Discovering The Truths Behind My Father, Peter The Great

Some people claim that when they’re at school, they can still feel their parents’ presence looming over them. That’s bad enough. I had the singular experience of seeing a poster in Lawrence Hall that is the exact likeness of my father. The poster is on the unofficial Russian end of the second floor and is by Arthur Szyk, a noted WWII military propagandist. The man in the poster is supposed to be Peter the Great, though all the artistic renderings I’ve seen of Peter the Great look nothing like my father except this one. It’s really sort of creepy. Determined to find out if I should be lining up for a lifetime supply of Faberge eggs, I embarked upon some family detective work. My father, always happy to oblige, told me over the phone, “Well, your great grandmother was from Russia. She was also crazy and claimed that she was of some aristocratic stock. My guess is some prince had her behind our haystack.” My father also helpfully noted that “maybe the guy who did the poster has a really good idea of what’s good-looking and it was almost preordained that it would look like me.” Pity he had to go to teach a class. My grandmother was slightly more helpful. According to her, my great grandmother Esther lived in a tiny village on the western border of Russia, then under the jurisdiction of a count who lived nearby. Moshe, Esther’s father, who lived to be 107 and was married seven times, was the village rabbi and “was known for his capacity.” Esther was very beautiful (I know this to be true) and Moshe was very protective of her; she was forbidden, in fact, to walk by herself beyond the village. One day, while disobeying Moshe’s orders, Esther walked onto the count’s land and was greeted by a “horrifying dog.” I asked if the house was perhaps made of gingerbread, but my grandmother continued undaunted. Hearing Esther’s terrified screams, the count came outside and was so taken with Esther’s beauty that he asked her to return to his estate again as a guest. Upon returning home to her father’s house, however, Esther was met with near biblical anger and was not allowed to venture outside by herself again. Needless to say, she never saw the count again (at least to Moshe’s knowledge). Was there actually a tryst between my great grandmother and the count behind a haystack somewhere? Or, perhaps Moshe’s noted virility produced the same physical characteristics in my father as those in the poster of Peter the Great. Well, I’ve done quite a bit more research and had many more conversations with my grandmother. As strange and improbable as it may seem, it appears that the resemblance between my father and the poster of Peter the Great is a big fat coincidence.