“It’s important to remove the foam,” Natasha said. She lifted her cooking spoon to reveal juicy pieces of salmon underneath a pot of boiling water.
“I know Mama,” Masha replied in Russian, focused on the paper before her. Her reading skills resembled an elementary schooler, but that didn’t stop her from translating the crucial recipe. “Babushka* taught me that.”
Mention of Galina Sergeevna brought them close to tears. It was a cold, rainy evening and solyanka was the only cure for two broken hearts. Natasha removed the salmon from the pot, shooing away their ten-year-old dog, Dixie. Dixie bounced on Natasha, nearly tripping her.
“Dixie!” Masha chastised. “Don’t jump on Mama!”
Dixie backed off obediently. Natasha held a piece of freshly boiled salmon in her fingers, cooling it off with steady blows. Dixie jumped again, her paws all over Natasha’s white apron.
“Say ‘I love you’!” Natasha commanded. Dixie obeyed, vocalizing three syllables.
Masha shook her head as Natasha rewarded her. “She’s had enough treats today.”
“She’s excited you’re home. Now Mama’s cooking real food,” Natasha said, starting to saute carrots and onions.
Dixie tilted her head in response, satisfied with her third treat of the day.
“You spoil her. Remember how Babushka was with Kesha?” Masha prompted.
“Of course. ‘No feeding the dog under the table!’ Then while we’d eat...” Natasha pantomimed the gesture with her wooden spatula. Dixie leaped forward expectantly. “No Dixie!” Natasha exclaimed with a laugh. “Mama has nothing for you.”
After half an hour, the soup was boiled to perfection. Masha assembled her bowl before calling her dad. Kalamata olives, frozen parsley, and dill... what was she missing?
“Masha, can you cut up a lemon for us?”
Lemon. “Yeah of course,” she said, squeezing a hearty amount in her own dish before assembling the other garnishes.
“Dad!” she called to the dark basement. “We’re eating!”
“Can we watch Davai Poszhenemsya?” Masha asked, picking up her mom’s iPad and moving it to the dining table.
“...yes. We can watch Davai Poszhenemsya.” Natasha replied, grateful that her back was turned so Masha couldn’t see her face. At least Mom got to see Masha’s letter...
...I fondly remember our afternoon teas with Davai Poszhenemensya. Don’t worry babushka, I’m keeping my dorm clean and studying hard. Love always, Masha and Dixie.
“This sounds good! ‘The Ambitious Businessman’,” Masha read aloud in Russian. Davai Poszhenemsya was Babushka’s favorite show. Three eligible bachelors or bachelorettes presented themselves to a contestant while being interrogated by dating “experts”.
“Ouch!” Masha exclaimed, moving to the sink to rinse her fingers with cold water. She had burned herself while trying to move her bowl to the table. Htun came over to see what was wrong.
“You need to be more careful. I burnt my finger while Baung Baung* was cooking and now I have a scar. See?” Htun said, revealing a small white dot on a canvas of dark brown.
“Water won’t help,” Natasha said, looking over Masha’s shoulder. “You need aloe vera. I have some upstairs.”
Masha obeyed, gingerly touching the burn. Babushka would have used oil and salt.
Emergency surgery, misdiagnosis... it felt like Babushka was going to come home any minute. It’s because she’s a Russian citizen, Masha had overheard Mama saying to Papa. Our insurance won’t pay for chemotherapy... we can’t afford it otherwise.
So we have to send her back.
Russians hate people living in America. They could deny her treatment just because of that. They could make up something stupid...they could say she doesn’t have cancer.
Aloe in hand, Masha peeked into Babushka’s room. Everything was exactly as she’d left it: crocheted doilies covering her favorite lounge chair, vintage brown blanket slightly ruffled at the edge of the bed... she found it. A plain, rose-gold band. She held it in her fingers, letting the light shine on it for a few seconds before placing it on her right ring finger. Place it on the left Americans will think you’re married, place it on the right and Russians will think you’re married... Masha sighed. The closet smelled like “Chance” perfume by Chanel. Inhaling the scent one more time, she shut the closet and joined her parents downstairs.
Eyes fixed to the screen, they devoured freshly made solyanka. Htun didn’t speak Russian, but he understood the tone and asked lots of questions:
“Is she a good match?”
“Yeah,” Masha said, her gaze fixed on the screen.
“Has she been married before?”
“No. Honestly Htun,” Natasha said, promptly ending his questionnaire.
Dixie jumped on Babushka’s chair, placing a paw on the crocheted tablecloth.
“Dixie, enough!” Natasha said. After her last spoonful, she moved to the sink to wash her dish. Masha and Htun joined her, preparing for the ceremony that was about to take place.
According to Orthodox tradition, families gather on the 9th and 40th day after their loved ones pass. According to Buddhist tradition, families perform a water pouring ceremony to honor their loved ones. Htun felt it was only right to do the ceremony for Babushka. She took care of Masha while he and Natasha were at work: teaching her Russian, prepared authentic food... thanks to Babushka, Masha was more exposed to Russian culture than he was ever exposed to Burmese culture. Baung Baung never properly taught him Burmese, choosing to adopt the customs of white families in the neighborhood. Buddhism was his main connection to the culture, and now it was Masha’s.
The three of them gathered in front of the altar in Htun’s room: Natasha with the bowl and water jug, Masha with the candles, and Htun with his prayer book. He recited the prayers in Pali*, Masha reading the English translation. Natasha closed her eyes as the traditions that once seemed so foreign to her eased her grief.
“Bottham saranam gacchami... Dhammam saranam gacchami... Sangham saranam gacchami...”
“I go to the Buddha for refuge...I go to the Dhamma for refuge...I go to the Sangha for refuge.”
Like her mother, Masha found comfort in the sacred language. Natasha poured the water as Htun and Masha chanted. The words started to blend together, and soon they were on the third round, finishing up the last paragraph.
May your hopes and dreams be quickly realized,
your desired completely fulfilled,
by the keeping of periodic retreat days
and special effort in practice.
At the last syllable, the final drop of water landed in the bowl. The sound seemed to reverberate throughout the house--Masha let her eyes wander to see Dixie lying peacefully at the foot of the door, watching the ceremony.
Without saying a word, the three of them took the bowl outside. The water landed on the plants near their front porch and they sighed, cold air filling their lungs.
Masha held back tears as she climbed up the stairs. She was going to sleep but took out her laptop instead. She was working on an essay for her Creative Writing class. “What does ‘home’ mean to you?”
I am proud of my home, she started to type. I was born in the U.S., but I come from two countries, two cultures, two religions. When I was a little girl, I felt like I had to choose. Which side do you identify with most? people would ask. I have the Russian side, the side that taught me to be strong, to fight for what I believe in order to survive. I have the Burmese side, the side that taught me to be kind, to forgive and serve others, to do my part in making the world a better place.
Just because I come from two cultures does not mean I favor one over the other. That would be like saying I prefer my mother over my father, Babushka’s recipes over Baung Baung’s.
I can’t choose when these two halves make a whole.
I can’t choose when these two halves make a home.
Masha sighed, looking over the paragraph. Another paragraph of word vomit. She turned off her lamp and put on her pajamas.Better luck tomorrow.
*Babushka = Russian for grandma
*Baung Baung = Burmese for grandma
*Pali = Sacred language of Theravāda Buddhism