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I don’t know if she would have wanted it in a church.
That being said, I suppose I didn’t know her that well, and the emotion in me can’t really be described as sad, and I’m standing here in off-black (yes, there is such a thing), holding unholy water in a white plastic cup. Dad says shh to Ivan as he shifts from leg to leg, the antsy nine-year-old that he is, and even though his face is solemn, I know what he really wants to do is hop on that plane and go back to his “COD 3.”
Two weeks before, we got the quivering call from Uncle Andrei. “Are you drunk calling me again?” Dad had yapped, muting Sunday night football.
“Mamochka,” he wept, loud enough for the whole house to hear. “She’s dead.”
My parents had always been rather indifferent, but I was surprised by the quiet, almost cold calculation of their reaction. They swiftly reserved four airplane tickets, bought me a black dress on sale at Macy’s, and called off their work for “personal reasons.” While death was emotionally taxing, clearly it could be economically efficient.
My first reaction was about missing school. Ivan’s was about missing video games. I thought about the calculus test on Tuesday, Oh my GOD Mr. Reesely is going to kill me. Maybe I can get an extension on the English paper. This was for a split second, and then the world regrouped on its axis and I thought oh.
So we flew to Belyov, Russia, Dad’s hometown. Dad tried to write a semi-decent eulogy, his sleep-deprived eyes fluttering shut every few minutes, often muttering “s***” under his breath, spilling green tea all over his lap. My mother slept, Ivan watched movies, and I tried to remember my grandmother.
My father’s native language is foreign to me, but I knew Babushka swore heavily and wore large cloaks that weighed down her shoulders. She was the kind of person who made cynical comments from the corner of a room. “She’s a firecracker of a woman,” Aunt Nina had said the last time we visited, which was more than five years ago. She had said more, but the memories were blurry, and besides, I had to order dinners from the flight attendant and make sure my father didn’t stab himself with his pen.
Yesterday was the wake, when we got to see the body. She was not “an angel in a casket,” as the priest politely offered, but emaciated, weak, small. Paper-thin veins trailed her closed eyelids, and her chest was eerily still. She was not the woman who flicked Ivan on the forehead for breaking a plate or who made the gooiest syrniki I had ever tasted. She was a corpse.
Now I’m standing in the local church again, and it’s nice but it’s suffocating, and relatives who might as well be complete strangers are milling around. I’m obligated to say hello.
“Anna, it’s been so long!” A woman with yellowing teeth and a mothball aroma throws her arms around my neck. “How old are you now, daragaya? Twenty-two?”
“I’m seventeen,” I say in broken Russian. More old family members and friends come up to me, surrounding me like an armada of bees. I spy Aunt Nina in the front pew and Uncle Andrei in the last pew, their backs silent and black. I wish I could go up, say something, anything – but if that was in my ability, I would say something to my grandmother’s rotting body, and that’s not something I can do. Not in the mother tongue, at least. Not with paltry snippets of something imitating memories.
“Ahem,” the priest coughs. The crowd around me disperses. I sit next to Dad, who’s fidgeting.
The priest says a bunch of things in rapid Russian, stuff about God, the afterlife. His back is straight and his head slants down respectfully, and the people nod. “Ye,” some guy with no teeth calls.
And soon it’s time for Dad to say his remarks, his crumpled eulogy in his sweaty hands. Apparently, he was the “best with words” and could most eloquently express the mourning of the whole family. He speaks slowly, deliberately.
“Mamochka was not just my mother, but a wife, caregiver, sage, and friend to all,” he says. His shaking voice fills the empty spaces of the hall. “She offered us guidance, tolerance, respect, and most of all, love. She was a woman not afraid to voice her opinions, not afraid to try new opportunities. She–”
The door swings open. We look around to see a swaggering old man with flies buzzing around his head. He’s got ruddy cheeks and an odor I can smell from the front. Two old ladies in pearl necklaces gasp.
(It’s worth noting now that we didn’t bother to spend money on any kind of security. Maybe we were honoring Babushka’s tenet of frugality?)
Andrei and Dad rush to grab him by his arms and pull him out, but he’s not leaving without a fight. His muddy boots trail a path on the red carpet. “No,” he shouts, swinging his empty Baltika bottle like a torpedo. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter,” he chants like a mantra, his eyes shut. After some time, he allows himself to be thrown out the door.
Dad wraps up his final words. The relatives wipe their last tears. The service ends quickly. Ivan dives for the food table. I wonder if his tiny body can even feel anything.
I don’t want to talk to relatives I don’t know. I don’t want to touch her casket and say something heartfelt like I’m supposed to. She hated insincerity. When it’s all over, for the first time, I feel an ache. The ache is unmistakably I wish I knew her better.
I walk outside; it’s still 3 p.m. and downtown Belyov is bustling. The cool spring breeze doesn’t give a s*** that Babushka is officially gone. I walk down the street a little, and I find the same homeless man sitting at the cusp of an alley at the corner of an intersection.
I stop, and he grins at me. Several of his teeth are missing. “It doesn’t matter,” he says happily, pounding his fist against the brick building.
I want to agree. It’d be much easier to agree, and the burden is almost lifted from my shoulders, but not quite. Something in me is cold and hollow, and I think that means something. I don’t know what, but I don’t intend that part of me is going to change. I am not wracked by sobs (and there aren’t any tissues anyway), but I can almost (it’s probably more wishful thinking, the need for closure) hear Babushka laughing and saying, “Stupid. Of course it matters. Finish your syrniki.”