Part 4 – Good Granny

Every fairy-tale has a moral.  The good prevails, the evil perishes.  The honorable and selfless are celebrated, the bad and the ugly walk away in shame and defeat.  Every Wicked Witch will be fought and defeated by a Good one, demonstrating the balance of power in the world, and establishing the prevalence of good over evil.  

Know what?… Fairy-tales suck balls!

While life often emulates fiction, it seems to put its own cruel and perverted twist on things.

But I am getting ahead of myself…

My Dad’s Mom was baba Natasha (“baba” being child speak for “granny”), and the exact opposite of my Mom’s Mom.  So, keeping up with the fairytale analogy, I’ll call her Good Granny.

Unlike any stereotypical mother-in-law, she wholeheartedly embraced the woman her son married.  Pretty early in their marriage my Mom started calling Good Granny “Mom”, and on many occasions let it slip that Good Granny was much more of a mother to her than her own.  It must have been quite confusing for me as a child to figure out who was whose parent.  Luckily, children don’t bother with such details – all I knew was I had 2 grannies, and half a grandad (later about that).  Good Granny did not live with us, but must have been visiting every day, for in my childhood memories she was much more omnipresent than Evil Granny.

Like many Russian men of his generation my actual grandfather lost the fight for family values to booze.  Unlike many Russian women of her generation, Good Granny had the guts to leave him, insist on divorce, and later remarry.  She lived with her husband, who I called Uncle Peter, in a one-room flat on the other side of town.  The weird part was that I did not realize that Uncle Peter was her husband, and nobody bothered to explain this to me.  In my childhood mind, he was Good Granny’s neighbor, just like Uncle Sasha was ours.  The fact that the apartment they shared had only 1 room, and this room had only 1 bed, did not bother me one bit.  I only realized that Good Granny was married to Uncle Peter when he died.  We were on the Black Sea with her then, where my parents sent us every summer for 3 months of kindergarten vacations to soak up the sun and vitamins.  We rented a shoebox-size holiday room with a communal kitchen and an outhouse in the field from the locals in a tiny seaside village on the Crimea Peninsular.  I was about 4 or 5 years old and loved every minute of it.  Good Granny got an urgent telegram (do you remember those?!…), cried quietly in a corner, and then sprung into action.  She handed me to the lady we rented the room from, took a bus to the nearby town to call my parents and to arrange for train tickets back to St. Petersburg (flying was an unimaginable and unaffordable luxury for us back then).  My Dad had to push his vacation two weeks forward and come to replace her on her babysitting duty on short notice.  I think it was my Dad who explained to me that Uncle Peter was, in fact, my step-grandfather, but that I would never see him again.  I was too busy enjoying the sun and the company of other children in the village to worry about the news.

I was upset the Good Granny left, though, because my Dad could not cook for shit.  She left us with some prepared food, but when it ran out my Dad had to go to the village library (!), and borrow a cookbook.  The study of the book resulted in a soup-like concoction that was barely edible, but kept us going for the rest of the week, until, thankfully, my Mom joined us, and took over the culinary duty.

Good Granny was about the same age as Evil Granny, but had WAY more energy and life in her!  She never complained about her health, never walked around with a facial expression of a martyr who is about to die any minute (which was Evil Granny’s usual gig).  She kept a job of a teller in a local bank for long after she officially retired, and I remember her permanently on the move.  She was busy helping us, helping the family or her other son (my Dad’s younger brother), taking care of me, giving neighbors a hand with various chores, having a job, and doing what seemed to be a hundred things at a time.  Most of them for the sake of others.  She even looked after Evil Granny when the latter told everybody else to fuck off, and the few remaining friends and family happily obliged.  Good Granny was told the exact same, but continued visiting her son’s mother-in-law, phasing out the insults and obscenities she received in return.  It was Good Granny who found her dead during one of these visits.  Evil Granny was lying in her bed, quiet and straight, having apparently died peacefully in her sleep.  Good Granny called my parents, and helped with the funeral arrangements.

When my parents got an allotment of land in the boondocks miles outside of the city and started building a “Dacha” (a big name for an un-heated wooden shack with no plumbing or running water), Good Granny could not have been happier.  She came from land, from a tiny village in the Republic of Mordovia, in the middle of the European part of Russia.  The village is probably dead by now, for due to the lack of work, most people who could do so left, and the rest drank themselves to death.  Good Granny was among those who went to search for luck in a big city, but she missed the country life dearly.  The Dacha became her kingdom – she tirelessly planted, weeded, watered and pruned something there, spending springs, summers and autumns at the ramshackle Dacha, and returning to her city apartment only when faced with the prospect of freezing to death, or not being able to dig her way through the thick snow in the winter.  She still loved it!  Good Granny was the only reason the parents kept the Dacha for as long as they did – I grew up and spending summers with no water and plumbing lost its charm, they were never really interested in it, but it was the place where Good Granny felt in her element.

