not call me and say thank you on Non’s behalf?
Don’t theyhow hard it was for me to lie about getting her the gift??
A few more days pass and it's low-key consuming me. Maybe it was a sucky gift, sure, maybe I could have been more thoughtful and gotten her something else like more Sudoku books or maybe - wait. Stop. I snap out of it, and then immediately snap back into it because I am not a good brained person.
Finally, I decide to just ask my parents about it, both of whom are on the car’s speaker phone, two Sopranos driving to Costco because those deals are just about as illegal s they come.
"How'd Nona like the gift?" I ask.
Silence. Not a long silence, but more than enough, and way more than the chatty Dobrenkos are known for. Ehhh my mom says…not knowing what to say, which is strange because she usually has something to say about my being cold or what medicines to take to ease a sore throat (Listerine. Always Listerine).
My dad hops in:
"She didn't want it…" he says, a trace of – what is that, guilt? in his voice? No, it's not guilt, it's embarrassment.
He’s embarrassed for me, that I did such a thing.
I am listening and I am hearing these words and I am…hurt? At whom, I do not know, for what I cannot say, but the sudden, expanding emptiness I feel whenever I’m rejected fills me with panic and — no, wait, what the hell is happening I DID NOT BUY HER THE GIFT.
"She likes her old tea kettle, says there's nothing wrong with it, so she told us she didn't need the new one," my mom explains.
"We're gonna just return it," my dad adds, like that’s a consolation.
I imagine my next conversation with Nona:
Sincerest apologies, dearest bubbala, for getting confused the last time I saw you about a year ago when we all came to your house so you could meet Wilder. See, I thought that when you literally didn't say a single thing about the tea kettle, that meant that you really needed a new one and so I took it upon myself to tell my parents to buy you a new one from Costco (the deals, amiright). And not just As a random gift, but on Valentine’s Day, you know the one we always give each other gifts for xoxo. Now I see the error of my ways and I ask nay I beg for your forgiveness, please Nona dearest.
I'm dumbfounded, and before I can gather my wits about me, my mom comes in with a twist of the knife.
"She doesn't want you to feel bad about it, so she told us not to tell you."
This can’t be fucking happening what?
Again, I’m…angry? How dare Nona! She can’t be up front with me about this gift and tell me she didn't love it? That’s messed up. The point of family gifts is not about the gifts themselves but the thought behind them, and if she can’t even tell me the truth about how she felt…well then how can I ever pretend to get her a gift again?
I feel terrible and angry that I feel terrible. Why should I care if Nona doesn't like a gift I never actually got her! Because she thinks I did!
So, in her eyes, I'm a piece of shit, which just so happens to be how I already see myself and now, she knows too! From a series of lies came some deep truth I have tried, with limited success, to ensure that I never face. And now, here it is, staring back at me in the reflection of a chaynik that no one wanted.
This isn’t Nona’s fault. She is yet another casualty of the lies perpetrated by the real crooks of this story: my parents. Their web of lies and deceit have ensnared us all, and for what!
I play back the events like I’m trying to figure out the twist in a low-budget sci-fi heist movie. It all began with Nona and I, minding our own goddamn business living our best lives (me being anxious, she doing sudoku). My parents clearly must not have been sure about this whole chaynik thing, and instead of facing Nona's wrath, they decided to have me be the face of it. It was a set up, and I was the fall guy.
And me being the dumb, naive patsy I am, I fell.
I "gave" Nona a gift which she, no quotes because it's true, did not like. In fact, she was so embarrassed on my behalf for doing such a dumb fucking thing, that she decided to tell a lie of her own, to shield my parents from ever telling me a god damn thing.
Wait. Holy shit. If everything up to this point has been a lie, why the hell would what my parents just told me be true?
What if Nona loved the chaynik but my parents didn't want me to know, so they fabricated yet one more lie, one more layer of deceit for no reason besides continuing to dilute the value of truth itself.
This is Russian Misinformation 101 – you convince people that everything could be a lie, so they stop wondering if anything is true at all.
Like Nona’s phone number I gave you? That wasn’t real. I lied.
This is the problem with lying.
You do it enough times, no matter the reason, and people stop believing anything you say. Such a fate befell Peter, the idiot who lied about seeing a wolf so frequently that no one even remembers his name - he's just 'the boy who cried wolf.’
That whole Peter situation probably took place in Russia. Otherwise they would have asked him some follow up questions, like hey Peter, buddy, was there really just one wolf on his own? Wolves don't usually hang on their own. They live in a pack. A Wolfpac.
And here we are, in America - a New World Order indeed, still lying to one another like we’re back in the USSR. So how can we trust each other knowing that we have lied to one another and will continue to do so? I swear to god if anyone says faith I will scream.
Faith and belief that the other members of our little wolfpac want the best for us, that we’re all scared in this New World, and protecting each other makes the chaos feels like Order, even if sometimes the lies make no sense. Nona did not need a chaynik and I didn’t want to give her one, the very fact my family is trying, well, it has to be enough.
And it is. More than, actually.
And yet. Like a good soviet, I’m cynical and trust nothing. If we can all lie so easily about the things that don’t matter, how can we trust one another when things do?
My grandpa will often be feeling sick and not tell my dad, which my dad hates.
I get pissed when my parents keep stuff from me, like when dad’s back hurts, or when my mom’s tooth is in pain.
The last time our son Wilder was sick and we went to urgent care, I didn’t tell my parents. I lied. Because I knew they’d lose their minds. And they did, once they found out a few days later. “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?!” my mom kept asking, panicked and freaking out about Wilder even though he was already feeling better.
“This is why,” I told her.
A few days later, Nona and I talk on the phone, just two sheep that may both be wolves, howling toward one another and hoping the landlines can carry the tune.
“Privet Nona, kak dela. / Hi Nona, how are you?”
“Harasho Sasha. / Good Sasha good.”
“Lootshe vsech? / Better than everyone?” (note this is a saying that means ‘I’m on top of the world.’
“Lol da, lootshe vsech? / lol yea, top of the world.”
“Papa y mama dale tebe novy chaynik? / Mom and dad got you that tea kettle?”
“Ah da, spaciba balshoi spaciba. Ochin haroshi. / Thank you yea, its great.”
“Nezasta. / It was nothing.”
Support Both Are True and get a free chaynik!
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You’ll also get a chaynik from me by which I mean an email saying that I got you a chaynik when I, in fact, did not.
What lies do you and your family tell each other? It’s OK if they’re not about chyaniks
When has lying to protect people gotten out of hand / slipped into lying to protect yourself / created overall distrust? Tell me about it I wanna know!
Does your family call you something different than your actual name?
How many phone numbers do you know by heart?
Do you remember landlines? Favorite feature of the landline 1 2 3 go
For all my WWF heads who played, please enjoy this video of WWF Raw gameplay - the sounds bring me right back to Nonas lol
yes I know that the suck it thing was Degeneration X do not @ me