BY: JUDITH RYPMA
When sixteen-year-old Julie inherits the contents of her great grandmother’s Michigan farmhouse, she has no idea what awaits her—except for piles and piles of hoarded junk. However, after fiddling with an amber necklace she discovers in a locked room, she finds herself suddenly whisked back in time to the court of the last ruling Romanovs and a Russia in the midst of World War I. As the events of 1917 kindle a flame that becomes the roar of revolution, they not only touch her life and that of her new family, but force her to cope with new ways of seeing the world, her cultural heritage, and even the complications of a unique and complicated love. And how—or will—she make it back to the present?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Amber Beads by Judith Rypma, sixteen-year-old Julie inherits the contents of her great-grandmother’s farmhouse in Michigan. To Julie, most of it is junk and she spends some time sorting it all into boxes to be given away. But when she finds a key, she remembers the secret room whose door was always locked. She tries the key and the door opens. Inside, she finds a necklace made from beads of amber. She puts the necklace on, passes out, and wakes up in her great-grandmother’s house in Russian in 1916, where she seems to be living her great-grandmother’s life as a teenage girl. Julie—now Olga, her great-grandmother—knows what is coming in October 2017. She wants to warn Olga’s family, who are members of the Russian nobility, but how can she? For one, they would not believe her, and two, how could explain how she knows what she knows? Impossible. All Julie can do is play along and hope that amber beads will take her back to 1995 before the rebels take over Russia in 1917.
Rypma has created a history lesson in vivid detail, giving us much more than just the events, but the attitudes and emotions of the people at the time as well—a glimpse into the past so real, it makes you think you’ve gone back in time with Julia. A wonderful read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Amber Beads by Judith Rypma is the story of Julia, a sixteen-year-old American in 1995. Julie and her great-grandmother Olga were close, much more so than Olga and Julie’s mother Cheryl, so when Olga dies, she leaves the entire contents of her Michigan farmhouse to Julie. Julie knows Olga was from Russia, and as she sorts through the debris of Olga’s life, Julie thinks about her Russian roots, and decides that it doesn’t matter where you are from, we are all Americans. That is, until she unlocks Olga’s secret room and discovers a necklace made of amber. When she puts the necklace on, she is whisked back in time to 1916 Russia and thrust into sixteen-year-old Olga’s life. At first, Julie thinks it’s a dream, but when she doesn’t wake up, she slowly accepts the situation. She is really back in the past, living her great-grandmother’s life in Russia. Then, to her dismay, Julie discovers that she is in Russia in the winter of 1916, less than a year before the Bolsheviks revolt, take over the government, and kill off the aristocracy—which includes Olga and her family. How can Julie persuade her “new” family to flee what is coming, when Olga could not possibly know the future? And how can she get the amber beads to take her back to 1995 where she belongs?
The Amber Beads is both a coming-of-age story and a cunning history lesson. With vivid descriptions, charming characters, and a solid ring of truth, Rypma pulls you in until you feel as if you are right there in the scene with Julia/Olga, struggling to survive in war-torn Russia. It takes a talented author to do that.
From the day she arrived in America as a bride, until she died in her sleep at ninety-five, Great-Grandmother Olga never threw anything away. Perhaps I might have realized that, but in the four years since my mother and I had moved out of her life, I had more important things on my mind than what Olga Sergeievna Kuznetsov was hoarding a thousand miles away.
At first, when my mother announced we’d be spending two months in Michigan to take care of the Estate, I tried to refuse. I had the entire summer planned, starting the last day of my junior year when my best friend Tiffany and I would hit every mall in Dallas to spend most of what I’d earned all winter working at the library part time. Then we’d fall into a routine: mornings at the pool outside Tiffany’s parents’ condo, afternoons hanging out at Grapevine Lake, and evenings checking out patrons’ books before heading off to cruise the streets of Euless in Tiffany’s new car.
We had season tickets to Wet and Wild, and weekends we’d spend there or at Six Flags. Oh, and I would celebrate my seventeenth birthday.
