Part 3. The family story
On a Sunday morning, I call Mom on Skype. She is babysitting nephew. Several days prior, I called for Mom’s birthday, from work, Skype on my cell; the connection was bad, and then it broke and I went back to work.
This time, before I even turn the cam on, before hellos and all, Mom tells Timofei: “Ask her why she hung up on us last time!” “Why did you hang up on us?” he asks me with enthusiastic obedience. “Tim,” I say, “Why are you saying this? Do you know that I hung up on you?” (That’s how we speak with four-year olds, right?) “Yes,” he responds earnestly. “No you don’t. Grandma told you to say so” (Again, to a four-year old. Ай-ай-ай!) He stares back at me with huge dark brown eyes. He has a crooked kerchief around his head: ear cold, obviously.
Brother used to have ear colds a lot. In this picture, I am 8, brother, kerchief around the head, almost 2, our eyes are color-shifting, not brown.
“Tim,” I say, “I didn’t hang up on you. The connection was bad. I was calling you from work, my phone doesn’t work well there. We got disconnected.” Mom intervenes: “Why did you attack me like that?!” I snap back: “Why are you telling the kid I hanged up on you? It’s not funny: it hurts me, and he thinks I hanged up on him.” She changes the topic to who else called when and the usual. Timofei sneaks out quietly.
I feel terrible, I want to hide. Be quiet, the story whispers. I won’t. Being quiet wouldn’t hurt anyone, wouldn’t let anyone hurt me, would keep me out of trouble and out of everything. No.
I let something else hurt (whatever). I say: “I still can’t talk to people.” Mom bursts out: “Look, nobody knows how I grew up. Dad was… variable. And with babushka and all her boyfriends… I’m not saying she was bad, but nobody asks me what it was like. And I can’t even talk to my brother about this. And look at the kid here. Yesterday, he came to me, and said, Grandma, Mommy doesn’t want to talk to me, because she has work to do, and Daddy doesn’t want to play with me either. Is he having a bad childhood too?”
Ha. A brief family history according to me goes like this.
Babushka, Mom’s Mom, was the oldest of 9 kids. Her Dad was killed in the War, in 1942. When babushka received the news, she cut off her thick braid, the braid so long she had to swing it back when she sat down lest she sat on it. I don’t know what happened to her Mom, but in my version, she also perished during the War, and all the kids, apart from babushka, the oldest, went to orphanages.
Babushka was 20 when the War ended, and Grandpa was 25. He fought in the War, and was in the military for most of the rest of his life. They met soon after the War, and were all beautiful, bighearted, and wonderful, hardened not broken by War and hardship, no doubt. Babushka was still in college. When Grandpa proposed marriage, she hesitated, because, she said, she had some problems she needed to take care of. What problems, he asked, do you need help with your studies? No, not the studies, babushka responded. She wanted to take her little sister, aunt Anya, home from the orphanage. Grandpa didn’t mind. So they got married and took aunt Anya home to raise. She and babushka outlived the rest of their siblings by decades, the only two spared by alcoholism.
Back in 1948, babushka’s first daughter, Tamara, was born. Tamara died 2 or 3 years old. That barely touches my version though. Babushka and Grandpa go on to raise two other kids, Mom and Uncle. Mom is very pretty, not a genius, but lively, extraverted, a school athlete, a theater kid, Daddy’s little girl. Uncle, four years younger than her, more quiet, thoughtful, better grades.
Grandpa never finished college in my story. He wanted to study history, and learned independently a lot. Was bright and ambitious, but couldn’t go to college, because of the War and post-War military service. When I was growing up, every once in a long while I would hear something that would make me wish Grandpa lived long enough for me to meet him. But he didn’t. Died when my Mom was pregnant with me. In my story that I constructed over the years, years into having left, I was born with Mom’s sadness over his death.
Babushka was caring and loving with me. Couldn’t hear much. I spent many weekends with her, and summers until she moved from Vyborg to St. Petersburg after brother was born that is. I used to love going through thick family photo albums whenever I visited babushka, and any story I constructed hinges on those.
After the August 24, 2014 earthquake, Mom wrote to me:
У твоего деда (моего папы) под кроватью стоял маленький чемодан на случай тревоги. Папа был военный человек, а учения и вызовы по тревоге были частым явлением. Чемодан носил имя “тревожный”. Я туда тайно залезала. Ничего особенного. Личные вещи, туалетные принадлежности, документы.
Your Grandfather (my Dad) had a small suitcase under the bed, in case of alarm. Daddy was a military man, and trainings and alarm calls were frequent. We named it “alarm suitcase”*. I would secretly sneak to look into it. Nothing special. Private things, toiletries, documents.
*a colleague insists on translating that, amusingly, as “anxiety suitcase”
I don’t know what it was like for Mom to grow up. There was a shadow of little Tamara. I hadn’t heard about her at all until a few years ago from Mom, apropos. I don’t remember babushka visiting any little graves when we visited Grandpa’s. In my version, Mom didn’t meet Tamara, because she was born later. Was she? Mom has a monstrous story that yet unborn babies in our family kill close relatives. I – see above; brother – yep, killed Daddy’s Dad about 4 months into gestation; young Timofei very nearly killed babushka, that’s when Mom let her story slip. Was Mom the first murderous unborn baby?
There was a shadow of the War. Was aunt Anya still in the house? Quite a character that one, too, still is. I don’t know. I hold on to the story that paints Mom a bit of a spoiled brat, Daddy a villain, grandparents as saints. I left before daring to know the people, before knowing where to begin. I need to ask.
Our stories are big enough to swallow and imprison us whole. The prison walls are so encompassing, it’s irresistible to recoil from seeing them for what they are. The stories are formidably nearly true. They are also monstrous, sinister lies. Lies until they become true, that is.
In the next volume, the heroine uncoils to apprehend the stories, little by little. She will do that by inviting and exposing them. The sound of her cracking voice telling the truths and lies will shatter the prison walls a tiny crack at a time. There will be rock slivers and splinters flying everywhere, including possibly in her face, and almost definitely, her legs. We might hear and see all sorts of shady creatures hissing, growling, and snapping angrily at being disturbed in their crack lairs.