Musings / Stills

And the years like birds fly

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My grandma, Babulya, and I used to go to the circus every summer I spent in Kostroma. I haven’t been to an American circus, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but in Russia, the circus is a rich cultural tradition and showcase of talent, and an outing I eagerly awaited each time. The circus always included a variation of performances by wild animals—tigers, monkeys, elephants—and their trainers, mischievous painted clowns, gravity-defying aerial performers, and women dressed in Russia’s version of sexy Halloween outfits (I distinctly remember buying a postcard at the circus gift shop depicting a group of slinky, scantily clad mice women with glittery silver balls for noses posing provocatively with a man mouse on a motorcycle), narrated by a booming, male voice. The smell was a mix of the animals and the sugar-laden concessions sold at intermission: cotton candy, kettle corn, and other sweets. Stepping into that round, regal building was always like stepping into another world—one of possibility and magic.

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No matter how long I spend away from my grandparents’ apartment, I feel that I can always recall it in vivid detail. The rush of warmth that is the soft atmosphere, dim light, and Babulya’s joyful smile upon stepping inside from the solemn, concrete walls of the building’s stairway. The gentle shaking of china in its display case upon walking into the living room where an omnipresent old rug in tones of cream and maroon hangs on the wall. The white lace curtains gently dancing in a breeze from the kitchen window. The Virgin Mary ever watching from Babulya’s many icons. The shrill, long creak of the wooden wardrobe’s door. The quiet play of light through the trees, coming in through the bedroom window in the late afternoon.

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Growing up, this had been my second home—or perhaps, my real home. Before the age of 11, my family moved every few years. Russia to Texas, Texas to California, California to an apartment in Minnesota, to our first house, and then to our second. My family still owned the small apartment in my hometown of Odintsovo, a suburb of Moscow, which we rented out while we lived in America. That apartment never felt like home—it was just a place to pass through. The one constant through it all had been a month or two every other summer spent at Babulya and Deda’s apartment and dacha (a summer home and garden, similar to a cabin) in Kostroma, a historic city roughly six hours away from Moscow by train.

I had friends in Kostroma—a crew of kids I could pick back up with whenever I returned. During the time in between, we wrote letters. In Kostroma, at the end of July, they’d come to my birthday parties. I spent my days listening to stories on my grandparents’ record player like The Adventures of Grasshopper Kuzya and The Bremen Town Musicians.

And at the dacha, located twenty or so minutes outside the city of Kostroma, there was always an endless amount of things to do: swimming in the river, helping pick currant berries that Babulya made into jam and wine, playing with the neighbor kids, catching holographic green beetles and lizards, gorging myself on my favorite fresh peas from my grandparents’ garden, getting family and friends together to eat and drink and sing songs, staying up late playing cards, and then sleeping in the little room where an exotic bird cross-stitched by my grandma watched over me all night. My grandparents planted three trees at the dacha in honor of their three grandchildren: two oaks for my brother Igor and cousin Dima, and a birch for me. The dacha was my childhood haven of love, laughter, and light.

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The last time I was there was a year ago, in August 2015. I wish I had known it would be also be the last time I’d see Babulya.

Five months ago, as I was finishing up work at MCAD on a Monday in April, I got a text from my mom. “Ritulya,” it read, “grandma Rita died today.” A shock wave pulsed through my body. My first instinct was to cry. There was no one left in the office except a few student workers. I told them what happened, saying I was going home, and they gave me hugs to comfort me. I felt numb as I walked out to my car in the beautiful spring afternoon. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to sit down and write about Babulya, to process what it all means.

In the preceding weeks, I had been thinking about how unsettled I still felt about that last visit to Kostroma. Last summer when I visited, my mom had already been staying with my grandma, her mother, for a month. The first night I arrived, my grandma broke down crying. “You’re already leaving in a week,” she sniffled, as my heart broke. It set the tone for the visit. Everything felt wrong. Off. Her husband, my grandpa, had passed away the previous summer. Without Deda there, there existed this very present void—one that could never be filled. Melancholy lived in the apartment with us.

Babulya had been losing her memory in her last years. But today, I myself can barely recall what I did in that week. I didn’t talk with Babulya as much as I should have. I felt a sense of disconnect, and I wasn’t sure what to say. We went to the dacha together just once this time. The visit was short. I hung out in Deda’s old room with my brother Igor, leafing through old books and calendars, sifting through stuff locked away in cracks and crevices, trying to reconnect with some part of my childhood. I’d wanted to stay the night, but they wouldn’t leave me alone there, so we packed up and drove back to the city.

I left by train as I had arrived, but bound for St. Petersburg, headed to visit an old friend from Kostroma who now lived there. It was the only time in my life I left Kostroma going somewhere other than Moscow. It turned out to be a new path in more than one way.

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Margarita Grigoryevna Alexandrova (née Torhova) was born on November 10, 1931, in Levoshovo, a selo, or small village in the Yaroslavl region of Russia. As a girl, her family lived in a house they shared with another family and the pope, right next to the Orthodox church they attended several times a week. After she finished school, she worked for a while as a midwife and nurse.

Babulya was very kind. She was also very decisive. Once she made a decision, she stuck by it. All the secrets she was ever told, she took to the grave. She was also very beautiful, and she knew it. My parents say she played hard to get with the boys. But once she fell in love with Deda, that was it.

