Jan/Feb 2016 Spotlight


by Irina Ruvinsky

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

I always admired my mother's handwriting—small, round letters, uniform and straight, just like her teeth. She wrote postcards, prescriptions, and corrected my essays in the same even hand. In my elementary school in Kazakhstan, we were required to learn penmanship in first grade. I knew how to print long before I got to school, but now I was learning to write in cursive like an adult. The hallmark of good cursive was that one wrote the entire word without lifting one's hand from the paper, allowing the ball point of the pen to glide smoothly and without any breaks from А into Б. This was hard, and my hand cramped up from the effort of keeping it still. I had to shake it before each new word, and the letters still danced all over the line, some too large, others too small, always out of proportion with the rest and with each other. My mother had to learn how to write with ink. I am sure she never needed the blotting paper that still came with our exercise books and which was now superfluous. As I am writing this, I try not to lift my pen from reel of memory, allowing sentences to unfold in a seamless stream. But it's hard. I am distracted, hungry, bored... I don't have my mother's patience or her steady hand, once again.

My other worry as a child was that I did not have a style of my own, a signature that distinguished my handwriting from that of others. It seemed to be indispensible to becoming an adult to develop a consistent and instantly recognizable style. Instead, I was easily influenced by the styles of others. Different people could have written different pages of my exercise book. Sometimes I made my letters lean to the right, trying to imitate someone else's confident Ф's and Д's that betrayed no hesitation. For a while I tried to get my letters to lean backwards to the left, like dominoes in the process of falling, but that seemed too absurd and really uncomfortable unless you were a lefty. I also could not make my letters look straight like a picket fence, a style often favored by boys in my class. When allowing my hand to wander, I realized to my dismay my handwriting was just like my grandmother's.

My grandmother's handwriting seemed hysterical, unkempt, and entirely unruly. This was particularly shocking since she was a teacher herself and had to write on a blackboard. I was embarrassed to see the letters in her script would get progressively messier and larger as she neared the end, just like her voice got louder when she spoke on the phone. The fear of not being heard, even when the connection was clear, forced her to shout at the top of her lungs in a strained voice as she tried to bridge the distance between herself and the caller.

"Synochka, synulya, my son!"

"How? Aha, aha... "

"How are you? Aha, aha... and Igorechek?"

"Children are well, no we did not receive it. When did you send..? Six months?"

"Propalo, probably gone. Don't send anymore!"

"Privet Alochke. Spasibo..."

The line usually going dead before she had a chance to finish her sentence.

She often asked my mom and later me to proofread her letters for spelling mistakes. We read about ourselves in these hastily dashed off missives to her sister in Lvov and her best friend in Taganrog and her son in America. She did not bother rewriting if there was a mistake but instead heavily crossed it out and tried to squeeze the right word in between the uneven, crooked lines. If I did not try hard to control my handwriting, it began to resemble hers.

Every night I watched in the dark from the bed as my grandmother took off her dress, her panty hose and her bra, letting her sagging breasts with their pink, undefined nipples hang low over her stomach. She would put on the slip she used as a nightgown, with lace torn at the hem and many small holes on her flanks beginning to form from wear and washing, revealing skin still smooth and pink. Sometimes I even saw her squat on the toilet without closing the door, catching a glimpse of her scant, straw-like pubic hair before she pulled her underwear back up. Because I slept in my grandparents' massive, oak-carved bed, I was familiar with the warm, yeasty smell of her body. No matter how hard I tried to burrow deep into my grandmother's side, by morning I always wound up rolling to the middle of the bed, curled up in the gap between the mattresses. As a small child I found a way to be comfortable in that gap. Eventually as an adult I had to learn, for better or worse, how to make my home in that in-between space.

My grandmother was always proud of her legs, their straightness. She often told us the story of walking into the teacher's lounge on her first day of work and being admired by her Kazakh male colleagues. According to my grandmother, Kazakh women all had bowed legs—a flaw she found unpardonable. Her own legs, encased in nylons with a seam up the back and protected from mud by rubber galoshes, were exotic, she claimed, a rarity in these parts. She did not like much about her open face. Always compared to her sister Bella as a child, who was described as a beauty, she ignored her face in the mirror. The only make-up I saw her wear was her crimson lipstick. Her lips were the only feature that stood out from her otherwise pale, blond features. Her light brown eyes, like mine, were framed by scant lashes, too light to outline their shape.

As a child I remember the weekly ritual of hair curlers my mother and grandmother performed on each other. They could not have been more different—the mother tall and blond and the daughter small, with thick black hair and olive skin. Baths were not taken often in those days, and hair was washed once a week, in part due to the fact that hot water from the tap was rarely available and boiling pots of water on the stove to clean the whole family was an ordeal. Each of them would sit in turn on the rickety stool in the middle of the kitchen with a bag of curlers in her lap, while the other parted her hair with a thin handle of a comb, picking a strand to wrap around the perforated aluminum sphere with a rubber band attached to it. I would often loiter nearby, listening to them talk softly as my grandmother's head was slowly covered by rows of metallic curls. She would hand my mother curlers from her lap one at a time, sometimes before she was ready, irritating her and making them bicker briefly before they resumed their steady rhythm. I knew that you started from the front with the fringe and worked your way back. When the curlers were released several hours later, the taught ringlets of hair sprung up from the scalp in neat, tight rows. They would be fluffed with a brush and lose some of their hold in the course of a week to take on a more natural shape. By the end of the day, both mother and grandmother would each have a dome of perfectly round hair sitting on top of their heads, like two chess pawns from the opposite sides of the board.

