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.