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Experience
of a Garden (eng)

Experience of demonstrating
mourning (eng)

El arquitecto coma
no es mio (esp)



 


Marina Vishnevetskaya
Translated and Annotated by Valentina Brougher and Frank Miller with Mark Lipovetsky
An Anthology of 20-th Century Russian Short Story
Boston 2011

EXPEREINCE IN DEMONSTRATING MOURNING

When my second husband died, in the morgue I wore a straight, mid-calf black skirt, a black fitted jacket, and his favorite blouse of artificial silk, also black, but with white polka dots in the front, because we had been divorced for several years already. I was lucky because it was already the end of August and it was rather cool. So I could allow myself to wear my mother's old black hat dating to prewar times - a had with a flat crown and a raised brim in the front, a reddish-brown feather, and a small veil. After all, I didn't know what effect the general atmosphere of the funeral hall - which had been opened at our central morgue approximately a month before - would have on me, if I'd cry or not, and how the relatives from his last marriage would look at me if I cried. Just look, they'd say, at how she's sobbing as if she had loved him more than we did! Or on the other hand, his colleagues, whom I knew inside out, and who knew me and knew how he cheated on me, would still say: she's lived so many years without him, but she hasn't gotten all the tears out of her. So the veil fit the general situation absolutely perfectly. And I was glad that I had ignored my mother's advice and put on her hat. On the veil there were little black velvet dots that could be taken for a mole or even a tear that had been wiped near an eye. It's a pity that our industry doesn't make such useful things any more.

As for jewelry, I decided to allow myself only two wedding rings: the first in memory of the deceased, and the second as a ring affirming the continuation of my life, which now no longer had anything to do with the deceased. I put on old shoes, first of all because they were worn and second, in case it rained and there was mud at the cemetery which, by the way, later proved to be so. Into one jacket pocket I placed a white handkerchief embroidered in white silk at the corners - nowadays practically no one knows how to starch and add just a little bluing to linens so that it doesn't show - this handkerchief had the crunch of first snow and the sheen which snow can have from the blueness of the sky. In the other jacket pocket I had my third husband's large handkerchief, a very dark one with a barely noticeable double stripe along the edges. In the morgue and in the cemetery I crumpled the large, dark handkerchief in my hands and dabbed my eyes with it, which was fitting for the grief of the moment, and then later, at the funeral feast, in a long communal apartment where his new family had two adjoining small rooms, nine and twelve square meters, I took out my small one, the white handkerchief which now no one starches and adds bluing to, so that the guests could have visual proof of what conditions he had walked away from and what mire he had settled in. I allowed myself to put on lipstick only during the second half of the funeral feast, when the atmosphere became more relaxed and people began to remember funny things - at first about the deceased, and then even other ridiculous incidents. And about that time I took off my jacket, after which it became apparent that my black blouse with the white polka dots was made of different pieces of material, so for example, the back was all black, but the collar, which had been hidden up to now under the jacket, was bright white. I also had an attachable white ruffle for this blouse that stayed on by being fastened to buttons that extended from the neck opening down to the waist, but I left it at home because a ruffle was clearly not suitable for the funeral feast. I can't give all the reasons for this, but I feel fine distinctions like that very strongly.

By the way, the funeral of the eight-month-old granddaughter of our neighbors at the dacha can serve as proof of this, to which I came wearing precisely that white ruffle, fastened to the same blouse of different materials which, first of all, very fittingly made my face pale, and second, noticeably changed the blouse, since I had already worn it that summer to their anniversary celebration. As for jewelry, I only wore artificial pearl earring, two wedding rings, and a gold chain. I wore delicate black stocking and new, blue, high heel sandals which, given my venous legs, was almost a heroic deed on my part. But since our neighbors were at that time rather high-placed people and I understood what kind of a circle would gather and how badly they would react if someone tarnished their reputation, it wouldn't been nice, on my part, not to accommodate them, and on such a day as that. Because how much easier it is to show how cultured you are in places where you can relax: at a name-day party, a concert, a ceremony where commendations are presented to front-rank workers, at the seashore in the Crimea, or a park of rest and culture * - oh, I always knew how to do that too. To be totally in keeping with the tone of a particular funeral - only this shows an intelligent person, because only culturally sophisticated natures are capable of it. For example, when my mother finally died - she lay in bed for three and a half years, soiling herself so that no one could even enter the house and I, on the other hand, couldn't leave it - and so there she lay, small, washed for the last and final time, in her old, blue dress which seemed to have been made to grow into, and a white kerchief with a tiny flower design on it, which I immediately tied under her chin. And I stand and don't know, for the first time in my life I don't know what I should wear now. Mom's ordeal has come to an end, and my ordeal with her has come to an end. Should I cover myself like the mirror **, I wonder, from head to toe? People will come and say: what's all this, don't we know how she wore herself out taking care of her? Why put on a show in tragic tones for us? But on the other hand, if you don't dress exactly right, my mother's sisters will nag you to death. And I have a first cousin, such a crude woman, her son was in the army and was brought home in a zinc coffin - they never opened it and no one knew what he looked like lying in there. It would seem that the thing to do is just stand there, if your legs still support you, and think about what you will live on from now on, but oh no, she walked right up to his girlfriend at the cemetery - moreover, specifically not to his bride-to-be but to his girlfriend with whom, before going into the army, he went for a while - so then my cousin spat in her face and even began wiping off the girl's blush and lipstick with her handkerchief.

