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Excerpt

“Grandma”

Oleg Sentsov (trans. Uilleam Blacker)

September 15, 2022 
The following is a story from the collection, Love in Defiance of Pain: Ukrainian Stories which aims to bring the riches of contemporary Ukrainian literature—and of contemporary Ukraine, too—to the world. Some of these stories have been published before—indeed, many are award-winning and acclaimed—while some are appearing for the first time, making their rightful debut on the world stage. Proceeds from the sale of the collection will be donated to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

I had a grandmother and I didn’t like her. It happens.

*

It also might happen that you’re born a woman, you live in a small village, you work your whole life, of your four children only one survives, your husband eventually leaves you for another woman, and you’re left alone. Okay, not entirely alone—with a child. The child then grows up, goes off to study, then to the army, then gets married, and goes to live
far away and forever. And then you’re left entirely alone. I can’t imagine how all this would feel, and I don’t want to.

Your son visits very rarely, brings a grandson or granddaughter. But their visits are short and reluctant. Then you hit seventy, your son comes to visit for the last time, you sell the old wooden house and move in with him, into a stone house far away. Apart from your son, your grandson, your granddaughter, and your son’s wife live there. They’re not pleased to have you. They’re not mean to you, they put up with you, it’s called “caring for an elderly parent.”

The room is separate and new, but the things in it are all old, from the wooden house. The room quickly absorbs the smell of old age. They bring you your pension on time, nobody wants to take it away from you, they never even ask, and you can spend it however you like. How you like is usually on grocery shopping, sometimes you give some to your son’s wife—there’s never enough money in any family and this family is no exception. The rest goes into your savings account, like it should. You do it, the family you live with does it. That’s the best way, it’s safer.

Every other day they bring you newspapers, you can read them. Sometimes they invite you to come and watch television in the living room. They make food for you regularly. On Saturday, they go to the bathhouse and “do you need anything washed?” In the evening you can pray, kneeling in your old nightgown. At night, you urinate into a one-liter jar—it’s too cold and dark to go to the outside toilet. You can also write letters to grandmas just like you who live far away and sometimes get replies. As the years pass, the letters are sent and received less and less frequently.
All of these activities take up most of your time. The rest of the time you can sit in your room and look out the window. You can see everything: who comes, who goes, who came through the gate from that direction, who left in that direction, who walked along the street, who drove. True, you can’t see the street so well, you have a better view of the gate, but the window is big, with curtains. You can hide behind them sometimes, so nobody can see that you’re watching everybody.

*

Twelve years passed like that. Twelve years…For twelve years my grandmother and I lived in the same house. What did I know about her? Nothing. What did she know about me? Even less. Did we speak to each other? Yes. About what? Nothing. She’d pester me with her old-folks’ conversations, but I wasn’t interested in them and I’d try to avoid them, or I’d just leave the room. She wasn’t very smart, a bit unpleasant, quite fat and old, and I didn’t love her. Did she love me? I don’t know. I didn’t think about it then, I was young, skinny, sometimes smart, and reasonably polite, so I wasn’t mean to her and I put up with her. And secretly made fun of her. Everybody in our family made fun of her, and we often got annoyed with her, for a good reason or otherwise. She didn’t exactly suffer with us, but she wasn’t happy either.

*

Her granddaughter got married and moved out and soon had a baby, her great-grandchild. Her granddaughter and her husband lived nearby and came round often with the baby in the stroller. The child was still very small and so was always sleeping, but grandma still carried her stool out of her room and put it down next to the stroller. This was called “caring for the grandchildren.” Then the child got bigger, and her son’s wife began to look after him—they joked about her new status and now started calling her grandma. And the old grandma was no longer entrusted with her great-grandchild. They didn’t entrust her with much in that house, in case she did something wrong and upset her son’s wife. Nevertheless, grandma always managed to do something or other, and do it wrong, of course, and of course it upset her son’s wife.

Every evening they’d have a conversation about washing up that was so well worn it had practically become a ritual:

“Liusia, leave those, I’ll wash up.”

“I’ll do it, there’s nothing to wash.”

