The first time I met Babushka, my friend Ira’s 76 year old grandmother, she appeared as a tiny speck in a row boat across the water. As she drew closer, I marveled at her defined biceps and the strength with which she rowed. When she reached the shore, she hopped out of the boat to give us loud, sloppy kisses on both cheeks. She rowed us back to the island in the Tigoda River where their summer cottage stood surrounded by sweet peas, cabbages, and every sort of flower.
After landing on the island’s beach it was a short walk to their dacha, where Babushka put us to work peeling potatoes and snapping peas. She, in the meantime, chopped a stack of fire wood lickety-split, milked the cow, baked the bread, and whipped up a fabulous dinner. She spoke little, but smiled constantly. While paring vegetables I asked her, “What is the secret to your strength in old age?” She raised her eyebrows and shook her finger, “I take a teaspoon of vodka and a teaspoon of butter every morning.”
She told me stories about their lives, about life under Stalin, about having Ira secretly baptized when she was a baby. For fear of Ira’s parents losing their jobs, Babushka had hidden away Ira’s baptismal cross, wrapped in some socks in the bottom of a drawer, until Communism had fallen and Ira could safely wear it. This little woman had seen a great deal of suffering and lived for so long, yet she gloried in hard work and radiated with joy.
The next November, back in St. Petersburg, Babushka woke me and Ira, cheerfully letting us know, "It is a warm day! Only negative seven degrees!” She had already been out, having gotten up when Ira’s parents had left for work to meet the farmers who drove in at sunrise to sell fresh milk and sour cream out of the backs of their trucks.
I washed in the cramped bathroom that Ira’s family shared with the three other families who lived in their communal flat, and dressed knowing I could manage with only one pair of long johns given that it was a “warm” day. Ira brought in tea & grated cabbage and carrots from the shared kitchen into their private room that served as living room, dining room, and bed room. As we set the table, Babushka brought in a load of wet laundry that she had just washed in the bath tub and began distributing some items over the radiators and hanging others on the clothesline that stretched across one end of the room.
When we all sat down to eat, Babushka took down a lovely porcelain lidded pitcher and some matching shot glasses. “It is the Feast of the Presentation. We will drink,” she declared, as she poured out three shots of holy water. Despite being delighted at this charming ritual, I had to decline. My stomach could not handle the tap water that Russians were acclimated to, and I recalled another American who had been recently hospitalized with a case of Hepatitis because she forgot to brush her teeth with bottled water. “I am so sorry, Babushka. You know I can’t have your water.” She looked at me quizzically through squinted eyes and argued, “But it is blessed!”
“Even holy water has Hepatitis,” I smiled at her.
I didn't get to do shots of Holy Water that day with Babushka, but I did pick up my own set of Holy Water shot glasses. I love the tradition of toasting with [clean] Holy water on feast days and always think about my dear Russian grandmother who played such a role in forming my soul.