Archive for June, 2009

… they first give mothers-in-law. It’s really too anecdotal. What is the chemistry that turns two well-meaning people into reluctant but obstreperous enemies? How can that simple little piece of paper that makes a man and a woman one flesh make the same woman and her mother-in-law the opposing parties?

Granted, I was afraid that is, intimidated by my mother-in-law before we were married. Some primitive instinct thing, I suppose. The same empty stomach feeling you get when you’re waiting for your turn in the gynecologist’s office. But it was entirely one-sided, as far as I was concerned. She was a little old woman, and was accomodating enough to give me her son.

What happened between Saturday, March 15 and Sunday, March 16 to drastically change the status quo? If a man and a woman become one flesh, why do they have such different reactions to his mother? Because if a man can be impatient, disobedient, and dismissive of his mother before marriage, after marriage he becomes an ideal son. Could it possibly be a schizophrenic reaction? Any latent resentments and conflicts are mysteriously transferred over to his «better» half, and the man is free to respond to maternal love- while his wife takes over the task of testing it.

And it happens to the best of us. Meaning me. Without any active participation on my part and with the best of intentions. I never expected to love Maksim’s mother as my own, but I assumed that we could have a polite, cordial relationship. I mean, I’m nice. I always have been. At least that’s what people tell me. I’m practically legendary at work for my patience, of all things. Easy-going, pleasant. Like a sheep. Or a cow. Who unfortunately saw red after becoming one flesh with a bull.

Of course, it didn’t happen in one day. Little drops of water, little grains of sand… First there were the childish complaints that we didn’t visit as often as we should- for instance, five or six times a week. Then the querulous commands to go here, chop that, buy this, drive there. Next, the innocently reported «defenses» of my lack of initiative to help around the house- her house. (Because after all, a woman without children has nothing to do at home.) Finally, we came to inspection tours. A step before she crossed the threshhold, my mother-in-law could spot a dirty- at least in her opinion- floor. I never washed the dishes before Maksim came home from work. The clothes smelled too strongly of laundry detergent, they should really be rinsed. The floor would be a different color entirely if it was scrubbed with a brush, on my knees. The food was burnt, undone, unsalted, too sweet. There was garlic in everything, pepper in the soup. Gravy was too greasy for her liver, pasta too stiff for her gums, tea was too strong. By the time Sofya was born my nerves were stretched to a rubber band tautness.

But surely, surely, a grandchild would satisfy. Only the 54th grandchild didn’t really make much of an impression. She didn’t look like any of theirs. My stomach was still extended two days after the birth. The baby was too heavy to hold. And naturally, I didn’t do anything right there either. I held the baby too much. I didn’t force her legs down. I didn’t swaddle her. I didn’t even express my milk. I let her cry. I held her in an upright position so she could see the world, instead of treating her like a porcelain reclining baby doll. I encouraged her to suck her thumb- and anything else she wanted. I let her go undressed. I didn’t put all 42 layers of required clothing on her. I let her sit up when she wanted to, instead of keeping her bed-bound to six months. And I didn’t (and don’t) feed her.. Really, what is the world -and its daughters-in-law- coming to?!

Having an inherent desire to please, I generally make a concerted effort to meet people’s expectations. But there is that bovine tendency of mine, which, when it meets a determined refusal to be pleased, says «Well, suit yourself then.» And this is where we run into difficulties. Because while I am easy-going, obedient and tractable in most conditions, frustration quickly drives me to play devil’s advocate. And that really can complicate matters if a person doesn’t have a sense of humor… And what mother-in-law has a sense of humor in relation to a daughter-in-law?

So really, things couldn’t get much worse… which is when they do, generally speaking. Naturally, at this uneasy point in our relationship, the next step was to seriously offend me- on my first anniversary, as a more or less convenient opportunity- by telling me that I was from a flawed breed, and had make-up, earrings, and other sins in my blood, but Sofya was going to be God’s child, so I wasn’t to corrupt her. And straight on the heels of this blow to my psyche, require an urgent move to the parental home- six months ahead of schedule- to help said «invalided» parents out.

Now I’m all for caring for the aged parent, a la Dickens and Mr. W, but I prefer it to be in real need. A woman who weeds the garden, plants cabbage, bakes bread, pies, and rolls, and then makes a pot of soup, doesn’t need a caring daughter-in-law. She needs a psychiatrist. And when said aged parent sees this «help» more in the line of a maid, wages to be paid in the inheritance, I find myself becoming downright agressive. No passive resistance here!

