Sister in Russian, Cousin in English

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Author: Natasha Lvovich
Date: Fall 2014
From: New England Review(Vol. 35, Issue 3)
Publisher: Middlebury College
Document Type: Essay
Length: 5,894 words

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SHE IS WALKING ON PARK AVENUE, ELEGANT AND SLIM, IRREPROACHABLY fashionable, drumming Sinatra's "New York, New York" with her high heels. Her allure is businesslike and confident: she is focused on her destination, on the potholes in the asphalt, and on countless rushed yet important thoughts, while at the same time she talks into her phone. Only real Manhattanites, fortunate to have been born on this celebrated land--firmly grounded, perfectly well-oriented, perpetually overbooked, and multitasking with ease--move with such a gait. She murmurs into her phone in a language that has been for centuries, for millennia, for eternity, her own: "Honey, don't wait for me, just order yourself some Chinese. I'll be home in a little while. Yeah, I know, I know. I'll get you some. Love you."

The trace of a Russian accent is almost imperceptible. Thank goodness for those caramel English words, which make her a different person and a different mother than her own, less dramatic and less rough around the edges, with the sweetened texture of an American mom raised in an Upper West Side apartment. She looks at her watch; she checks her messages; she passes her hand over her platinum hair as if to make sure the makeover hasn't melted away.

But no, the magic of the disguise is lasting and has grown into her skin, reminding me of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, in which the earthlings have to face their past and guilt by dealing with haunting flesh-and-blood creatures generated out of their memories by godly Solaris. In one scene, the protagonist encounters a reproduction of his dead wife, and when he attempts to undo the laces of her dress he realizes, in shock, that the laces have no ends. His "wife's" clothes have been "created" as part of her body, out of his mind's image. In order to undo the laces, he has to cut them off with scissors. Surprisingly, the ghostly creature does not express any reaction to this odd inconvenience--she is not aware that her clothes are supposed to be separate from her body.

In Russian, cousin is a two-word expression, dvoyurodnaya sestra, literally "cousin sister" (the male version is "cousin brother"), but my "cousin sister" had shrunk into one word-- sestra, sister, my only sibling, my twin. In our previous Russian life, there was no distance whatsoever between us, just as there was no distance between our mothers, who were born less than two years apart. What in English is called an "enmeshed family," implying its inability to be autonomous and independent, was a normal fact of life in Russia. What is termed "emotional support," carefully measured and distilled by drops in American culture, was an integral, ongoing, and at times exhausting connection between family and friends. What is labeled in the West "the culture of the collective," the family and community dynamics and psychological effects of surviving coups, wars, and terror, was soul kinship, spiritual intimacy, and brother-or sister-hood.

In the Russian consciousness, there is no concept of--or even...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A384544319