Sunday, 19 February 2012

A voice from our mutual past, Part 2

Here is the rest of the story I started yesterday.

Marina found her love at a New Year party in my home. It was a portentous party where many a union was made, and also for me it became indirectly decisive. Marina was married, the first of my close friends, and they went to live in a tiny room in a communal apartment with twenty other people, one bathroom and one kitchen. A neighbour would bring her dog to the kitchen to pee in other people's pans. If you think communal living is cute and that people in the Soviet Union chose overcrowded living, you are wrong. But Marina and her husband were lucky to have at least a room of their own which a relative rented out to them. The alternative was to share a room with either set of parents.

Once Marina gave a birthday party in this room, and I helped her to make a cabbage pie. One of the neighbours – not the one with the dog – praised my sliced cabbage and instructed Marina to learn from me. Ah, we were young and carefree then!

I also got married and got a baby, and Marina got a baby a year later. My husband and I were also at the relatives' mercy with housing. We four decided to buy an apartment together. It was possible to buy a three-bedroom apartment in distant suburbs, and putting our meagre resources together we could just about afford it. We would have a bedroom each, a nursery and a common living room. We would babysit for each other and cook every other day. But the authorities wouldn't let us. They said they were trying hard to provide every family with an apartment, while we wanted to create a new communal dwelling. We tries to explain that we would do it voluntarily and wouldn't bring dogs to pee in each other's pans, but to no avail. Finally, Marina and her husband managed to borrow enough to buy a two-bedroom flat in a new development so far away that you had to change buses twice to get there. There were no shops nor any other services, so they had to buy food in town and carry home on those buses. They were promised a phone line in five years, with luck. When we went to visit, you could never be sure whether they'd be at home. I know it sounds weird, but it was about thirty years before cell phones.

I was by then divorced and a single mother, but because Marina lived so far away we couldn't, as we would have liked to, babysit for each other. But we would meet every now and then and let our children play together. By the time I left for Sweden, she had had another baby, which was almost a heroic deed then. Two children was well beyond what anyone could afford. Stories Marina told me about how she managed are too horrible to repeat, but I recognised them. There was a short period in my life when I had nothing but dark bread and cabbage in my home, and when I could afford milk I gave it to my baby. Mind, my parents were well-off by Soviet standards. Marina's weren't. They would have helped her if they could.

I would meet Marina when I came to visit from Sweden, but one day she wasn't there anymore. She had divorced her husband, married a Canadian and moved to Canada taking her two sons with her. Our mutual friends made no secrets of it being a marriage of convenience. Vague information came about her unimaginable hardships. She never contacted with me, and I knew why, because I had encountered this type of behaviour before with emigrees. Unless you are a success story, you don't want to share it with your friends. Eventually I learned that Marina's younger son had returned to Russia and his father. Then I lost touch altogether. I've been to Canada quite a few times, and each time I told myself I should try to find Marina. It wouldn't have been difficult once internet was available. But something stopped me. If she didn't get in touch maybe she didn't want to.

And then, a couple of days ago, an email. And yesterday, a long Skype chat, and all memories, and it feels as if it was just a little while ago I carried soap dishes she always used to forget by those horrible wash basins by the cold barracks, and it was only yesterday we took our boys to each other's birthday parties, and it was only yesterday we dreamed of the future, and here we are, right in the middle is it. She teaches at the University of British Columbia and has four grandchildren.


4 comments:

Meg Rosoff said...

Wonderful story...a whole life in a few paragraphs -- two lives. And what it makes me think is that it passes so quickly....

Anonymous said...

Your blog is one of my favorite blogs. I am 32 years old. I do not have any children. I am somewhere in academia but not in your field. I love books. Well, to say that we do not live similar lives although I guess we could easily have been more different. I thought that it is always nice to get positive feedback and that I almost owe it to you as I frequently enter your page to look for new entries.
L

Maria Nikolajeva said...

Thank you! I have often asked myself who reads my blog and why.

Anonymous said...

So that was who. Why? I enjoy your writing. Your reflections on academia gives me a window into the other side. The professor side. And it has a very calming effect on me. You make professors seem more human! Your anecdotes about family life/life feels true and genuine. Your tales from your childhood brings me back to memories I have from books of Russian authors I read as a child and teenager. I am not sure if it because of the way you write, the settings or just the excitement of having stories told from Russia 40 years ago. It seems to me that it is always different to have someone telling you stories about life elsewhere when they have lived a long time in your reality.
L