And so I stand near my mother, weighing all this inside me. It's one thing to go to someone else's funeral, but it's an entirely different matter to receive people in your own home. And in my home I received them only once: when my first husband drowned and left me with two small children, got soused, as they say, for the last and final time. He was taking reinforced concrete blocks to the worsted cloth factory, so that later they had to get a five-ton crane from the district to pull him out of the lake. And if he hadn't drowned, he would have been shot and executed - he first ran into a "Pobeda" *** and smashed it to smithereens at a crossing. It would have been fine if it had been just the "Pobeda", but some important managers were riding in it. After that for about a month I was visited by people from various government organ, asking if anyone provoked him to do it. And I said to them: Where were you, my dear people, when he was chasing me around the house with an ax, a scythe, a pitchfork, and once even with an artillery shell left over from the war - it was in our attic, as it turned out. Perhaps someone did provoke him besides the demon drink? We lived in the countryside then, and the funeral was there - oh, that absolute culmination of life - and then nine days ****, and then forty days ***** - you show your respect to everyone, feed them, and give them drink. On the ninth day I wasn't myself yet - his mother dressed me in appropriate clothes, but at the fortieth-day funeral feast I showed them what a guy we had lost and how we would all miss him - and, true to her type, the mother of that woman time-keeper at the trucking company who, as everyone knew, he had gotten mixed up with, howled the loudest of all. And so my mother-in-law and I made a lot of pancakes and, when it was time to receive the guests, I went to my room and took the same dress in which we had recorded our marriage at the registry office and put it on. Pink, satiny, with twenty-two buttons in the black - wooden on the inside but covered with the same satin on the outside, the kind they don't make any more - in the front an inset of white lace, the skirt bell-shaped, the bottom ruffled, ruches in the shoulder area and around the neck opening, and a belt with felt inside to give it shape, thick and wide, which gave my figure a tiny waist. I just threw on a small black shawl so that his friends would not try to press their advances on me when they became drunk. And their interpretation was that I, so to say, considered myself his eternal bride - that's how my father-in-law presented it to them. But he himself caught me in the dark when I went back into the cellar to get some homebrew, dragged me to the hayloft, and began ripping off my dress; it's a good thing he didn't rape me in his drunken state. I can't say anything; he was a contrite man, subscribed to two newspapers, Pravda and Soviet Sport, and two journals as well, Small Flame and Soviet Beekeeping, and The Women Worker for me.

And so here I stand next to my mother, recalling my life, but I can't make up my mind. Although I'm not an old woman, the color black is far from becoming on me. And my husband is almost young - the last husband I've taken is five years younger than me. Why should my mother be offended by me? For three and a half years she lay like a doll - clean, her hair combed, taken care of. And my husband would become disgusted with me in black, he'd turn around and leave. A women must never forget about that. Because, while you're still alive, your life goes on. Only before, when I'd attend funerals, I never thought about myself, you know, but only how not to hurt people's feeling and show them my cultured side. And now it has become particularly difficult, when my pension is very modest and my clothing - given my circumstances - far from what I could have permitted myself earlier. But it doesn't matter. When last year an old woman and mother of my neighbor on our landing threw herself out of a window - she had asthma, she would gasp for breath because of the cats, take and put a chair beside the elevator and sit there, breathing the air or sprinkling herself with scent from a perfume bottle. And her daughter bred cats, fleecy, special ones, with flat faces - she made her living from breeding them, those cats, and although the old woman who threw herself out the window had an apartment to which she was registered, a separate one, her very own - she told me herself that the bedroom, hallway, and kitchen were eight square meters - her daughter started renting the apartments to some blacks ****** and used this money to pay for her son's studies at an institute. But her mother, the old woman, kept sitting by our elevator and then evidently she finally had enough. Many women who lived in our section of the building actually refused to go to her burial, saying that it was because she was a great sinner. The coffin, as is customary, was placed on stools in the courtyard, only it was closed, of course - after all, the person fell from the ninth floor. So those self-righteous women of ours stood at all the windows like flies when winter is approaching, but didn't walk out into the courtyard. It wasn't nice. Only her grandson stood and wept, the one who was a student at the institute because of the money that came from the apartment rent. And her daughter evidently also had hurt feeling toward her mother; she stood in a green jacket and sulked and pouted.

And for this occasion I went to some trouble, darned the elbows in the sleeves of my black knitted jacket, mended the holes moths had made in my straight, black skirt which came to mid-calf, put on a brown sweater with a "noodle" weave under the jacket, and on my feet new black pumps which didn't fit my daughter-in-law, so she gave them to me at half-price, and I covered my head with a dark kerchief that had tiny, tiny flowers, although I don't wear scarves on principle because they make you look like you're from some village.

