Words lost on the Everyday
Just as grief permeates the everyday, here I write a portrait of my grandmother through the moments in between big stories.
I started painting when I was three years old. Taught to paint a still life, my teacher told me to sketch out exactly what I saw, but when the background didn’t ﬁt into the composition, I learned to adjust what I’m seeing to ﬁt it better into frame.
I prefer writing now because words carry more meaning than a ﬂower vase. Words seem to paint a clearer picture. But the thing with writing real life, I am starting to realize, is that it is still hard to resist the rules of composition.
I often write about my life in Russia. Or more so — I write about the part of my life in Russia that already has words attached to it. I wrote a book about my grandfather. It was easy because he shared so much of himself with me and I am already so much like him. In my writing about Russia with my grandfather, I omit details to make the narrative work in his favor. But the details I’m omitting are not at all minor. There is another half to my life in Russia that, once upon a time, felt less monumental to write about because it was my everyday. But, now, she’s gone — my everyday is a void for the precious space she used to ﬁll. That house outside Moscow, where I watched the sunset with my grandfather every summer, that house was my grandmother’s. And I spent most of my time there with her.
Rita was my babushka. But she hated being called that. She was my Rita.
I stepped into our Moscow apartment, for the ﬁrst time without her, only few week after she passed. But, strangely enough, she was there. Everything was a trace of her. The long-broken appliances repurposed as countertops, the used tinfoil ﬂattened and folded neatly into the cupboard, the chipped teacups though never served without a saucer.
She passed away two years ago.
This time, I was in Moscow for two months. We have a new washing machine and the old one no longer sits in the hallway. In every room, there are photographs of her.
But she is less here now.
I am — for two months. I sit in the apartment mostly. Maybe go for a walk through the city. I’ve gone to the movies twice. I’ve been to one museum. If she was here, I wouldn’t have had even one day of inactivity. She’d be on the phone booking theatre tickets at discount prices and looking through her emails for ongoing exhibitions, pushing me out the door
Before leaving for the airport, I look around the living room of my Moscow apartment one last time. The Chinese vases, the plants on the windowsill, the green couch cover. My grandfather, holds himself up against the wall to say goodbye to me. Did you forget something, he asks.
No, I was saying goodbye to Rita.
I’m on the plane that will take me back to the farm I’ve been living on in Upstate New York.
I remember how, in earlier moments of being on that farm, when I felt furthest from my habitual city life, I had walked into the woods to cry into the emptiness. I sat on a fallen tree and noticed how strangely familiar the forest ﬂoor looked. The colors of the dried leaves, the pine cone, the moss. The forest ﬂoor in New York was the same as the woods in Russia. I thought of her. And I cried for her absence.
I am having trouble writing.
I feel like I know what I could say. And yet, I have a lump in my throat re-reading the last paragraph. A stream-of-counciousness kind of writing came to be my way making in the last few months. But suddenly I’m staring at this page second-guessing every word. Afraid to write it down wrong. Feeling like this has to be perfect. Like this has to be all of her. Because it feels like this could be my one chance to speak about her.
I was always speaking to her.
And she spoke to me.
Not about anything. Just about everything. There was nothing she didn’t want to know about me. There was nothing she was not willing to give.
I never liked grocery shopping with her. She dragged me through three different stores without buying anything to check the prices of all the items she needed ﬁrst. Then we’d circle back to every store to spend in the most cost efﬁcient way. The difference between the tomatoes in one store to the one two blocks down was 7 rubles. But then the potatoes were cheaper somewhere else altogether. I noticed the way she talked to herself as she browsed the isles. She never had a list. She always knew what she needed and where what cost. I often asked why she bothers. She said, I need to save everything I have so you can be an artist.
There’s always been something
to crying on planes.
Especially in the dark. I am illuminated by my screen but the man sitting next time me is slouched with his ear to his shoulder and the girl on my other side is curled up into herself. I am snifﬂing but I don’t hear myself. Just the constant humming of the plane taking me where I desperately want to be.
I ﬁnger through the map on my screen and pay attention to the miles traveled.
I am reminded of sitting at the train station on our way to the dacha (our little house outside the Moscow). We played the capitals game. Turkey? Istanbul. Germany? Berlin. Indonesia? Jakarta. And then she quizzed me on my multiplication.
