She was born in Kremenchug, Ukraine and her family fled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan right before the Second World War, during which she lost her brother. She received a degree in Economics and later managed a department in an economics firm. To everyone around her she was Mara Mihailovna, to me she was Baba.
For a brief moment in time, my parents and I lived with my paternal grandparents. My grandfather (deda) was wholeheartedly obsessed with me; I was his first and only grandchild. Because of my parents’ small living space, my crib was placed in my grandparents’ bedroom. I’d often fall asleep holding my deda’s hand. He called me his lastochka (a swallow, a term of endearment in Russian). One day, my grandmother decided to move my crib into my parents’ bedroom. I was crowding their space; she couldn’t “properly get ready for work in the morning without any normal lighting.” I was too much of an inconvenience for her, apparently. Mid-move, I picked up my arms and asked, “What difference does it make which room I sleep in?” I was about one and a half, with the vocabulary of a 5-year-old. Visibly upset I was being torn away from my favorite person, my deda, I protested. My baba laughed so hard at my adult-like rationale, she acquiesced, and I remained in their bedroom. I won. I later realized I would always win with her.
Deda died a couple of years later, shortly after my brother was born. Heart attack.
In an attempt to deal with the loss of the man who moved mountains for her, baba took me on vacation. She figured leaving the emptiness of her home, bed, and heart would help, a change of scenery would do the trick. She took me as her companion. We traveled through Yalta together. She mourned the loss of her husband, and I danced on the boardwalk as a very extroverted 4-year-old. The stress of losing her partner manifested in various illnesses, some that never disappeared.
She remarried much later, and we all emigrated to the United States. She learned to drive (women in the Soviet Union didn’t really drive), absolutely refused to ever wear pants even though American women wore pants without any discomfort, and didn’t care how poor her English was, she spoke without an ounce of embarrassment and with every bit of confidence of a native speaker. She’d say, “They understand me if they want to understand me.” She was right.
I told her almost every secret I have ever had. I confided in her and she shared with me musings I probably shouldn’t have known about. She shared family gossip clearly meant for only adults, issues with her second marriage I still don’t quite understand, and everything in between. I could sit in her company indefinitely, drinking in her warmth and love and her big brown eyes full of compassion and wisdom.
A couple of days before she slipped into a coma I spoke with her on the phone and irritably told her I just don’t have time to visit her every day. I was 5 months pregnant, had a 4-year-old at home, teaching a new curriculum in a non-contracted subbing position, feeling the anxiety of the impeding unemployment, and her rehab facility was far. There was practically no time. I told her I was too busy, and we never spoke again. That conversation became my guilt. The guilt I hold at the tip of my every thought about her.
She was a woman who had standing appointments for nails and hair her entire life, even when she was ill. While she was in rehab my dad painted her nails. My mom washed her hair. She was supposed to come home. She was a woman with whom I could always be my true self, someone who adored me, and someone whom I loved more than anyone else. She called me her lastochka.
I found comfort in my baba. She made everything better. She’d buy jewelry for herself, and when she’d show it off, she’d whisper, “This will be yours, after I’m gone.” Every single time. She’d slip me money tightly wrapped in tissues that she’d pull out of her bra strap. “Buy yourself something you love,” she’d say and smile. A smile that breaks me when I remember it. She’d force me to eat and then tell me she needs to lose weight. She’d comfort me. She’d hold me.
She was various degrees of sick for a very long time. Nothing too serious, really, but she was always sick in some form. I don’t think she was ready though. It wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t her time. I miss her. I wish she had more time.
When I was an infant and couldn’t sleep, my deda would sing to me. He sang opera, ballads, and classical, but instead of pacifying and lulling me back to sleep, the intensity of his voice kept me awake and all I simply watched him and listened. As lovely as it was, he could not accomplish the ultimate goal: getting an infant back to sleep, so my baba would take over. My baba, who was hilariously tone-deaf, would lie me down on her chest and with the monotony of her voice would rock me right to sleep. At times, when baba would tell me that story (one I heard hundreds of times), I would put my head on her shoulder and she would “sing” to me over and over again until I felt the type of comfort only she was able to provide.
Since she’s passed, I’ve inadvertently dedicated her place in my heart to emptiness, and intentionally devoted a spot on my rib cage to her signature. I preoccupy myself with the everyday and avoid thinking how miserable it is to not talk to her multiple times a day. The disconnect I now often feel around people and in conversation is a manifestation of a deeply rooted sadness I carry with me. In the loss of her, I found a single truth about death: time doesn’t heal, it just makes the mourning an everyday part of life. A constant state of mourning, interrupted by life.