The first thing my grandmother’s sister Luba said to me was “Well! You’re not nearly as fat as you looked on your pictures!” The first thing my grandmother said to her was “Luba! Aren’t you wearing a bra?!” After affirming that she was, Aunt Luba pushed us all into the largest room of her Penza apartment and started accosting my grandmother.
“I know you’re older than me Valia,” she said “but I couldn’t believe it when I heard that you were visiting our people in Saransk and you weren’t even planning to come see me!” This was true. Although the city of Penza is just a two-hour drive away, my grandmother had not originally planned to see her sister whom she hadn’t visited since 2003.
“You know my heart isn’t as healthy as yours!” she continued, “So as long as you’re able to, you’ve got to make the effort Valia!” The entire scene was made more humorous by the uncanny, twin-like resemblance of the two sisters. My grandmother accepted her younger sister’s scolding meekly and then waved her hand and proposed to move on to a different subject.
Aunt Luba and her husband Uncle Petia live in a small, Kruschev-era apartment in the center of Penza. There were carpets all over the walls and plants cramped everywhere throughout the rooms. Aunt Luba loves homeopathic medicine. From gigantic cacti to extensive Basket Plant colonies, she knows the methods of cultivation, extraction, and consumption of all of her plants and was eager to share her knowledge on how to cure just about any ailment.
The other thing she loves to do is hassle her husband, who has gotten used to it after decades of conjugal life and throughout most of our visit sat at the head of the table, cracking witty jokes and laughing at Aunt Luba’s beseeching.
Before retiring Uncle Petia was a highly prized worker at a factory in Pneza. He was even decorated by the Order of Lenin, the highest award given to Soviet civilians for outstanding service to the state. Large photographic portraits of him with his medals can be seen throughout the apartment.
Aunt Luba’s health has been deteriorating with age (despite her consumption of homeopathic remedies), and she often calls emergency medical services to her apartment. But in the room where she receives the doctors, a portrait of herself has been conspicuously superimposed on the portrait of Uncle Petia. “They told me I’d get killed for that Order of Lenin,” she explained, “if anyone I have coming in here saw that photograph. So I covered the medals with a picture of myself!”
At dinner we were joined by Aunt Luba’s oldest daughter and her daughter, as well as the cousins from Saransk. We ate family staples such as potato salad, meatballs, and aspic and listened to stories of Uncle Petia’s forgetfulness.
“A couple of weeks ago, he went to get his pension and after coming back home, he put the money and his passport somewhere and couldn’t find it!” Aunt Luba exclaimed.
“Why do you bring your passport with you?” my Mom inquired.
“Well, I needed to get the pension and they won’t give it to me without my passport,” he explained.
Their daughter Lena also chimed in, explaining that she even came over from work and helped her father look for the passport all over the house. “We dug all over the house! He even went to the police to put in a report, just in case it was stolen or something. Then, at 11:30pm he calls me up and says ‘I found it!'”
“He knows perfectly well where we keep this stuff!” Aund Luba said, “In the kitchen, in a plastic bag, behind the butter in the refrigerator!”
It wasn’t really made clear by anyone why she keeps her important documents back there. The cacophonous discussion of the sisters’ money-storing habits, as well as the careless attitudes of the other family members towards them continued for some time. In the end Uncle Petia was the odd one out, as usual.
“You know, I looked it up in the encyclopedia, and I know what his problem is.” Aunt Luba concluded, “He’s got a bad head, that’s what they call ‘dementia’!”
The clearly lucid Uncle Petia only shrugged his shoulders.
Before leaving Aunt Luba initiated us into the methods of making Basket Plant extract which, as she said, “cures everything, and boosts the immune system.”
Take an odd number of runner segments (15 or 17) and soak them in 1/2 liter of Vodka, in a dark place for 2 weeks. Then strain and drink one teaspoon of extract before every meal!