вторник, 31 октября 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty two)

My mother's stories
chapter 22
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...

вторник, 29 августа 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty one - the ending)

My mother's stories
chapter 21 (the ending)
The forest at last
       I started doing physical exercises every morning to prepare myself for future trials, but here, unexpectedly, my mother showed her changeable character in full measure and put up a real fight. I don't know why she was so totally against my second walking tour. Supposedly, it had something to do with the idea of a tent, which, in her eyes, was a very convenient place for a young girl to lose her virtue. She tried to scare me off with a story of a man from her village, who died from pneumonia after he fell asleep on bare ground in May. I objected to her that it wouldn't be bare ground if we put inflatable mattresses under our sleeping bags, but she paid no attention to my words.
       Just before our one-day training tour, when we were going to learn how to put up tents and build the fire, my mother suddenly felt ill and asked me not to stay the night there. I had a nasty feeling that she was pretending being ill as she was not very good at it. Yet I couldn't risk it, growing up with the knowledge that my mother's heart was weak. So I promised her to come home before dark. It was difficult to leave the camp when the fire was already crackling merrily under the cauldron and soft fingering of the guitar was flowing through the still evening air, but I came to our leader and told him I couldn't stay. I left together with another girl, who lived in the next street and who'd told some lies just to join me. It took us half an hour to reach the nearest bus stop and after another forty minutes I was home. It was already getting dark, but I was not really surprised to find my mother in a very good mood, wrapped up completely in her domestic affairs. It was, perhaps, one of the points of no return, which we had a lot in our relationship. Mutual disappointment I would rather call it.
        Anyway, our battle continued till that very day when my father came home from work and said that it looked as if his factory trade union was not going to pay for my walking tour. My mother seized this opportunity at once saying we couldn't afford to waste so much money on my entertainment. So suddenly everything was over and I had to go to the club to tell our instructor I couldn't go. I remember the agony I felt while walking there. Leaving the club I tried to suppress my tears, but they were rolling down my cheeks. I heard some boy sneering behind my back at such improper behaviour at my age, but it didn't matter to me at that moment. I felt too miserable.
       My father didn't usually interfere with my mother's decisions. So it was a real stroke of luck when he, seeing my despair, suddenly took pity on me and said he would give me the money for the tour. I don't think I have ever had such a dramatic change from total misery to radiant happiness again. My mother didn't give up yet, however, and tried to use her tears as a last resort. She had never used tears as a weapon before and I remember how difficult it was for me to say “no” to her. But somehow I did and the day of my departure came at last. My globe-shaped rucksack was extremely heavy, swollen with my sleeping bag, clothes, food supplies and an inflatable mattress. We were going to carry tents and mattresses in turn, as I learnt later. It added several extra kilos to our rucksacks, which tried to bent us to the ground even without them. It's still a mystery to me how I managed to reach the club with that monster on my shoulders. My longing to see the forest had to be really strong to give me strength for that.
      And then there was an intercity bus with a spacious luggage compartment where we had to cram our rucksacks. On the bus I found that there was something wrong with my chair – it stuck in one position and I couldn't move it. Our instructor, as usual, didn't pay much attention to my problem. Sitting near the dark window with my back upright I felt uncomfortable and unlike the others couldn't sleep. Yet it didn't bother me too much at that moment. Listening to the soft drone of the engine, while our bus was making its way along the dark road, I felt happiness bubbling quietly inside of me. After all these years of dreaming about travelling I was going to see the forest and the mountains at last.
      At that moment I didn't know, of course, what was going to happen to me there. Although it was not difficult to predict that our instructor would be as ruthless and sarcastic as ever and that it would be really hard to walk in the mountains with all these uphills and downhills and huge rucksacks on our shoulders. But who could have guessed how unbearable it would be? Or that our instructor would hurry those who began to fall behind, banging with his alpenstock on their rucksacks? I had to gather all my strength not to give this man the pleasure of hurrying me with his stick. It was more than enough for me to be his favourite scapegoat on this tour. He loved bombarding me with his jokes, egging the others to laugh at me. They didn't laugh only once when during a conversation about everyone's favourite dishes, he suddenly glanced at me and shouted gleefully: “Look! Look at her expression!” He got no laughter in response, only averted eyes. This reaction was not, actually, odd. It was our last week in the mountains – the week of near starvation. Lack of food was especially annoying because at first we often buried the remainder of our porridge with tinned meat in the soil, not being able to finish it. It was our instructor's fault, of course, but he, it seemed, didn't feel too guilty and entertained himself every evening by starting conversations about food.