My mom ruined all that, the way she has a habit of ruining my plans with her own. Not to mention with her marriages and ensuing moves. We’ve lived in Euless barely two years, and I’ve finally almost started to feel like I fit in someplace. As if I’m not some extra foam piece left over after the entire Big Ben 3-D Puzzle has been put together. “A mistake by the manufacturers,” I once complained to Tiffany, who really does understand because she’s an army brat. But at least she has two parents–the originals, not a succession of replacement stepfathers
As the rental car curves up the gravel drive, the messy appearance of Great Grandma Olga’s house towers into view. My mom used to call it “the white elephant,” although to me it’s always resembled a four-tiered wedding cake. But whereas four years ago I saw only its whimsical mystery, now I notice the lopsided realities. Years of settling and shifting upon clay soil have taken a toll, causing the house to tilt westward toward the corn fields. Layers of thickly applied exterior paint have bubbled and peeled, as if the frosting has melted in places and a naughty child poked it with impatient fingers in others.
Yet the house, with its rambling wings and cluster of turrets, still dominates the area–a sugary, gingerbread-trimmed confection perched atop a tabletop countryside. For the first time, I almost wish that my great grandmother had willed it to us instead of the local homeless shelter.
I find the first clue to the dimensions of our job in the garage, where I poke around while waiting for Mother to locate the front door key. There’s no room in here for a lawnmower or tractor, let alone an automobile, although Olga never learned to drive. Instead, she relied on rides from neighbors, although her fear of driving meant that, after her husband’s death, she had to give up going to the faraway Russian Orthodox Church where she and Great Grandfather Ivan once worshipped.
Dirt and dust showered from the ceiling when I’d lifted the heavy door, and mice scattered from beneath a newspaper pyramid. The yellowing, mildewed papers face an equally tall tower of boxes, all labeled with Magic Marker: Jelly Jars, Soup Cans, Sour Cream Containers, Egg Cartons. I open one carefully, fearing what might crawl out. Unfortunately, the labels do not lie–Great Grandma Olga did indeed save empty soup cans. And cereal boxes. And strips of used aluminum foil and cellophane wrap, each carefully folded.
Stacks of old magazines, covers welded together by moisture, line the opposite wall. She must’ve subscribed to Life, National Geographic, and Saturday Evening Post for over fifty years. Cases of nails, bolts, screws, paperclips, and even bottle caps lean against the back wall.
The front porch screen door slams, and I scramble over boxes labeled Candles and Flour Bags in order to retreat.
My mom, who prefers to be called Cheryl now, smiles, and I notice the crow’s feet that only two years ago tracked an uneven path around her eyes seem fainter, as if, like footprints on the beach dissolved by the tide, they never existed. Now that Cheryl’s interior design business is thriving, she seems to look younger by the day. She looks lovely, though, her sandy complexion buffed with expensive powders.
“How was Greece?” I asked when she returned in the spring. I thought her blanched face would surely disappear against the background of the oracle at Delphi or the Parthenon’s weather-beaten stones.
“Unseasonably warm. ‘Too many dead rocks,’ as Fred kept saying. But he found us this simply divine villa. And of course, there’s nothing quite like a Mykonos sunset.”
“Maybe I’ll see it on the postcard that must be lost in the mail.” I smiled to demonstrate I was joking, although my mother’s silences from afar have always been a sore point.
“Heavens, Julie. Who has time to write postcards on a honeymoon? When we did receive the news about grandmother, all the flights from Athens were booked. And Fred didn’t see any point in forfeiting all that money for the villa to fly back and arrive after the funeral.”
“But we could have flown up here for the service they had forty days later. You’re the one who told me they hold something then for the family–and for people who couldn’t make it.”
“It’s called a Pannakhida service,” Cheryl said wearily. “And there is no one up in her community to organize such a thing. You’re talking about Russian Orthodox rituals. And Grandmother wouldn’t have known the difference, anyway.”
Of course not. Who cares about your grandmother and her religious beliefs, let alone your own daughter? But I didn’t say it, just like I don’t remind her now that she promised we’d check in at a motel with a pool, not the sparser Rest-All Inn.
Cheryl bites her lower lip as she fiddles with the lock. She’s chewed off her lipstick, and I wonder if she realizes it’s coral and not salmon–she doesn’t usually make color coordination errors.
