Part 2 – Evil Granny

Enter the Evil Granny.  This was not her official name, and I called her “Baba Masha” (“baba” being Russian child-speak for “granny”), but the sentiment was legit.  Taking the “selective memory” amendment, I will stick with the sentiment.

Evil Granny was my Mom’s Mom, and hated Dad with a passion, making a point of mentioning this to everybody around, whether they wanted to listen to her or not.

“Your Dad is a proper idiot”, she would hiss, “a total looser!”  (Donald Trump would have been so proud of my Evil Granny!…)

The only one in the family with the vocabulary and guts to swear out loud (I can definitely see some genes having been passed through), she did not need a reason, or even an audience to rant about my Dad.  Why – I have never figured out…  He married her daughter being absolutely and totally in love with her, provided for her and the family, even took the Evil Granny under his roof, fully knowing her hatred and loathing of him, and stoically shared our limited communal space with her for almost 10 years.

I never really listened to her rants – my Dad was my Dad, the best guy in the world, who would goof with me painting silly pictures with water on the walls (to the disgust of my Mom), and carve little animals out of tasteless cardboard cheese, when after one of my numerous childhood pneumonias the doctors said I should get more calcium.  But Dad deserves and will get a separate story – we are on the Evil Granny now.

She must have hated my Mom/her daughter as well, although in a much more discreet and less obvious way, offering snide comments on her appearance, choice of clothing, parental abilities, and pretty much anything any time she would get a chance.

In my childhood memories she is always there, shuffling around the apartment wearing a kitchen apron, half bent, with one hand on the small of her back (radiculitis and other back problems were also part of the genetic inheritance, that does not allow me to forget Evil Granny), and swearing under her breath.

“Fucking senility is getting the best of me…” she would mutter, holding on to the small of her back.

For many years afterwards, I was convinced that “senility” was a medical term for radiculitis and back pain.  Only later, when I grew up and stumbled upon the term in an encyclopedia, I started wondering if, maybe, Evil Granny was just plain crazy…  This sure would explain her hatred of the world and those close to her.  But in my childhood memories she remained just an Evil Granny.

I don’t remember her being particularly nasty to me personally – maybe she did not project her hatred of the world at me (at least back then).  But she sure was not the homey, fuzzy Granny, reading fairy-tales and spoiling her only granddaughter rotten.  She would babysit and look after me (my Mom went back to work pretty early after my birth – I suspect that sharing the same territory with Evil Granny 24/7 was simply more than she could bear), but I don’t remember any particular warmth, or love dispensed my way.

She was the first in the family to get her own place.  Not because she deserved to have it, but because we deserved to be away from her.  I vaguely remember that at some point she became so unbearable about my Dad, screaming obscenities out loud for the whole neighborhood to hear, that my parents threw some basic necessities into a suitcase, packed me up and moved out of the apartment, leaving Evil Granny to sort her shit out with Uncle Sasha.  He stoically listened to her screams in the intoxicated haze of his “pay week”, and hid in his room during the “dry” rest of the month.

We temporarily moved in with the family of my Dad’s brother, who lived in a small 3 room apartment with a wife, son and his father/my Granddad.  The change wasn’t that big – Granddad, long time divorced from my other Granny, Dad’s Mom, could easily beat Uncle Sasha in the drinking competition.  He did not smoke, or shit himself, though, and did not swear at anybody, so in this respect this was an improvement of our living conditions.  Me and my parents camped in the living room for about a week, but this was always supposed to be just a temporary solution – their place was way too small for 7 people to co-exist.

For the next year, we rented a room in a different area of the city from a nice family with a daughter my age.  I finally had somebody to play with, and the cramped environment of a 10 square meter room I shared with my parents was not in any way an inconvenience.  I was sorry to move back into our old apartment, when my Dad, for once in his life using his work connections and probably bribing a couple of people on the way (something he was physically un-capable of doing), got Evil Granny her own digs in a brand-new apartment block not too far from us.  He moved her shit out, and from that moment on, never saw her or spoke a word to her again.  I am sure the relief was mutual.

Evil Granny was born well before the war, survived the 900 days siege of Leningrad, when the city was left bare, cold and hungry, and despite her numerous health problems attributable to her hard life and poor healthcare, managed to drag on till a respectable age of 87.  Like many people who looked real hunger in the face, she stocked up on flower, sugar, salt and matches ever since, and I remember opening the cupboards and shelves in her new apartment, only to find neat jars with sugar, and endless rows of matchboxes stacked inside.  The fact that her cooker was electric, and there was not a single candle in the apartment did not stop Evil Granny – old habits die hard…

By the end of her life she alienated pretty much everybody – I stopped calling or visiting, and did not feel a pang of guilt about it.  Every time I did show up she would just swear and tell me how useless my parents were (by now, her public hatred spread over to her daughter as well) and how it was no wonder that they produced such a useless piece of shit as me.  I did not need to hear this every fucking time, so stopped visiting all together.

A couple of years ago, I finally managed to convince my Mom to let me scan the old photos from my parents’ childhood (those were already falling apart), as well as my own.  I could not find any photos of Evil Granny there.  The one on the cover of this story is the closest resemblance I could find on the Internet, and it looks about right.

