RUSSIAN WOMEN AND THEIR STORIES. PART 2.
Generations of women in Russia live in a much closer proximity as compared to women in America. Grandmothers share apartments with mothers and daughters, and often granddaughters. I grew up in a typical household where in a three-room apartment lived my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my sister, and later my cousin. There were also four dogs (the number varied), cats, rats, and cockroaches. Though cockroaches weren't pets. Rather, they considered themselves the apartment owners, walking around freely and escaping every kind of poison the women in my household tried on them.
The living conditions haven't changed much (though they definitely improved) since I grew up and left for America eighteen years ago. I've met women who live three- to four-generations deep in the same apartment, sharing the kitchen (the place for family meetings), the bathroom (the source of family squabbles), and the rooms (the family mess depositories, with hardly anything ever thrown away—from all the apartments I've visited, only two were free of clutter and clean). Often there aren't any men present, or they come and go. In reverse, some households are structured around men, with women taking care of men, and men mostly lodging—leaving for work in the morning and coming late at night for dinner, to disappear again in the morning. A kind of an hierarchy establishes itself in the absence of men. One woman has the status of an adult, pulling the household on her shoulders. The rest fulfill the roles of children, regardless of their ages. I've met many women (and I was such a child myself) who have been taking care of their mothers—parenting them, making decisions for them, feeding them—and not the other way around. Deprived of independence due to living conditions, these girl-parents would watch over their younger siblings while their mothers drunk themselves stupid, or disappeared for days, trying to "fix their personal life," i.e., fetch a husband, or worked several jobs and neglected the family, or were simply unsuited to be parents for various reasons—psychological problems, history of family violence, chronic lack of money, etc. Of course, not every Russian family is in a state I've described—bear in mind, I'm only talking about a small slice of Moscow families I've visited or been told about (or remember myself). Many families do live alone, i.e., only parents and children in the same apartment (no grandparents or great grandparents). And yet the stories I've heard stem from more or less from the same realm of young girls having to share cramped, close quarters with their families, and having to grow up quickly and become little adults prematurely, shouldering responsibilities unsuitable for their age.
Rita grew up in such a family. She didn't know her father, and her mother liked to beat her on the head for not finishing homework on time. Rita hardly remembers her mother saying a kind word to her. Most of the time their kitchen was filled with yelling. "What are you looking at? Get back to studying! Stupid bitch!" Smack! Rita would get a knock in the forehead, delivered with knuckles—a painful blow. Rita couldn't concentrate on her homework, with her mother breathing down her neck. She learned to hide her pain and to feign concentration. She knew that after a while her mother would lose interest and go talk on the phone, mercifully leaving Rita alone. And yet Rita loves her mother very much. A grown woman in her thirties, Rita now takes care of her mother in ways her mother doesn't quite see, by cleaning the apartment they live in, making sure there are groceries, getting side jobs when her mother's occasional jobs dry up, keeping tabs of her elderly grandparents who live below poverty line, bringing them money or groceries when needed (and when she can), and diffusing conflicts between her mother and her uncle. They constantly fight over who will do the chores of taking grandma (or grandpa) to the doctor, for example. Or who will take care of the dogs. And so on. And while they fight (when they were little, they fought all the time, Rita says), Rita quietly does what they can't agree on, which is pretty much everything. "I can't start figuring out my life. Who will take care of my grandparents?" "But what about your mom?" I ask. "Or your uncle?" Rita waves her hand impatiently. "I can't rely on them. They're like children, always bickering." Rita just broke up with a boyfriend who stuck around for years, waiting for Rita to leave her parenting duties, but after a while he has lost his patience. They had a row, and he left. Now Rita is alone. She laughs, "Good riddance. One less child to deal with." She smokes, looks out the window. "I want children, but I don't know if I'll ever have any. Time is running away from me, you know? I got what, five more years? Something like that." Someone calls her, and she tells me she's got to go. Her mom urgently needs her, and we part.