Tag Archives: inheritance

That Goes Without Saying

(Continued from February 12th, 2012.)

The fact that I had lived to tell the tale, to play the endless hide-and-seek with my fam’s myths — defeating them or playing the fool to their call — my murder obviously did not materialize.  And neither did my mother’s old man finish off his wrathful deed in that ill-fated, loaded moment, in their shared past.  They both eventually calmed down:  the old man of stubborn dignity and his very proud daughter whom he himself had raised to never — EVER! — grovel.

Although that child would milk the incident until the man apologized, then, backed it up with some expensive gifts:  a coupla golden objects and some vinyl records by four pretty boys from England, whose bangs of ponies and cherubic cheeks sped up the sexual maturity of most of the world’s teenagers.  Considering the rarity of vinyl back in the U.S. of S.R., those might as well have been made out of gold.  The records could be found ONLY on the black market.  Illegal gold!  Now, THAT’s the stuff worthy of that woman’s beauty!  The gifts from my own father, who had been mortified to have his woman flee like that — with no shame or underwear — were also pouring into my mother’s pretty hands.  After about a week of pouting, she would resume her residence upon the marital bed, but would impose the punishment of her absence every weekend; then, go off to play house back at her parents’ joint.  (Whatever made her think, however, that that was a punishment still testifies to her very high and never wavering opinion of herself.  Because, you see, it was, if not the myth of our women, then certainly some centuries-old wisdom:  That any woman willing to put out on a regular basis was a catch, of course.  But those broads that looked like mother and had some skills behind the bedroom doors (or so I’ve heard) — were copyrighting a category of their own.)

My shrink, whom I would hire in the beginning of my own sex life…

What?  Are you surprised a chick like me would need professional assistance?  It could’ve been the wisdom from beyond my predecessors’ graves — some intuition that, as I was most certain, had always lived in my fallopian tubes — but I would ask for help when I discovered the power of our women’s sex.  It happened via a curious case that struck me in my sophomore year:  A night of my first Romeo’s serenading under the windows of my college dorm, which then resulted in a serious dose of hatred on behalf of all the other females in the building.  When after that one sleepless night, half of my Medieval Lit class failed to show — and our drained by life professor went literal and Medieval on our asses — I quickly knew that I could never bear the responsibility OR the amount of guilt that I began attaching to the act of sex.  So, quite A-SAP, I located my shrink, off-campus.  (All I had done, in my defense, was let my Romeo feast upon my breasts which I never bound with a bra.  Not back in those days.  Or, actually, not ever.  They weren’t obnoxious glories of my mother’s, by any means:  Her hemispheres that guided men to heaven.  Mine were just little handful reproductions.  With Romeo, it was the stuff of innocence, I swear.  A little shadow fuck of that dark force that was behind the family’s myth.)

So, anyway.  My shrink, whom I would hire in the beginning of my sex life, would over the course of my last two years in college break down the driving mechanisms of mother’s psyche:  She strived on endless guilt trips.  If one bestowed a love upon her, in mother’s eyes, they were forever indebted for the sole pleasure of her company.  So, only when one was NOT in trouble — was when one was advised to worry about unrequited love.  Love.  Equalled.  Suffering.  That’s a direct quote from my mother’s Bible.

“But little daughter.  Love of my life.  My sun and earth and all the stars above,”  was singing my grandmother, gray haired fully by the age of forty.  Every week, she would pamper her child in the fam’s private bath house — called “banya” in the mother-tongue — which even in Russian stood for:  “Those bathers are bourgeois pigs and we shall gut them in our next Revolution!”  Such luxury did not naturally run in our fam.  So, there had to be a story about it!  (Oh, but of course:  Another fucking myth!)  And that story went:  When my young grandfather, smitten by his girl, suggested they should marry, she arched her impeccable eyebrows at him and said:  “I do not want a stupid wedding band:  It gives me blisters.  You build me a house with a banya — and we shall talk.”  The chick, who had been showered with men’s vows of their eternal love since, say, the age of six — was doomed to learn the fragile nature of men’s word.  She would have learned negotiating her way through life; and then, behind the closed doors of that same banya, she’d pass her wisdom to her equally gorgeous female child.)

