keep thinking about family. I can’t help it. I got family on the brain. I suppose that when you get married, the first thing you’re doing is starting one – just a two-person one for the time being, but a family nonethesame. You can accessorize later if you want, maybe a shiny little boy or a vintage-style little girl; but the basic core is formed right there. Of course, I consider Jessica and I to be a family already, but a government-sanctioned marriage certificate holds a certain officiality.
I’ve known many families in my life, all with their quirks. I knew two different families where, on Halloween night, after the trick-or-treating was done, the kids could eat as much candy as they wanted – but everything left over would be thrown out the next day. I once stayed with a family made up of five boys of different ages and their parents, where once the boys turned 12 they became “Men of the house,” a semi-official title that carried with it certain responsibilities. I stayed with a family in Guatemala where the über-Catholic grandma once summoned Jesus to help me with my homework.*
*A good story I will likely save for a separate post.
In 2001, I spent a semester studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I lived with a host family made up of mom Nadya, dad Nikolai, sister Lena, and German Shepherd Alfa. My introduction to real Russian family life was through them. Mom worked at a pharmacy and spent the rest of her time cleaning, cooking, resting, smiling, and watching soap operas. Dad was involved in some way with the law, although it was never clear to me whether he was a cop, a detective, a police captain, part of the military, an investigator, or all of those combined. He went to work some days in a suit, other days in Army fatigues. He smoked cigarettes in the bathroom, drank heavily, and usually scared the shit out of me.
Lena was my age – 20 – and a college student at the University. She lived in a tiny room with a fold-out bed narrower than a twin, a computer from 1990 that didn’t work, and a chair. She was an only child but would frequently talk about her “brothers and sisters,” who I later learned were her cousins. She talked a lot about boys, too, and was generally very serious. She never treated me very well, I imagine in part because I lived in their living room and probably put a serious cramp in her personal time and space. She explained to me in a letter that she wrote me on my last day that she couldn’t explain her behavior but that she was very sorry at how she’d acted over the the course of my stay, and urged me to “please stay such nice person always.” She also mentioned a conversation I barely remember from my first night there, when I was showing the little photo album that my mom and sister had made for me and surreptitiously slipped into my backpack – I told her, in my extremely limited Russian, that I thought friends were the most important thing in the world. She’d been struck by this, and told me in the letter she would never forget what I taught her about the value of friendship. Sometimes, it seems, the limiting effects of broken language can produce dumbed-down nuggets of simple wisdom.
I rarely lifted a finger around the house – but not by choice. Any attempts on my part to help were immediately frowned upon, dismissed, or outright ignored. When I tried to make my own bed the first few days, I’d come home to find it re-made. The time I tried to do my own laundry was the only time Nadya ever came close to scolding me, with a finger-wag and a sly, cocky smile. When I suggested I cook dinner for the family, they all laughed.
But I did manage to insert myself into the cleaning schedule one night, and it so disrupted the routine of the family that I decided afterwards that I simply wasn’t meant to help.
Lena and I were eating together, fairly late one evening. It was leftover food from a previous night, which was common – Nadya usually cooked a giant batch of food that would last a few days or more. The typical method of reheating, lacking a microwave as they were, was the “fry it all in butter” method. Greasy and delicious. I even have a faint memory that we ate fried, reheated pasta with potatoes and sausage that night. The TV was on and we made sparse conversation. When I was done, noting that the parents weren’t home, I got bold.
“Lena,” I said suddenly in my iffy Russian, “I’m doing the dishes tonight – and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
She was stunned, perhaps so much so that she actually let me get up and go to the sink. She tried, in vain, to stop me – almost pleading with me at one point – telling me that it was her job, not mine, and what if her parents found out, and she was ashamed. I told her that her family was doing so much for me, that the very least I could do – aside from nothing – was to wash up now and then.
She finally relented. As I washed the dishes, she kept checking the hallway to make sure her parents weren’t coming back. At one point she grabbed her camera and started snapping photos of me, mumbling something about how her friends would never believe what I was doing. She would look over my shoulder to check my progress. It was the most agitated I saw her over my entire stay.
When finally I was through, I sat down with a cup of tea. Lena relaxed a little. She then walked up to me, put her hands on my shoulders, and said, “Bret – thank you for washing the dishes. I want you to NEVER DO THAT EVER AGAIN.”
She walked off into her roomed and closed the door.
It was only then I understood how much I’d embarrassed her. It was not my role to clean; it was hers, and her mom’s, and very occasionally her dad’s. My being a man, and a guest of the family, put me dead last in the cleaning hierarchy, probably even after the dog. I felt horrible about it, then felt less bad – I was only trying to help, after all – and finally decided to take from it any lessons I could. I’d messed with their family dynamic. I learned about gender roles in Russia. I’d toyed with Lena’s pride in a deeper way than I could have guessed.
We didn’t talk about it again. And I never lifted another finger.