At last, she gives up, crossing slim ankles as she settles into the swing on the wraparound front porch. “I know she kept a spare here somewhere, but I just can’t remember.”
She frowns, jumps up again, and straightens the salmon linen blazer, now hopelessly wrinkled from two flights and a forty-minute drive.
“Maybe if we’d been at the funeral, we could have gotten a key from someone in town.”
She ignores me, but I don’t care. I guess I want her to feel guilty that we weren’t here.
And Greece or no Greece, since Olga had died days before anyone found her and Orthodox tradition meant she must be buried within seven days of her death, the funeral couldn’t be postponed. Not that religious rituals mean anything to me personally, but it seems as if anyone who lived that long probably deserved to have her own beliefs honored.
Cheryl waves her tiny hands at the yard, and diamond and sapphire rings flash in the sunlight. “Well, it looks like nothing’s changed here.”
I follow her glance to where the twin weeping willows now completely block the view of the road. On either side, sprawling lilac bushes mark property lines, although if you could see through the last of the season’s thick purple blossoms there would be nothing but hundreds of acres of corn and pumpkin fields. Nothing for miles. As a kid, I resented Cheryl leaving me here more than a few days. After climbing the willows, frightening away the nesting flickers, and playing hide-and-go-seek with my great grandmother, I ran out of things to do outdoors.
Moving carefully across the porch so her spiked heels won’t catch in the wooden planks, Cheryl stands on tiptoe to reach the bird feeder swinging from the opposite corner of the porch. “Ah ha! I knew it would still be there,” she exclaims, proudly producing a skeleton key from the feeder’s ledge. “Grandmother was a creature of habit. I’m sure the house is a mess,” she warns, jiggling the lock. “I offered to hire a housekeeper for her years ago, but she refused to allow strangers inside.”
The mustiness overwhelms us immediately, but within moments mingles with a familiar medley of lemon polish, cinnamon potpourri, and vanilla. It has always smelled that way, although great grandmother used to keep the windows open “to circulate God’s air.”
I slide the recliner away from the bay window to push open the sash, and the heady scent of lilacs begins to compete.
My eyes sweep the cluttered living and dining rooms, their decorative wall-to-wall china cabinets crammed with glassware, commemorative plates, china, and teapots. “It’s hard to know where to begin.”
“She was a collector, all right.” Cheryl shakes her head. “Four families could’ve lived here.”
“No kidding. And nobody, and I mean nobody, should keep that much useless junk. You wouldn’t believe the garage.”
“Wouldn’t I? You have no idea how many hours I spent trying to convince her to call a junk collector or someone to cart this crap to Goodwill. Grandmother was ahead of her time in one way only: she invented recycling.”
“Maybe we should start down here, with the china,” I suggest. “We could get some boxes in town, and there’s enough paper in the garage to wrap everything. If we clean out the downstairs, that’ll give us someplace to put stuff from the other floors.”
I’m starting to feel slightly excited about the task now, not to mention a bit authoritative with my mother. In all our moves, from Michigan, to California, to Denver, and then to Texas, I was responsible for most of the packing and all the labeling.
Cheryl sighs and settles into the recliner. “This isn’t a ‘we’ task, Julie. It looks like we’ll have to hire help.”
“I know, but–”
“She didn’t leave me anything, only you and the shelter. I’d just as soon get this over with as soon as possible.”
“But don’t you want some photos or something?”
“No! There’s nothing I want here. I told her that when I married your father. I’ve never asked for a thing, even before she practically kicked me out.”
“Mom–I mean Cheryl–great grandma loved you. You know that.” I start to touch her shoulder, but pull my hand back slowly. “She forgave you for running away and marrying Dad a long time ago. She told me that a hundred times when I was a kid.”
“But I never forgave her,” Cheryl says quietly, picking up a cut glass ashtray and stroking its edges. “I went on with my life, and I intend to do so now.”
“Even if great grandma was right?”
“Only partially. I admit I gave up on life with a proverbial starving artist, but your father did make something of his career eventually. He took care of us for a long time after we divorced. And even afterward, when his paintings actually started selling, he sent money for years. Probably still would if he were alive.”
