I think about career. My grandmother was a successful physician and administrator who ended her working days after well over 50 years, more than half a century of infectious diseases and bureaucracies.
I think about old age. I know how much she misses work – the starched white coat, the nurses flipping on the electric kettle first thing in the morning, and the satisfying hiss announcing the first cup of tea before the first round of paperwork. I know how much she misses her health – a good hip and a good night of sleep in particular.
I think about femininity. Because ain’t she a woman and a lovely one at that? She laughs openly about getting custom-made bras for those enormous bosoms of hers, and she’s never once allowed anyone to make her feel dumb for them, or for her lipstick and skirts, for her chignon and lace-trimmed shawl. She never let beauty, or the loss of beauty, define the inner sanctum of her agile mind, but neither did she shun the beautiful, or hide it in shame.
My grandmother fell in love with my grandfather on a tennis court. They both wore white on that day, as she recalls, the white of snowdrops and first and last love. They didn’t need their parents to mediate their relationship for them, because they were both adults; their childhood ended where WWII began. My grandmother didn’t beg for daddy’s permission to live her life, because my great-grandfather trusted his daugher to choose her own way. My grandfather, an engineer, was man enough to not be threatened and appalled by a talented working woman; and man enough to satisfy her, as she tells me now with a wink and a nudge.
My father’s birth was difficult and dangerous, and my grandmother was lucky to survive it. She never had another child, and she never apologized for it. My grandmother’s life didn’t end when she became a parent; she utilized the help of her own mother and father, and moreover, the USSR gave ample opportunity for college students and career women to continue their work after giving birth. My father remembers his mother as being very present throughout his childhood. He remembers being encouraged to save up for his first bike, and being smacked upside the head for swiping and smoking his uncle’s cigarettes. He remembers late-evening rounds of tea and telly, and conversation on health and disease, and politics and war.
My grandmother ruled her office and her kitchen with flair: she had a firm hand and a steady gaze, and she made pork borsch and pastries so weightless they may as well have been orbiting the earth.
My grandmother could dress down a politician, and she could put her arm around a young girl and tell her, as gently as possible, that the tests came back positive for HIV.
My grandmother lost my grandfather to diabetes. Together with my mother, she washed and dressed his body on the day of his death. Bus-loads upon bus-loads of people came to say goodbye to my grandfather, and hardly anyone could look her in the eye, so piercing and immobilizing was her grief.
My grandmother and my grandfather knew the meaning of devotion. When I was learning how to talk, I called my grandmother “Tolechka,” because it was the word that she said most often, the word that was an affectionate diminutive for my grandfather’s name.
My grandmother held my grandfather’s withered hand, and she held the withered hands of her patients, while her country crashed around her for the second time in her life. There was nothing she could do about it, besides keeping on.
My grandmother never had patience for the idea that women are fragile; her own hands were country-rough, and her arms had dipped up to their elbows in blood and bile, and she remembered the cool steel of a Nazi gun against her temple.
My grandmother saw the effects of drug-use and promiscuity, but this didn’t turn her into a self-righteous, puritannical jerk. Neither did the post-Soviet meat-grinder turn her into a spewing reactionary. She was not angelic and benevolent and pure, but a realist.
My grandmother was the best storyteller, and the most shameless fan of soap operas that I have ever met.
My grandmother always detested the word “boyfriend” and liked the word “lover.” She perferred paisley and florals to plaids and stripes. She prayed, but rarely went to church, not even when going to church stopped being shameful. She loved me, but not the woman who brought me into this world. She had secrets, and dark days, and I never saw her cry over her own imperfections, probably because she’s seen enough real grief.
My grandmother has long since picked out the dress she wants to be buried in. She has her portrait carved into the communal monument that she will one day share with her mother and her husband. She has her date of birth carved as well. All that’s missing is the second date. Some days she says she’s ready to die, other days she’s not so sure. She likes to tend to her grapevine, she likes to feed my lover pastries, and she likes to feel sunlight on her creased and smiling face.
My grandmother’s phone is ringing off the hook today. My grandmother cried when I called. My grandmother is honey and grit, flower and stone, girl and crone. So here’s a Happy Birthday to her, and a thank you, and mnogaya leta, and a kiss on the cheek, and a bow, and many blessings.