Tag Archives: matriarch

“You’d Better Come on, in My Kitchen, Babe: It Going to Be Rainin’ Outdoors.”

The women would gather around at mid-afternoon.

All throughout the last weeks of every autumn, they took turns visiting each other’s kitchens.  The ones that arrived to my grandma’s house were the victims of a village-wide fame of being the best cooks, for kilometers around.  Grandma was somewhat of a matriarch herself who flaunted her expertise like the first Soviet Martha Stewart.

The women’s morning duties would have been long completed:  Their cows and sheep were milked and herded out to the fields and placed under the supervision of the blond and freckled Don Juan, Vanechka.  The children were washed, the men — fed and guided out of the front gates.  The adolescent rascals, visiting their grandparents for the summer, who turned increasing brown day by day, would find salvation from the heat by the river bank.  The old women, with poor appetites, were given a glass of fresh milk, still foaming with the temperature of a cow’s body, and a slice of warm bread.  They then flocked the benches — like birds on a telephone line — for hours; and with their nearly toothless gums, they chewed sunflower seeds and gossiped.  (You could always tell their most favored bench by the layers of black hulls surrounding its wooden legs, like seashells.)

When the front gate of the house began squeaking, I put down my book and listened up.  I’d never really been much use to the matriarch of the house:  My housework was obviously not up to her standards.  So, it was better to stay out of her way all together.

“Doesn’t your mother teach you anything?!” the old woman bickered and breathed down my neck while I clutched a soapy dishrag or the handle of a bucket with filthy, brown water with which I had just scrubbed the floors of the hallway and the storage room.  “Gimme that!  I’ll show you how.”

But I wasn’t really in the mood for lectures.  Holding back my tears with a single raised eyebrow, I would march off into the furthest removed room of the house:  The front veranda with giant windows and a single cot.

“Well, would you look at her?!” the old woman nagged behind my back.  “Can’t even say a word to her!”

As soon as the veranda door was sealed shut with a metal hook, I would anticipate visiting the never seen landscapes of snowy Saint Petersburg in the novels of Dostoyevsky; or the wild forestry occupied by the courageous cossacks of Sholokhov.  There was no room for the nature worshiping lyrics of Yesenin, or the gentle romance of Alexander Blok.  No way, man!  Fueled by the unjust opposition of my father’s people to my motha’s clan, I fancied myself belonging to the oppressed.  I was certainly en route to a rebellion:  An untimely outraged young female revolutionary worthy of being commemorated next to the poster of Lenin!

In the days of motha’s absence, after a number of such confrontations with the relentless matriarch, I would eventually would move myself out of the house entirely.  And by the time my motha ventured back to her in-laws, she’d find me living in the veranda, by myself, with a plastic white rabbit being my only confidant.

Most summers, she would return toward the end of our stay.  Smelling of expensive European perfumes and the thrill of the city life, she, like me, was not allowed to participate in the housework.  But then, if she arrived on time for these gatherings of the townswomen, her pride would force her to march out into the kitchen — in a scandalously low cut housedress — and to help out.

First, the heads of white and purple cabbage would be brought up from the cellar underneath the kitchen.  The wooden barrels would be washed and left to dry out in the sun.  After the final headcount, grandma would begin distributing the duties:  Some women would be assigned to shred the crispy leaves, while others chopped, crushed and ground additional ingredients.  The hefty redhead with mittens on her manly hands would sterilize the two- and three-liter glass jars over a steaming bath.  The only single girl was given the task of matching lids and making labels:  Nothing that could damage her perfect and yet youthful skin, untouched by any man.

If motha insisted on joining the kitchen mayhem, she would be given a sack of onion heads to peal; and she would weep in front of other women, openly, while improvising some melodramatic monologue that caused the group to laugh hysterically.

My grandma rarely joined in.  Instead, she took her only daughter down to the cellar and supervised the organization of the storage space.

Eventually, lead by my rambunctious motha, the women would begin to talk about sex.  While pushing, crushing, mauling the transformed cabbage into jars, and buckets, and basins, and barrels, the women’s bodies flushed with burgundy red.  Their arms and breasts vibrated.  And they, while sweaty and flushed, with locks of hair sticking to their foreheads, would succumb to fits of laughter, as each confessed the habits of their husbands and ridiculed the strange and hardly satisfactory practices in their marriage beds.

“The second you call your man ‘a baby’, you gotta breastfeed the fucker,” my motha carried on with her routine.  The women hollered.  My grandma, scandalized, hid out in the cellar.  And I would climb up onto my hiding spot, above the stove, and memorize the scent of garlic and women’s sex, of which no Soviet male poet had yet told me.

“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.

“There Is ALWAYS Something Cookin’!”

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!