Chapter three: Rosa prepares for Polina
Steam rising in short puffs. Sleepy eyes adjust to the light. A foggy mind focuses on the task at hand. A simple task. A good start for a busy day, she thinks. ‘Ironing’, she reminds herself, ‘is the best therapy’. Only a few months prior she had said these words aloud to her doctor. He had laughed. It was not a kind laugh, she remembers. He should not have been too surprised when she never returned. Still, she hoped he was surprised. She smirked her wrinkled lips. Her old hand holds the fabric down. A rusting iron glides smoothly over the milky-white fabric. She finds her rhythm, relaxing into a familiar cycle. She savors the warmth that radiates from the moist table cloth. When she looks down at her hand and her face clouds. Her skin folds between her eyebrows like a Shar Pei dog. The hand looks ugly against the delicate lace. Bones and cartilage form lumps under thin skin. Blue veins. Skin crumpled and covered in brown spots--like a used napkin. What ugly hands. Such a thing to have to look upon. Once she was known for her soft and gentle hands. Her favorite uncle would take her little hands in his and blow on them to make them warm in the dead of winter. Delicate small fists cradled in big, blistered palms. At another time she was known for her strong hands. Strong, capable hands that, in the snowdrifts of winter, would lift grown men from their crimson-stained deathbeds. But now… How crooked and frail her hands look to her. They have neither the beauty of fragility nor the benefits of strength. Some days she thinks she would gladly do without the disgraceful, clumsy things. Days like today. They only anger her. Making her snort under her breath and look away out of shame. ‘Still, they are capable of getting the job done at least’ she reminds herself. She continues to iron with her ugly, ugly hands.
Beautiful things make normal things look ugly. Ugly things make normal things look beautiful. A lesson taught to Rosa by her own sister Sima. “Rosa, if you want that dress to look beautiful, you must wear it with those hideous work shoes of yours.” A good lesson, really. The young girls these days could learn from it. Such beautiful watches, such nice things they spend their money on to look beautiful. If only they knew. There is not much that will compliment a young lady’s sparkling eyes better than a plain linen dress or simple white blouse. But of course this is a different generation altogether. Rosa’s head starts to clear. Thin, creased lips slurp up scalding tea. Every sip of caffeine brings her back to life. Clear thought. Brain cells waking up. Most stay in their eternal comas. It seems each night something goes missing from the space inside her thick skull. She never knows what she has forgotten. She never knows if she has forgotten.
Rosa sitting alone at her small wooden table. A horn blares outside her window. An anxious taxi driver. She sympathizes with his restlessness.
9:00 am. Rosa stands, helpless, in the middle of her apartment. There is nothing left to do. What will she do with the next 4 hours? All preparations have been made. Or have they? She makes a mental list. She then realizes that making a literal list will take longer. She sets off to find a pen and paper.
Rosa stares at the one uncompleted task on her list. The one uncompleted task she could think of. She thinks about taking out the vareniki, but there would be no reason for that. They should stay in the freezer to keep some level of freshness. Normally she would have made them right before arrival for freshness. But she was too excited and made them three days in advance. The old woman pinches her wrist. She is always scolding herself.
Physical preparation is done. But perhaps some mental readying is called for. An excited Rosa hobbles through the small apartment. Old hands fumble through wooden drawers. Her hands stop moving--only the usual shakiness remains in them. She has found what she is looking for. She had received the picture 8 years ago. It was the last she’d seen of the girl. After a few years and hundreds of letters returned before being sent, Rosa realized. She knew that the 12x8cm picture from a soviet-style summer camp was the most she’d get. And she accepted it. Embraced it, rather. She had Ivan, a photography friend, do her a little favor. With his black and white film, he took a picture of the picture for Rosa. Her idea of “insurance”. She had the real thing, but incase something happened to it, she had a strip of film with the same picture. Her old eyes are too poor now to make out more than the shape of a face and shoulders in the tiny pictures. But this does not phase her, for she knows that the blurry face and narrow shoulders belong to Polina. Her Polina. What a sweet girl. Glossy eyed. She always had the brightest eyes. Rosa laughs as she thinks back on those little eyes. A memory starts to materialize itself around her. She lowers her body into her rocking chair. The picture rests on her lap. She doesn’t hold it. But she is acutely aware of it’s location. She savors the miniscule--perhaps even imagined--pressure that the little piece of paper puts on her leg. Delicate pressure. Fragile weight. A fleeting presence. The pressure reminds of other delicate pressures she has felt on that knee, sitting in that rocking chair. Her mind is pulled into a memory.
