My mother's stories
The importance of family
There was something mysterious about my father's childhood. He could remember himself only since the start of primary school when he was already seven. All the earlier recollections, for some reason, passed completely from his memory except for one vague episode when a man in a military uniform visited him in the orphanage. Yet, he couldn't recall anything else about the man or his purpose. My mother, who remembered herself since the age of two, found this gap in his memory rather funny.
I remember how she dropped something casual about this strange forgetfulness for the first time and seeing my astonishment tried to make fun of my father as usual, but he stopped her with one glance. It was not a laughing matter for him. As an orphan he was very sensitive about everything connected with his origin. In fact, all that was left for him from his parents was their names in his birth-certificate and the city of Zaporizhia as his place of birth. In vain did he try to get any additional information about his parentage after he came of age. Nevertheless, even this tiny knowledge gave him a reason for pride.
First of all, it was his surname, of course; the surname that he shared with the famous Ukrainian poet and which was so attractive to the girl he loved that she agreed to marry him. I remember two thick volumes of Taras Shevchencko's poetry always lying on the stool near my father's bed. It was actually the same book of two different editions and he liked to reread them both. He told me once that his favourite verse was “I was thirteen and pastured lambs behind the village”, confessing to me that he couldn't read it without tears in his eyes. It struck him as very touching that at the same age of thirteen he also shepherded lambs behind the village and just like the poet he had neither parents nor home.
Another reason for my father's pride was the city where he was born. He never visited it afterwards but he loved the sound of it, often calling himself Zaporizhian Cossack. He really liked to believe that his ancestors belonged to those free, warlike people, who created Zaporizhian Sich, a kind of republic, which was located on the banks of the Dnieper River centuries ago.
Listening to my father my mother couldn't help teasing him sometimes, telling him with a sly smile that his surname and his place of birth could have been invented and he might not be Ukrainian at all. It always made my father angry - as if she tried to deprive him of the dearest recollections about his family.
Many years later when the first and the last president of the USSR Michael Gorbachev made the secret information available for ordinary people the knowledge of the true extent of Stalin's bloody repressions came to us as an awful revelation. It was the time when I learnt that my mother could be right after all. A popular magazine “The new world” started publishing a previously forbidden book “The Gulag Archipelago” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and with a spasm of disbelief I discovered that there really was such a practice to change political convicts' children's names before sending them to orphanages. So who knows? Perhaps my father was one of them.
My mother's attitude to her family was completely the opposite. It's so odd how people don't usually value those things that they have in abundance. My mother lived in the village full of her relatives and could trace her family line back to her great-grandparents at least. There were no doubts that she was Ukrainian. Yet, it seemed she never appreciated any of this in the slightest. I used to think it was just her usual aspiration to be different. “I am not like others” - was not it her favourite motto, her unconquerable argument in all the discussions? But after writing so many pages about my mother's life in the village I think I've started to understand her better. Being Ukrainian meant slavery for her and hard work in the fields without any money paid for her labour. No wonder she was so eager to leave the village. Listening to my mother's stories I used to believe that she left the village because of her mother's mean attitude to her. But now I don't think so. She would have left even if her mother had been fond of her – only in this case, of course, she would have had her mother's support and blessing.
My mother's arrival in Bushkiria was definitely a change for the better for her. She lived in the town of oil workers, worked as a draftswoman and got real money as her salary. I remember her telling me with slight bitterness “Can you imagine? Every nation admitted I was theirs except Ukrainians. Germans, Jews, Russians,...” Then casting away her frown she began to tell me with a smile about one woman, who assured her that she belonged to her nation. My mother's blond hair had turned rich auburn by that time and her eyes were green. As the woman herself was dark-haired, round-faced and her eyes were dark and narrow, everybody laughed, of course. But she continued to persist good-naturedly “No, no – you are definitely Mordovian. Just look at me. Can't you see we look alike?”
As for being Ukrainian and her life in the village my mother tried to forget about it, I think. She felt rather like an outcast there in spite of her success at school and popularity among the boys. One of her most aggressive suitors shouted at her once that she thought too much of herself being in reality a daughter of a criminal and a slut. And what else could he think if everybody in the village knew her mother had affairs with married men and her father had been announced “an enemy of the people”? And it was true. Her mother didn't hide her love affairs from her children. It was not a rare occasion when a man stayed for the night in their house. In gratitude he usually fixed something or brought some wood for the fire. Masculine hands were always in great need on rural farms. My mother, however, couldn't talk about those men without a note of anger in her voice, muttering bitterly “Just imagine – sleeping with her lover and children in the same room!” Only recently I've suddenly realized that it was not something unheard in the village. At that time most of the poor families had to sleep in one room as it was the only one in their shabby huts. But it was not my mother's father who slept with her mother in one bed. That's what infuriated her so much, I think.
As for her father it's surprising how much she remembered about him considering that she was only seven when he was arrested and shot. It happened in 1937, the very same year when one of the most prominent waves of Stalin's repressions rolled all over the country, ruining lives of so many innocent people.
To be continued...