Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Friend of the Family

The date on the calendar today reminds me to set aside research on my own family history to remember someone who wasn’t family, yet who played a part in my family. Today marks the tenth anniversary of the day of her passing—and while I don’t really remember her from the years at the end of her life, I still hold vivid memories of the part this woman played in the early years of my own life.

Her name was Genia Melnitchenko—not an easy name for a young girl to pronounce, so I inevitably omitted the “nit” and morphed that surname into the more child-manageable “Melichenko.”

Genia came to the United States after the Second World War. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants who eventually settled in New York City.

Genia became part of my mother’s life when the two were single women working as dancers in the city. My mother, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, most likely met Genia while she was working at the Roxy.

Of course, the term “dancers” held two widely divergent meanings, when comparing what, exactly, it was that they were dancing. My mother danced in the line—the Roxy’s origination of the better-known Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall. Genia, in contrast, was professionally trained in ballet.

Times were hard in those early post-war years. The venues where these two women worked offered programs akin to variety shows. Even though featured in such a “pop” setting, Genia performed the type of dance for which she was trained.

It was a difficult mesh of cultures for her, as I remember from my mother’s stories. Someone had told Genia, at one point, that the problem with her “act” was that she made her performance look so effortless, it came across as “easy.” Of course, it was nothing of the sort: her skill came at great price. My mother once told me Genia had been dancing professionally since she was, incredibly, only twelve years of age.

From time to time, my mother would pepper me with stories of her friendship with Genia. At Christmastime, for instance, having no family in the city, my mother would find herself invited to join Genia at her parents’ apartment for the day. Making her way up the apartment building’s narrow flight of stairs in a poorer section of New York, my mother would be welcomed at the door and drawn inside to the warmth of a Russian Christmas—complete with candles perched on the branches of a freshly-cut tree. Towards the end of the evening, the candles, burning low, would cause my mother alarm as she thought of the ramshackle wooden building in which they were all celebrating. But nothing serious ever happened.

In time, my mother met and married the man who later became my father, and settled down to a more domestic version of life. Upon the arrival of their firstborn—that’s me—my mother asked Genia for a great favor. She requested that Genia be my godmother, which she graciously was willing to do for her friend.

Meanwhile, Genia continued to ply her talents where she could find employment—with the ultimate goal of being signed with a ballet company in which she could perform at the level of her expertise. She must have, soon afterwards, attained her goal, for in the years after my mother’s marriage, Genia found herself dancing in venues around the world.

Every few years, when Genia returned to the States, she would find time for a visit. Often, my sister and I would travel with my mother from our suburban home to spend the afternoon with Genia at her parents’ apartment in the city—now, thankfully, in a somewhat better-appointed setting. A few times, Genia would take the train out to our home, and we would meet her at the station.

From those early childhood years, I remember a few things about Genia.

First, I remember looking down at her feet, the moment she stepped off the train. Her feet—those vehicles for the acclaim she ultimately was awarded for perseverance in her art—were a wreck, yet were gingerly caressed by leather that looked much more like ballet slippers than street shoes.

Next, I remember a lesson I learned by experience only: godmother or not, she should not be greeted by an impetuous, child-styled hug and kiss, but by that reserved, very French style of cheek-to-cheek embrace.

And, oh, the gifts she would bring me at each visit. I still have some of them—except for those which, sadly, had been stolen in those many starving-student passages of my own early adulthood. So incongruous for presentation to a child, Genia spoiled me with royal treats: a tiny bottle of pure parfum (“Replique”), a gold multi-stranded belt (how sad I was to discover it had gone missing), a turquoise necklace. How was she to know what would be appropriate to give to an eight-year-old? An only child likely raised apart from even her own parents since her teen years, she never married, never had children of her own.

As the years moved on—my mother returning to school to earn her degree in English literature, Genia still dancing with various ballet companies internationally—somehow the two friends lost track of each other. I eventually moved to the west coast and, after my father’s passing, my mother moved back to her own hometown in Columbus, Ohio.

