Thursday, March 3, 2016

Life Lessons From Babushka: Why I Bake Like I’m Blind and I Swim Like a Fish

I ignore recipes, even for baking. (Unless I am trying to execute something with a high failure rate like flourless chocolate cake for guests.) I'm able to understand most non-English speakers enough to determine whether they are in eminent peril and whether I can and should try to help. I've long been a tireless advocate for teaching infants and toddlers to swim without any floatation device. Even if I still panic when I see it, I know that head injuries can create a massive pool of blood without being life-threatening.

IMAGE: My mother and my babushka, 1949.

All of this, and much, much more I owe to my babushka who played one of the most critical and influential roles in my early childhood.

My mother’s mother, Alexandra Dimitrievna (Dimitrieva) Grishaev, was born March 3, 1913, in Dubrovka, a village in Vitebsk Oblast, Belarus. She died one day after he 85th birthday on March 4, 1998, in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. (You can grasp why this week is the toughest for my mother.) After decades of suffering, including losing all three of her sons as infants in the 1930s, watching many of her closest relatives and friends brutally murdered, toiling on the verge of starvation in various prison camps, and nearly drowning after being forced to walk a plank en route from Germany to England, she spent her last decade invalid, unable to speak or walk. My mother was her primary caregiver, after the two of them spent more than two years caring for my dying maternal grandfather, who also was bedridden.

Nobody escapes reigns of terror and mass murders without suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, but my babushka was generally able to repress any obvious psychological impact throughout my early childhood. I was a toddler, maybe 2-years-old, the first time I’d witnessed her in an emotionally fragile state. My mother, father, and degushka (maternal grandfather), had gone to the maternity hospital, and I was home with babushka. She was giving me a bath. Always eager to be in water, I recall babushka signing to me in a joyful, buoyant voice. The telephone rang, and she ran to answer it, in the days before cordless phones were ubiquitous in suburban homes. She returned, kneeled down beside the tub, continued washing my hair, and resumed signing. But the tune had become funerary, something anyone, even a very young child, who has experienced Russian Orthodox mourning would immediately recognize. My mother had lost the baby. Of course my babushka mourned properly and purposefully at burials and memorial services, but with a powerful voice that conveyed respect for tradition and the deceased. This was different. It wasn’t until fluid had filled her brain and dementia went undiagnosed beyond treatment that she would revert to that desperate, rote, haunting sound.

Because of my babushka’s unflappable resilience and adoration of children, I lived a blithe childhood, owed to her tenderness and unconditional love. I recall the intensity of her smile, knowing she was there to nurture and protect me.

One of my fondest and most vivid memories is kneeling on a high stool to reach the counter while making blinchiki (crepes not to be confused with blini, which are more like pancakes). (Legally) blind, likely from a combination of typhoid fever and near-drowning, my babushka didn’t rely on recipes, even when working in a bakery or preparing feasts for hundreds of people. She taught me how to measure and add ingredients gradually by judging the texture of the batter, a skill that I’ve gratefully carried down to my son.

Babushka made the cakes when we celebrated my “burzdays.” Raised speaking mostly Russian and reading and writing mostly English, I’ve always been proficient in what I joke is “Immigrant” or “first-generation English.” Russian-speaking women have approached me countless times on subway platforms asking in Russian how to get Corbin Place. I’d have to apologize in Russian, saying I only know that the B train goes to Brighton Beach. A couple months ago, an elderly Chinese woman who spoke no English, walked directly to me as I exited a downtown 6 train at Spring Street. Somehow, I figured out she needed to get uptown, so I walked her to the proper entrance and had the attendant scan her MetroCard to prove that she’d just swiped at the wrong platform. She smiled, nodded, and clenched my hand, reminding me so much of my babushka. Tourists seem to sense this, as I’ve somehow directed people to their destination without speaking the same language. About 20 years ago, I interjected when I heard emergency room staff say they needed a German translator for a newly-immigrated Polish family. Without fluency, even proficiency, in Polish, I managed to translate enough to ensure the elderly patriarch saw an orthopedist for the leg and hip injuries he’d sustained in a fall, rather than the cardiologist the staff suspected he needed.

Because they didn’t have YMCAs in prison camps and displaced persons camps, my mother never learned to swim, though she loves and does not fear the ocean. Knowledge of my babushka’s near-drowning (along with my affinity with immersion in all bodies of water) were enough to convince me that swimming is one of the most vital life skills. My babushka would be gratified to see my son swim with great confidence and zeal. I started taking him to public swimming pools when he was just a couple months old, much to the criticism of other mothers, caregivers, and city park employees, including one who asked for name and contact information.

One of the most terrifying memories from my adolescence was finding my babushka lying in a pool of her blood at the bottom of her basement stairs. While she assured me she would be fine as she vigorously grasped my hand, I called my father, who – based on his experience growing up in a rough Newark, New Jersey slum and fighting in two major wars -- reassured me that “all head injuries are like that. There’s always a lot of blood.” While I always worry, I am not squeamish and can pull it together enough to seek proper medical attention at the sight of vast quantities of spilled blood.

My babushka is with us in spirit. Her exuberance and unrivaled talents couldn’t be squashed by a generation or two subjected to Americanization. Oh, how she and Michael Alexander would enjoy each other. And my husband Mike would never get enough of her piroshki, as my humble version needs practice. I’m sure Mike would advise me that with practice, I could master the art and do hers justice. Maybe I’ll make that a goal once Michael Alexander accepts that dumplings are a food just like sushi.