In grandma’s house, there were no days of waking late. They could’ve been such days, but it would take some stubborn courage to not succumb to my innate Russian guilt and to stay in bed while the rest of the household filled with busy noises.
The women would always rise first. My grandma was the first to make it to the kitchen, and after the dry footsteps of her bare, callused feet against the wooden floor, intermixed with the thumping of her wooden cane, I’d soon smell the smoke of an oil lamp that she’d start inside a cove of a stone stove, in the corner.
That thing took up half the room: Built of wood and red brick, the stove was the oldest characteristic of a traditional rural Russian home. Its purpose was not only for cooking, upon a single metal plate located right above the fire pit; but for the heating of the entire house. So, the bedroom was often located on the other side of it. The stove was always painted with white chalk; and after a few of my un-welcomed visits of my grandma’s cot, where I would try to warm up my feet but leave markings on the wall, the men of the house took turns repainting that damn thing, upon the grouchy old woman’s instructions.
“Little gypsy children have dirty little feet,” my grandfather would joke through the side of his mouth in which he perpetually held a slowly fuming pipe.
Per old woman’s instructions, he was not allowed to smoke in the house. So, I’d shrug my skinny shoulders knowing that I too had some info on him that could get him also in trouble, really fast.
The fire pit was covered with a rusty door on squeaky hinges. The pots were stored onto the shelves along its wall. But right on top of the structure, one could pile up blankets and pillows stuffed with duck feathers — and sleep. But in my grandma’s house, no living soul was welcome to lounge around up there. (No soul was welcome to lounge around anywhere, really; because the family’s collective labor was its own religion. Except on Sundays: And then, there would be church.)
Two curtains, each about three meters long, were hung to hide the gap between the top of the stove and the ceiling. So narrow was the opening, a grown man would have to climb up there from the side and remain reclining. But I could sit up and lean against the pillar that lead up to the chimney; which I would still do whenever I would not be caught. I’d drag up my toys, but mostly books; and spend hours at a time, frying my soles against the hot stones. Some days, the heat would be expiring until the adults returned and started another fire. But late at night, after the dinner had been cooked, the pots — soaked in a tub of warm, soapy water, then rinsed under the spout sticking out from the wall of the house, outside — the stove was hot. The wooden floor of the kitchen had to be scrubbed every night; and under the strict overlooking eyes of the old woman, the young wives of her sons would find themselves on hands and knees. These chores would make the women be the last to bathe. They’d be the first to rise — and last to rest.
It would require a conspiracy between my motha and I for me to sneak up into the gap behind the curtains. First, she’d push me up, then store the drying cast iron pots in a row and pile them up in such a way, they’d create a wall behind which I could hide, if only I could hold still and flat on my back.
“You must be quiet like a spy. Shhh!” my motha’s hiss at me while winking and tucking me in. Her smirking eyes would tickle my insides with anxiety: at the adventure and the danger of being discovered by the old woman.
“‘Cause if she finds you,” motha’d warn me, “she’ll kick both gypsies out!”
I wasn’t sure where motha and I would have to go if my grandma followed through with that punishment. And I was definitely confused at why my father would not follow us into our homeless adventure. But the threat seemed real enough to keep me snickering into the pillow — from little fear but mostly the thrill.
I’d hear my motha’s hands moving the floor rag quickly and impatiently. I’d hear the dry footsteps and the cane of the old woman spying on her, while muttering passive-aggressive instructions on how to do it better. The men would come inside the house together and they would wash their faces and their sweaty necks above a metal sink in the corner, while the women helped by pouring water from aluminum cups. The men would puff and spray liquids from their mouths and noses; and I would hear the women’s chuckles, as the cold splatters landed on their exposed arms and chests.
“I’ll get you after she goes to sleep,” my motha’d promise, and as the house settled down, I’d play a guessing game with others‘ noises and shadows upon the walls and ceiling.
And sometimes, I’d wake up to another day of never rising late. Most likely, I would have drifted into slumber while waiting for my motha to come back. Then, I would have to wait some more, upon a now cold stove, while listening to the noises of the waking household.
I couldn’t yet understand the griefs and grudges that the adults held against each other. But from behind the closed curtains, I could watch their uncensored selves and make up stories.