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October 30, 2022

How Living With a Russian Babooshka is Challenging My Values

Last week, my friend’s 75-year-old Russian mother moved in with me. She doesn’t speak much English.

Right now, I don’t know much about her life except that she, like me, loves jewelry with big colorful stones. She didn’t bring much food with her. I’ve only seen her drink coffee and eat fancy cheese, which suits me just fine.

Who doesn’t like to eat blocks of Parmesan cheese and drink it down with black coffee?

I’ve been warned she makes soup for breakfast, which I find delightful. I can eat soup for breakfast. She already offered me beet soup in the afternoon and porridge “with only salt” in the morning.

So far, our communication is mostly charades to understand simple household things. “The coffee cups are HERE”, I tell her, and open the cabinet door and gesture dramatically to them all. I feel she’s far too polite to just go searching through my cupboards to find cutlery or plates or cups, so I want to give her a very clear tour of all the things she will need and let her know she can just help herself to them anytime.

How do you say, “Mi casa es su casa” in Russian?

The other night, I heard her leave her bedroom and make her way into the kitchen, and put on the kettle. I wanted to invite her to join me on a trip to the grocery store the next day. Perhaps we could pick up some more cheese, and get to know each other a little bit during the 45-minute drive to the shops.

I was getting ready to fall asleep but left my room to join her in the kitchen. I interrupted her tea-making and offered my invitation to her in loud, clear, spaced-out words in English.

She looked a little startled and a little uncomfortable. She shook her head, and with her teacup in hand, backed away towards her room, and with her eyes cast down told me, “No, no, tomorrow I walk.”

It was then that I realized I wasn’t wearing any pants.

Perhaps that was the cause for her hurried exit from the kitchen. She’s not my mother, but . . .I don’t know. Because she is the mother of a very close friend, I already consider Babooshka as family, and don’t all families gather in the kitchen in their underwear at night to make plans for the next day?

Maybe not. Actually, this never happened in my family growing up, so I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe it was a bit much for the first night of her stay with me.

Either way, her living with me for the next month or so will be an adventure and I am sure she will find her way into another one of these posts while she’s here in Nicaragua.

While she is here visiting her family, she is learning English and has been voraciously earning her jeweled points on the language app, Duo Lingo for almost 3 months. She practices for several hours every day. It’s after one of these sessions that she emerges from her room to tell me things and practice the English she has learned.

Along with visiting her daughter, my Babooshka roommate also enjoys visiting with her 5-year-old granddaughter. The granddaughter lives across the street from me and comes to my house all the time now. Storybooks in hand, she kicks off her shoes on the porch and lets herself inside to offer hugs and ask her Babooshka to read to her.

(Not Ba-Booshka- it’s Baaaaah-booshka. I’m learning too.)

I want to talk with Babooshka more. So far, I have taught her how to say, “See you later, roomie” and shown her how to give me a fist bump.

Today, my ever-entertaining cat Tino leaped onto my work desk, and jumped onto the screen of a high open window, catching herself on the screen with her claws. She then army-crawled and clawed upward diagonally until she could jettison herself from the wobbly unsecured window screen onto the top of my wardrobe. Here, she promptly made herself at home amongst my empty suitcases.

My home has high ceilings, and for those of you who are fans of Tino, heights and my Kamikazee kitty are not a safe bet, especially when she’s frittered away so many of her cat lives to daredevil falls. There was no possible way she could get down from the top of my wardrobe the way she had climbed/clawed herself up, and make a smooth landing on my cement floors.

So, like the good cat mom I’ve become, I created a landing pad for her. I stacked her hammock bed onto a dining table chair in order to minimize her falling distance by a good four feet.

Like the crazy cat mom I’ve also become, I wanted to film her descent and had been hovering to catch her on video. Most of the hilarious things she does, for one reason or another, I miss the chance to film. So I waited.

It was at this moment of my waiting that Babooshka emerged from her room once again. Looking for me and holding her phone out, she joyfully began speaking to me in new-learned English about how far she had gotten on her Duo Lingo app. She held open her smartphone, pointed out her high score, and indicated the other English learners online she was competing with. She confidently read me some of the English prompts while I listened, enjoying our sweet moment of bonding.

It was also at this moment that Tino began her acrobatics of tumbling down from the lofty wardrobe and onto the hammock landing pad I had constructed for her. My phone was in another room. It was a momentary battle in my mind to choose my next move.

Sometimes, my personal values come into conflict with each other, and I struggle to decide which value to prioritize.

I wanted to rush off, find my phone, and document my cat’s shenanigans. But listening to Babooshka speak with such excitement and accuracy in English about her English, I couldn’t justify fleeing our burgeoning conversations in order to film my cat jump-fall.

Like the no-pants situation, I don’t think I’d be able to explain myself to her. In any language.

So, Tino tumbled without stardom. I listened attentively to my roomie. Babooshka was happy.

In truth, I am eager to speak with her more and hear some of her stories from the motherland. I wonder what stories she is fond of remembering and retelling. I wonder if she will be able to tell her stories in English.

I wonder what she thinks about all of this around her, a life in Nicaragua where her little granddaughter is fluent in English, Spanish, and Russian at the age of 5 years old.

Maybe with a glass of wine, Babooshka’s confidence and comfort with speaking in English will rise, and I’ll get a good story from her in these upcoming weeks.

Or maybe we’ll talk over black coffee and blocks of Parmesan cheese. Maybe we can chat while Tino curls up next to us as a normal cat would. Maybe this time with my pants on.

~ Christy

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Christy Nichols  |  Contribution: 11,555