Jews are a very smart people, she said many a time with a cheeky smile. She was always very proud of being Jewish. I never felt jewish anywhere else in the world, but when I was with her. Rita never let me forget that I have a heritage.
I wonder now if she is the reason I can never stay in one place.
I land in New York.
I want to write out her complexity, but I can only write down
The details only come in fragments. And not in adjectives about her character. But rather through action words. And in actions that are unrelated but string together because that is how her mind worked. That is the only way I remember having a conversation with her. I would always have to remind her to circle back to where she began, though often I wouldn’t remember either. It doesn’t matter to me now. If only I could have a conversation about nothing and everything all at once.
During one of my visits to Russia several years ago, she found out I had already had my ﬁrst kiss and that I never told her about it. She didn’t speak to me for hours. At ﬁrst, I thought she was playfully upset at me. But when she refused to sit with me over lunch, I realized then, in not calling her as soon as it happened, I had broken her heart. I promised, I would never keep secrets from her.
My cousin got married a few years ago and changed her surname. Rita was bewildered. In our every conversation, she spoke to me about it with humor. But also with just as much genuine disappointment.
I think now to all the things I will never know about her.
She said, when I’m older she’ll tell me about her love affairs. I didn’t grow old enough in time.
She always repeated three simple principles from the lessons she learned from her life.
Don’t make my mistakes, she would say.
a woman must get a PhD,
a woman must marry at least twice,
a woman must have more than one child.
My mom accomplished two of the three. I aspire be at least as much.
My mom lost her best friend that day.
I was in New York the day Rita passed away in Moscow. Mama was with her. It was ﬁnals week in my ﬁrst semester in college. Papers, projects, critiques. I think about those deadlines as the only thing that kept me going those weeks.
One of those ﬁnal evenings, my mom called me. She had just cried. Or was still in tears and trying to hide them. She sat at Rita’s bedside. I wanted to talk to her but my mom said she was too weak to speak. So I read to her. I read to her the words I was writing — the beginnings of my ﬁrst book. The book was to be about my grandfather and I at the dacha. I read to Rita on speakerphone. In English. Though she knew the language conversationally, I’m not sure my words dissolved by static were any with meaning for her. But I spoke to her anyway because I wanted her to know everything was okay. That I’ll be okay. That I’ll be an artist and a writer or something else that she would be proud of.
I published my book the following summer.
I speak to my mother everyday, often more than once. We laugh about not having anything to talk about, saying we shouldn’t call so much. Some days, I call her when silence empties me. We hold the line open for each other’s silences.
I am on the farm in the middle of the New York woods. I’m doing something everyday now. Rita would be happy.
I could write more about how she liked to garden and fought our neighbor to keep the old fence up so people could see the ﬂowers. And I could write about us laying in bed together as she retells the story of when I was a child and my dad got so angry at me because I didn’t want to put my shoes on. And I could write about the hours she spent on the phone with her sister everyday recounting every moment of their lives, but never a conversation about politics.
And I could especially write about how difﬁcult her life was with my grandfather’s stubborn temper. How they would not have been married had she not gotten pregnant. How he would not have been a well-travelled journalist without the life she gave up of being an engineer to be his accountant. And I could write about how I wasn’t old enough to see it. How I wasn’t old enough to see how she held all the pieces of his life together for ﬁfty years.
But I can’t help feeling like there is something
in all of this.
I hear her voice and see her face and the way she stands. No matter all these words, there is no way I could write out the way everything happened. I’m losing all the words I own because I can’t ﬁnd the ones that would be for her. Instead, I’m trying here to write the moments that are not stories. They are the moments between big stories. How precious the ﬁlm is behind my eyes. I never wrote Rita when she was alive. I can’t imagine I could have.
I used to think I could find words for everything. Maybe there are moments that aren’t meant to be written. Maybe they are meant to be silent.
I’m sitting in the living room of the barn house. My toes are cold. There’s no view beyond the window. I could be anywhere.
I am at the dacha. I am on the couch with Rita. We are watching Gone With The Wind. I hold her in my arms. We warm each other.
Anna Scola is a writer, artist and curator from Russia, America and Singapore. Anna is the owner and maker of kalinka by anna, handcrafted items inspired by travel and nature. Her book, Deduka: A tale of one mind and two times, is available now.
Learn more at annascola.studio.
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