[Continued from the four previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home. Her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]
BEING JEWISH. Berta Isaakovna’s two pre-marital conversions seem to have been concessions to the requirements of her husbands, without spiritual content. Whatever Vladimir Vainschtain might have offered had he lived, there was no religious instruction in my mother’s life. No attendance at synagogue. No ritual holiday celebrations. No prayers. No belief in God. At some point after I began to read, I learned from the books my mother purchased for me and also regularly checked out of the childrens’ library that other children said prayers at night. I thought that might be a good thing to do and asked my mother, then the source of all wisdom, how to pray. From a colored illustration of Christopher Robin at bedtime in my copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” I knew that you got down on your knees by the side of the bed, put your palms together, fingers pointing upward, lowered your head, closed your eyes, and addressed yourself to God. But who was God?
“A kind of spirit,” said my mother, trying to be helpful.
It wasn’t helpful at all. And what did you say to God?
“Whatever you like,” said my mother.
There was nothing in particular I wanted to say. I felt foolish on my knees beside the bed. And it was much warmer, and more comforting, under the covers. I soon gave up the experiment.
The papers with which she left Baku in 1922 declared my mother to be “Juive.” She regarded this classification of herself as being a mark of Cain, singling her out for bad luck and unfair treatment, and certainly nothing to advertise. It brought her no spiritual solace, no community, no source of help in troubled times. Irrespective of what she said to me about God and prayers when I asked her, she always believed in surviving on your own, no matter how difficult the problem or situation. No recourse to higher powers. “We’ll get by somehow,” she would say. With a sigh.
LISA. Her cousin Lisa arrived in my mother’s life shortly after the separation from her own mother. She must have been Berta Isaakovna’s niece, as she seems not to have been connected to the married half-sister. Always referred to by my mother as “my cousin Lisa,” she had been at what my mother called “finishing school” in Switzerland when war broke out. Somehow she managed to get back to Russia and came to live in Baku. I have the impression she stayed with or near Berta Isaakovna, at least for a while. She would have been seventeen or so when my mother, aged ten or eleven, first met her, and she made such a strong impression that I may have heard more from my mother about this idolized — and idealized? — young woman than I ever heard about herself.
Lisa was accomplished. She spoke languages — French and German probably, as well as Russian. She could play the piano, draw and ride horses. My mother thought she was beautiful. She is not especially beautiful in the one photograph that my mother brought with her, but she does look sweet, and intelligent, and — a word my mother would have used — “refined.” Everyone liked Lisa. She was warm, and kind, said my mother, and took an interest in everything about her. Lisa was adventurous, too. When food grew scarce in Baku during the later years of the war, she took it upon herself to feed the family. She would ride her bicycle out into the country, where she bought sacks of potatoes directly from the farmers. Burdened with the potatoes, she would then manage to hitch a ride back with the soldiers on the troop trains heading into Baku. (Did they also hoist her bicycle on board?)
Listening to all this in the kitchen when I was thirteen and fourteen, usually when my mother was ironing and had time and some inclination to answer questions, I had mixed feelings about her cousin Lisa. I wanted to have what she had had, as perhaps my mother had also wanted it — finishing school, languages, horseback riding, charisma, sense of ease in the world. Lisa even had a romantic older brother, who had converted — ah, those convenient conversions in the Shulman family! — and become a Cossack. He was attached to the Imperial Family, and fell in love with the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the Czar’s four young daughters. When his love letters to her were discovered, he had to be smuggled out of the country in a haycart!
But I also resented my mother’s admiration for Lisa. Did she love her more than she loved me? On the other hand, how could you hate someone who had evidently been so kind and affectionate to a little cousin without any real home? Thinking about Lisa sometimes made me feel mean-spirited and selfish. Especially when I learned that although Lisa was very attractive to men, she purposely sacrificed herself for the good of the family. Beautiful and desirable, but living in perilous times, she sold herself to a wealthy and older Turkish businessman who had proposed to her, because he agreed to help her relatives with money in exchange for her hand in marriage. At this point in the narrative, I would picture lovely Lisa in a white nightgown on her wedding night, lying meekly with parted legs beneath a fat and oily dark-skinned man with pock marks and garlic breath — all to save her relatives from starvation. No objective correlative supported this unappetizing picture; my mother, who had actually seen the groom, said merely that he was “all right.”
Then Lisa and husband went away, to wherever he had come from, and there was in due time a little daughter whose photograph at age six or seven, with a big bow in her hair, Berta Isaakovna mailed after my mother had come to America. The daughter didn’t look “Turkish” at all.
Maybe when I grew up, we could go to Turkey and I could meet Lisa? No, my mother told me. Lisa was dead. Of tuberculosis.
How old had she been? Twenty-eight.
It’s possible my mother had no close woman friend during the rest of her long life in part because no one else could ever measure up to her cousin Lisa.
[To be continued….]