Baba Masha

by Svetlana Beggs

My grandma, my babushka, had a neighbor who lived in a flat across from hers. She was very old and never left her flat and we all called her Baba Masha and I thought her a big, strange child. She didn't have a family and it was mostly my grandma who looked after her, as much as her own limited mobility allowed. Whenever I stayed at babushka's I visited Baba Masha and the two of us would watch a daily 30-minute children's program, Good Night Little Ones, which started promptly at 8pm. How she loved that show. How I loved it too. Baba Masha always sat in the same chair with a blanket over her knees, legs a bit apart, her gray cat Tika nested in the blanketed hollow between her legs. She patted happy Tika with a big, dry, slightly trembling hand. Good Night Little Ones usually began with puppet hosts Khrusha (a piglet), Stepashka (a bunny) and Filya (a dog), play-acting some small drama ("Filya, did you take my toy?") and afterwards we were rewarded with a short cartoon. Baba Masha rarely spoke, but when we watched Good Night Little Ones she liked to describe what the puppets were up to. She would say, "He is taking away her toy," or "Drinking milk now," or "Khrusha is upset." When the cartoon was over, the puppets would wish us goodnight and the lullaby we all loved would play. Baba Masha always said at this point, "They are sleeping now."

When babushka had a heart attack—it was not long before she died—she had to stay in the hospital. Shortly after it happened my mom and I went to babushka's flat to pick up some of her belongings. We packed a couple of sweaters, a teacup babushka always used and some recent Ogonyok magazines. Another neighbor was now taking care of Baba Masha. I was allowed to watch Good Night Little Ones together with Baba Masha later that evening. I was embarrassed to tell my mom that I simply wanted to sit with Baba Masha like before, like always—instead I told her that I couldn't bear to miss the show.

When the puppets came on the screen I saw that Baba Masha was not interested. She was sitting in her chair, a plaid red shawl I'd never seen before on her shoulders, no Tika on her lap. Big and slouching, she sat there mumbling short sentences, uttering them the way an apparatchik hands you forms to fill out. "Drinking tea," she said, "Trying to get up," "Needs rest," "In bed now," "Blanket," "Doctor coming now," "Time to take the pills." I intuited right away that she was talking about my babushka, describing what she could be doing now. It then dawned on me that when you love someone you want to imagine what your beloved is doing, no matter how mundane and boring. At the time I thought of babushka as my babushka, reading to me, making blitzes for me, almost like my limb, mine, all mine. But she was not all mine. She was her own, and, like Stepashka-the-bunny on Baba Masha's TV, entirely exposed to love of other people. I was dumb struck by this realization and in that moment I loved my babushka with violent intensity, hoping that my way of loving was better than Baba Masha's. I did not want to be in the same room with Baba Masha anymore and I hoped she would die soon, and her round shoulders repulsed me, and I didn't feel guilty for thinking that. I knew that, from now on, I won't be watching Good Night Little Ones.

BIO: A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Svetlana now lives in Seattle. She has an M.A. in Philosophy and has drafted a dissertation about childhood innocence and moral saints while attending a PhD program in Philosophy at UC Riverside. Her poems will appear in forthcoming issues of Columbia Poetry Review and Pleiades. Her philosophy essay "Must We Point to Our Friends' Moral Blemishes?" was selected for a collection of essays on the philosophy of friendship Friends and Foes (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).