Now, scrubbing each other’s bods with soap suds, then whipping themselves raw with soaked birch branches every weekend, the women bonded.  Some girls grew up admiring the carriers of wombs that birthed them.  (Case in point:  Yours painfully, sincerely.)  My mother never suffered through that stage, however, as a youngster:  From birth she was immediately gaga over papa (but also anything that walked and was preferably male).  Sex was a mere currency.  But since she was NOT about to become a village ho, the young woman quickly learned the suave negotiation — via her stick and honey pot — that could’ve made Edith Wharton herself flip up her elegant white arms in awe and in surrender.  But this recent mishap back in the home of her marriage took our pretty woman for a spin.  And she, spun out, began to seek advice (or rather, pity) from the one woman who’d learned to love her unconditionally, despite the distance the young woman maintained between them, most of their lives.

“This, too, shall pass,” the wise woman was now cooing.  She was beside herself.  After years and years of desiring this closeness with her child, she was on the receiving end of it — FINALLY!

But her advice expired right in that same bathhouse, its hopeful body asphyxiating and curling up under the wooden bench for the young woman to step over — and move on.  This purely Russian, innate resignation of the soul — the forced surrender because otherwise things would never, ever change — was not an outlook my mother practiced much.  She hated Chekhov, walked out of women’s conversations about “That’s just the way things are!”  She never tipped a shot of Stoli to someone’s fatalistic toast; and even as a child, her parents’ “Just because!” was not an acceptable answer to her three-year-old’s “Why’s”.

Everything in life could be negotiated, which to a First World Reader would seem quite reasonable of an expectation.  But we’re talking:  The Soviet Union in the 60s.  So, our young lady had better had a plan!

 

Naturally, something would come out of that incidental female bonding (which, with all due respect to my own gender, could amount to nothing good).  After one night of bathing away her heartache and stress, haloed with a cloud of steam, my mother stepped out into the world, all squeaky clean and suddenly light; her calculating mind — refreshed.

She had an idea!  Hallelujah, a plan!  And it was inspired by the old woman’s promise:

“Your dad and I could always care for your baby, if the going got rough.  And you can always leave her with us.”

My mother’s beautiful face, now red and swollen from the admirably well-timed tears, stopped shedding water for a minute.  She swiped her eyelids with the backs of her soft wrists and muttered through the bubbly saliva inside her rosy mouth:  “How do you know it’s a ‘her’?”

The old woman smiled and raised her hand to brush her daughter’s hair, cut short in yet another recent act of resentment toward her wedding vows.  But from that point on, according to the young woman, the going got so “rough”, it would be border-line of questionable safety for her or her offspring.  As much as a question from mother’s husband about, say, the length of her skirt or the color of her nails — and she would throw a fit.  I mean, seriously:  “Could you pass the salt, please?” at a dinner table she sometimes treated as a scathing comment about her cooking.

“What happened to the man I married?!” she flailed.  It’s true:  The chick was starting to feel jipped.

Oh, that poor girl!  She still could not accept that, in the world, there never again would be a love that equaled that of her old folks!  That’s how the human race had worked for centuries:  “Just because.”  So, off she’d go again:  Storming out of the kitchen and locking her man out of the bedroom.  Or marching through the unpaved roads on her two legs of fury, yet again.  I, by then pushed out of her womb, would roll and bounce inside the baby carriage that mother pushed through mud, dried mounts of cow dung and ulcerous ditches.  Like an unready kernel of un-popped popcorn, I thumped against the cardboard walls and bottom of the Soviet-made transporter of our future generation.  And by the time we reached my grandpeep’s home, I’d been exhausted, bruised and ready for surrender.

“What did he do — again?” too readily, my grandmother leapt out of her house and onto the porch.  And for a while, my mother would think up some fiction, exaggerating the events of her home, for an effect.

