I was 3 years old and I hated my cousin Alexandra. She was 5 years older than me so why was I always being compared to her? She was my Babushka’s first grand daughter. I was the second but Babs loved me more and I lived with her. Babs was already buying pieces of a china tea service for when I grew up.
There was always a reason for a feast. The family gathered. We children were herded off to a corner to draw or do math exercises. Alexandra could draw and she knew her maths. When I tried to copy her I wasn’t praised for my effort. I was criticised for not being as good as her.
She was blond, blue eyed, gentle, tidy and petite. I was a stubborn dusky brunette with a messy shock of curls. We were already almost the same size. When papa took me away I wasn’t unhappy that I would never see her again. Still don’t like those goody two shoes sugar and spice blonds.
Lilia my first step mother explained it to me when I was 7 years old. ‘Black people aren’t very intelligent you see’. She said it had something to do with our genes or something. We were not just a race apart we were like a different species. I was a precocious child. I didn’t have a name for racism but I realized she only married papa to get out of Soviet Russia. I thought that wasn’t very smart of him not to know. I mean even I could figure it out.
Mama had a new baby when we left. I hated him too. Everyone was always gushing over him and cooing how cute he was. All I could think looking at him was ‘seriously what’s the big deal? Aren’t I cute too?’. Maybe its okay we went away. I might have hurt him. That’s how strongly I felt. I was three and a half.
I never saw Bab,s or mama or my big brother again. They’re buried in crowded cemeteries in Moscow. Nondescript graves lost among nondescript gravestones. Bab’s and mama are buried in one grave together. Moscow real estate is at a premium. Even for burial space. The working classes buy a plot and bury everyone on the same spot. One of my uncles that I never met is also buried with them.
When I finally returned to Moscow 35 years later I only had to visit 2 cemeteries instead of 3 or 4. Which is a good thing because Moscow traffic is madder than Lagos traffic and the cemeteries were not selected for proximity.
Alexandra is really short and dumpy now, working a job as a ticket salesperson on a train line. I don’t hate her any more. I envy her. She knew my mama. They all did. We all cried a lot when I went back. They told me the stories.
How my Bab’s went round the bend when we went away. How my mother pined away till the distress brought on the autoimmune disorder that eventually killed her. Bab’s was a strong, simple woman. When her youngest brought a black man home in ’65 she chose to be open minded. Papa used to tell me how much Bab’s loved him. He said she enjoyed intelligent conversation with him.
Bab’s was also a practical woman. She was a war orphan somewhere from the Volga region. Her second husband my dyedyushka was also a war orphan. They grew up and met in the uncertain times of the revolution and two world wars. Bab’s was a survivor. She flourished in the new soviet world. So did her first 2 daughters. Her husband succumbed to the frustrations of the system and she gave him the boot.
It was common knowledge with me and my cousins. There were no recriminations about divorce. Its what you did when a man misbehaved and then maybe you looked for another man. If you had a good job like my Bab’s and Alexandra’s mother did you didn’t even need to bother. They didn’t.
Papa hit mama one time too many and she divorced him too. I was two. She wasn’t going to put up with that. Lilia put up with that for too long. I only put up with it for as long as I had to. I used to joke about my father hitting the step mother, hitting the dog and hitting me till the step mother divorced him, the dog ran away but I was stuck with him because he was my father.
My maternal family today is a loose knit but warm working class clan still living in cramped, dreary apartments on the outer rings of Moscow with decent if mediocre lives. They spend summers at their dacha’s and commute to their blue collar jobs every other day on the metro. To them I’m an exotic Lara Croft like adventurer and the younger one’s think its super cool to have a cool African aunt.
My baby brother is a man with 3 amazing children of his own. My older brothers two kids are teenagers and looking forward to college. My two aunts are old and brittle but always make up for all the mama loving I ever missed.
I have this photograph of my 80 year old aunt, my 20 something year old niece and me together. Three generations. We’ve got the same steady look in our eyes, and we’re all showing the same amount of cleavage. Nowadays when the moral brigade in Nigeria asks me why I like to show so much cleavage I whip it out and show them. ‘Its in the gene’s’.