5 min read

My father's tiubeteikas

“After this episode, you might not really recognize your father,” a red-nosed doctor — of the drinking kind, not the clown care variety — told me. His words did not sting. What exactly did it mean to “recognize” my father? We had never been that close,  and I wouldn’t really know where to place him on the grayscale spectrum between complete stranger and close family.

I'm waiting for the carer to arrive. We'll need to discuss this new chapter in my father's life. The flat is pretty standard, a two-bedroom on the ground floor of a building that once housed scientists and their families. Now, it's mostly populated by young families and professorial offspring with an ever-changing roster of roommates. Them, and my father. I'm busy dusting the shelves, hoping to avoid embarrassment. After all, we hired a carer, not a housekeeper. Perhaps her own version of the Hippocratic Oath includes a line like "don't judge and don't sneer," but it's really about common decency, isn't it? I won't have time to wash the floors, but it's somewhat dark inside, so maybe she won't notice.

I'll likely need to explain to her how to run a bath and turn on the oven, go over the various keys, and show her where the fuse box and router are. So many mundane details to cover. Yet, they all fit into a ten-minute presentation (I know because I've rehearsed it). I'll also have to relay what the red-nosed doctor told me, but ultimately, the carer will know best. After all, me instructing her on how to care for a patient would be like giving directions to a cab driver on the way to the airport.

The doorbell rings. She's already here — a tad earlier than we agreed upon. That's a good sign. She's short, but my father was never a giant, even in his youth. She should manage alright, even if he were to fall. She's not new to this; she gained experience in Ireland and Switzerland, and she holds a string of certificates. They sound impressive, even if the acronyms don't mean much to me. If my mother were here, she would've already bombarded her with questions: “Do you know how to resuscitate a man? What if something happens while you're asleep? So young and yet unmarried, why so?”

We're going through the rooms ("a tour of the house"), as I work through my checklist: keys, fuses, candles, a stubborn shutter, the smoke detector. She listens attentively, not seeming to be the daydreaming type. She asks the right questions even though she isn’t taking notes. But who does that these days? Not even waiters. She likely expects me to email her a comprehensive list, which I fully intend to do.

"Did your father serve in Central Asia?" she asks, her inner Sherlock surfacing.

It's her first casual question and, unsurprisingly, it's about my father's tiubeteikas. In a flat filled with academic journals and paintings received as gifts, these hats are treated with more reverence than family pictures, whether of the family he left in Grodno or the one I sometimes felt part of. Beautifully embroidered caps, brought by well-traveled friends and exchanged for bottles of inexpensive cognac, seem to be everywhere you look. Kitschy and artisanal, modern — like the one embossed with Uzbekistan’s national team’s chant — and traditional beauties adorned with the bright colors of the Fergana Valley. The most valuable specimens rest behind glass or on dedicated shelves and busts, while the more common ones share the entresol cabinets with topographical maps and magazines.

"No, my father never served in the army. I'm not entirely sure if they didn't take him because of his ill health or because he managed to cheat the system," I tell her, lifting a black rectangular cap from the shelf. I believe it's Uyghur. I turn it in my hands and place it back, careful not to violate any of my father's unwritten rules: 'Don't touch them with greasy hands, don't crumple them, and don't toss them in the air like pizza dough'.

"You weren't close?" she asks, as if one could read family members like encyclopedia entries. But unlike in authorized biographies, people's pasts can contain several conflicting versions of the same event.

"We were, and then we weren't. We sort of lost touch after my mother passed away. Talked on the phone from time to time."

After an awkward silence, I add, "I live abroad."

"I'm sorry," she responds, and she sounds sincere. Although I can't discern if she's referring to my lukewarm relationship with my father, my mother's death five years ago, or my status as an emigre.

"So maybe part of his family was from there?" she ventures, attempting to find an explanation in my pale face and the blue eyes I inherited from my father.

"My father is a regular Belarusian – the Soviet idea of a white man."

"So, I guess he was just attracted to the East, right?"

My father started his collection during his studies. A buddy from the institute brought him a tiubeteika cap from Bishkek, and my dad was instantly hooked. Perhaps he began collecting them to connect with something he'd never personally experienced – something exotic. After all, while his mates – those drafted to serve – were hunting snakes for dinner in some barren Turkmen steppe, he was either writing his thesis or undergoing treatment at a sanatorium. Possibly even both at the same time.

As my father liked to tell people, his collection—like any collection—was about lack, not abundance. No collection, unless you're gathering something mundane and finite, will ever be complete. No hobby will make you whole, only expose some degree of inadequacy. True adventurers don't amass Nepalese kukri knives, and many ship-in-a-bottle enthusiasts would never embark on a maritime voyage for fear of seasickness. My father even shared an anecdote about meeting the world's foremost expert on Italian buses, a man who had never managed to earn his driver's license.

"If my father were here, and not in the hospital, he would have given us a proper tour, telling stories about each item. I've participated in many such tours, but I don’t recall much, mostly because I'd listen just to be polite. The whole collection comprises almost three hundred caps from Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Mountains, Pakistan, China."

"Did he ever wear them?" she asks, and just like that, the past tense divides life into 'before' and 'after'.

"Sometimes, but only at home. He'd never go out wearing one. He'd just sit on the balcony, looking at the apple tree he planted several decades ago."

I open the balcony door, take a seat on one of the two stools, and point to the tree that began blooming last week.

"It’s peaceful and unhurried here, no deadlines, no rush. It’s no wonder he liked it here."

"Was it a ritual for him?" she asks.

I wish it could still be that way, without a cutoff time, without the oppressive specificity of past tenses.

"It was the opposite of that. A rare escape from all the other rituals. I don’t know how many will resurface. We'll see."

"We’ll see."

Stepping back into the living room, I catch a glimpse of my reflection. I'm wearing one of my father's caps, and I have no idea how it ended up on my head. Perhaps it's time for my annual check-up?