Thursday, October 13, 2011

Babuska: From the Russia Folder

by Jesse Halsey

In a Russian home the grandmother is always the boss. No matter how large the house or the household, “Babushka rules the roost.” A son may marry and bring home his bride; she merely becomes another subject in grandma’s realm. The house may grow and sprout wings in all directions, as one son after another marries, but so long as she lives the “little grandmother” is supreme.

Of course, my verbs should be in the past tense. It used to be that way before the Revolution. In the topsy-turvy world of Bolshevism things are very different. But, in the old days . . . it was then I saw the country . . .

One night, after a long day’s journey by sledge, we came, my friend and I, to a hamlet frozen fast to the shore of the White Sea. The snow was deep, the going heavy, and our horses were tired out. So were we. There was no tavern, but we found no difficulty in securing lodging in a big, rambling, log house near the church. The Russians are always hospitable—or were, at least, in those days. In the spacious central room, that was combined kitchen and living quarters, there were a dozen children. Some hid behind their respective mothers, while the older boys stood their ground in honest wonder, looking over the first Americans they had ever seen.

We asked for keptok (hot water for making tea). And presently a steaming samovar was brought and put upon the heavy-legged table that stood at one end of the room. Meanwhile, taking off our heavy over-clothing, one layer after another, we warmed our hands against the white-washed side of the great brick oven-stove that was built four-square in the center of the room.

Then, rummaging in our duffel-bags, we found our tea and sugar and utensils and started to brew the tea.

During these preparations, while the younger women of the house were waiting on us, the little old grandma sat in a corner near the stove rocking a sick child. His moaning was like an undertone to all our clatter and talking.

Tea, though it be imbibed glass after glassful, is scant provision for famished Americans, and the crusts of black bread that were offered by the war-bled family added little comfort, even when smeared with half-frozen jam from our supply. We were famished! So, out of my bag I pulled a can of beans and, with my limping vocabulary, asked permission to build a fire in the big stove that we might heat them. The young woman relayed my request, in much more elegant and speedy language, to her mother-in-law and Babushka, much to my surprise, answered with a resounding Netu, which even the poorest linguist might have guessed, had they heard the emphasis, means “NO.”

When we were at our fifth glass of tea, or thereabouts, (you never keep count), the sick child set up such a piteous wailing that I showed my interest, by my looks I suppose, for I had no diagnostic Russian words. The grandmother reluctantly uncovered the red, swollen hand of the six-year-old youngster whom she held on her lap. It was an ugly sight, swollen to the elbow, but with a distinct localization on the palm below the thumb, it was throbbing with fever.

Largely by motion, I suggested treatment. Now, the Russians have a convenient word, which happened to be in my vocabulary. As I was hunting through my pack for the medicine kit, Babushka kept asking me if I were a doctor. When, finally, I understood, I answered “No.” But I hastened to add, “I am a Felcher.” And this I could say in all honesty, having lived in a mission hospital for some years where one does all sorts of practical things, when doctors are away, from pulling teeth to delivering babies.

“Yah, Felcher,” said I. (“I’m a ‘sort of Doctor.’”)

“Chorosho,” said Grandma, (That means “Good.”) bobbing her head in assent.

Some bichloride (which we carried to wash off cooties) went into a big bowl of warm water (the Captain, who looked on, warned me not to mix it with our tea) and then the boy soaked his hand for a while. The heat relieved the pain somewhat, I suppose, at any rate he sat quietly in grandmother’s lap, watching my every move. Then, I swabbed off the hand with alcohol. He didn’t move, half fascinated. With a quick slash, while grandma turned his face away, I drew the sharp lancet deep across the swollen palm. The little fellow howled from surprise more than from pain, but in a moment we had his hand immersed again in the blue water. Presently it was bandaged, and in no time he was off to sleep.

Then it came grandma’s time for action. She called one of her sons, and in almost no time he came back in with chips and split wood and a fire was roaring in the great furnace-like stove.

Pseuoste, Pseuoste. (Please, please) and much more that we did not understand, but lavish gestures made the intent evident.

I hacked open the frozen beans and put them in an iron pot that they gave us. Then another can, that the family might have a taste. Everyone seemed happy now and more tea was brewed. The captain got some cognac from his bag, and he and Babushka had a nip. On and on she talked, ordering her daughters here and there, scooting the numerous grandchildren out of the way when they came near with ever increasing boldness, as the Captain shared his meager supply of chocolate.

In the midst of our festivity, with a great commotion, off the top of the stove rolled old Grandpa, dripping with sweat and swearing (I suppose) volubly. Grandma was quite equal to the situation, for she speedily explained things, and soon had grandfather shaking hands with the Amerikanski offitzer. We had learned some things, in addition to a few new words for our poor, but expanding, vocabulary: First, a Russian stove is to cook in but to sleep on (that is as true today as it was twenty years ago). And, second, Babushka rules the roost. That is, alas, past tense now and, for aught I know, they may have changed even the name, along with everything else, and the Soviets may now have no grandmothers. I don’t know. Babushka may be gone now, but in the good old days she was an institution, as well as The Person of the house.

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