    Incredible as it is, in spite all the trials and moral pressure every time I had enough strength to raise my head I felt the same quiet happiness bubbling inside of me: while looking at the slopes covered with woods or inhaling fresh scent of pine-trees or looking at the bonfire and singing to the light strumming of the guitar. Or just peering at the distant tops of the Carpathians wrapped in light lilac haze early in the morning. The mountains, unlike people, didn't deceive my expectations, being even more beautiful than anyone could have imagined.

      To be continued...

понедельник, 24 июля 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty one)

My mother's stories
chapter 21
The forest at last

         For a long time I held a grudge against my parents for tantalizing me with their tales about different nice places and never going anywhere with me for company, not bothering themselves with my longing to see the mountains and the forests. Now I understand that they didn't do it on purpose, but it only recently came to me that my parents travelled a lot in their youth not because they loved travelling as I do. It was not entertainment for them. At that time a lot of people were rooted out of the habitual soil. A huge fly-wheel of collectivization and industrialization scattered them ruthlessly all over the country. So was it really surprising that after finding their place under the sun my parents were happy to settle down at last and didn't want any more travellling in their lives?
Moreover, it was not so easy to travel in the USSR. Tickets were more or less cheap, of course, but there were always great difficulties with accommodation. There weren't enough hotels in our country. Nevertheless, even those that we had stood half-empty, and it wasn't a simple thing to get there. I remember one of my co-workers once told me how he had to run around an unfamiliar city for hours till he found a hotel with a receptionist, who decided he looked trustworthy enough and it was safe to take his bribe and give him a room.
         Deficit was a usual thing in the USSR. Popular goods never stayed long in our shops. As soon as they appeared on the shelves a huge queue would line up in front of the counter. Circling like a snake it filled the whole room of a shop with its long tail sticking out of the entrance door. I have never belonged to those quick-witted people, who had acquaintances among shop-assistants and could buy goods hidden under their counters. Even more so I was not one of those crafty ones, who used to make money on total deficit of goods. So my lot was to stand in queues. In the 80s it seemed I spent half of my work-free time standing in those lines. No wonder in that. It was the time when Soviet Union era was gradually drawing to a close. But in the 70s, when I was a teenager, our economic situation was not so desperate. There was still plenty of milk, butter, sausages and cheese, and it was only for meat and imported clothes that people pushed each other in lines. And for tickets too, I think, because at that time walking tours and camping were getting more and more popular. It was like a gulp of fresh air for everyone, who loved nature and travelling. After getting the tickets they were free like a wind to go wherever they liked. The whole country lay in front of them and no hostile receptionist or a greedy owner of a private house could prevent them from putting up their tents in some remote picturesque place.
        I remember how my parents, as well as other adults, used to roll their eyes when they saw young people with heavy backpacks and the inevitable guitar attached to one of the rucksacks. Lunatics – that was a proper word for those youngsters from the older generation. I, on the contrary, watched them with greedy interest. And what an unexpected gift it was when one of my classmates told me that she'd discovered a tourist club not far from our school.