NOT our Dacha. This was Good Granny’s childhood home in Mordovia.
She is the one standing in the back row, next to her older brother.

Good Granny did not have an easy life.  She had a childhood full of hardships, survived the war, outlived both her husbands, and both her sons.  Any of these would be enough to turn even the most saint-like person angry and bitter.  Yet, she was a really positive and selfless woman, and her good heart manifested itself in everything she did.  She patiently waited for the 3-year old me to do my potty business and listened to my endless rants about what we were going to do the following day, what dress I would wear, and what I thought we would see out of the bus window on the way home.  Such tirades lasted anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  All I can say is that the 3-year old me was WAY more verbal that the today me…  Once, when I was 4 or 5, she rushed to our place across the city late at night, responding to my desperate telephone call, when my parents went to the theater and left me alone with Uncle Sasha, who was not to be awaken from the drunken coma.  I was panicking that aliens would come and abduct me (don’t ask!), and begged for her to come and save me.  It took her almost 2 hours to get to us, and parents were home only 15 minutes later, but the alien attack was prevented!

In the hard post-Soviet times, when food, toilet paper and other basic necessities were scarce, Good Granny revived her alcohol-distilling skills, setting up a still in her small bathroom, and bartering the moonshine produce with neighbors for toilet paper and grey cardboard-tasting pasta that she brought over to us.  We also got our extra rolls of toilet paper and some food coupons off Uncle Sasha, in exchange for our family’s share of vodka and cigarette rations, but somehow it was still not enough.  No idea why – we could not have been shitting excessively, for the sole reason of there not being enough food to result in such consequences, so the mystery still remains.

Good Granny helped both her sons’ families, her friends, her neighbors, and random people on the street.  She was always quietly positive and stoic about everything life threw her way.  We never had conversations about life – I was too young at first, and too busy growing up later.  I truly regret this.  I could have done with a bit more stoicism, and a bit less bitterness right about now…

Fairy-tales suck balls!…  Good does not prevail over evil.  Happy endings are handed out randomly, without any rule of logic, or merit of the recipients. 

Evil Granny died peacefully in her own bed.  Good Granny was murdered in the stairwell of her apartment building, by some crackhead, trying to score money for another doze.  She was helping a neighbor, a slightly younger old lady who was not too steady on her feet, with getting to the local bank to get the neighbour’s monthly pension in the equivalent of $25.  They were both beaten, robbed, and left out to die.  The neighbor survived. Good Granny died in the hospital without regaining consciousness.  The crackhead walked away.

Part 3 – The Cat

The cat was a clear-cut blackmail job.  And Evil Granny had a hand in it big time.

As pretty much every only child I’ve been begging my parents for a brother or a sister ever since I started talking.  I kinda wanted an older brother or a sister, but would have settled for a younger one as well…  At some point the parents sat me down, and appealed to my senses (I’ve always been a very reasonable child).  They took up the strategy that even the hard-core EU negotiators of today would be proud of, and demonstrated the value of having a young sibling to me first-hand.  They put an orange in front of me – at that point in time any piece of fruit, regardless of ripeness, taste or the nutritional value thereof, was a priceless object of desire for me – and asked if I wanted it.  No shit, Sherlock – like any malnourished Soviet child from the North I was ready to swallow said orange together with peel and seeds right there and then!  I was then patiently explained, that if I were to have it right now, the whole fucking orange would be mine for the taking.  If, however, I happened to have a sibling, and a younger one at that, I would be expected to share said orange with the little brother or sister I so much desired, thus having only half of it.

This was clear and simple enough and I quickly changed my story.  I no longer wanted a little brother or a sister (orange stealers!), and started asking for a dog instead.  I learned to read really early, and read in books about dogs being a man’s best friend. I was also smart enough to realize that as carnivores they shouldn’t be much into fruit and my oranges would be safe with them.  Upon further contemplation, my 6-year old mind decided that I might possibly compromise on a cat, but would not budge any further.

Considering our limited accommodation situation (see the description of our communal digs in Part 1 – Uncle Sasha), my parents weren’t overly enthused about having anything or anyone else invade our living space and my demands for a cuddly pet were falling on deaf ears.

Being a quick-thinking and industrious child, I realize that if things were to move forward, I would have to take matters into my own hands. 

The opportunity presented itself soon enough.

One day, we went with Evil Granny to the dairy shop to buy some milk, and there it was – my golden opportunity!  In a shape of a very white, very fluffy and very big cat.  Bingo!!!  It did not take me too long to convince Evil Granny that the cat had to go with us.  She was well aware of my parents’ opposition to pets, and must have been already gloating at their indignation, when she nonchalantly said “Sure!”, and allowed me to grab the huge and suspiciously obliging cat into my arms and drag it home.

