For grandma. She would have turned 107 today
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
Every year, on 12 December, I receive a message from my mother early in the morning.
"Thinking of cooking something special today. It's grandma's birthday."
I read the message, my eyes get uncontrollably watery. I was so close to her. She left in 1996 when I was ten. In her sleep. We all were home, by her side.
The last three years of her life, grandma was immobile, stuck in her bed, with diabetes and legs that refused to move anymore. Mother took care of her.
My favourite thing to do was coming home after school and rushing to grandma's room to give her a hug, to receive those kisses of unconditional love and to hear more of her stories. She had so many of those!
While I listened I liked to give her a shoulder or hand massage. I especially loved massaging grandma's hands. There was so much in them. Her skin was thin and stretchy, her fingers carried imprints of a life rich in experience but filled with challenges. Her left-hand thumb, for instance, was a bit swollen and the nail was deformed.
"What's with your thumb, grandma?" - I would ask. "Why is it like this?"
She would tell me a story of how she worked at the textile factory and the accident that she had with the machine. I knew the story, of course, but I loved listening to her...What a life she has lived! Her world has changed so many times. She carried on. A strong soul.
My grandmother Minibika (what a name!) was born on 12-12-1913 in Ulyanovsk, Russian Empire. Four years later, the Bolshevik Revolution changed the flow of world history and Minibika's life.
The photo below is that of Ulyanovsk. Strangely enough, I once flew over it. All my thoughts were about grandma. She was hoping to return and visit one day but never did...
She remembered her childhood vividly. They were no royalty but lived well. Grandfather owned cattle. The bread on their table was always white, grandma told me. "But I wanted that rye bread that the neighbouring kids were having." - she would tell us.
"I always traded the white bread for rye one with them, sometimes getting in trouble with my father for that."
In their pursuit of "equality" and "justice", the Bolsheviks killed, arrested and sent to the gulags millions of people, sometimes repressing entire nations. Great grandfather was stripped of his property and what followed was a grey zone in grandma's stories.
In the 1930s she found herself with nothing and no one by her side in the region of now Soviet Russia where hunger was so severe that cannibalism was common.
Having heard that Tashkent is "the city of bread", she made her way to Central Asia, to Uzbekistan. There she worked on the construction of railroads. Eventually, she met my grandfather - a professional chef - and they started a family, raising three daughters all of whom were born on or around the 22 of August (just a few hours before or after midnight), but years apart.
They moved across Soviet Uzbekistan quite a bit. Some of the restaurants where grandfather worked are standing still and serving food. He passed in the 70s, I've never met him. Grandma experienced loss again. At least this time she had her daughters and grandchildren by her side.
The photo below is taken in the centre of Namangan, Uzbekistan. There are certain rituals I perform when visiting. One such ritual implies walking to the restaurant where grandfather used to work. Nowadays it is an ice cream shop.
Prior to becoming immobile, grandma was quite active. She lived in her own apartment across the street from ours. A vivid memory is standing in line with her every morning to get some milk.
The photo below illustrates one of such milk queues - a phenomenon prevalent across many post-Soviet states in the 1990s. We used the same red jar with white polka dot as the gentleman in the picture. Parents still have it!
Food was scarce and if you didn't get a spot in the queue early enough, you would be left with nothing. Milk, sugar, oil, butter, eggs, meat and other essentials were a deficit. Once we bought a case of cracked and frozen eggs, I remember. Use a hammer, get a chunk, in the pan, under the lid and there you have it!
I would visit grandma after school to dump a bucket of my stories on her and to refill it with hers.
Anytime I would get something from my parents, I would run to show it to grandma. She was always so happy to see me. In spite of severe food shortages in the 1990s, she somehow always had a treat for me. She was truly magical.
She lived a tough life. She was born at the threshold of historical changes, amid uncertainty, poverty, hunger and lawlessness. She lived through the October Revolution. She lived through WWII. She lived through the collapse of the USSR and the anarchy that followed. She absorbed all these challenges that could easily drive one insane. She exuded love, passion and kindness. She will always be remembered.