My own hair, "straight as an icicle," according to my mother, was a source of frequent lamentation. As a girl I was expected to have had my brother's beautiful soft waves, his long eyelashes, his miniature button nose. He did not need any of these attributes I was told, but he was blessed with them nonetheless. Since my hair wasn't pretty, it was always cut short with a side part. When I first saw the portrait of Gogol with his side part bob, I shuddered at the unflattering resemblance. His hooked nose and slicked down hair framing his narrow face were painful to look at over the blackboard. I was determined to get a perm as soon as I could. Eventually I did.

My first summer in NYC, I was sent to the Poconos to work as a babysitter for some family friends. The older American Jewish women at our colony seemed to have sprung into existence encased in their leathery skin, with liver-spotted hands with bright press-on nails and hairless, gamy legs revealed mid-thigh by their canvas shorts. I could not have imagined them any younger or older, before they tanned themselves into their current orangey-brown hue. I did not know whether their voices were always this nasal or if their vocal register changed over time as they chain-smoked on the porches of their brick bungalows under corrugated green plastic awnings. For me they only existed in the present, disconnected from a past, devoid of a future.

The women I grew up with did not wear shorts or pants, really. The girls who wore short brown, pleated uniforms like me in school and tested the principal's tolerance with the hems of their skirts were usually married by the age of twenty. They did not turn matronly right away. But they let their hems out and began to wear the cork wedges that were all the rage that decade. Middle age was not something any of them battled with exercise or dieting. Bodies rounded out in their 30s, lost the outline of their curves and sagged into roundness that felt comfortable and familiar. More attention was paid to clothes than the bodies filling them out, which were allowed to follow their natural course into middle age. I knew what the faces of my classmates would look like decades from now, their evolution following a predictable trajectory of aging, prefiguring my own.

The Panamanian boy who kissed me with his thick, warm lips on my first day in Flushing High School overwhelmed me with the strong scent of Drakkar Noir. I realized his natural body odor was carefully concealed by scent and all but eliminated with the help of deodorant. Back home we were on intimate terms with each other's smells—raw, musty, acrid, and hormonal. It was information each of us involuntarily inhaled, forming a mental picture of each other that extended beyond sight. I knew many of my girlfriends had developed a feminine smell, a grown-up scent that signaled something to boys I did not quite grasp or emit. I knew I still smelled like a child at the age of 15, mostly ignored as a consequence. Now that I was living in the US, none of that seemed to matter.

Stripped of familiar smells, America did not seem quite real to me. Nothing that should have had a natural odor did: fruit, tomatoes, roses, public bathrooms. And things that should have been devoid of scent—laundry, toilet paper, erasers—smelled of "fresh meadow," "ocean," or "cherry." Detached from their scents, people and objects seemed conjured up, grounded in some other reality I had no access to. There seemed to be a sheet of glass separating me from the world around and preventing me from getting beyond the glossy surface of reality.

Growing up I knew it was expected of me to take over the task of curling hair and to eventually join the chain of "curlers" and "curlees," but I never got the hang of it. I was clumsy with the comb; the curlers that I fastened rarely stayed attached to anyone's head. The chain was broken with me. It was a disappointment but also a relief to be released from this ritual. When I got to NYC, I let my hair grow out straight. I frequently doused myself with free samples of imitation Giorgio at the Alexander's department store on the way to school. Most Americans now find my handwriting charming and admire the spider-work of habit I cannot break. You can't see it now since I am typing my words, saved by technology from being judged.

When I look at my body in the mirror at 40, I see my grandmother's pale shape reflected back at me. My round face, with cheeks that prominently protrude even when I am barely smiling, unmistakably reveals my Slavic origins, and my mother's dark hair that seems to poke through all over my body proclaims my Semitic "roots." At 92 my grandmother had dwindled from the tall, platinum blond of my childhood into a small, stooped figure wandering around the house with hair un-touched by a comb and her skin crisscrossed by redundant wrinkles. On my last visit I watched her shuffle slowly across the living room towards the kitchen in her scuffed up house slippers, wondering whether she would make it. She died on the 4th of July in her bed with my mother by her side as always. The "curler" and the "curlee," mother and child, roles finally reversed. As usual I wasn't there to take part. When I came home for the funeral, we found a note by my grandmother's bedside written in her unkempt handwriting. It was a request to take her back home after a quarter of a century of being apart to where my grandfather was buried. What she left me was the greatest gift of all—a handwritten permission slip to return to my past.


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