Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yanina Maximovna

For me, time in Petersburg moves in a definitively non-linear way. It doesn't flow -- it leaps, and not only forward but also backwards. There are certain ritual things I do every time I'm here -- from buying a certain type of chocolate-covered cheesecakes for breakfast to visiting my literature teacher -- and there are certain ritual emotions I experience while doing these things. No matter how many times I've done it before, every time I bite into the thin chocolate crust and feel the soft, mushy sweetness inside -- I am always seven years old, rushing to eat the entire cheesecake at once before I have to share it with my brother. Every time Johnnie and I go to visit Yanina Maximovna, we are always precocious 17- year olds, recent high school graduates, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things we don't know and will never learn.

Things do, of course, change. Yanina Maximovna is approximately 86 now, and when Johnnie and I went to visit her on Saturday, she could no longer get up and open the door for us. She broke her hip a year ago, and now she sits up but doesn't walk. It's not all bad: some of her students found her a helper, and in fact, she looks a lot better this year than when I saw her during my last visit. A few years back, we would bring her a cake and she would serve us tea, now we bring her money and don't stay very long. In fact, Johnnie has been going to see her every few weeks -- to help, to bring more money. Medicine costs a lot, help costs a lot, and the only savings old teachers have in this country are what their students can spare.

But so many other things stay the same! The portraits of Yesenin (a poet) and Yevstigneev (an actor) on her bookshelves, a rug and a plate hanging behind her couch, two large barking dogs and Yanina Maximovna's son or daughter in law who are always unfriendly when we run into them outside her room. Yanina Maximovna and Johnnie always discuss new TV shows and actors while I sit and listen; then, she asks me about the US, and I do my best to answer for everything that is wrong or right with its foreign politics. I usually try to guide the discussion toward literature, and when Yanina Maximovna is in a bad mood, she always slips into remembering all the recent deaths of writers and actors. She used to regularly visit graves of her favorite authors, and when she was much younger, even took some of her other students (not us -- she was already too old to travel with a bunch of teenagers when we studied with her) on overnight trips to visit graves of famous writers.

We didn't stay long enough this time to remember the dead -- we had to mention a few in passing, but did not linger on the subject -- but she did ask me about Obama and if the Americans are happy with him. Yanina Maximovna is a huge fan of the US. In the seventies, she got in trouble for wearing a denim skirt to work -- she refused to budge and wore that same skirt to school late into the 90s. She visited the US twice, in 1998 and 1999, on the invitation of her former students and colleagues, and I took the bus from Rochester to NYC both times to visit with her and her friends. I remember walking around NYC with her, gazing up at the skyscrapers, looking at them through her eyes -- this was what being "free" and living in a "free" world meant! -- and then we shared a room at one of her friends' apartments, and she made me a gift of earrings: two thin silver spades she had inherited from her mother. I've always wondered -- what moved her to give them to me? Did she realize how much it would mean to me? My college years were a strange time in my life -- I missed home a lot -- and Yanina Maximovna's visit made me see what a privilege my life in the US truly was, what opportunities it offered.

This Saturday, after we left Yanina Maximovna's flat, Johnnie and I agreed that she looked good, better than last year, and that our visit was good. It was good, good, a good, short visit, and we didn't talk much about disease or death, and instead talked politics and discussed a new TV series based on the biography of a White Guard admiral, Alexander Kolchak. Johnnie and I rode the always dark elevator (it's dark because the light bulb is always missing) to the ground floor and talked about how good it all was, and tried not to cry. But maybe time did move forward a notch this year, because tears do not come as easily as they used to and when they do, they are easier to hide.

Saturday night, Russia ended its summer light savings time. A week earlier than the US, and well timed: my brother celebrated his birthday late into the Saturday night, and an extra hour of sleep allowed me to stay awake during Moguchij's staging of a new play "Isotov" in Aleksandrinsky theatre tonight. For the next week, the time difference between St. Petersburg and San Francisco is only 10 hours.

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