Be it out of some male camaraderie, or simply out of his adoration of me (or did he simply want to rescue me from being accidentally brainwashed by these two women?), my grandfather avoided their dissing sessions at all costs.  Instead, he’d take care of some dirty business inside my homemade diaper and carry me off onto the couch where he had been dozing off after his graveyard shift at the local port.  Or he would take me out for a walk — a bundle cradled in the hammock of his left arm, while he continued smoking with his right — and he would meet his buddies for a glass of foaming beer, at sunset, in the park.

If I remained awake, “Hey there, lavender eyes!” he’d wink at me, occasionally, and flick my button nose while balancing a cig between his lips.  To my unknowing eyes, it must’ve looked like a magnificent firefly.  Some hopeful planet that formerly belonged to the Little Prince.  The North Star that paved the roads of my future paths with flickering, yet never dying, light.

“In the Name of Justice. In the Name of Fun. In the Name of the Father. In the Name of the Son.”

A native couple is cooing by the window.

Polish has always echoed of my native tongue, but with more softened corners of our consonants.  And even if it flies out in a loud form — like from the disgruntled clerk at Warsaw’s Central Station who hollered at the group of passengers that included my old man (that bitch whose Soviet-inspired perm I could’ve easily clawed out if it weren’t for the plexiglass between us!) — this language still flows and gurgles the prettiest, for my ears.  Within this week, Polish has become my path to lullabies; and now, I wish to learn it, so that I could always murmur its fairytales to my own sleepy firstborn.

Case in point:  The lovebirds with whom I’m sharing this train car for the duration of the 7-hour ride from Gdansk to Warsaw — are quite quickly putting me to sleep after our first ten minutes together.  Although I’m certain that the last three days of restless sleep that came from my fear of closing my eyes (so that I wouldn’t stop memorizing my father’s face, after a decade of our living in opposite hemispheres) have something to do with it, too.  But during this entire trip through Eastern Europe, I have been thoroughly calmed into surrender by the trustworthy national temperament of the Poles.  No other peoples I have ever encountered possess this much gentleness and grace (the Soviet-trained witch at the bus station who dared threatening my father’s dignity — is obviously excluded from this statement).

It is as if after centuries of oppression by every egomaniac who found this lovely country as the perfect place to start a war or their conquest of the world — after unthinkable tragedies the human race thought up and then imposed on these kind people — the good gods of this land have finally decided to protect them from all strife, until the next apocalypse that ends our civilization all together.  As far as the Poles go, I think that they have suffered enough to possibly reach their nation’s limits of paid dues.

It must be why for days and miles (oops, sorry:  kilometers) by now, I haven’t seen an unattractive native.  The kiddos are doll-like, with their giant eyes and smooth foreheads inside the halos of colorful scarves and fur-trimmed hoods of coats:  The beauty of their future generation must be the reward for all that suffering.  The women are mesmerizing with their luminous faces (without make-up, in most cases) and those Slavic cheekbones carved out of marble by Michelangelo himself (for surely, that guy must be god’s personal architect, these days).  The leftovers of the kitschy Soviet fashion are still occasionally noticeable on Warsaw’s streets:  in leopard colored fur coats and hair beehives set into unmovable mounts with sparkly hairspray, a tooth comb a curling iron.  And then, there are those women who suffer from the universal ailment of unhappy marriages and miserable living standards (those women age so fast!).  Also, a few have fallen victim to the mass fad of perpetual smoking (although the young are still not showing the consequences of it).  But for the most part, in their beauty, these women — are exceptional!