“Olga loved you,” I persist, but Cheryl has already positioned herself in the entryway with her hand on the crystal doorknob.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. She’s dead, and she died alone. That’s how she wanted it. I’m going back to the motel. Do you want to come or stay? I guess you’d be safe–”
“I’ll stay. Can you pick me up in a few hours?”
I choose a time arbitrarily, not knowing how much of a dent I can make in such a short period. We have eight weeks until the house gets deeded to the shelter. Eight weeks to sort through an avalanche of crap. Eight weeks to catalog whatever the auctioneer will sell. Eight weeks to decide what the shelter might be able to use and what, if anything, I want to keep.
My great grandmother, so meticulous and emotional with everything else, showed a streak of expansiveness and lack of sentimentality when she chose to leave “the contents to dispose of as my Great Granddaughter Julie sees fit.”
If she were still here, I’d ask her: “Did we grow so far apart that you don’t care what remains in the Kuznetsov family and what goes to strangers?”
“I don’t want strangers knowing our business,” Grandma Olga insisted the first time I proposed a garage sale. I was twelve, abandoned here for a month while my mother cruised the Indian Ocean with husband number three, and full of restless energy. To me a sale would solve all grandma’s problems: bring in added income, enable her to meet some of the neighbors, and eliminate some of the clutter already distinguishable as junk to my adolescent sensibilities.
“No sale,” she repeated firmly. “I’m not having people pawing through my things and making judgments about my life. This isn’t the Soviet Union. I have a right to my things. There are too many Bolsheviks in Michigan already.”
At the time, I had no idea who or what the Bolsheviks were or exactly where they lived. But I did know about great grandma’s obsession with privacy, a word she explained did not have a satisfactory equivalent in Russian. “But it will someday,” she predicted. “One day there might even be a monarchy again. A better one than we had. Or at least a different sort of government.”
I was helping her dust the contents of the old milk chest she’d had moved from the cellar to the back porch. Now instead of holding curdled cream, its red oak shelves housed stacks of bone china cups, teapots, and salt and pepper shakers.
“Does that mean a king and queen?” I asked.
“No, a tsar and tsaritsa. And grand duchesses, grand dukes, and a tsarevich. It’s part of our heritage, devushka, mine and yours. Yours because you have my blood in your veins and thus Mother Russia in your soul.”
I didn’t, though. Didn’t give a darn about some faraway place my teacher claimed was once known as “The Red Menace,” a place where my mother said they used to build missiles perpetually aimed at the United States. But I knew enough not to argue with great grandmother. Her passion for the country she left after the Soviet Revolution was exceeded only by her obsession with collecting.
At that time, however, I didn’t recognize it as an obsession, just a quirk older people had about clinging to the past.
What I did realize was that I was one of the few people with whom Grandma Olga would discuss these things. In Olga’s mind, it seemed, her granddaughter Cheryl now existed only as the mother of her great granddaughter. They never discussed anything but me–or my father–in my presence or over the phone, and I never heard my mother and great grandmother discuss Russia.
My mother changed her own name from Katerina to Cathy and later to Cheryl when she remarried the third time. Cheryl did not distinguish between monarchists or Bolsheviks: to her they were all Russians or Soviets–words she fairly spat out with equal force when she had to use them.
“Why don’t you like Russians?” I asked my mother shortly after Olga predicted the return of the monarchy. “And who cares anymore, anyway?”
“Because they’re stubborn,” she said simply and refused to elaborate.
I knew my mom’s parents–my grandparents–had been killed in a boating accident when she was only seven, so she had few memories of them, and that her father’s parents had taken her in. Perhaps she’s forgotten that her Grandma Olga must have had photos of her own parents, too, and I resolve to set them aside in case she comes to her senses. Not that my mom is normally a cheery woman, but she seems to have slipped into some kind of a funk since we arrived in Michigan.
Her grandfather, my Great Grandfather Ivan Kuznetsov, died before I was born. My mother seldom mentions him. Great Grandma Olga, however, always referred to him as “my precious Ivan” and maintained a collection of portraits of him in her bedroom. She kept the pictures in oval frames right next to her icons, illuminating everything by candlelight each evening before retiring.
