Babushka who never came to visit
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
In my childhood, I was lucky to have two grandmothers - mom's mom and dad's mom. Mom's mom - aka babulya - lived with us, I felt very close to her. Dad's mom - aka babushka Kel'maganka - lived some 120 km away, in a village on the border with Kyrgyzstan. She was somewhat of an enigma. She never visited us in the city, therefore got a nickname 'Kel'maganka' combining a Turkik kel'magan [the one who never came] and the Russian feminitive ending ka. Naturally, we called the house where Kel'maganka lived Kel'magania. It sure sounds like a name of a country and babushka sure acted as if she reigned over her plot of land and house. Coming to the city was too much stress for her. She rarely even left her property and everyone just came to her. She was the centre of everyone's universe for some decades.
The house she lived in was incredible. It was built by my grandfather, whom I never met as he died back in the 70s. A World War II veteran, he made money by building houses from the foundation to the rooftop. Only now do I realize how amazing at construction he was. This was a Russian-style house with a high foundation intended for snowy winters. In the front of the house, there was a small entry room, so that people could take off their warm overcoats and boots. The door opened inward, otherwise, if the snow is too high, people would be trapped. Inside there were four rooms. The first room was grandmother's main habitat for as long as I knew her. In this room, there was a wood stove that served as a source of heat during winters. Kel'maganka occupied the couch. In the middle of the room, there was a small table designed for on-the-floor sitting. Other rooms were occupied by various generations of various aunts and uncles. Eventually, they stayed mostly empty. With time, turning into storage. Each room had two sets of windows. All the window frames were made by our grandfather, featuring classical Russian ornaments. This house is a museum.
We visited Kel'magania about once every two months. The trip was never really planned in advance. Dad would just suddenly announce - tomorrow we are going to Kel'magania, so let's go to bed early. This announcement meant that he already filled the tank with gasoline, which was not something you do at your will in Namangan, due to its constant shortage. Next to the official gas stations, there were some households selling fuel informally. Since open advertising was impossible for obvious reasons, a tricky way of letting people know that a household has gasoline was invented. Outsiders would never guess, but a vertical brick placed on the roadside meant that there was a house selling gasoline in the neighbourhood, you just have to ask around.
The 'mornings of' would start with the usual hustle. Mom packing goodies for the relatives and practical items for the trip - water, snacks, toilet paper, etc. Everyone running around a bit hectically. Last-minute decisions of who is going and who is staying home, as the car would fit only 5, while there were seven of us.
On the way, we always made the same stops. First, at the exit from the city for some beautiful flatbread. For those who know the context - the legendary patyr non. Sometimes we stopped at the park in the city of Andijan, but this was rare, as dad wanted to get to the destination as soon as possible. Another stop was at the butcher for some lamb. Grandmother loved meat. Having grown up in the period of mass starvation in Russia, she cherished food. She would look at the meat with gratitude to the universe, tap on it with approval, and thank my father.
Due to his careful driving, numerous stops, and road conditions, the trip could take from 2 to 2.5 hours. By 10 or so we would arrive in Kel'magania. Never announced, but always welcome. Dad had five siblings. An older sister, his twin brother, a younger brother and a sister - another set of twins, and the youngest sister. Although there were no phones of any kind, the word of our arrival would spread fast and everyone came to Kel'magania to catch up and visit with us.
While the adults were talking, the kids explored the magic of Kel'magania. The land plot was huge and filled with objects of interest - chickens, ducks, uncle's cows, cousin's horse, all types of fruit trees, the old and scary banya [sauna type bathing room], an old storage room with artefacts covered in spider web... For the city kids, it was something out of this world. In the summer we would go to the nearby water stream called Yangi Aryq [The new stream] and take a dip. This was a default frontier line between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In the better years of the 1990s we could just swim across the stream or walk over via an amateur bridge and end up in the neighbouring state. They had cheaper and tastier ice cream there. As 'friendship' between the two states intensified, even coming close to Yangi Aryq became problematic, with border guards acting unpredictably and aggressively.
After wandering around, we would come back to Kel'magania in time for plov. In the village, everyone ate with their hands, which was, of course, my favourite part. I played with rice and dug 'tunnels' through the mountain of plov on the communal platter. Usually, I would continue eating with my hands for several days when we came back to the city. So much fun!
Plov was both the culmination and the indicator that it is time to make our way back before it gets dark. The roads were in very poor condition. In the end, Kel'maganka would always give me a roll of homemade fruit leather. In Tatar, we call it kagyt [paper]. She made it in the summer from apples, plums, apricots and cherries. It was superb. She kept meters of kagyt rolled up and hidden in the layers of kurpacha blankets. It was my favourite snack. Kel'maganka would say a prayer while we all sat and held our palms open in front of our faces. Into the car and back to Namangan.
Kel'maganka passed away in 2005, two months after I left for the United States for the second time. She is missed. She is remembered.