I was thrilled – not only did my dream finally come true, but it came true in the shape and form of a beauty that I could not have even imagined.  The cat was magnificent – spotlessly white, blue-eyed, fluffy and very, very pregnant.  Obviously, the latter moment completely escaped my 6-year old attention.

When my Mom came home from work, and I ran to hear screaming happily “Look who I got here!!!!!” this was the first thing she noticed – her daughter dragging along the corridor a gigantic animal, that was at risk of giving birth right there and then.  She nearly had a heart attack, and this was the first time when I heard her swearing at Evil Granny, who pretended to be deaf and quickly hid in the toilet.

When my Dad came home, and was subjected to the demonstration of the pregnant cat by his daughter absolutely beaming with joy, the family council was called in.  My parents locked themselves in the kitchen, and started devising strategic plans on getting rid of the white beauty before it produced 8 or 10 more.  Evil Granny continued to hide in the bathroom, and Uncle Sasha was busy drinking, so they had to come up with the plan all by themselves.

I was oblivious to the conspiracy, and was busy trying to play with the cat, running back and forth along the corridor with a piece of newspaper tied to the end of a rope.  The cat was sitting in the corner, panting, ignoring all my attempts at socializing and probably praying to feline Gods to let this little monster leave her alone.  I was not easily disappointed, and spent the first evening in joyous oblivion, happily running along the corridor all by myself.  I finally had company, and this was enough!  The cat was just shy and needed time to get used to its’ new digs and the new best friend.

My parents must have been good at psychology, or just happened to know their daughter really well.  The plan devised behind the closed kitchen doors was as ingenious as it was cunning.  Starting from the next morning, I started getting almost hourly updates from the dairy shop.  They came through Mom and Dad, and even through Uncle Sasha, who was probably bribed to cooperate with potatoes and vodka.  Evil Granny kept full neutrality on the subject, and did not get involved.

I stopped by the dairy shop today to get milk, and the cat is being very much missed there!”, my Mom would say first thing as she came back home from work.

Actually, the sales lady from the shop called earlier today,” my Dad would echo, “and asked if the cat was OK.”

They really miss her so much, they keep crying that you took her away!”  My Mom was trying to appeal to my sense of compassion. “Crying! ALL the time!...”

I was not really listening.  I was busy trying to engage the cat in the games that I invented by the dozen.  The cat was still sitting in the corner, looking docile and un-impressed.

Uhm….  Yeah, they do miss the cat,” Uncle Sasha would put in his 5 cents through the cigarette smoke billowing from under his door to the approving glances from my parents.

My sense of compassion was still unresponsive, but after a couple of days I was starting to get annoyed with the cat.  It just would not play with me!..

My parents did not attempt to explain the concepts of the late stages of feline pregnancy to a 6-year old, and stuck to their story – the cat was being very much missed in the dairy shop.

And the cat must miss them too, this is why it does not want to play with you.  It is sad, it misses home and its old friends!…

They intentionally did not give the cat a name, fearing that this might be a potential first step to its settling in with us.  Personally, I could not care less whether the ladies in the dairy shop were crying or not, but the cat not joining me in mad races along the corridor was a huge blow.  My parents noticed my disappointment, and worked it like pros.

Five more calls today from a dairy shop….” my Dad would say solemnly.  “They said they could not work without the cat.  They are too sad.  And I think the cat feels it.  It looks so sad, almost ready to cry.”

Blatant lie, but after a couple of days it started to sink in.

Don’t you think we should take the cat back home, to the dairy shop, and make everybody happy?...”

When the key question was popped, I was ready to part with the cat.  Not with my dream, though.

I put up a show of deep thinking (I would have thrown a tantrum, had I known how), cried a little, pretended to be deeply emotionally upset, and finally threw in my negotiation card on the table.

If we bring the kitty back, what do I get in return?...”

My parents must have rehearsed this scenario as well, for I was very quickly promised a little kitten in replacement – a friend of friends’ cat just had kittens.

A little kitten would play with you,” my parents assured.  “It will be your real friend, and the cat will be happy to be back home.

And so it was.  The cat was escorted back to the dairy shop, where it spent the last days of pregnancy being pampered with cream, milk and cottage cheese, gave birth to a 10-kitten litter of fluffy white balls, which were almost immediately adopted by the shop staff and patrons, and continued living happily ever after without little monsters chasing it along the corridor.

A month later, my parents brought home a little fur-ball, that I unimaginatively called Tishka (the quiet one).  He played with me all right, and developed an amazing ability to jump on the walls to an almost shoulder height, and slide down with claws full of wallpapers.  I swear I did not train him to do this!

He grew to be a magnificent, long-haired and bushy-tailed cat, and lived to the ripe old age of 21.  Throughout all these years we had shredded wallpapers and cat hair on our clothes and in our food and loved the cat dearly.