Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Alexandra and me

In the 1920s, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, my great-grandmother Alexandra emigrated from Russia to Australia, with her husband and 5-year-old daughter Zinaida (Zina). 

Her first home in Australia was in Chippendale, Sydney. These days, Chippendale is a hot-property inner-city suburb, where young investors pay small fortunes for tiny, pristine townhouses. In those days it was a slum.

Alexandra and her husband had very little money, and almost no English between them. In fact, Alexandra had had no formal education at all. What they did have was a roof over their heads, and the chance to better their lot in a country that welcomed their immigration. They also had Zina, who proved to be an invaluable asset. With the uncanny ability young children have at foreign languages, in a couple of months Zina had mastered enough English to help her parents navigate life in a foreign country. She helped them buy groceries, negotiate with the landlord, and attend an enrolment interview at the local primary school (kudos to Zina, who at age 6 was astute enough to see the downside of being "Zinaida" at an Australian school, and told the principal that her name was "Jean"). 

Their life never became easy and carefree, but over time they struggled less. Zina completed her compulsory schooling with flying colours. A generation later her two daughters both graduated from university.

Alexandra was already an old lady when I knew her. She had outlived her husband by many years, and had moved to Brisbane, to the Russian enclave of Woolloongabba. Her small flat was run-down and smelt of rancid cooking oil, cat pee, and Non-Specific Old Lady Smell. Despite her steady government pension (which more than covered her modest expenses) she never stopped worrying about money. She would hide her pension money here and there around her flat, ironically increasing her anxiety, because she could never remember the hiding spots. It was hard to communicate with her, as her broken English was heavily accented, and I didn’t speak any Russian. She often giggled nervously when she couldn’t find the right words, or couldn’t understand us. Other times she would sigh heavily.

Still, I have very happy memories of visiting her. She was a lovely round Babushka of a person, who always greeted us with a joyful “Hello hello hello!” and gave us big warm hugs. She was endlessly kind and giving – to her family, to her neighbours, and to anyone else she saw who was in need. I loved and admired this about her – that she came from having so little, and yet everything she now had she shared with others. 

She adored cats, and at any given time had at least 4 (often 6 or more). She spoilt them rotten. She bought high-quality minced beef at great expense, and mixed it with warm water until it was the perfect temperature for her babies. Those cats had the complete run of her flat. Sometimes you could open bureau drawers to find a kitten curled up in her underwear. A quick peek under the sofa would reveal multiple pairs of green eyes glinting wickedly at you. Those cats were incorrigible and irresistible. 

Alexandra was also a wonderful cook. She prepared us Russian delicacies like piroshki, pilmeni and “pasha” Easter cheesecake. She cooked us potato chips from scratch. Our extended family would crowd into her flat on Russian holidays, enjoying what was always a great party with lots of chatter and laughter.

I think about Alexandra a lot lately, and I feel a kind of affinity with her. Like her, I am a long way from the country where I grew up (though, ironically, only a few hundred kilometres from the country where she grew up). I, too, have small children. I, too, know very little of the local language and sometimes have to rely on my 6-year-old to interpret. When I converse, in broken, imperfect sentences, I frequently giggle or sigh, trying to keep my spirits up, and trying not to let myself feel ashamed that my efforts sound childish and clumsy.  

However, in almost every other way our lives couldn’t be more different. Alexandra endured poverty and hardship. She worked hard and smart to make a new life out of nothing. She managed to raise a smart and conscientious daughter whose children and grandchildren had opportunities beyond her wildest dreams. She is one of life’s unsung heroes.

To compare myself with her is to give myself laudable qualities that I will never have, because I’ve never had to struggle as she did.

I do give myself credit for working hard and putting to good use the resources given to me, but the fact remains that I had so much to start with. I’ve never had to live in poverty. I have had almost 20 years of formal education. And because this is 2011 and not 1925, I have at my disposal infinite resources to aid me in my daily battle with a new foreign language - dictionaries, textbooks, Google Translate. In any case, my new home country is so committed to foreign language education that the vast majority of people speak English. 

More to the point, I am not living here in Finland because I was forced to flee my homeland and seek a country – any country - that would take me in. I didn’t have to say goodbye to my hometown with 100% certainty that I would never return. I didn’t arrive here with little else than the clothes I stood up in and nowhere to live or work. On the contrary, this is the life I chose, with my eyes open, from a whole host of possible choices.

If Alexandra could see me now, I know she would be proud of me for who I am and what I’ve achieved to this point. There would also be times when she would surely want to remind me how much I have, how relatively easy I have it, and that any time I feel like whining I should shut my mouth and count my blessings.


  1. This was a beautifully written tribute, I feel through your words, as though I know this strong and courageous woman.

    And of course I have a glimpse into the life of another courageous woman - one that doesn't see herself as that - but who is, in many more ways than she realizes, and talented too!

  2. anobservantmind, once again you have made my day with your lovely comment! Thanks so much for the beautiful sentiments. I am touched.

  3. Hardship is often relative. Living in a foreign country is no easy thing; no easy thing at all and it taxes a person in many different ways. You need to be strong to get through it. Your great-grandmother would be justifiably proud of you. And, I daresay, admiring too.

  4. Aw, shucks. You're too kind, Steve.

    What I do think, at this gloomy and freezing time of the year, is that my great-grandmother would have noted the over-abundance of sun and warmth back in Australia and questioned my sanity at having moved to Finland...!