By the time of my own daughter’s birth, I had turned my attention back to that pursuit of family history which had always had a call on me. One day, in our customary weekly long-distance calls, I shared with my mother what I was now able to achieve in genealogical research with the recent advancements in online services. I must have convinced her that perhaps it was really so, what I was telling her: that it was possible to find and reconnect with the dear ones with whom she had long before lost contact.

This was the season in which my mother decided to ask me to try to find her cousin, Sarah Martha Moore McKinnon. While I wasn’t successful in that endeavor, regrettably, I did think of one other person I could search for: Genia.

I remember Googling her name—not her birth name, of course, for by now Genia was going by a stage name. My hunch on this bore results, incredibly. Given Genia's now-long history of professional accomplishments, I had no idea even which country I’d find her in. Yet, here she was, in the United States. But not in New York. She was no more than about a two hour drive from where my mom was now living, serving as a visiting professor at the University of Akron.

It was a particularly satisfying realization that the day I told my mother about my discovery was my mom’s own birthday. My online research had paid off: I was able to give her Genia’s current contact information. She and Genia were able to reconnect—a last chance, as it turned out. Genia soon after left Akron to return to New York, and then on to other assignments.

Upon my mother’s passing in 2007, my mind turned, once again, to her friend Genia. Returning to the Internet to see what I could find, I was not entirely surprised, though certainly sad, to discover that the apparently world-renowned Genia Melikova had passed away a few years earlier. She had been mourned in the Juilliard School, where former colleague Gloria Marina San Roman wrote a tribute in the April 2004 edition of The Juilliard Journal (no longer accessible online). Her passing was noted in The New York Times. Even The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia carried a story on her—as I’m sure did newspapers in other countries where she was known.

Today, I can’t help but think of the woman I once knew—yet, strangely, never really knew—who was to me someone she likely never was to anyone else in the entire world: my godmother. Now that I have plied my research skills in ferreting out details of the lives of those in my family, I can’t help but wish that I knew just a bit more about Genia’s family, too. I wonder just who her sailor father was, the Russian who moved his family to Marseilles where he could escape the post-Revolutionary insanity, yet be close enough to a seaport to continue plying his own trade. I wonder about her trauma-stricken mother, whose suffering through all the tumult in her life trapped her not only in the dark recesses of her inner-city apartment, but in the downward-spiraling captivity of her own mind.

I wish, as with any other individual’s personal history, for Genia’s to be known and appreciated. With no siblings—and definitely no children—to keep her memory alive as a person, the only story she is remembered by is that of the stage persona created by her lifelong pursuit of the art of dance. While that is commendable, it doesn’t quite bestow a nexus with the generations of humanity. That is the connection I hope to find for Genia.  


  1. This will be a most excellent pursuit. Already Genia sounds mysterious and exotic, one who inspires curiosity. I imagine those sporadic visits created a lot of anticipation and excitement.

    1. Wendy, she still inspires curiosity--at least in me. There was always something stoic about Genia. Perhaps it was owing to the fact that I was very young when I saw her the most often. Then, too, the distortion of what children do with the realism that memories are supposed to represent becomes my fiercest enemy in trying to recreate what I do recall of the woman. This will be a challenge, indeed. But I so very much would like to make the attempt.

  2. This post, does exactly what you wish, it honors the memory of a remarkable woman - one that would be "unknown" to many (not forgotten, but unknown) and brings a a very shiny thread of your own family tapestry into view. This post was so beautifully written it is one of your best.

    1. Thank you, Iggy. That is very kind. I am hoping exactly that: to have it honor Genia's memory.

  3. Thank you for sharing another intriguing story, Jacqi,

    1. Dara, thank you for stopping by and commenting. I always appreciate hearing from you.

  4. What fond memories to treasure! It would be fun to find her diary! I hope you find what you are looking for:)


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