Like most only children of Soviet parentage in the seventies, I was raised mostly by my maternal grandmother. Babushka was the central force in my life, my greatest advocate, and the bane of my existence. She was also a useful instruction manual for insanity, one that I was to follow for the term of my natural life.
My mother’s mother, Asya, was a force of nature, but not the cuddly, sweet butterflies-perched-on-daffodils kind of nature. Her nature was the kind you see on the news, one that tears the roofs off people’s houses, leaving them homeless and destitute, but teaching them valuable spiritual lessons later. Living with her was like finding myself in New Orleans’ emotional state after Hurricane Katrina, but without that whole golden age of Jazz that had preceded it.
For one thing, she was always threatening to die.
“By the next Olympics, I vill be dead,” she said decisively, in 1980.
“Which Olympics, summer or winter?” Lina retorted, “I want to pick my dress.”
“Is she senile?” I would ask my mother.
“No she’s been threatening to die for thirty-five years.”
When I say I lived with my grandmother, I mean that literally. I shared a bedroom with her for two years when we first came to Australia, which gave my parents built-in childcare, and me nightmares. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her; it was the fact that, like the Matrioshka nesting doll (which coincidentally is also called a Babushka) there were many other smaller personalities living inside her, none of which seemed to fit into the others. Three decades later, I am still trying to disassemble them all.
To say she was mercurial would be like characterizing my parents’ schizophrenic friend Shurik as slightly moody. Asya’s entire demeanor could change like the wind; one second you were in her good graces, the next that demented arched eyebrow would shoot up, her still ample hairline would travel back several inches on her forehead and you’d know you were in trouble. You had offended her… (Crescendo threatening music) and she would find a way to make you pay by subtly withdrawing her attention and affection, never hinting at when you might have it back.
My mother was born when my grandmother was forty years old, right at the end of the Second World War. She had already lost her husband and brother in the war, and Asya and her husband hadn’t wanted a Jewish child (what with that whole Holocaust thing). But when she got pregnant the war was almost over. Having a child is still impressive for a forty-year-old woman, but back then it was a statistical miracle…all the more so given all those abortions Babushka had had, that comprised Soviet birth control.
Babushka figured she should keep the baby; sadly her husband died four years later and she ended up raising my mother alone. This in no way handicapped Babushka; she was a powerhouse whom my mother could rely on to protect and coddle her, not to mention to procure anything at any time of day or night- a sort of Communist concierge.
If she had lived in America, my grandmother could have been President (except for the whole born-in-Russia thing). She was an over-achiever who functioned on barely any sleep and grasped everything from humor to international politics in seconds. As a young woman she had dressed in the latest styles of the day, favoring hand-crocheted white collars that could be transferred to different dresses and affixed with tiny metal snaps. Artists wanted to paint her and photographers wanted to draw her, though with her long nose and almost Asiatic eyes she was not a traditional beauty. Unfortunately Asya was not a people person; in fact she hated most people and had no trouble letting them know it, so on second thoughts it was probably better that she ended up in accounting.
At the time I shared a room with Babushka Asya in Melbourne, she was already nearing seventy, which to me made her as old as the characters I was learning about in the Old Testament, including that great bearded old man in the sky who looked like a Rabbi- G-d. Far from leaving me with a heightened respect for older generations, as in a Chinese or Indian family, this has left me with a lifelong irrational fear/hatred of old people.
Not that she was some fuddy-duddy infirm elderly lady who required my constant patience and care. That might have aroused my compassion. Instead, she left me and any other living human being in the dust. Her motto was “Hurry Up…” That was the Russian word I most associated with her: Bistro Bistro Bistro “Quickly, quickly, quickly…” everything was an emergency requiring immediate attention, if we didn’t go out and get milk right away someone was going to die.
Physically you had to struggle to keep up with her, as she speed-walked toward the local shopping center, an empty plastic bag trailing in her hand. All Russians recycled before it was popular and wouldn’t waste so much as a potato peel if they felt they could re-use it. In fact I vividly remember my grandmother taking my dirty tissues out of the trash and showing my mother that I had only blown my nose once in them, wasting the rest of the tissue. Luckily, my mother responded to this as she always did, by yelling at Asya, and telling me to pay no attention to her.
My grandmother was, to this day, intellectually the most advanced person I’ve ever met. She spoke eight languages, had perfect pitch, played classical piano, and was fiercely well read in politics, history, fine art, and music. In fact most of what other people see as my own “intelligence” was actually absorbed by osmosis simply by my being in her presence. The culture oozed out of her like carbon monoxide.
She was also a student of sociology; being that she wasn’t human herself, she liked to observe them in action. Many a morning I would wake up to find her already sitting with her third gigantic cup of coffee with four to six teaspoons of sugar, and the brown bread and liverwurst sandwich alluded to by the dab of liverwurst hanging off her lip, which might or might not get spit at you when she talked. She would be reading the German periodical, Der Spiegel, one eye squinting shut to make up for her cataract, and would look up at me, squinting the other eye to see distance. Der Spiegel was always lying around our house and I remember finding pages earmarked with pictures of naked women, S & M, and homoerotic male imagery, which may have been a tad inappropriate for a six-year-old, but certainly lessened the shock value of Madonna in the eighties.
My grandmother never ever got sick, although she always carried a large handkerchief with which she rubbed her nose constantly that reeked of 4711 cologne. I didn’t know why she never left her nose alone. My guess was she was allergic to 4711. She was obsessed with sports and competitions, especially the Olympic games, the Eurovision song contest, and watching soccer on television. Not only were these Asya’s Euro fix, they were the only times I ever saw her sit down, as mostly she passed through the corner of your vision like some kind of frenzied laundry-folding Tasmanian devil.
When my father first met his future mother-in-law, Lina and Asya were living in an apartment in the suburb of Mustamae, in one of those nondescript high-rise apartment buildings you might find in modern-day Sarajevo, minus the bullet holes. Asya was sitting in the dark in hair curlers, watching soccer on TV through a pair of opera glasses, as her regular glasses were broken. My grandmother didn’t turn immediately to meet my mother’s intended until she’d finished yelling, “Goal– what are you idiots doing?” or some other hooligan-type slogan at the television. Then she lowered the binoculars, stared at my father and said, “Come back after the second half.”
For some reason instead of turning around and running away, my father proceeded to offer his future mother-in-law a cigarette. He may have stayed because he was bowled over by the apartment, which my mother and grandmother had procured almost by accident several years before, when they were relocated to make room for yet another Communist monument in Tallinn. While the building was without distinction, the flat was spectacular. For one thing, coming as he did from one room shared by eighteen people, a three-room flat shared by two people must have seemed like Versailles.
Adding to this impression was the bronze inlaid French Empire furniture my great grandmother had bought from an aristocrat fleeing the Russian revolution in Petrograd (St. Petersburg.) I guess Dad was an aesthete above all else, because opera glasses in your darkened living room pole vaults over the line of “eccentric” headfirst into “bat-shit.”