Tuesday, December 05, 2006


By popular request (blame Simo):

She was for all intents and purposes my third grandmother. In fact she was one of my grandmother's numerous elder sisters - the eldest, after WWII was said and done.

I'd never thought of her that way before I started writing this, but she was the only normal person in the family by the current Western standards. She would say a lot of things that one can normally expect to hear from a fairly well-adjusted and good-natured 20-year-old literature student in the University of Helsinki. This might not seem like much to you, but she was the only person like that around. I have no idea how a creature like that could have grown up on one of the nastiest borders in Europe in some of the most interesting times, but she did. I also have no idea how this kind of attitude can survive in a place where everyday interaction with strangers, such as buying sausage or returning bottles for deposit, required a lot of yelling, threats and general unpleasantry. In the 75 years of her life Russia did not stick to her much.

She was born in 1908 in the village of Kublichi on Russian-Polish border (the border has moved several times after that; currently Kublichi is deep in Belarus), the fifth child out of seven. The family did not pay much attention to the kids, and they did what they wanted. What Musya wanted was to read books, both in Yiddish and Russian. At some point the border moved and they never saw the oldest sister or brother again. (They were murdered in 1942 with all their spouses and children, except for one who escaped.)

Musya decided to become a Russian language and literature teacher, moved to St. Petersburg, went to the pedagogical university, visited her family when she got a permission (they were so close to the border that suspicious strangers, such as the children of the residents, had to have a special permission to visit), got married at 21, got a baby, graduated, saw Communists hound her father to death and kill her brother-in-law - in short lived like all normal Russian people at the time. Then Bella - her daughter - died of scarlet fever at the age of 3, and they got divorced.

At that point she had a job, two little sisters in St. Petersburg, a brother in Pinsk, a newly-widowed sister in Senno, two siblings in Poland whom she would never see again and a mother back in Kublichi.

I should probably write more about her and less about her surroundings, but on the eve of the Independence day I find it useful to remind my mostly Finnish audience what they became independent from. Although I think they kind of remember it without me.

Germans came and made Musya the eldest of her family without any regard of whether or not she was up for the job. She had two little sisters left, each of whom was very different from her: Fira, who was - to put it charitably - not the sharpest knife in the drawer but became a doctor because her boyfriend's father was Somebody Important in the medical school, and Rivka - my grandma - who was very smart and extremely harsh and became an economist. During the war they all evacuated somewhere near Ural mountains and Rivka was trying to take care of her more inept older sisters the best she could.

After the war they moved back to St. Petersburg (Leningrad, whatever) and Musya got married again, to a relative named Yakov Ryzhik. He was a good man by all accounts, but was fairly sick and died in 1962, after which Musya moved in with Rivka and her family.

Rivka's family consisted of a fairly obedient husband and a teenage daughter Lida - my mom. Lida was as harsh a person as Rivka, but with completely different temperament and interests. One could expect two such people to fight, but if they did they never told me. Rivka continuously told Lida how to live that included such little details as which university to go to and who to marry. Lida said "sure, mom", hanged out with her friends all the time and did whatever she wanted. Rivka almost never read books, but Lida rather liked them and was pleased with the mild-mannered aunt Musya who not only read books but also liked to talk about them.

Lida grew up, went to university (not the one her mother told her to go to), got married (not to the guy her mother told her to marry, either), had me, and so I inherited Musya.

My parents were young and liked to have a good time, and sometimes they left me home alone, but for more prolonged periods they left me with my grandparents and Musya. They lived on the other side of the city. I tended to slip into Musya's room as quickly as was politely possible.

She had a sofa that could be extended into a bed and a cupboard with way more books than grandma and grandpa. She was the only old lady I knew who had long hair, and apart from her own long hair she also had a hair thing that she added to her own hair in order to make a high bun.

She was really sweet. She did not yell when I sat on her glasses by accident or borrowed her hairpins on purpose. She really talked to me (and in general to people) and really listened. She had a strange fixation on making me write things and then correcting orthography and punctuation. I usually obliged. I've always wondered since then whether many retired language teachers do so or whether it was just her.

She gave me adult books to read and asked me what I think about them.

As I already said, she never yelled at strangers, even when the situation required it. And it's not like she was shy - she talked to strangers very easily, it's just that she did not like social conflict.

When I got older we talked about people, relationships, sex and stuff like that. Just exchanging opinions, that's all, but she never told me to bugger off and find out experimentally, like my mum, or shut up about this disgusting topic, like my grandma.

One conversation went like this (I was 9 or 10)

"Musya, what are homosexuals?"
"They are men who love other men, you know, the way a man loves a woman. With sex and all."
"But they don't have... do they do it in the ass?"
"Is there anything bad about that?"
"Not really. It's a fairly icky thought to me but that's probably because I am not a homosexual."
"Musya, why is that illegal then?"
"Dunno. Why is crossing the border illegal?"

For all her love towards Russian language and literature Musya did not want to stay there. Almost all my family wanted to leave, with varying intensity, but she was very upfront about this. We spent countless hours talking about life in other countries. She was the only person in my family besides myself to study English in spite of uncertain prospects for leaving, and considering that she was 70 and had no formal teaching she was really good at it. She knew a lot of words and managed to put them together with reasonably good grammar and a terrifying Yiddish accent.

She died three and a half years before we left. That was 22 years ago, and I still sometimes get those "Musya would have liked it here" or "Musya would have liked that" moments.

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