Mothers and Daughters

by V. Rudenko, Emily Tall
Mothers and Daughters
V. Rudenko, Emily Tall
Feminist Studies
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[The following essay, which appeared in the popular Soviet weekly, Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literay Gazette), on 29 August 1979, is about the complex attitudes of middle-aged women toward their aging mothers. Through the eyes of the narrator, Valya, we meet her bend, Tanya, who complains about her sick mother; Tanya's mother, who is soon to die; the mother of a childhood bend, Lena; and Valya's own mother, who sleeps quietly on a creaky old folding bed so as not to wake her granddaughter. In spite of the profound differences between Soviet women's lives and our own, we see that they, too, feel the pain, the love, and the guilt that American women have voiced in their writings about their mothers. -Emily Tall, translator]

"Since my mother's blood pressure's gone up I've been worried all the time," I complain to my childhood friend, Tanya, as if I were the one with high blood pressure and not my mother.

"Oh God, it's the same with me. My mother's convinced she has cancer and you can't talk her out of it. . . ."

I listen to Tanya and know she expects me to sympathize -after all, we're fellow sufferers, grown-up daughters of aging mothers who are now like our own children. I listen and feel somehow that her words are unjustified, that one shouldn't complain about one's mother, especially if she's sick.

And I say, completely out of tune with the song I myself had started, "Do you have any black rowanberries? I've got to get some for my mother. I'm afraid of all those pills she's taking. . . ."

And, saying good-bye to Tanya, I think: "I should drop by and see how Anastasya Petrovna [Tanya's mother] is doing." The original Russian version appeared in Literaturnaia Gazeta [USSR: Soviet Writers Union), 29 Aug. 1979.Reprinted by permission of Vsesojuznoje Agent- stvo po Avtorskim Pravam.


V. Rudenko

But I visit them for quite another reason: Tanya's got a new apartment and I'm invited to the housewarming.

Tanya's unjust words have already been forgotten under the daily onslaught of feelings and impressions and, on my way to the house- warming, I think about her mother least of all.

For a present I buy antique-style candlesticks, upon seeing which my mother asks, perplexed, 'What did you buy those for? The elec- tricity hardly goes off any more."

Maybe if I had taken the worn dark backstairs of the apartment house where Tanya's and my family once lived instead of this shiny new elevator, I wouldn't be standing stupidly in front of the wizened, bent old woman who opened the door.

She looked at me with the kindly look old people sometimes have, as if from some far-off place she'd gone to, away from our petty vanities, and didn't say anything. But the look in her eyes didn't hurry me, I could see that she wasn't bothered by my em- barassment. "Everyone gets lost in these new buildings," she said kindly, and that voice, like a key, opened some far-away door in my consciousness, and I remembered how, once long ago, that same voice comforted me-"It's OK, if you don't fall, you won't learn to jump" -when I would run to her in my dirty sundress and bruised knees, red and black with dirt and blood, and beg, swallowing my tears: "Auntie Nastenka, please, not iodine. . . ."

"Auntie Nastenka, please, not iodine, please, not iodine. . . ." I say to her now, feeling her face lose its sharpness before me, like the image on a broken TV set.

In those days, when as usual I would jump rope with Tanya and, as usual, would scrape my knees, I would run to her mother, Aunt Nastya, because my mother would have yelled at me and not let me play anymore. I didn't really see all of Aunt Nastya, only fragments: the sympathetic look, the kind voice, the soft hands.

'Yalechka, my child, is that you?' says the woman, and stretches out her hands to me-dark hands, with taut, dry skin. . . . I drop the package with the candlesticks, and we hug each other . . . I know that right now my own mother is giving kefir to my daughter, Lariska, but I am still hugging my mother. One of the many mothers of my childhood.

Wasn't Aunt Nastya my mother when she carefully washed my knees with boiled water and then washed and ironed the hem of my favorite checked sundress?

V. Rudenko

And when she sliced a great delicacy -smoked bacon -for me and Tanya, did she make any distinction between us? Weren't we both her daughters, whom she constantly wanted to feed because of the hollow chests and fragile-looking ribs that showed beneath our sundresses?

I feel the slight body tremble beneath my hands: Auntie Nastya, Anastasya Petrovna, Tanya's mother, is crying.

I understand why: because at the same time she's greeting me she's also saying good-bye. The fact that I didn't recognize her is proof of her own feeling that everything is over now, the end is near. After all, I am from that almost forgotten part of her life when she was young, strong, and beautiful, when her Tanya was a little girl who would kiss her. . . .

"Don't cry, don't cry, Anastasya Petrovna," I say, and we each step back, quickly wiping our eyes, as Tatyana comes into the cor- ridor. But why are we embarrassed? Because she's an outsider and can't understand why we were crying? My God, it's all so com- plicated!

Why do I try not to notice the sad eyes of my own mother, whom I have not only not kissed for a long time but whom I don't even talk to very much? We can all reminisce for a moment to- gether, be moved by something. But to remember, to be caring every day?

We look at the apartment, and in the bedroom, where two gdded good-luck souvenir horseshoes hang over the twin beds covered by a single quilt, Tanya's mother, who's standing next to me, says: "It's too bad the bedroom is right next to the living room, my coughing wakes them up," and presses a dark hand to her sunken breast. You could see that everyone was sick and tired of her complaints and she had no one to go to for sympathy.