As for the Polish men, thus far I’ve found them wonderfully well-mannered, educated and non-aggressive.  Like this specimen still cooing at his lovely in my train car:  Incredibly gentle to the point of being effeminate, he keeps telling her the history of every local sight and landscape that we have passed behind our giant windows.  At one point, he gets up, adjusts his tweed jacket (while being childlike and a little nerdy in his gestures); and then reveals two homemade sandwiches (oops, sorry:  buterbrods) out of his shiny brown leather attache case.  When he starts talking on his cellphone to confirm the schedule of their connecting train, he sounds exceedingly polite and almost bitchy.  She giggles and looks at him sheepishly when he cuts off the customer service rep with his blade-like sarcasm.  He looks back at her, now encouraged and twice the man, and pats the top of her knee.

These lovebirds have been cooing at each other ever since I’ve entered the railroad car.  Between the two of them, she does most of the listening:  With a blissful expression on her face whose only stunning characteristic lies in the constellation of her beauty marks, occasionally she slips in a timid compliment in between his never ending sentences, while he continues lecturing.  He could be easily be an assistant professor or some brilliant history students at the top of his class.  (Um.  Sorry:  faculte.)  And when he delights her with his intellect, she breaks out into a ready laughter, too loud for her demure character.

Of course, were I to have my drathers, I would be sleeping in the dark and in utter silence.  But one:  It is the Eve of the New Year, after all (and the Poles are huge on celebrations — which must have something to do with their generosity, I suspect).  Two:  These kids are perfectly delightful.  But even though they can’t remind me of my younger self (for I have never had a young romance), I always stand defenseless in the name of kindness, if not love.

Besides, I have been softened by the events of this week’s trip.  The best, the smartest and the kindest man of my life — my father — has just departed from the coast of Gdansk:

The man to teach me my self-worth despite our sixteen-year long communication by phone and telepathically shared heartbeat.  The one to always offer help and not keep tabs on my mistakes or moments of helplessness.

The first to show me that power lies in kindness and that in my forgiveness — happens love.

The parent from whom I have inherited my sense of justice and the pursuit of harmony, my reason, generosity, compassion; and the very essence of my spirit — has offered me the best week of my life.

And our reunion just so happened to unfold — on Poland’s graceful land.

“Can I Take You Home — To MY House?”

It was a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight.  There were no other signs, just my own prior knowledge, but I was sure the room was located upstairs.

Or, it could have been one of those houses that sits on stilts in my grandfather’s village.  There seems to be no natural reason for such a structure:  The inland area at the foot of an ancient mountain knows no floods.  There are no rivers that run by it, and the winters tend to be brutally dry and viciously cold.  But when the snow melts, it turns the ground into mush; yet, no river banks can be feared to overflow.  The thick, purple layer of evergreens that covers the sides of the dormant mountain holds its outer layers in place, and I have never heard of mudslides or earthquakes in the entire history of the family.  If anywhere else, there, in the middle of Russia, nature is obedient and tamed.

There was always a calm flow of hours whenever I came to town.  There would be bickering between the two sides of the family, and that would be the only noise I’d hear for days:  The Russian whites on my father’s side would find the brown tint of my skin somewhat scandalous.  My brown motha’s blatant sexuality didn’t help the matters either.  The matriarchs — the mother of the family and her only daughter (a matriarch-in-training) — would always insist on accompanying me in public.

But the town would be calm, and with an exception of an occasion hushing down of the old women, flocking benches at any hour of the day, I saw no outwardly confrontations.  And even those women would express their aggression with silence and gossip, to which I wouldn’t be made privy, because it would unfold behind my brown back.  This was no place for verbal confrontations or domestic fights.  An occasional drunken brawl would be talked about for months.

And then, everything would return back — to silence!

In a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight that’s possible only in August, there was a circle of mismatching furniture:  An old couch with wooden arms and flowery pattern of its material; an armchair of dark blue velvet, worn out and soiled in its folds.  A wooden barstool was covered with a crocheted throw of fluffy, egg-foam-colored thread.  And there was a rocking chair occupied by the ghost of my grandfather — the only member of the family who was always openly thrilled by the fact that I stuck out in all their photographs.

