My Second Mother

Things at home had improved considerably since the publication of my first article in the Guardian. Lyosha’s mother seemed flattered that someone was taking an interest in her culture. She started calling me “Robinka” instead of “the American” when she gossiped about me to her friends on the telephone, and refilled my teacup for me occasionally. I was allowed to join the family at the table for dinners of raw beets with sour cream, pickled herring in mayonnaise, and cheese toast. I was also invited to sit with Valentina Fedorovna while she watched “My Second Mother,” her favorite television show.

“My Second Mother” (Mi Segunda Madre) was a Mexican soap opera that was clumsily overdubbed in Russian. The episodes I saw focused on the exploits of Ramon, a scalawag if there ever was one, and featured an improbable number of heavily made-up women falling down stairs. The contrast of the visual hysteria occurring on the screen with the dry, sexless voices of the Russian overdub actors made this show highly watchable. Ramon taught me a lot of useful Russian, but more than that, he gave Valentina and me a way to connect.

Every time Ramon poured champagne for the maid, pulled the dagger from his billowy shirt, or fixed the novitiate with a piercing gaze, Valentina would shake her head and mutter.

“Akh,” she’d say, “Ramon.”

In the interest of family harmony, I decided to castigate Ramon as well. Fortunately, I’d had many total strangers on the metro yell angry-sounding phrases at me while gesturing at my LL Bean hunting boots. I decided to try some of them out.

“Akh, bednaya jeezn (oh, impoverished life),” I said as Ramon burned the letter establishing his paternity.

“Da, da,” nodded a startled Valentina.

“Kakoy chernoye dyen (what a black day)!” I said, watching Ramon flee the scene of the accident just before the authorities arrived.

“Agreed,” said Valentina, twining her fingers together.

On the screen, a policeman shook his head. No one survived, he said, as Ramon cried his crocodile tears.

“Kashmor (nightmare)!” I yelled.

“Exactly!” said Valentina, as the credits rolled.


I was grateful for the détente between Valentina and me, but our new friendship came at a cost. Valentina didn’t blame me for my lack of domestic or social skills; after all, I came from America, a place so barely functional that no one knew how much a bushel was supposed to weigh and the chickens lay around, limp and boneless, in the fields. Now that I was here, though, Valentina would teach me to be a proper lady with frequent housekeeping and deportment lessons that lasted forever and occurred whenever she felt like it.

One afternoon, I was lying on my board reading “Cold Sassy Tree” when there was a soft knock on the door. Before I could respond, Valentina poked her head in and said, “Robinka, could I ask you a question if it does not offend you?”

“Da,” I said, “Of course.” My heart sped up, as it always did whenever Valentina was around. What had I done now? What could she want? My anxiety over what was going to happen next pushed most of the Russian right out of my head.

“Why did you blah blah that big bag of blahdy blah?”

I looked around for clues while Valentina stared at me, waiting for an answer. “Big bag,” I thought. “She’s talking about me doing something with a big bag. What big bag is there?”

My eye fell on my suitcase, and suddenly I knew. Valentina had come in my room while I was out and found the big bag of condoms that I still had with me. And of course Valentina, with her strong opinions about appropriate behavior, would want to know why her house guest had 2000 condoms in her suitcase. Just what was I planning, exactly?

I decided to answer her question as plainly and confidently as possible. Maybe if I just put it to her straight she’d go away and leave me alone. “Yes, they’re condoms. I brought them with me from America because I heard they’re hard to find here. I’m going to trade them.”

Valentina blinked. “What?” she said. “What are you talking about?”

“Condoms,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

Valentina left the room, shaking her head, and returned moments later with a big bag of dates. I had purchased these dates weeks ago and had just that morning finally accepted that I didn’t at all like dates. Unable to figure out what else to do with a half-rotten bag of fruit, I’d thrown it away.

“Dates,” said Valentina. “I found this big bag of dates in the trash can. Why did you throw them away?”

“Oh. They were bad.” I was relieved. She hadn’t found the condoms after all.

“What condoms?” she said.

“No,” I replied as firmly as possible, shaking my head. “No condoms.” Maybe she’d think she misunderstood me. Maybe she’d think I’d had a massive stroke.

“Robin,” said Valentina, “Get up and come with me.”

I followed her into the kitchen and sat where she pointed, at the dinette. She leaned over the table, writing something at the top of a piece of typing paper. After a minute she put the paper down in front of me and handed me the pencil. “Copy it,” she said.

I looked at the two sentences she’d written, which I didn’t completely understand. I reached for the dictionary I kept on the windowsill next to the telephone. When I’d deciphered the meaning of the sentences she’d written, I looked up at Valentina. “Seriozjno? You seriously want me to write this?”

“Da,” she replied. “Both sides.” She crossed her arms and looked at me with no expression. It was clear that she would stand there until I did what she said, plus I was afraid that if I fussed too much she’d start asking questions about condoms again. So I took up the pencil and copied her spidery writing.

“I am an efficient housewife,” I wrote again and again, “I do not throw things away.”