Tuesday, July 3, 2007


On April 22, 1997 my Baba Zina, a grandmother who raised me as a nanny and mother and housekeeper and whatever else rolled into one, because she lived with us, and my parents were inept, died of ovarian cancer. She was the only person who knew all the names of my friends, all the things I was interested in, she taught me how to be independent and how to cook and sew and do whatever else a woman needs in life. She was also my roommate for 16 years. I last spoke with her on March 15th or so. I knew she was dying, and wrote a poem asking her forgiveness after I got off the phone. I was so overcome, I took a leave of absence and bought a plane ticket to Russia. My parents freaked out. They thought I’d be throwing away my entire academic career, my entire future, by coming back to Russia. Russia was still very unstable, both politically and economically. I’d only planned to be there until August, and finish the incompletes I was given. They thought I might not be able to come back to the States. I argued with my parents on the phone for two days. At the end, I gave up, changed the ticket date, and went back to school. That was a very stupid thing to do. I never got to say goodbye to my baba. My parents never told me she died. I flew to Russia on June 2nd or so. I thought I was coming home to say goodbye. It turned out she’d died six weeks earlier. I went into a depression that lasted a few years after that. I know that eventually I have to forgive my parents. They did a very Russian thing, where you never tell anyone the worst. In Russia, people with fatal diseases are kept from knowing their own diagnoses. This was very similar. I was too weak to stand my ground, and I guess at the end that it made me stronger. It also made me feel less.

A couple of days after arriving in Tomsk, I went to go see my maternal grandparents. My grandfather Yura, who’s been a diabetic for many years, generally in poor health, and bedridden for the last two or so years, was very excited about my visit. He got dressed up, came out to the dining room, and had a meal with us, having a bit to drink, very animated and interested in my news, my work in theatre, the way of life in the US. I never knew him very well, mostly due to his being very reserved from his sometime military career, and the Russian habits wherein men prefer male company. It was very touching to have him be so excited and loquacious. Two days later, in the early morning of June 7, 1997, my mom called me to tell me he has died. He did not live to be 70 by 13 days.

The thing I learned at his funeral is that I absolutely, resolutely, cannot drink vodka in large quantities. Russian funerals are a lot more involved then the Western ones are. After the wake (which is either religious or civil or both) and the actual internment of the body, there is a huge party, wherein all who attended the funeral proceed to get shitfaced. Toasts are said about the decedent, nothing bad (as you do not speak ill of the dead) and a shot of vodka is taken with each toast. My grandfather had touched a lot of people in his life. I tried to pace my shots, but I was at the head table with my family, and it was impossible to not drink. I stopped counting after 7 or so. By 5 pm my dad and I stumbled home, wherein I passed out and did not wake up until 5 pm the following day. I no longer drink vodka. Well, sometimes, but it has to be really good. Like Pravda.

I came back to the States sometime in August. The nightmares of that summer were not over though. August 31, 1997 - Princess Diana. I had this tiny teevee in my dorm room, painted like a fish bowl, and everything that came through it seemed surreal. You might remember, Mother Teresa quietly passed away the next week, and nobody really paid attention, as the world was still not right.

The next 3-4 years felt like a real breather. No significant deaths, famous or familial. I was still depressed, but functional. Then 9/11 happened. Now, I did not actually know anyone who perished, and not to sound trite, but that was a huge relief. I woke up that morning to a panic’d DJ on my alarm radiostation yelling for everyone to turn on their teevees. Just as I did, the second plane hit. I thought it was WWIII, maybe. (I always think it’s WWIII. All day today fighter planes have been flying overhead for something 4th of July related, and it freaks me out endlessly. You can take the girl out of the Cold War, but you can’t take the Cold War out of her brain.) My hysterical mother called me, finally got through, she was watching CNN in Siberia, and just as we were trying to make sense of any of it, the Pentagon plane hit. I went to Russia that winter, and talked about 9/11 non-stop. Everyone was still very upset. I seemed to be a conduit for so many people, somebody who was actually THERE, the only person they knew who’d been to NYC, nevermind WTC. We weren’t at war yet, I don’t think, so everyone was very sympathetic to the US. It felt a little funny to represent the state of mind of an entire country where I am a non-resident alien.

Before I came to Russia, November 29, 2001 gave us my mom’s 49th birthday, and the death of George Harrison. Of course, I was a bit more matter-of-fact about his death then 15 years earlier with John Lennon, but I still have the clipping from the NYTimes. This meant that there will never be even a remote possibility of a Beatles reunion.

I am fuzzy on this next date, but it was sometime in late December 2001, when I was already in Russia. Elizabeth Woodward was my American Grammy. She was a matriarch of a wonderful family that basically adopted me when I first came to the US. She was the same age as my Baba Zina, so I was not surprised it was her time to go. Her funeral taught me another quirk – (umm, no pun intended, you know who you are) – in Northern climes of the States, they don’t inter the bodies in the winter. They wait until the ground thaws out, and have a ceremony in the summer. In Siberia, we just use construction equipment to dig graves in the permafrost. Given the bloody history of Siberia, it makes more sense.

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