       A short young man with round blue eyes and light-brown moustache, who was in charge in that club, called himself a tourist instructor. I liked him very much when I first saw him. He was so funny, joking all the time and making us all laugh. How exciting it was to listen to him talking about all the wonderful places where we could go with him. And about tourist rallies where we could take part in sport competitions and singing near the huge camp-fire. It was he who told us about the code of true tourists, who never left garbage after themselves, burning all the litter that could be burnt and burying everything that could rot in the soil. They could cope even with tin cans, putting them into the fire for a while, then squashing them flat and burying too. Squashing was necessary to prevent some small animal from getting stuck in a can with its head. All of that sounded so fascinating. It seemed that tourists were so different, much better people than the rest of mankind.
        Surprisingly my mother didn't object too much to my first one-week tour that had to take place during our spring holidays. A fortnight before that our instructor booked a gym hall in our school and gave us such a training session that my legs ached terribly at least a week after that. It didn't decrease my determination to toil somewhere far away from home with a heavy backpack on my shoulders. Besides, our rucksacks weren't going to be too heavy, because we didn't have to carry tents or a lot of food, eating mostly in local canteens and sleeping on the floor in gym halls of rural schools. To be honest, I didn't like much that first tour. Living at the edge of the city I could see the same country-side just beyond the boundaries of our settlement. Actually, I loved those wide fields with narrow forest belts along the roads but it was the last week of March and everything looked bleak and sad. Only once did we cross a real forest with huge trees. Yet, those bare branches without any greenery on them gave me a sensation of theatrical scenery in brown and gray shades. Although even that gloomy forest gave us an unexpected present when a wild sow with a bunch of cute striped piglets crossed our path.
        By the end of the first tour I had completely changed my attitude towards our instructor and didn't find his constant joking funny anymore. I understand now that he used it to keep a large group of teenagers under his control. Nevertheless it was difficult not to notice how maliciously he chuckled making fun of one of us in front of the others. His disciplinary measures didn't add any charm to his image either. In my opinion he went too far giving slaps on the side of the head even for little faults. And it didn't matter that our instructor never used them on me personally. “Let him try!” I sometimes thought fiercely but was always very careful not to break any of his orders, trying to avoid any clashes with this man.
       It may look odd but all these disappointments didn't extinguish my passion for travelling or lessen my desire to go on the summer walking tour through the Carpathians with our instructor. And what choice did I have? Our leader warned us that this three-week tour would be much more difficult and demanding, but, whatever his other faults were, he did manage to describe vividly all the attractions of that mountain region. He told us of swift mountain rivers, waterfalls and the most beautiful lake of Sinevir, where the water was incredibly clear and blue. And of pine-tree woods with mysterious thickets of fern on the ground and smooth columns of trunks going high up in the air, where we could see patches of deep blue sky between tree crowns. Wouldn't it be a real forest at last – the forest I had dreamt of since my early childhood?