'You've convinced yourself of God knows what. If you did have that, you'd've been there a long time ago," Tanya interrupts her ir- ritably and looks at me, hoping for support. But I can't support anyone, I need support myself. I want to tell Tanya that even an outsider can hardly look at her mother without crying, but I won't say that to her even when we're alone. For some reason we all have to cheer each other up, even at the cost of the truth. Why? I don't know, and as is the custom, cowardly hiding from insoluble problems, I turn the conversation to something pleasant: "No smoked bacon and garlic today, right? Where did you used to get

V. Rudenko

such delicious smoked bacon?" "Tanya's uncle sent it from Stavro- pol. You mean you remember?" "How could I forget? I remember how Tanya and I used to spend hours jumping rope in the court- yard and how we'd drop everything as soon as you shouted out the window, 'Tanya, Valya, come eat!' And the thin slices of smoked bacon would already be lying on a towel on the stool, with the feathery green young garlic. My mother never gave me garlic, she couldn't stand it."

And right now, for a minute, we all feel that then we were really happy. And it doesn't occur to us that we are no less happy now, this minute, sitting and remembering the past that brought us together, feeling a tenderness toward each other that is often deeper than what we feel for our own family.

As I leave, I see how Anastasya Petrovna gets ready for bed. She unfolds a short folding bed in the living room and puts an old quilt on it.

And I say tactlessly, on purpose so Tanya can hear, "My God, what a small bed! Isn't it too short for you, Anastasya Petrovna?"

"No, no, not at all, after all, I've gotten shorter. . . ."

When I get home I look at my own mother, then, as if to rest, I lie down for a minute on her bed. Of course! The mattress has cav- ed in a long time ago, and the spring sticks right into my chest.

"We've got to throw out that bed," I say to my mother, "we'll buy you a daybed so you can sit on it during the day when you're knitting."

'Yes, it's gotten very creaky. I'm afraid to move during the night, I don't want to wake Lariska," my mother says gladly -I talk to her so rarely. . . .

Six months after the housewarming I find out that Tanya's hus- band has called and asked me to come to Anastasya Petrovna's funeral.

The doctors said that she didn't have cancer, it was some kind of chronic tuberculosis. "But is it easier for a person to die from tuberculosis than from cancer?" I think, and feel the heavy burden of inexpiable guilt -the guilt that Tanya and I share. Yes, yes, we can all be kind and caring-for an hour, for a day. But to do it for years-we haven't got it in us. And also, for some reason, nature has cruelly given us the patience to be mothers but not daughters or sons. And to struggle with nature we have to call on the more recent layers of our consciousness. . . .

V. Rudenko

And all our mothers are getting old and sick . . . Not long ago I was walking in the city park and suddenly caught sight of the mother of another of my friends, Lena. She was walking fast, almost running.

"Hello, Valentina Ivanovna," I called to her, "How's your health?" 'Well, not too good. I ache all over . . . And how are you? You haven't been to see Lena in a long time."

This "vy'" from my friend's mother, for whom I was once a child, almost her own child, hurt me for some reason. "Valentina Ivanovna, come on now, how come you're using "vy"with me?" "Well, you're grown up now . . . Excuse me, I've got to go. . . ."

And she hurried off. And that "vy"lodged in me like a splinter and ached and burned. . . . It was as if she had pushed me aside with that "qf'

and had moved away from me as well. And that hurt. It was as if she had cut a warm, living, romantic piece out of my childhood, one that had been connected with her house, her family, and the huge greedy tiled stove in the living room that avidly swallowed fire- wood and didn't want to repay us with the warmth we were waiting for.

I had gone to school with Valentina Ivanovna's daughter, Lena, and after school we would go home-either to her place or to mine-and do our homework. Lena and her mother lived in a large gloomy apartment in an old building that's torn down now, and in the other rooms in the apartment there lived some old women with antediluvian names that weren't used anymore who were all some kind of distant relatives of Lena and her mother. And I used to think that everyone who went into that house more than once was a relative and that I probably looked like a relative too, especially if someone came in and saw Lena and me feeding wood to their immense, insatiable stove.

Lena's mother would come home from work late, tired and irri- tated, and say angrily, 'You're shivering again? You've lit the fire and you're shivering! You have to put the coal in first, not just light the wood by itself," and would pick up the scoop.

When Lena talks now to me she never mentions her mother. She's mad at her for something: for some reason she thinks that the failures in her own personal life are all her mother's fault.

And I watch her mother, and I want to catch up with her and say, "It's OK, Valentina Ivanovna, you don't have to bend over like

V. Rudenko

that. You don't have to use "vy" to me. You're so dear to me. . . ."

Maybe that's what I should do? Maybe after I talk to her she'll straighten out her guiltily bent back and smile differently, without such a pitiful scared smile? No, I don't sympathize with Lena. I think it's more difficult for her mother than for her. After all, her mother understands that it will soon be time for her to leave and that her daughter will remain, alone with their common mistake, and she won't be able to help at all any more.

The mothers of our friends . . . "How come Lariska's girlfriends hardly ever come over?" I suddenly think. They ring the bell and stand at the door because their boots are dirty, and I see that I make them feel ill at ease -they feel uncomfortable about going into somebody's house that they don't know. . . .

I wonder why they don't feel at home in it, the way I felt at home at Tanya's or Lena's.

I guess I'm not "their girlfriend's mother," not like the mothers I knew when I was a child. Is it because I don't know how to be a mother to them or just that times have changed? You can't tempt them with smoked bacon and garlic any more, and for some reason they've stopped scraping their knees. . . .

Life has gotten better,= but don't we still need each other?


Russian has two words for "you": one used for children and intimates, and the other, "vy,"for others.

This slogan was often heard on the Soviet media.

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