“Baba Rosa!!” A little fist rests on her knee. “Please! Kolya said there is a new honey vendor, and that he has our favorite!! And Vanya says that his fresh bottles are coming in today! Please Baba Rosa, we have to go to the rinak.” Dancing eyes. Chocolate smear on her cheek. Front teeth crooked. Rosa pulls an embroidered handkerchief out of her pocket. She licks it while the little girl is distracted, and dabs her dirtied cheek.
“Polinachka. We went this morning. Perhaps you’ve forgotten already?” Rosa’s voice is higher than usual, more tender than usual. A little smirk on Polina’s face.
“No. I don’t remember going just to the rinak this morning. That was just a walk! We didn’t go especially to go to the rinak! You have to go specially to the rinak, Baba Rosa. For groceries.” She smiles, proud of her negotiating skills.
“Oy, Polina! Perhaps your time in Moscow with your mama has been a little too long.” Rosa gives Polina a stern look, mutters to herself: “Baba Rosa--always the bad guy.” She takes Polina’s little hands in hers, looks into her pouting face, “I raise you into a fine little girl. I send you to your mama for a week, and you come back a whiner and a beggar.”
“Well I don’t care what you say because mama says she wants me back!”
“Nonsense. Don’t be silly Polina. You know how hard your mother is working. Of course she wants to take you back.” Polina picks at the fringe on the rocking chair. Normally Rosa would scold her. In this moment though, Rosa has bigger things to think about. Like how she will explain such a topic to her fragile angel. Of course her mother wants her back, Rosa thinks to herself. Of course. This is so hard for a child. How could she ever understand that her mother loves her when she chooses to live ____ kilometers away from her? Polina will probably never live with her mother again because her mother could never get her life together. Not in time at least. Is it possible for a five-year-old to believe that there is reason to the madness that governs her life? Madness is the only appropriate word, it seems to Rosa. Madness caused by a reckless child who thought she could live on her own. Rosa would do anything in her power to make sure the madness, the recklessness did not repeat itself. It is not genetic. It will not happen again. Rosa stares down at the little beauty before her. Polina does not look up. She can feel Rosa’s eyes on her. Her fingers continue to pick and pull apart thread off of Rosa’s favorite rocking chair. What can Rosa say to Polina? The girl, usually feisty and confident, doesn’t even have the courage to look up at Rosa right now. Rosa thinks quick. She can comfort this girl, and more than anything, she can take care of her. She has spent her life taking care of others. She knows through experience that she can handle any situation that is thrown at her. This time, she might just have to resort to one of her less-liked tactics… guilt. Guilt masked as responsibility. She starts up, “But you know what she wants even more than having you in her arms?” Rosa’s voice softens as she poses the question. Polina shakes her head. The glow of a hopeful child dims a little. “She wants you to help her.”
“How could I help her Baba Rosa? Mama is so smart. I can’t help her. I definitely can’t help her with anything if I’m not with her.” Furrowed brows.
“But Polinachka, you’re helping her with the biggest task of all! How have you forgotten? You’re Mama sent you here to take care of me. Can you do that? Or maybe I should tell your Mama that I’m sending you home because you didn’t think you could help her at all. Should I do that Polinachka? Maybe that’s best..” Rosa reaches theatrically for a telephone at the edge of the table. Polina shakes her head rapidly. A little hand reaches out and grabs Rosa’s before it touches the phone.
“No. Don’t call Mama! I should help her. She needs me to help her. She needs me Baba Rosa. I won’t be letting her down.” Polina nods her head. Stern look on her child’s face.
“So be it. Well, I’m ever so glad that I am in such good hands Ms. Polina! Come here Poinchik.” Rosa tries to scoop up the little figure. Polina won’t let her.
“Baba Rosa, I have to take care of you… NOT the other way around.” Polina crawls onto Rosa’s lap. Two little arms wrap around her old neck. Polina’s soft hand strokes the back of Rosa’s head. She shushes her. “Shhh, Baba Rosa. It’s all right. I’m here now.” Rosa smiles--making sure not to let Polina see her laughing eyes. For once in her life, she does not mind being treated like the child.