My mother-in-law, benighted soul, can’t understand why her thick daughter-in-law doesn’t want to knuckle under and become a part of the family- under matriarchal law. I, in my equally benighted state, cannot understand why She won’t except that we (meaning Maksim, Sofya and I) are our own family, and have our own laws. And so we find ourselves, two generally well-thought of women, standing, swords drawn at a legal impasse. Outright conflict is definitely not our sphere, but the icy chills of a cold war are eating into our bones…and nerves…

I think we need a lawyer, under the circumstances. But then I remember the anecdote of the preacher who asked what a Christian is doing under the circumstances. Which reminds me that we do actually have a Lawyer. Or at any rate, an Advocate. And He’s definitely capable of fulfilling any laws. And now that I think of it, Maksim gave me His calling card, and a recommendation. (Maksim thinks I have post-partum depression, or something of the sort, while I know I have a mother-in-law. ) I forebore quoting him the verse of those that go not out without prayer and fasting, but I have to admit that Maksim is probably right…

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I planned my daughter for years… I had her name picked out when I was twelve (Elisabeth Rose), and her clothing designed when I was eighteen (sleeveless Victorian-ish shifts and pinafores).  I also had her character and personality planned- a little me, naturally.  Only better- I’m not egotistical!  She was going to speak Latin, and do classical homeschooling.

Thankfully, she didn’t appear when I was twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, not until I was twenty-nine and counting did she decide to make an appearance.  I had time to learn- in theory, at least- that children aren’t extensions of their parents, they’re their own people.  Watching my own parents as a child, and then as an adult, I saw how my mother viewed us as developing individuals- exulted really, in any sign of development, as a true Montessori or Waldorfer should- while my father viewed us foremost as his children.  I also saw other families, some excelling in possession and manipulation, others indifferent- having and raising children because that’s what one does.

Then I became a schoolteacher.  A regular old-fashioned school teacher. 45 minutes with 20 second graders can teach you oy-oy-OY! a lot about kids.  One, they definitely do grow like Topsy.  And Two, they grow as they’re going to grow- you can throw obstacles in their way, but you can’t change their natural bent.  They are going to grow as they grow; it isn’t a matter of letting children develop their own personalities, it’s a matter of recognizing the personalities inherent in them.

Acquiring a stepson added to a sense of watching of children grow, and inconspicuously bumping them back from the edge of the cliff now and then.  Being a mother and not a mother meant that I had input, but no say in matters, other than requiring respect for other people and property.  It also meant seeing close at hand how certain methods of child-raising that I might have disapproved can actually be positive.

When I finally became pregnant with my own child, I was certain she was a girl.  I had to have my little girl first.  But that was my last manipulation.  “Elizaveta Maksimovna” is awkward to pronounce, and by now that name carries all the baggage of my expectations.  Sophia- Sof’ya means wisdom, probably the best gift I’d like to give any daughter.  Dance lessons went out the window after the fiftieth kick in my ribs- this child is demanding gymnastics!  And with a miniscule thyroid and massive joint pain handsewn smocks and shifts might very well go by the wayside as well, along with the quilt pieces still lying in a bag, and the unbought yarn for a baby afghan.

Not to sound like  a bad mother, but Sof’ya pretty much makes all of the decisions herself.  She jumped out of the womb two weeks before I had the house cleaned, and holiday preparations done, put herself on a schedule at 2 months 2 weeks, gave her first smile to her father, and her first laugh to her brother, and oddly, she likes my mother-in-law!

I had ideas about how to be a good mother, discipline and all that sort of thing.  Letting the baby cry itself to sleep, and colic being a wives’ tale.  But that primitive, anguished cry that babies use in the first three months was stronger than my ideas.  Schedules went out the window too- Sof’ya never sleeps more than the bare minimum required for wakefulness.  In short, either being a baby’s mother is not as easy as my mother always promised, or she’s just better at it.  (Incidentally, that was pretty much my experience with labor, too.)

But with all of this said, and however independent Sof’ya may be, we’re quite firmly attached.  In the first couple of months after her birth, in response to the doctors’ advice to feed her “whenever she wants to eat”, she ate every hour- for forty minutes or more.  I took her to bed with me, defying my mother-in-law and all the authorities, so I could catch cat naps between feedings.  In fact, the only time she wasn’t eating was when either she or I was in the tub.  At least that’s what it felt like.  I took to calling her my tumor.  When she finally reached a point where she was eating for 20 minutes and less , every hour and a half or so, I experienced a strong sense of melancholy and nostalgia- a sort of “empty breast syndrome”. 

