Bab, Maria Ivanovna

But when she talks she talks; streams, absolute rivers of talk. Tonight her biography, starting this time from 1947 or thereabouts. Somebody went to college, I didn’t’t get who and there’s no way in hell of slowing her down long enough to ask the question. I could try but I would be a conversational Canute, washed away in a tide of memory. Three hours today, as the baby slept, I randomly repeat the last word of each sentence, like the last chapter of Ulysses is a sentence. Repeating them in more and more absurd fashion, then in desperation I begin just speaking any random words that come to mind; Russian, English, German, it’s all the same she’s not listening, but talking.

  She’s back as I write this, her old head less than six inches from my right ear, babbling away. Every now & then I think she’s finished, a momentary pause give me a wild flicker of hope, but it’s only while she gathers breath for a new storm. Once or twice she has even walked away from me for a few seconds and I start to believe that it‘s all over, but then…aghthdfst she’s back a new notion come to her.

 Now she has returned with a withered fist full of old soviet documents and is talking me through everything she has ever paid to a government office. This was for insurance in 1953.

We go to the kitchen so as not to wake the little one.

No, I have no appetite at all she says between mouthfuls. I couldn’t’t force a thing down, onto the second loaf. She eats more than any of us, but we all have to keep up the narrative of Bab starving to death.

A trip to the cupboards; 200 knives a balcony of aluminium pans, enough towels to cover red square three times over, and a house so full of furniture that it’s impossible to live there.

The pathological inability to throw anything away is usually put down to the times of scarcity in the late Soviet period. She’s dying, and it scares her, perhaps the collecting represents the fragments she has shored up against her ruin. A refusal to face the implications of the fact that a 90-year-old woman does not need 57 aluminium pans must have some deeper root than mere cussedness.

When she says that the whole world loves a particular cake, we discover that the whole world comprises Moscow and the fragment of Tajikistan where she once went to do some government accounting.

She digs among documents and finds a birth certificate dated 1891. “This is yours,” she tells Sveta. Of course it’s not says Sveta, it’s from 20 years before you were born and you’re my mother.

But Bab won’t have it, won’t make the mental effort required to spot the absurdity.

The other day she was quizzing Katya as to what she was doing in Moscow in the 1930s. Katya who was born in 1972.  It’s not senility as such, just bloody-mindedness. Apparently she was always pretty much the same.

She feeds the dog with shite. Last year she had nearly killed it and I wound up having to pay almost $500 to the vet, who really thought that we should have the dog put down. So now I have a vested interest in her not destroying the dog any further. Hence we have the occasional battle when I see her piling fat into the dog’s bowl and she breaks into anguished and futile denials following my accusations. So it ends with me telling her that she’s killing the dog and her howling about how it’s none of my concern.