by Chris Schleicher
How do you solve a problem like Anastasia? That’s the question that tortured, pleasured, and ultimately ruined my grandfather, Richard Lemonade. And standing here, on his beggar’s grave in one of the worst parts of the Kremlin, I can’t help but wonder — will it ruin me too? If so, I hope the madness takes me before the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate sues me for my unauthorized “Sound of Music” reference in the first line.
The story starts on a cold summer day in 1918. A Bolshevik execution squad allegedly murders the teenage Princess Anastasia by shooting a bullet through her tiny imperial skull. It seems like a merciful death when compared to my grandfather’s; he died from a bullet to his confidence from the rifle of public opinion. The doctors insisted it was “cirrhosis of the liver.” But they aren’t the ones writing this story, now are they?
As a young reporter on the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Moscow beat, my grandpa stumbled upon the story of Anna Anderson. She was a dark-eyed skirt with a keen eye for suckers and a habit of calling mental institutions “home sweet home.” She claimed to be Princess Anastasia. She said she’d survived the execution squad. Any guy with a lick of sense in him could see that the only thing she’d survived was a nasty fall down the ugly tree on Whore Island. But young Richard Lemonade was never known for his common sense. He once spent a year of his life designing a device that would allow a man to carry a horse. And you know what? It sort of worked.
Grandpa became the most vocal supporter of Anna’s story. He was going to make his bones on this story and maybe, just maybe, snag himself a princess bride in the process. However, Anna’s erratic behavior led many to question the veracity of her story. Her only recollections of her Romanov past consisted of dancing bears and painted wings — things she almost remembered.
There would be many tests of my grandfather’s faith in Anna. At an embassy ball, she famously confused the salad and dessert forks. She claimed to love dancing the mazurka, although it is a dance distinctly Polish in origin. One time she told my grandfather, “I’m actually the tiny mouse inside Rasputin.” Who was he to believe? Should we all stop believing in God just because miracles stopped when the camera was invented?
Grandpa Lemonade could handle the jeers from people who thought he was a loon. Heck, he could even handle losing his job at the Cincinnati Enquirer. “They fired me for asking all the right questions!” he told me. Enquirer records show that he was actually fired because he had failed to report European basketball scores. But the one thing Grandpa couldn’t handle was Anna’s marriage to an eccentric American professor. He also couldn’t handle the sight of a hot air balloon, but that’s a different story. A story I wrote for Parade Magazine.
Grandpa lived out the rest of his days frantically trying to win Anna’s love by proving her story. He took to writing various scenarios of how Anna escaped her Bolshevik captors. Here’s an excerpt of one from his diary:
ANNA: Please don’t shoot!
BOLSHEVIK #2: Not shoot? What’s in it for Boris?
ANNA: I’ll dance for you. I’ll do a new dance every night for 1,001 nights. You’ll see.
BOLSHEVIK #3: I object!
BOLSHEVIK #7: I’ll allow it.
BOB DYLAN: Hello, everybody. [Anna escapes while Bob plays “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the balalaika. The electric balalaika. The audience boos. Philistines.]
Grandpa died a poor lonely old man. On his deathbed he was attended only by his wife, his three children, and the Governor-General of Canada. The Prime Minister couldn’t even be bothered to send a card. At least Grandpa died believing that his work would one day be vindicated.
If you’re the type of person who worships at the altar of science and believes in things like DNA evidence, I suggest you stop reading and head back to your god damn Solyndra jobs. You already know what I have to say. Scientists conclusively determined that Anna Anderson was not genetically related to the Romanovs in the spring of 1994. “The Sign” by Ace of Base was topping the charts.
I can’t bring my grandpa back to life, but just maybe I can repair our family legacy if I can discover the real Princess Anastasia. Historical records show that if Anastasia were alive today, she would have to be 111 years old. That likely means one thing: I’m running out of time.
I’ve looked up Princess Anastasia a bunch of times on Wikipedia. I’ve asked my friends if they’ve seen her anywhere. I found one extremely old woman at a nursing home but she was fully Cambodian. I’m at my wit’s end.
Do I worry about going crazy like Grandpa Lemonade sometimes? Sure. I had a dream the other night that people had started eating glitter as food. But if I learned one thing from Gramps, it was that you can’t be afraid to chase an idea just because society labels you as “crazy” or “a deadbeat dad.” So I’m going to follow this little electric rabbit of a story all the way to the greyhound track finish line. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the track these days. Dogs don’t judge. Well, they don’t judge humans at least.
Anastasia. It seems to me she lived her life like a candle in the wind. Smokin’ hot, leaving a mess all around her, and probably fashioned from wax. At the end of the day, does it even matter if Anastasia actually survived? Sometimes I think we’re all Anastasia. And then I realize that’s impossible. Because Dame Maggie Smith is Anastasia. You heard it here first. But officially, you never heard it. ♦