If someone doesn't understand this, you won't be able to explain it to him, but personally I feel such small nuances. And in spite of the sadness of what's taking place, in my own way I always get satisfaction from them. And this satisfaction gradually balances the sorrow.

I can offer another example, when there was an ammonia explosion in our workshop and three people died where they stood, and one woman died on the way to the hospital. And since the management forbade them to be buried on the same day in order not to attract unnecessary attention to the incident, the funerals continued for three days in a row. And at all four funerals I was dressed differently as befitted each occasion. But right now I want to say something else. This woman, who died on the way to hospital, had asked me to change shifts with her, and this wasn't even very convenient for me, but nevertheless I gave in to her out of respect, and now here she was lying in a coffin, with seventy percent of her body burned, and I stood by the coffin, with a black gauze scarf over my chignon (such high hairdos with hair combed back or on a chignon were the fashion back then). I also wore a black, light nylon coat, high patent leather boots with spike heels, and carried a black purse over my shoulder - at that time shoulder purses were just beginning to come into fashion. Because the dead woman was twice my age, and no matter how sorry I was for her orphaned children and grandchildren and especially for her husband, who had to be supported under his arms all the time, otherwise he'd start toppling over, I may have dressed in mourning clothes, but I was mindful of the fact that I was a beautiful, young woman, so that they would realize with their own eyes that I hadn't lived that long yet and still had two children to bring up as well, and if I were lying there in place of their very old mother, that would have been a much greater injustice. And you know, I had dressed like that for their sake, to make them understand and thereby bring them at least some comfort, but they interpreted it their way, saying that there was no gratitude on my part, and they said many other things about me later - only why repeat their nonsense?

All in all, I want to say that you can't please everyone. And the most important thing in life is not to lose the level of development you've reached inside yourself, and let other people try to come up to that level if, of course, they can. This thought, by the way, also encouraged me somewhat after my mother's death. And then I remembered how my mother loved me, how she respected my mind and my ideas about what is proper, and what a difficult life she had led - she was bloated from hunger in childhood, Germans killed her father during the First World War, her husband and older brother were killed during the Second, and the only happy things in her life were that once she received a free trip from her trade union to Postal and Telecommunications Worker, its vacation hotel near Berdyansk, and that her children lived better than her and could allow themselves a lot of things. And I then remembered that more than anything she loved my crimplene dress - dark green, raglan style, trimmed with a black herringbone design on the sleeve bottoms and around the neck opening. I'm wearing it in a photo, eighteen by twenty-four, when we, the front-rank workers, were being photographed for the Bulletin Board Honor Roll *******. I was only afraid that it wouldn't fit me, which later proved to be so, but since things were made well earlier and there were generous seams, I let out the side seams and did an excellent job of making bigger.

And I sensed later, nothing people's look, that this was more or less correctly understood. And even my cousin who can spit in someone's face asked, once the funeral feast was over: you made it, to say, for the occasion? I said: let's suppose for the occasion, what of it? And she said: attagirl, you showed your respect for your mother, your mother was the best of all the sisters, and compared to my mother - what's there to say? But I didn't continue this conversation.

Now I've already given enough examples. Other examples won't show you anything new now. Only I don't want you to be left with the conclusion that I take all this too much to heart, that I don't know my place in life. That would be a mistake. When our dear General Secretary Leonid Ilich******** died, I alone came specifically to work, and not to the memorial gathering later as some did after me, in a black kerchief, although you already know my feelings about kerchiefs, and in a dark-grey, mid-calf skirt, a flannel blouse of a purely black color, and black wool stockings. And still later, when our leaders would die before their time, I always knew how to show in a timely fashion how I felt about the sorrow which would befall our government.

I've recalled all this so that in our troubled times, when people have gone crazy because of money and have confused one thing with another and have now accepted the fashion of burying their dead cats and dogs in a cemetery, I can tell you how cultured people behaved earlier and how much I would like to pass this on to my two children, five grandchildren and great- grandchildren, and not only to them.

NOTES:

* Park of rest and culture: a public park that usually contains statues, monuments, fountains, amusement rides, cafes and restaurants, play areas for the children, etc., like the well-known Gorky Park in Moscow.

** All the mirrors in a house are covered after the death of someone in that house in the belief that if anyone were to look in a mirror, the deceased could pull his soul in, leading to a second death.

*** "Pobeda": a passenger car produced in 1946-1958, named in honor of the victory (pobeda) over Germany in World War II. It came to symbolize post war life because it was the first car to have a heater, radio, electric wipers, etc.

**** On the 9-th day (as well as on 40-th, and the first anniversary of the person's death) funeral masses are celebrated in church, and family and close friends are invited to partake of a memorial meal. Explanations differ, but one belief holds that on the 9-th day the soul is carried heavenward to join the host of angels.

***** On the 40-th day the soul finishes its wanderings and is assigned the place it will stay until Final Judgment.

****** Blacks: derogatory term for dark-skinned people in Russia from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

******* In Soviet times institution would periodically place the names and photos of outstanding or especially meritorious workers on bulletin boards at the work sire for all to see.

******** The reference is to Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who died in 1982.


 
 
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