And so it was every evening, every day, and in everything—quiet, wordless resentment and putting-up-with instead of respect and tolerance. But grandma didn’t get offended. She grew up and lived her whole life in a village, read with difficulty, was simple, not too smart, a bit fat and old, and on top of that she was going deaf. Grandma was in good health, she was almost never ill, though she complained about her health a lot, especially about her heart, but nobody really worried about that too much.

And then one quiet summer’s day her son died, and she sat on the bench in the garden of the stone house and cried, her eyes were red, and she kept clapping her hands on her lap. People came in the evening, lots of them, and comforted her. They comforted the whole family, including grandma, and she liked it that they were paying attention to her.

*

But life went on anyway. It didn’t finish. Life never finishes, even if someone leaves it. Grandma started to forget things more—names and dates, the kettle on the stove, the tap or the gas. She didn’t get ill more often, but she felt worse, she aged even more and started causing even more problems. Her grandson had long ago moved to the city, her great-grandson had grown up and was going to school, he was the least interested of all of them in grandma’s business. She lived alone, or rather, with her son’s wife, and she was already well past eighty. Her son’s wife was also aging and getting ill, and she was finding it harder and less convenient to look after this superfluous and unloved person. A few more years passed like this, and the last one was full of phrases like: “She’s no one to me now . . . I can’t look after her anymore . . . She’ll be better off there . . . My friend works there, it’s a good place . . .”

There was no meeting and no vote, just silent consent. One day they gathered grandma and her things together and loaded them into a car. They said they were taking her to the hospital, which pleased grandma—she was already pretty far gone by then—and they took her to the old people’s home. They sent her pension there, gave them her documents, and that was it, grandma was gone.

I lived in the city where the old people’s home was. I had already started a family, had kids. I rarely thought about my grandma, never asked about her, and never wanted to see her. It was shameful and unpleasant. I didn’t love her, she was old, a bit unpleasant, fat, and not too smart. I tried not to think about her and almost forgot about her. My mom visited her infrequently at first, and then stopped completely. She was no longer young herself now, she was old; and she was no longer healthy, but sick.

We didn’t speak any more about grandma in our family. A few years passed and one day someone said she had died. Who said it and to whom weren’t exactly clear, but nobody really wanted to figure out what had happened, and somehow we just carried on living. And then a few more years passed and one day out of the blue we got a call from the old people’s home saying that grandma had died a long time ago and asking if the relatives were going to bury her. The relatives answered that yes, they would, although they thought they’d been told that…Well, it doesn’t matter, we’ll get to that bit soon. The grandchildren went to get their grandmother from the old people’s home. As soon as she saw the nurses drinking tea and eating chocolates in the staff room, the granddaughter put on a mournful face and gave them our name and the reason we were there. The grandson went to the morgue to identify the body. They rolled her out on a trolley. She was lying on her side, very old, curled up and dried out. The grandson didn’t recognize his grandmother, he recognized only the clothes. But he didn’t say anything and helped the nurse move the very light body into the coffin. They nailed the lid on immediately. A hearse in the shape of a yellow bus with a black stripe down the side took grandma back to the village, to the earth, to her son. The grandson held on to the coffin so it didn’t rattle around too much on the bus. The driver was in a rush, they dug the grave quickly, there was no one around, it was a gloomy November day.

*

I have another grandmother. She lives far, far away and is very, very old. I see her very rarely, but I at least I see her, and I love her. She is old and capricious, but she’s cheerful and kind. She’s very small and thin. She is really old now, and really ill, she’s not all there and causes a lot of problems. She lives with her daughter, that is, my aunt. My aunt is also old now, not young anymore, and sick, not healthy. They constantly argue. This is called “caring for grandma.” Grandma’s daughter’s daughter also lives with them, in other words, her granddaughter. This is called “looking after the grandchild.” This is how they live together: the old, the very old, and the young.

My grandfather I saw only once. And the other grandfather I also saw only once, but that was in a photograph, but maybe it wasn’t him, I’m not sure. Also, it’s easy to love the person who is far away, but hard to love the person who is nearby. It’s also easy to write about all this, but hard to do anything about it. Especially now.

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From Love in Defiance of Pain: Ukrainian Stories. Used with permission of the publisher, Deep Vellum. Copyright 2022 by Oleg Sentsov. Translation copyright 2022  by Uilleam Blacker.

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