         To be continued...

воскресенье, 16 апреля 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty)

My mother's stories
chapter 20
My parents' wanderings around the country

        Listening to my mother's tale about her escape from the village I used to admire her nerve and bravery. I have never travelled without company myself and even now it's difficult for me to imagine without a shudder a young rural girl, alone on a train, going in an unknown direction. Although, it was not completely unknown. Two of my mother's uncles visiting the village invited her to live with them and their families after she finished school. They lived in the opposite sides of the country and after some hesitation my mother decided to go south first. There in the city of Sochi her father's cousin lived with his wife.
        The city was stretched out enormously, squeezed between the Black Sea coast and the wall of the Caucasus. I loved my mother's description of beautiful subtropical greenery and a huge mountain overwhelming the scenery. It would be so exciting to see with my own eyes all those exotic plants, which would never survive in our climate. But I wouldn't dare, of course, to sleep in the city garden like my mother was going to when, trying to save a bit of money, she failed to reach her uncle's house on foot on the day of her arrival. Luckily for her a woman, who was passing by, stopped near her bench and explained how dangerous it was for a young girl to sleep in the park. Realizing what danger she was in, my mother gladly accepted the woman's invitation and spent the night sleeping on the floor, while that kind woman and her husband occupied the only bed that they had in their humble dwelling.
         My mother didn't tell me much about her living at her uncle's – only that her uncle and his wife were glad to see her - but she didn't stay long with them. Perhaps she felt a bit ashamed because she tried to work on a tea plantation and failed in spite of her quick hands and experience of hard work in the fields. She really liked the picturesque nature of the place but the hot sun and humid air made her too languid.
      So without regret my mother moved in the opposite direction to the distant northern republic of Bushkiria where her mother's brother lived with his big family. Surprisingly, long snowy winters with bitter frosts suited her much better. She told me a lot of funny stories about that year that she spent in Bushkiria. I loved snow and snowy winters were a rare treat in our steppe region. It sounded so fascinating for me when my mother used to describe piles of snow reaching the roofs of the houses. People had to dig passages along the streets, which looked like a maze of white corridors with high walls.
      The town, where my mother's uncle settled down, started as oil workers' settlement. Oil fields were found in that region in 1937. By the time my mother arrived there fourteen years later it was a growing industrial town with international population. Some of its inhabitants, as well as my mother's uncle, were sent into exile to Bushkiria, but mostly people were attracted there by high northern salaries - even long frosty winters and lack of fresh fruit and vegetables couldn't frighten them off.
       One of my mother's acquaintances, who married a native Bashkirian, invited her once to spent the night in their house. Her husband was absent for some reason and the woman didn't feel safe alone with her children. My mother made a lot of funny discoveries that night. The first one waited for her just on the threshold of the house. As it turned out aboriginal houses had low holes instead of entrance doors. Actually, it was not so stupid to save warmth in that climate, but of course my young mother was laughing her head off crawling into the house on all fours. That strange house gave her a lot of opportunities for fits of laughter, but she found especially amusing a long bed stretched from wall to wall where the whole family slept together. Later, after she knew the natives better, she learnt that they found our habits no less funny than she found theirs.
      I loved listening to all those stories and just couldn't understand how after having such adventures, seeing all those amazing places, where people's customs were so different, my mother preferred to limit her life to our yard, markets and shops. It was a rare luck to persuade her to go to the beach. As for the cinema she stopped joining my father and me, when we were going there, before I even started primary school.
       It seemed to me at first that my father was more persuadable. We used to spend a lot of pleasant evenings discussing our only trip to the village or dreaming about different nice places where we could go together. I loved his stories about Georgia where he served in the Army for three years and then stayed there for some more years as an extended service man. I longed to see with my own eyes beautiful mountains covered with woods, and rivers, and waterfalls. It would be really thrilling to walk along a suspended bridge swaying frighteningly under my feet, trying not to look at the turbulent mountain river rolling its swift waters far below.
       My parents tried to calm me down saying that I had been to Georgia because they got married there and there my mother spent most of her pregnancy. Actually, I liked the idea but still it was a small consolation considering the fact that I obviously couldn't see anything at that time.
       I used to listen enviously to my friends' tales about those places where they went to on holidays. I could respond to them only with my sole trip to the village, but even those recollections were inevitably fading away. During my school years I remember only once that we had an excursion to the neighbouring town. My mother didn't allow me to go, referring to my poor health and frequent colds. She was summoned to school and my class teacher tried to persuade her that she was wrong in her attempt to keep her daughter wrapped in cotton wool.
        My mother didn't change her mind, of course, in some matters she never did. And what a triumph it was for her when she learnt that the sea was rough on the day of the excursion and most of the pupils vomited over the board of the ship. “Now you can see how right I was not to let you go!” my mother exclaimed gleefully. Nevertheless, watching my classmates discussing excitedly the details of their adventure I couldn't get rid of an uncomfortable feeling that I was deprived of something that was really important.

        To be continued ...