We’re coming up on seven months, and I’m still putting off feeding her.  She’s very interested in spoons, and loves to blow bubbles into teaspoons of water or chamomile tea (my one concession), but I’m not ready to lose that connection.  I still pull her into bed with me after the middle-of-the-night-feeding.  It wouldn’t take much to teach her to sleep through the night at this point, but…

Sof’ya is and isn’t a part of me.  She is her own person, definitely has her own mind and her own ideas about things (if you doubt that a six month old has her own ideas, you’re welcome to try dressing her, or holding her in a reclining position)- but she’s a part of me that’s been torn off.  She’s not the doll I had planned to dress, and teach, and direct, but she’s a person I love to spend time with.  Which I should have known, really- I have a mother of my own.

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My first images of Russia were black and white. Blurry photocopied snapshots of tree smudges on snowy backdrops; long low barracks in a snowy yard crisscrossed by sharp wire fences; bristly dark fur hats on stern pale faces. I was four or five years old, it was the first half of the eighties. The U.S.S.R. was the bad guy in foreign affairs. Political prisoners were pitied in America, and my stark black and white impressions were culled from a monthly pamphlet on religious persecution subscribed to by the church we attended.

I don’t know why those pamphlets should have had a such an effect on me. Yes, the church was very involved in praying for Christians imprisoned for their faith. Yes, it was a topic often discussed. But that doesn’t really explain why it should have captured the imagination of a preschooler. Maybe because I was always a serious child… because I have a latent sense of drama (more or less well-controlled)… because the only entertainment available during long boring sermons was reading those stern, but peopled pamphlets. In reality, I think it was God’s hand; you can agree or not, as you read further.

I remember a hurried film shot in scratchy frames of a forbidden Christian wedding in the woods, interrupted by the authorities. The bride’s white dress and veil look washed-out and pitiful, a farce, against the harsh white glare of the snow drifts. Black figures stumbling between gnarled black tree trunks tangled and blended with the bare black branches. I was bewildered: who would choose a wedding in snowy woods? And who could forbid such an extravagent gesture?

I suppose it was the romance that gripped me. I am one of those incomprehensible souls who likes to walk in the rain (as my neighbor once reminded me, only mad dogs and Englishmen walk in the rain), black coffee and chocolate and sad endings. When we had the opportunity to copy squiggles and hieroglyphs and actually send letters to those prisonerers of their faith, I was thrilled!

Eventually, my blacks and whites took on grey tones. The first time I saw Mikhail Gorbachov I was shocked. I had no idea the red splotch on his head was a birthmark; I thought someone had beaten him- maybe his guards, or his friends, someone he trusted. I felt sorry for him- and my childish blacks and whites of good guys and bad guys blurred. Another Misha, Baryshnikov, «artist-martyr» took asylum- but turned out to be rather shady. And the blacks and whites ran further out of the lines.

At some point I discovered that ballet was Russian, and figure skating. I admit, ballet was French in its conception- but in execution and in excellence ballet is Russian. This brought whole palettes of midtones and shades into the spectrum- rose and indigo and dusky blues and greens, old gold, and twilit silver.

I sobbed when I watched the televised «Swan Lake» from the Bolshoi- and fell hopelessly in love with Tchaikovsky. Yes, I know. A music teacher acquaintance rolled his eyes when I proclaimed my favorite composer: «Romantic,» he laughed condescendingly. But no matter how many classical composers I may enjoy, Tchaikovsky is always in my heart.

Tchaikovsky brought blue tones, and violets, lavendar and lilac, pink and all sorts of delicate feathery colors. And from Tchaikovsky I moved on to Prokofiev- his «Romeo and Juliet» is the one I remember, not Shakespeare’s. Stravinsky and his reds and oranges and yellows, Rachmaninov and his scarlets, burgundys, golds and velvety blacks. (Granted, I don’t have a good relationship with Rachmaninov, I cry- weep, more like it. Not a pleasant, romantic sniffle, but heart-rending sobs.)

Oddly (because I’m a fanatic reader) it was only after music that I discovered literature. Tolstoy filled my pictoral imagination with the rich fulsome colors of a Russian lacquer box, and peopled it with Russian types that I recognize today. Chekhov brought back greys of every tone, and salmon pink, blue, and wry purples. Solzhenitsyn brought back blacks and whites, but not the sharp, concrete moralistic tones of my chilhood; these were blacks and whites of tragedy and minor virtues and heroisms.

But it was only when I stepped out of the airport in Moscow that the colors jumped into focus. Alive. Real. Breathing. It was then that I realized that that side of the rainbow is like this side- only different.

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