Thursday, November 7, 2013

The return

Names of all the in-laws in Russian. Yep, it's that complicated!
(Муж = husband, жена = wife)

It's that time again, time for the Trial by Fire Visiting Relative. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know what that means :p

Someone's mother has come to stay with us (and it's not Кит's mom!).

The front door burst open yesterday, and a laughing, exhausted mother/son duo stumbled in. The power was out in the building and they'd had to walk up probably 200 stairs to reach the apartment. As soon as mom caught her breath, she lugged her bag to the middle of the floor and began the gift distribution.
Someone got his USSR birth certificate and a new pair of shoes (and lots of compliment fishing: oh, they're probably the wrong color, you must not like them, I should have bought a different pair)
Decaffeinated black tea, impossible to get in Ukraine.

I'll add the third picture when my phone stops freaking the freak out and agrees to start sharing its data with the computer again. She brought me a gorgeous sparkly pink cardigan (It's what all the American girls are wearing nowadays! очень модно!) and two bags of candy (note the KitKats in picture 1). Perhaps the fastest way to a future daughter-in-law's heart in Ukrainian culture is though a massive infusion of sugar. I still remember how every time we'd visit their home in Alaska, a carton of cupcakes would be waiting on the table, gleaming with neon-colored saccharine goodness.

And then, after the gift distribution, D returned to work and it was just the two of us.

Earlier I'd thought long and hard about this: given our past track record, would it be better to be consumed with work 24/7 during this visit or to take some time off and try to be a better невестка (d-in-law) candidate? Something in my (idiotically well-intentioned) heart advised taking two days off work so there we found ourselves, two women sitting at the kitchen table. Even with the language barrier, we usually manage to understand each other pretty well, thanks to the power of charades : ) At the very least, we both understand what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land.

We managed to get though the afternoon intact but there were a couple of the usual incidents, like her trying to scrub out the kitchen sink the minute I turned my back. I tried to shoo her away- "No, no, you sit down and relax!"- but it was like trying to change the weather. In my family, relatives have always been distant people, people that you visit for a day (or vice versa) but there's never been any sink-cleaning involved. Ever.

But that's the American model. This is Ukraine.

Several years ago the three of us (D, mom, and I) were walking down the icy sidewalks of Wasilla, Alaska when I heard the most hair-raising thing ever. At that time, I'd been much more ambitious in life and was considering applying for a state department position. I'll let you guess who said what.
"You can end up working at an embassy overseas, plus you get really sweet benefits!" 
"Да? What kind of benefits?"
"All the usual stuff and they'll help you with childcare and schooling."
"Что?! Why would you need that? I'm going to take care of your children."
We continued down the sidewalk but I'd been struck mute with terror. Aren't grandmothers women that you drop your kids off with for a few hours on date night? They don't actually live with you, do they? Why would they even want to do that?

There's a different mentality to old age in Ukraine. Life after 60 isn't made up of "the golden years" and the financial and time freedom to follow long-delayed dreams. Instead, for most, it's more about frail health, selling vegetables grown at your dacha (summer house) on the street corner, and spending time with your relatives. Linda over in Latvia can tell you all about it.
I wrote about it too, last year.
It's weird that my mom is actually older than D's mom but it's my mom who barely has time to talk between her travels and language classes and it's his mom who says things like "Ой, my life is finished. I'm an old lady. There's nothing left for me in this world." What can you say to that? All Americans are trained as hopeless optimists, so my training kicks in and I respond with silly little platitudes. And I truly don't think your life is over at age 65, but if you decide it is, then probably no one can argue with you. If you decide your life is over at age 23, it's the same. For me- it's not your age, it's your attitude toward it. For her- your age is an unavoidable sentence.

The most excited she's been so far is when we talked about children. Her eyes lit up and she solemnly pledged her service to us, so in that regard nothing has changed in the past 5 years. For me, I wasn't quite so averse to her helping us in that situation, so I must have changed a little bit. D and I both already feel a little guilty that we didn't get the baby ball rolling before his father passed away. That was another depressing self-fulfilling prophecy: Ну, I'll never live to see your children, he always told us, shaking his head sadly. Just as I never met my grandparents, I'll surely never meet my son's children.

So, we have only been together for 22 hours and 30 minutes so far, but every minute of it has passed in real time. This morning's major incident was about eating.  

Nyet, no restaurants! she said. Katherine, you cook something. Or I'll cook something. 

I immediately agreed to this, because everything else aside, she is an amazing cook.

D mentioned that there was some beef in the refrigerator, but that it had been there for several days and he wasn't sure if it was still good. When it came time to cook, she pulled the meat out of the fridge and inspected it with a sour face. Пропал, she declared. It's spoiled.

But that wasn't the end of it, of course. She decided that if the meat was rinsed off twice and then boiled, it would be okay for consumption. I tried to dissuade her from this but my offer to buy fresh meat fell upon deaf ears. She even gave some raw meat to the cat, who sensibly refused to eat it and spread it out all over the balcony as one of his games. Walking onto the balcony I immediately stepped on one of these raw chunks of meat. Oh, the joy.

So it looks like meat is on the menu tonight, in which case this may be my last entry. Farewell, loyal readers!


  1. I can see similarities with Vietnam where family also play a much larger role in each others' lives and the elderly live with one of their children, usually one of the sons. Understandably there's a different attitude to retirement when there's no state pension, or not enough to live off.

    Hope the beef turned out alright!

    1. Hi Ruth Elisabeth! It's nice to see you here!

      So far, so good :)

  2. :) Good luck with the rest of your visit!!

  3. I wish Yulia could read English! She would know she's not alone, it's the all same in every family!

    1. Timur, I've been thinking of Yulia non-stop. HOW DOES SHE DO IT? You are married to a saint, no doubt about it.

  4. For me 'decaf tea' sounds like 'liquid vacuum' or 'dehydrated water' :)
    Does it still tastes like tea?

    1. It does! I can give you some to try, if you'd like : ) It's very popular in the US.

  5. Hi Katya
    I was reading it like a novel)) I am happy to hear that you survived! I could practically feel what you felt! A lot of mums are here like that))