The pictures are still in the master bedroom, dust threatening to obscure Great-Grandfather Ivan’s memory behind glass. The portraits frame a half dozen candles–blackened icons, all resting atop a red cloth–so that the entire ensemble resembles a shrine. It’s not clear who, or what, my Olga worshipped most–her late husband or her God–although I suspect her native country ranked close to both. Drawings, sketches, photographs, and oil paintings of Mother Russia completely cover two walls. Beneath each, Olga taped a placard with a brief description: Uglich Citadel, Church of Dmitri on the Blood; The Kremlin at Sunset; Cathedral at Kolomenskoye; Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She printed all the captions in English, as if anticipating that after her death no one would be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet.
I glance at the photos sadly, remembering Olga died without realizing her dream of returning to the land she loved. She could’ve made a trip back anytime in the past couple years. Perhaps she couldn’t afford it, or finally became too ill and immobile. Although Russia means absolutely nothing to me, I wish now I’d taken the time to find out how she was feeling and what she thought about glasnost, perestroika, and all the other changes in her homeland since Gorbachev had taken over, Boris Yeltsin had straddled a tank, and the Berlin Wall had tumbled.
Instead, I wrote seldom, with the exception of my sophomore year when I did a school project on Russia for world history. She’d sent me a lot of information then and even recommended some books. I learned a lot more about Russia, but had written her even less since then. When I did, I sent brief, chatty but inconsequential letters about my botany project or music collection or my latest boyfriend.
“Great Grandma, I’m sorry I hardly knew you,” I whisper to the framed snapshot of her and my mom that hangs in the middle of all the cathedrals and cupolas. Great grandfather took the picture long before I was born and long before Katerina turned her back on her family. Grandmother and granddaughter are looking at each other, and I notice the resemblance in their crooked smiles, straight eyebrows, and aristocratic noses. But I don’t really know the younger woman anymore either, even though my mom is very much alive and spending more time with me this week perhaps than she has for most of my life.
A tear threatens to drip from my cheek to my collar.
It’s this room, I tell myself. I’ve always loved it the most of any in the house, especially when Grandma Olga would invite me to help polish the intricately carved pine headboard and matching polished end tables. Absentmindedly, I stroke the pale wood that has always reminded me of the color of amber.
On the fancy bureau with glass drawer pulls, a collection of atomizers and cut-glass perfume bottles sparkle on a mirrored tray. Olga seldom used fragrance, but maintained a fascination for the bottles that came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. She dusted them weekly, needed or not, and let me sample a different one each time I visited. Next to the bureau, on a matching dressing table covered with a ruffled pink cloth, she arranged combs, hairbrushes, and barrettes. She used few of those either, but kept a collection of silver, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell hair accessories that I used to add to at Christmas.
I pick up my favorite–a gold-rimmed hairbrush in the shape of a heart–noticing a strand of gray hair still clinging to the bristles. So many times I’d come in here in my pajamas, and Grandma Olga would brush my hair and then hers, and tell me fairytales. I’d forgotten about them, and the way she used to stroke my head with one hand and hold the book with the other, until I fell asleep in that big four-poster bed. Most of the time she didn’t even look at the pages, her silvery voice spinning stories from memory. She told tales of Prince Ivan and Princess Vasilissa, of a firebird with magic feathers, and of the wicked witch Baba Yaga. To me, they were much more magical tales than the Disney ones Cheryl took me to or bought for me on video recordings.
And then I remember the secret door.
My mother and I used to call it that because Grandma Olga insisted on blocking it with the elaborate, intricately carved headboard. She never unlocked the door for either of us, and even all the years my mother spent growing up here, she admits she was never allowed inside.
“Just storage space,” Olga told us, although from the time I turned six until I moved away, I devoted a substantial amount to pleading with her to let me see behind the door.
Now I push and pull at the heavy bed to unblock the door before climbing across the patchwork quilt to tug unsuccessfully on the glass doorknob. It’s a wooden door with a second doorknob and large keyhole, so I assume a skeleton key must fit. I try the front door key and then search obvious hiding spots in the room.
I will find the right key or keys eventually, I know, and I smile back at the paintings on the wall.
© 2017 by Judith Rypma