Considering all Evil Granny had gone through – poverty, the war, starvation, communism, etc., I guess she had the right to be a bitch.  But then, again, she had full right not to.

Part 1 – Uncle Sasha

“Yo-o-o-o-o!….  Ice-ream!… Oi!!!!…  Who… aunts… ice-ream?!!!!…“

The elephant mating call from the hallway was a call for action: Uncle Sasha was home.  Too drunk to enunciate the words, but still vertical.  It was his pay day, and me and the cat were getting an ice-cream each.

The cat was already there, making circles around his legs, and probably breathing through his asshole to avoid the overpowering smell of the cheap vodka quickly filling the hallway and oozing into the remaining spaces of the apartment.

The Evil Granny peeked into the hallway from the kitchen:

“Wasted already, drunk dumb-ass!…”, she hissed, spat into her apron, and disappeared into the kitchen again.

The cat continued the ice-cream dance.  Uncle Sasha was towering at the end of the long narrow hallway, swaying from side to side like a tree in a storm, each time almost banging the side of his head on the walls.

Welcome to my childhood!

My Mom, Dad, Evil Granny, Uncle Sasha and the cat were the permanent fixtures of the years I sometimes remember with clarity, and sometimes forget with oblivion.  Our memories are selective, indeed, and so will be my introductions.

Looking back at those years, Uncle Sasha stands out as the most colorful personality in my childhood setting, so the introductions will start with him.

Uncle Sasha was a dedicated middle-aged alcoholic with a menial factory job, and a passion for drinking cheap vodka and smoking vile unfiltered cigarettes.  These were, probably, the most distinct smells of my childhood: liquor fumes and eye-watering cigarette smoke, billowing from under Uncle Sasha’s door around the clock and seeping into all other areas of the apartment.

Uncle Sasha was not only not an Uncle, but not any kind of relative at all, for that matter, and was our accidental co-habitant in the Soviet reality of scarce urban accommodation.  My family had two adjoining rooms in a 3-room apartment on the 8th floor of a dull-grey multi-story crumbling apartment block in the “working” suburb of Leningrad (later to become St. Petersburg).  Me and Evil Granny shared one room, and the parents camped in the living room we had to walk through to get to the kitchen and the bathroom.  The four of us shared the bathroom, kitchen and the rest of the communal space with Uncle Sasha.

At the beginning of each month, having received his paycheck, and enjoyed his first well-deserved bottle of vodka, he bought me and the cat an ice-cream each.  With his doze of love shared and the moral obligation fulfilled, he then stocked up on booze and cigarettes, barricaded himself in his room and got mind-numbingly drunk for a week, often not crawling out of it even to visit the bathroom.  The cigarettes were vile and merciful enough to masque the inevitable side effects…

For the remaining three weeks of the month he was quiet and agreeable.  He nicked potatoes from our cupboard in the kitchen, and tucked into the foul-smelling fish we cooked for the cat, but without enthusiasm or any evil intent, and only when he was really hungry.  In any case, food did not seem to be high on the list of his priorities – cigarettes, booze, and the cat were way more important.

Uncle Sasha sure loved the cat!  He held long conversations with him in his drunk stupor of the first week of every month, and complained bitterly to him about life’s injustices for the remaining three.  Despite the vile cigarette smoke, the cat seemed to love him back, and was hanging out in his room almost as much as he did in ours.

Apart from potato- and fish-nicking he was not a bad neighbor.  He was single, did not have screaming kids, or loud friends, and preferred the company of the cat to anybody else’s.  During the “dry” weeks he could be trusted with looking after me and the cat when my parents were at work and Evil Granny was not there.  All in all, even if he was not part of the family, he was part of our lives, and was not much to complain about.

Apart from the 1st week of every month, when the cat’s presence was not always enough, and Uncle Sasha would sit on a stool in the middle of our tiny kitchen, blocking the way to the sink and stove, and “socialize”.  He extended his drunk eulogies to anybody who was there to listen, so we preferred to hide in our part of the apartment during these periods, missing meals, if need be, and sneaking into the toilet or bathroom and back without making any sounds.  Oh, and that incident, when Uncle Sasha shat himself, and left a huge pile on the kitchen floor, being too drunk to hold it in.  My Dad had to clean it up, wearing long industrial rubber gloves, and promising to “kill the bastard, or at least hand him over to the cops”.

The threats were futile – Dad wouldn’t hurt a fly, and neighbor quarrels (including shitting on the floor, and often much worse) were happening pretty much in every apartment of every building in the city with a regularity that won’t enthuse the cops one bit.

Soon afterwards Uncle Sasha discovered counterfeit alcohol.  Or maybe it just became more available.  This allowed him to stay drunk 3 out of 4 weeks during the month, and the shitting incidents increased.  This was the beginning of an end. In a couple of months, one of the “lucky” purchases on the black market paralyzed his legs.  We called an ambulance, and he was taken to the hospital. My parents even visited Uncle Sasha in the hospital, but several days later a bored official called to inform us the paralysis spread and he died in his sleep.  Another not un-common Soviet urban story of a man drinking himself to death…

I still remember the ice-creams fondly, though.