четверг, 23 марта 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter nineteen - the ending)

My mother's stories
chapter 19
The forest of my dreams (the ending)

        So it was quite understandable why I was fascinated with the idea of the forest. It was it seemed to me a completely different world full of hidden magic. So many creatures found their home in its mysterious depth that every few steps there promised new wonders and new discoveries. I always felt a thrill of excitement when I examined woodland sceneries on postcards or in reproductions of paintings in my textbooks. And who knows how many pages in my sketch-book I covered with drawings of trees and huge flowers and mushrooms sticking out of spiky grass between their trunks? If I couldn't get to a real forest at least I could create it with my coloured pencils.
       The forest out-of-reach continued to tantalize me even after we moved from the factory region with its foul smells to a new settlement among wild steppe, where the land seemed untouched and the air filled with herbal scents was fresh and sweet. But it was definitely a place of heavy battles during the Second World War, and people digging virgin soil for future kitchen-gardens used to find a lot of empty cartridge-cases there. I forgot how our plot of land looked like when we just arrived there, but my father used to tell me later that there was a big old crater in the middle of it. He served as an artillery man in the Army, so I could trust his judgment that it was a shell-hole or a pit left by an aircraft bomb explosion.
          None of these things, however, disturbed me very much. They rather added charm to the place I had already loved for its unspoilt nature. We even had our own small forest near the railway. It was actually a narrow forest-belt planted there with soil-binding purposes, but it gave us so many opportunities for entertainment. Moreover, just opposite our dwellings two forest-belts met each other. They went at different angles and before coming to an end they overlapped each other a bit. So in our vicinity we were lucky to have two forest-belts with a nice wide lawn between them. That lawn covered with motley grass was a wonderful place for outdoor games or for sitting near the fire telling scary stories. It was so easy to imagine, sitting there in the dark, that we were in a remote corner of a real forest.
         Playing among the trees we met another reminder of the War. As my father explained to me those strange oblong pits, that we came across in our forest-belts, were just old half-crumbled trenches. As for me those oddly-shaped hollows only increased some mysterious aura of the place, especially in winter, when my beloved forest-belts were covered with white sparkling snow. In summer my favourite occupation was to hunt insects there with my best friend Tonya. It was the time when I learnt how to catch tiny creatures without doing them any harm. Most of our captives I released in a day or two because I couldn't discover how to feed them. I loved to watch all the creatures that lived in our forest-belts, even frightful spiders. And, certainly, I was fond of nightingales spilling their warbles in May, cuckoos with their repetitive calls, magpies chattering and swaying their long tails, not to mention hedgehogs with their funny tapping and snorting.
All these observations only increased my desire to see a real forest, which would be definitely much more beautiful and diverse than our humble forest-belts stretched along the railway. But no matter what I said to my mother she wouldn't even listen to me when I pestered her with requests to go to the village. I was sure if only we got there she, unlike my father and aunt, would go to the forest with me. But her face darkened every time I started talking about visiting the village.
          I remember how startled I was by my mother's reaction when I had just arrived from my only trip to the village. I began to tell her at once that I noticed tears in grandmother's eyes when she was saying farewell to my aunt, my father and me, asking us to visit her again. I expected my mother to be touched but instead she turned toward me with her face distorted and snapped in response that her mother was a filthy hypocrite and I shouldn't take her words literally. She used to tell me very often how easily her mother would lose her temper and beat her with a leather belt for every tiny fault that her eye could catch. This time my mother threw another piece of shocking information at me, describing vividly how her mother stopped beating her at once if someone knocked at the door. And that was not all – after letting a guest in she usually kissed her freshly beaten daughter and asked her in a sweet voice to go to the yard to play.
           After such a story I should have understood there was no hope for me to persuade my mother to go to the village. But it's difficult for a child to accept that something is impossible. In childhood you believe that everything is achievable – just be persistent and try again. I don't remember how much time passed before I realized that my mother would never change her mind about the village. As a matter of fact, it was impossible to persuade her to go anywhere further than the center of the city, and even those trips she often canceled under some far-fetched pretext. I just couldn't understand her behaviour! Didn't she like to repeat that she traveled across half of the country when she was pretty young and had just escaped from the village? And she really loved to describe her adventures and wanderings at that time.

      To be continued...