The story goes that Vanya, a young officer who had taken a liking to her, invited her out to dance at a club one night. Bonus: he was, reportedly, a pretty good dancer. Many young officers were stationed in the region and were also in attendance—including a Vladimir Kuzmich Alexandrov, an admirer of Babulya’s who lived in the same house as her good girlfriend Valya. The whole night, Vladimir had his eye on her. At the end of the evening, Vanya went to get his furashka (Soviet military hat) and told Babulya to wait for him, but his dance skills had failed to secure her affection; she was too proud to wait and started on her way out. In the meantime, Vladimir, always prepared, and his friends had gotten the gruzovichok (truck) ready and swooped in, stealing Babulya and Valya away to take them home. My dad called him an “eagle.”

They married in 1950. They lived in Kostroma until Deda had to go to the military academy in Moscow, where they relocated a year or two later. In 1952, they had their first child—my aunt Irina. Deda was supposed to go to the military academy in Riga, but didn’t want to, so they returned to Kostroma. Their second daughter, my mom Elena, came in 1956. The family then moved to Garnizon, a military city near the Semipalatinsk Test Site in the USSR, now Kazakhstan. Later Babulya worked at a laboratory, doing radiation experiments with animals like mice and dogs. In 1973, Babulya wanted to go back to Kostroma to be close to her aging mother. She worked at a hospital for a while while Deda taught math. Deda also gave community lectures on radiation and methods of protection against it.

In my own memories of her, I remember Babulya to be very active and driven—someone who took initiative. Many times when my mom offered to help with something or run to the store, Babulya wouldn’t let her, insisting on doing it herself. She could be stern when needed to be, but she was usually bubbling with joy, ever ready to slip in a mischievous remark. She always repeated things twice—probably a habit she didn’t even notice, but one that punctuated the things she said with double the emphasis. And at gatherings with friends, she would never shy away from leading everyone in nostalgic group sing-alongs. Her and Deda stayed in Kostroma until their passing, with Babulya going just a year and a half after Deda, mostly of ailing health, but perhaps also of a lonely, broken heart. They spent their last decades tending their garden and relaxing at the dacha, visiting with their children and grandchildren when they came to town, having guests over and going to dinner parties, attending concerts and events—living a happy life together.

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I wasn’t close with my grandma because I talked to her or saw her frequently, but spending so much time with her while growing up, I always felt close to her. She was my mother’s mother. My namesake. My mom named me Margarita not just because of her mom, but also because the Russian Orthodox Angel Day, or Name Day, for Margarita was two days after I was born, at the end of July. To be honest, I despised the name Margarita growing up in America, tauntingly questioned by classmates and neighbors time and time again why I was named after an alcoholic drink. Luckily the comments have since stopped, and I’ve come around to find the beauty in the name. It’s a Latin word meaning “pearl” and a Spanish/Russian one meaning “daisy.” And it’s a word that will forever connect me to my grandmother.

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It felt like the gaps between me and Babulya only widened as I grew up—our age, our culture, our religion, our distance. To be honest, we rarely talked unless we were physically together, so now it almost feels like nothing has changed. Except I can’t Skype her and hear her voice. I can’t write her letters. Her death feels surreal because it will only be real, only felt, when I go back to Russia and enter the spaces that hold our shared memories.

I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that a soul eventually leaves this world forever, but the life of a person can live on as long as memory can carry it forward. As long as those memories are alive, the person is alive, if only for the caretakers of those memories.

I worry about how I will carry and transfer on a legacy that is only a fragment of who I am. But that is the story of all immigrants—an assimilation over generations, with more memories, stories, culture, tradition, and history lost every time until it only exists in legend, twisting and fading into myth.

The death of Babulya isn’t just the death of my grandmother. It’s the dying off of a generation. It’s the end of two birthers of the bloodline. It’s the orphanage of my mother. It’s a closed door on a part of my childhood that lived on into my adulthood—one I never fully fathomed ending. It’s the burial of stories and secrets that died along with their keepers. I’ve had such a hard time processing the fact she’s gone and what that will mean because it means a lot of things.

I bear the weight of telling the stories of my grandparents, though sometimes they are ones I don’t fully know or remember without aid from my parents, who will one day no longer be around either.

A big part of my Russian upbringing were the childhood stories and fairy tales—in books, records, films, and television programs. I have returned to these stories over my adult life as they anchor me to a time when things were simpler. They are fantastical, mythical, and beautiful. They are tied up with the myth of my childhood, the myth of the dacha and visits to Russia, and now the myth of my grandparents.

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The Torhova-bloodline women: (left to right) aunt Ira, great-grandma Anya, grandma Rita (Babulya), me, mom Elena

When I think of my grandmother, I often think of her singing this song—A godi letyat (And the years fly). This was one I often heard Babulya, Deda, and their friends singing at dinner parties when I was a young girl.

 

And the years fly
The years like birds fly
And there’s never time for us to look back

I regret I never got a recording of her singing it.

But I got this one.

 

I wish I had recorded her singing more songs. I wish I had been able to take more pictures of her. I wish I could have heard more of her stories. I wish I could have cooked with her and learned how to make her delicious mushroom soup. But for now, I’ll take what I did do and what I retain of her and keep it in my heart until I see her again.

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