It started like a typical talk last night. Because that was the only reasonable thing to do, with my dad’s people: To be typical. Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices of his family.
When I resumed my weekly phone calls to Motha Russia, two years ago, I expected heightened stakes for a while. After all, I haven’t been home in sixteen years!
And for the first couple of months of these telephoned conversations — with the family — things were indeed thrilling: Someone was getting married. Someone had passed away years ago. This person was now a high ranking government official; and that one — had succumbed to full-range alcoholism. Most of our shared excitement came from other people’s tragic tales: immigration, disappearance, cancer, suicide. And because Motha Russia always has had such stories in plentitude, we seemed to never run out of things to discuss.
So, for hours, dad and I would talk about other people:
“And how is Marinka, P?” I would ask him about my archenemy from high school, and that would spur another hour of gossip: Someone was pregnant. Someone was getting a divorce. This person had left for Moscow. That one — never returned from Chechnya.
But when it came to our own family, things weren’t discussed; not in any depth that revealed family secrets. Nothing that would divert us — from being typical. Surely, we talked about our distant relatives: someone was cheating on his wife; another someone was graduating from medical school. But the people in the immediate family — were not the topic for deep digging.
It was initially established by P: He would answer the questions about his family living in the Urals with stubborn vagueness.
I could hardly remember my last visit to that middle section of Russia. I was a teenager and bored out of my mind, on that trip. Because just like the geography of the area itself, the common characteristic of my father’s people was an overall commitment to order and calm. Every single one of them was always existing in the middle: Not really subversive in any way and never disobedient. They were — typical.
And the orderly flow of their daily events was dictated by the family’s matriarch:
Breakfast at 0700 hours. Work at 0900. Women cleaned the house and cooked — men left for the fields. Bathhouse was ready by 1800 hours. Dinner by 1900.
Having been a city-child my entire life, I was an immediate handful for my father’s mom:
“Why is she going to the library every day?” she scolded P in that passive-aggressive manner that was meant to be overheard, by me. “What would people think?!” Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices in his family.
So: We walked our cows to the feeding fields by 0600 hours. Attended Sunday church by 0800.
And, last night, it started like a typical talk:
“What are you doing right now?” P began our routine, after the initial pleasantries were gotten out of the way.
“I’m cooking,” I answered.
I was holding my cellphone with my left shoulder and running a colander full of spinach under the water. An entire head of garlic was waiting to be peeled. He would have heard my kitchen noises anyway. So, I didn’t lie. And I didn’t stop cooking. Because I assumed: P would have preferred for me to have a typical night anyway.
“You’re cooking? At 2300 hours?” (P — is an army man. He still talks in military time, so typical of his generation.)
“Yep,” I said. “I’m cooking from scratch.”
I braced myself: I expected him to start talking about the diversion from my typical sleeping schedule; or the noises with which I was disturbing my neighbors. (In which case: “What would people think?” Right?!)
But P — chuckled. “What are you making?”
“Soup,” I answered. I preferred not to elaborate, as to not give away too much ammunition for dad’s later scolding: I was a child of an army man, and I typically don’t run my mouth much.
But then, I reiterated, while gloating a bit:
“I’m making soup — from scratch!”
“I know you are,” P got serious on me. “You always made me things from scratch.”
He would proceed to tell me that even as a teenager, I was the cook of the family. Oh, how it bothered his mother — the matriarch — he told me, when I competently took over making his breakfasts, in the Urals!
“Why is she crowding me out of my kitchen?‘ your grandma told me,” he said last night.
I chuckled. Yes, I chuckled with my typical close-lipped laughter: so typical of my generation of army brats. So typical — of my father’s child.
“But in all truth,” P continued, “I always preferred your cooking — over my mom’s.”
God damn! THAT — was untypical! The family’s matriarch was being shaken off her throne; and her son was now conspiring with a woman who was anything but typical, for her entire life.
“What would people think?!” I thought.
But then, feeling encouraged, gloating even more, as a woman proud of all her self-taught talents, I carried on cooking, last night: Mincing the roasted peppers; adding spices to the mixture of red, brown and wild rice.
P was into it:
“And when do you add salt?” he inquired.
“Never!” I said, in my matriarchal voice. “In my kitchen — I use lemon!”
P chuckled. Yes, he chuckled with his typical close-lipped laughter. But I knew: He was choking back his tears.
Due to the untypical turn of events in his family’s history, I grew up in an untypical fashion: On a whole different continent, one hemisphere removed from him and his people. I had become a woman on my own terms. And somehow, despite being extremely untypical, in my father’s eyes — I was absolutely perfect:
I was a good woman — so typical of my father’s child.
And I was the best cook — in the family: How untypical!