They were all blue-eyed, tall and sinewy; and in every picture, they stood behind me like a white backdrop.  I would look at the lens from underneath my bushy eyebrows, with eyes so dark, no camera could distinguish the ending to my pupils.  And above my serious, mismatching face, I would be balancing a cloud of messy hair, which, before the flash went off, had been aimed at by one of the matriarchs’ hands and yanked into a careless ponytail.

(Looking back at these photos, you can already see that my body would belong to neither my motha’s clan — a curvatious creature of wild nature — nor to the shared lean physique of the white matriarchs.  I would be somewhere in the middle:  My adolescent frame would already exhibit some softness, but the brown legs, darkened by my chronic solitary play in dirt fields and haystacks, belonged to someone who knew how to run.)

Sylvie Guillem by Richard Avedon

In the sunlit living-room, one of those hand-woven rugs took up the middle section of the floor.  On it, I would be permitted to play, occasionally, after the matriarchs confirmed that there was no work left to be done around the house.  Still, I would hide out, until my grandfather’s return.  Like me, he would be ushered out of the kitchen by the women; and while he watched TV, I finally felt safe to bring my toys out of their hiding places and spread them out at his feet, upon one of those hand-woven rugs.

There was no eating on the floor.  No eating was permitted anywhere but the kitchen and the garden bench.  At times, the old man and I would sneak behind the house and curb our appetite with fresh cucumbers or a few unwashed tomatoes.

“It tastes better this way,” my grandfather would wink at me while polishing the giant berry on against the cloth of his knee.

But seeing a skeptical glimmer from underneath my bushy eyebrows, the old man would reaffirm:

“You get all the natural vitamins when the tomato is unwashed.  Trust me.”

The secret would be to chomp it down quickly, before the matriarchs came out to the garden to collect some scallions or a bouquet of dill for the dinner salad.  So, we would climb back up the stairs (the house sat on stilts, remember?); and reassume our positions of most safety:  His — dozing off in his rocking chair, and mine — conducting stories upon a hand-woven rug.

But in my last night’s dream, the wide living-room, luminous with August sunlight, was filled with other people.  They were loud and beautiful; and they laughed with such violent joy, I noticed the open windows of the house and the shimmering dust suddenly visible in that angle of the sun.  We would be heard, I realized; and what would happen to the silence so strictly protected by the locals — it, at times, eliminates all life?

The beautiful people kept laughing, though.  The women with golden hair intertwined their limb in ways that only women do with each other:  with an intimacy that comes with tenderness and, most importantly, a lack of angst.  The children straddled the wooden arms of the couch; climbed onto the women’s knees and crawled all over their feet.

My grandfather’s chair sat empty.  I watched it from the corner of the room, where I had wedged myself in under an armpit of a tall man with laughing eyes.  He, too, was in on the joke; and he kept shooting over loving gazes my way that seemed to say that I was the pun of it.

Is this what families are supposed to look like?  Is this the way I wanted mine — to feel?

I had so little to remember them by, that all I seemed to want to keep was the empty rocking chair and my grandfather’s ghost.  The rest was up for my rewriting.

“Somewhere, Someone’s Calling Me, When the Chips Are Down.”

(Continued from September 30, 2011.)

So, that day, when motha decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers — in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; and soon enough, long before delivering the punchline, she started laughing and flailing her arms around, completely unaware of her vanity (and considering motha always knew the effect of her beauty, such abandonment — was quite endearing).

She tilted her head back, as if in the midst of some private exorcism, and she hollered and yelped in between her words.  Tears started glistening in the corners of her eyes.  And she would smack me every once in a while, as if taunting me to participate in her hysteria; and even though she stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, motha could always pack a mighty punch.

Pretty soon, things in her vicinity started falling down to the floor.  Motha crouched down to pick them up; but then, she just stayed there — laughing.

I don’t know what the gist of her story was, at first:  I just kept clutching the coconut.  I wasn’t really sure how breakable that thing was, and I didn’t want motha to knock it over by accident.  Sure, I’ve seen those things before, most likely on some Mexican telenovela or in a film about rich American people, in a pretty town, on some pretty shore.  Both genres would have been narrated in a monotone male voice of the translator, yet I still managed to get addicted to these latest imports on our television screens, full-heartedly.

