Sunday, October 2, 2011

Let Me Tell You About My Russian Babushka

Let Me Tell You About My Russian Babushka


The morning of the 26th bloomed crisp and bright, and, like every day, I had no indication of what it held for me. Though only September, I pulled on my long underwear and multiple layers in order to face the morning chill. Even with the nip in the air, the five-minute walk to school was pleasant. Maybe it was the endorphins from the previous night's Insanity workout still addling me, maybe it was actual insanity, but I felt good about the day. Autumn has long been my favorite time of the year, for its beauty, for the promise it holds in each branch, each leaf, and this day was no different. The sun was shining. The leaves were golden. The chill in the air only served to invigorate my senses.


It was Josh's birthday, a good day for a bday in Kaz. Also William Faulkner's birthday, which got me thinking and remembering and wishing, because I am a nerd and fond of celebrating dead authors' birthdays. I used to bake cupcakes to share. Not such a big fan of Faulkner, though, but maybe I could throw birthday bashes in English class/club for Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. This was my oh-so-useful train of thought as I traipsed to school that morning.


By the time I made the return trip that afternoon, though, all happy thoughts of cupcakes and birthdays had been erased from my mind. The school day had been long, chaotic, frustrating, and I wasn't in a great mood because classes didn't go so well. I have different methods for dealing with bad days. Sometimes I take walks to clear my head. Sometimes I spend an hour or two losing myself in a book. Sometimes I watch a movie in English and pretend I live in a place where people can understand me. This day, I tried a few of those, but was still pretty bummed the whole night.


However, as I went to take the trash out that evening, I found one of the babushkas who lives in my building sitting outside on the porch bench. I thought this was strange, since it was pretty chilly. This babushka likes to talk to me, and I like to talk to her. She's fond of saying something along the lines of, "Look at us – a Russian grandma without teeth and an American girl – we can understand each other!" She oftentimes tells me about how she worked at the kindergarten for 23 years, but I can forgive this because she also always calls me a 'voonderkeend.' There's nothing to raise your spirits quite like an old Russian grandma telling you that you're a wunderkind. We sit on the porch and chat about the few things we can talk about – work, rest ('adehat'), going to the magazine for some Coke. Splitting a bag of sunflower seeds would complete the picture, but alas, she has no teeth (she really does have some; she just can't eat hard things and likes to say, 'I have no teeth!'). She's the kind of woman who takes my sheets down from the laundry line, folds them, and brings them in if I forget about them and leave them outside for too long, the kind of woman who always gives me a smile and tells me to rest after work. Needless to say, she's my favorite neighbor.


On this night, I found her sitting out alone, a sad expression on her face. I asked her how she was, because we usually exchange small talk when I go in and out. She replied that she was 'not good.' Though the night was cold and I had a bag of trash in my hand, I took a seat beside her and asked what the matter was. Now, what followed was a lot of quick Russian that I could only do my best to follow. When there's a lot of Russian being thrown around, my strategy is usually to pick up on words I know, then try to put together the main idea. Trying to understand complete sentences is entirely out of the question. That night, the main theme I understood was one close to my heart: loneliness. She lives alone, her family doesn't visit, the kids she used to teach don't say 'hi' to her in the street. How depressing it must be to live a long, worthwhile life only to end up feeling as though you have been forgotten by everyone you care about.


What does one say to such an outpouring? This sort of emotional deluge is exactly the thing I stay away from, simply because I'm not good at it. I never know what to say, which would be perfectly fine if I were a hugger. Huggers don't have to have the right words, because a hug means, "I'm here. I'm listening. It's OK." However, there I was, not a hugger, straining my language skills just to understand. How on earth does a person like me comfort a sad, lonely babushka?


I would like to chalk it up to my irresistible, charming nature, but in truth, I think it was more likely simple luck. There's one saying you learn very early on here – "Всё будет хорошо," which means, "Everything will be OK." It's gold. Say that, and everyone gives you a metaphorical pat on the back. After Babushka told me her problems, I told her I understood (which I do, because there's nothing quite as lonely as living on your own in a strange place), and I told her everything would be all right, and I told her I was her family now. At that point, I think I was grasping at straws, trying to use what language I had as well as a bit of humor, but in a way, it's sort of true. Here we are now, two people disconnected from family, even from friends no matter how hard we try to stay in touch and get together. I think it's quite natural, and helpful, that we have latched onto each other in a way. Even if we only chat for a short while each day, or greet each other in the hallway, sometimes that acknowledgement is enough to lift your spirits, because a smile or a wave or a 'how are you?' means, "Hey, I get you. This is tough, but you're not alone."


I thought that was the end of it, that she was lonely and I had made her chuckle a little. But afterwards, as I stood in the kitchen getting my dinner ready, she came in to find me again. That was when I finally understood what was really getting her down – it was her son's birthday, but her son had died some years ago. I'm still not sure if I missed this information in the first part of the conversation, or if she just didn't tell me. Either way, I offered my condolences as I best I could, my thoughts flickering back to the other birthdays of the day. And then she gave me a bag of candy, presumably for cheering her up a bit, and promptly disappeared for the night, leaving me with a bag of candy in one hand, a bowl of soup in the other, and lots and lots of things to mull over.


Some days you wake up with a plan – go to school, get your work done, relax, repeat – but some days don't follow plans. When we first showed up, we were told 'flexibility' was the number one key to surviving here. Being flexible is essential to functioning in school, because schedules are constantly changing and assignments get thrust upon you at the last minute. But being flexible can also open you up to the moments you can't plan for, the small, unexpected ones that pop up quite spontaneously. Playing Frisbee with sixth graders, dancing to Russian techno music with fellow teachers, conversing with a neighbor. And more often than not, those unanticipated moments mean a lot more than anything you could have planned for the day.


By the way, Mom and Dad, my Russian babushka told me to tell you 'Hi.' :)


What I'm Reading: The same thing as in my last post, mostly because I read The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay in the space of a week. Thank goodness for engrossing literature. But reading the Queen Victoria/Prince Albert biography has sparked my interest in history again. If anyone can recommend some good history books, I'd appreciate it.


Song of the Blog Post: "Your Love Is My Drug," Ke$ha. Yes, sometimes I just have to end the day by dancing everything out of my system. Embarrassing, but true.

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