Hard ground appears beneath Rosa’s slippers. The rocking chair resumes its rhythm. A pain in her temples. Shaky hands. She did not have the shakiness back then. Reality has called Rosa back from her daydream. She takes a breath, running hands against the wrinkles in her skirt. Ordinary things. Not an ordinary day.
Rosa stands up. She tucks the little photo away in its hiding place. Closes the drawer, shuts the door behind her. Before the door clicks shut, she steals a glance at her perfectly made bed and tidy room. Army style organization. Check. She knows Polina is one for tidiness. Rosa would walk into her room, and there’d be Polina! On the ground straightening out her rug, or folding the doll-clothes her and Rosa had made together. Ahh, the doll clothes! One of Polina’s proudest moments (that Rosa got to witness) was when Polina finished her first dress. It had been a real project--for Rosa and Polina alike. First the fabrics. The two girls--one small and bony, one old and round--had kicked-off the doll-clothing process with a trip to the market. Hand in hand they had made their way to the fabric vendors. Rosa usually did not buy fabric for doll dresses. She always had more than enough scraps of material--bits of socks that could no longer be worn, quilting patches left unused, etc. But this time was different. Rosa did not break out the boxes of leftover fabric. This was a special exception. Rosa wanted Polina to pick out the makings of her first doll dress. Rosa figured that that way she would be more invested in the project. And pick out the makings she did. Rosa remembers the day perfectly. A great day it was. Right out of a movie, really. There was extra material after the project was done of course, and Rosa had used this fabric on dresses and draperies of her own. The fabric had a black base with vines of brilliant green and rich red flowers on top. Whenever Rosa sees the fabric, she remembers. She remembers Polina’s excited hands playing with the fabric at the booth. She remembers Polina’s hungry eyes taking in the fabric-seller and the colors and patterns that surrounded her. She remembers the light-hearted laugh of the saleswoman as she watched Polina and Rosa pick through perfectly ironed textiles. She remembers the walk home, and Polina holding the cloth under her armpit--despite Rosa’s request that she let Rosa keep it in her purse to keep it clean. The little thing was just too excited. And Rosa could not bring herself to do anything that might jeopardize the moment of joy for the both of them. Nothing could have brought more satisfaction to Rosa. They spent the next days sewing miniature dresses and caps, and even socks together. It was a beautiful time for Rosa.
She liked to be reminded of the fact that she still had meaningful skills to pass on. She knew that she had some skills that would never have a place in Polina’s life--or so she hoped. Still, it made her feel useless not to be able to teach Polina all that she knew. Never again did she wish to feel useful in the way that she did during the war. ‘No, that is a lie’, she tells herself. She does wish to feel that usefulness again. But nothing else. She does not want the consequences, the logistics, the despair that went along with the job. She just wants the usefulness. It was her one wish for decades. And then came Polina and granted her that wish.
Rosa spends as long as possible finding ways to fill up her time. Ah the beauty of busy work. Since when was there never enough? When did her life reach this point? She lowers herself to all fours to straighten the corner of a rug. Then she stands up and looks at it from afar, only to decide to decide it is still crooked. The process of getting down and up from her shaky knees takes at least five minutes in itself. Rosa then goes and closes a window, or re-fluffs the pillows on the old couch. Then back to the rug-straightening sessions. And so the vicious cycle continues. When the rugs are all suspiciously straight, and Rosa’s frail knees are veiny and red with irritation, she decides to analyze the curtains of the apartment. She goes to close the curtain of the window overlooking the street. She hesitates, taking a small step back and putting her hands to her sides. Would closing the curtains make her seem cold and unwelcoming? Would Polina be scared off by the old woman and her closed blinds? On the other hand, open curtains might suggest to Polina a “loosely kept” household of an old woman losing her mind. No, she can’t have that. Certainly can’t have Polina thinking her great aunt is some sort of looney. That would not do. Rosa doesn’t move. What is she thinking? Polina is a grown woman--not a child who will be scared off by drawn blinds! Nor is she a judgemental old hag who will assume Rosa to be mentally unstable for something as simple as an open curtain! How silly she is being about all of this. Polina is older, she is not a different person. She is still Rosa’s baby--just all grown up. A wave of excitement overwhelms Rosa as she watches the big hand of the clock strike 10:00am. She bites her lower lip. Her hands are clasped in front of her bosom. She stands in front of the metal door.