Because in the last years of the Soviet Union, the world suddenly became much larger — and not as intimidating as it had been previously assumed.  And despite the utter chaos, my own homeland began to seem much more human.   

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh along with my motha, in that moment.

I think she was trying to tell me about her asking for a tutorial from the cashier woman at the store.

“And why are you asking ME, lady citizen?” the bitter woman had responded.  You’d think she would be happy to work in such a fancy establishment, with more access to deficit items the rest of us could only see on some Mexican telenovelas or in an American film.  But apparently, Soviet cashiers were bitter regardless of their situation.

“Do I look like I’m married to an apparatchik, to you?!” — the disgruntled woman attacked my motha.  (I have a feeling that interaction didn’t end well, for the cashier; because with motha — it’s better not to push it.)

Bitterness — was the worst consequence of those days.  The flood of unexpected hardships was actually quite easy to understand, because poverty had always existed in my Motha’land.  But while we were all poor together, it must’ve bugged the grown-ups less.  It was when the distance between the new wealth and the old poverty became obvious that Russians began to express their discontentment.  (And we aren’t really a happy bunch, to begin with.)

“So, it’s up to you and me, rabbit!” motha concluded and marched out into the living-room.

She wasn’t too keen on tender nicknames for me, so I just stayed in my place and waited:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.  Something heavy fell down in the living-room.  I heard my motha swear.  The thought of our neighbors below made me cringe:  Daily, the poor bastards had to endure the heavy footsteps of this tiny woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground.

Motha reappeared in the doorway.

“How about it then?!”

Her face was still flushed from laughter, and her chest was heaving.  In one of her manicured hands, motha was holding an ax (oh, dear Lenin!), and with the other, she was waving a hammer and a screwdriver above her head.

“Oy, no!” I said.  And, “Bad idea!” — I thought to myself.

“Whoever doesn’t take risks — doesn’t drink champagne!” motha declared and proceeded to march into the kitchen.  I, the coconut, and our offensively obese red cat followed her.

The operation that unfolded in the kitchen was less than graceful:  Crouching down in her miniskirt, motha began pounding the screwdriver into the poor piece of fruit.  But the problem was she was whacking it through the side, and the thing kept rolling out of her grip.  And she:  She kept laughing.

“Hey, rabbit!  Come help!”

Motha’s orders were never up to a negotiation, so, I obeyed.  The thought of the screwdriver being hammered into my palm with my motha’s clumsy maneuver was a lot less intimidating, than her wrath.  Yeah:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.

But first, I examined the fruit:

“Let’s trying breaking in through these three dimples,” I suggested.

The task would have been accomplished had motha stopped collapsing into fits of laughter.  And I thought:  If there was ever anything more dangerous than an unhappy Russian woman, it would be a woman in throws of hysteria, holding a hammer.

Motha reached for the ax.

“Oy, no!” I rebelled and leapt to my feet.  This whole situation was starting to stage itself as some Greek tragedy.  And most of the time, those don’t work out well, for the children.

Motha got up, while still holding the now scuffed up fruit.  With tears and make-up running down her face, she reminded me of a young girl at a Beatles concert.  (The images of such strange life elsewhere were beginning to flood our press, from all parts of the world.  And somehow, that world seemed much larger, less intimidating — and quite wonderful!)

“Rabbit, catch!” she threw the coconut at me.

I ducked.  The fruit bounced off the doorway behind me and hit the floor.  Our offensively obese red cat dashed out of the kitchen.

Motha and I lost it entirely, and when the neighbors below knocked on their ceiling, we lost it again.  The glimmer of joy, dimmed in my motha’s eyes in those difficult years, considered reigniting.  No matter the chaos, this beautiful woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, refused to grovel.   And even if it took hysteria to remember how to laugh, she wouldn’t give it up.