Sunday Stories: “Babushka”

by Sarah Gentile

Ann Whitby was born Russian. She was not born of Russian parents, nor born in Russia. She was born in Paramus, New Jersey, on Easter, the holiest of days that year in the Russian Orthodox calendar. Since her family was Episcopalian, no one noticed.

Ann was a quiet baby, but not abnormally so. She was her parent’s second child; the first was Glenn, a boisterous seven year old obsessed, as his father had planned, with football. In fact, it was Glenn who first noticed the peculiarity of his little sister. As he stared into her crib one morning making faces at the baby, he noticed that she had swaddled herself in her soft, pink knitted baby blanket. She looked at him with a focus that seemed preternatural for an infant. She drooled, but she held the blanket tight around her face, like a little babushka. “Look at our little babushka!” her mother cried. She delighted in her children being imaginative. She wanted to have healthy children and was always reading books on parenting. She obsessively watched talk shows where psychologists and would be-psychologists horrified parents with what delayed potty training could do, and almost always did, to a child’s psyche.

Ann’s mother took pictures. She sent them to her relatives. She was inordinately proud of having normal, healthy children. She had tacked Glenn’s successive junior football league photos to the tackboard in the kitchen, each one showing a growing ratio of child to football. She had dressed her little girl in pink, but not too much pink. She didn’t want her child to grow into the sort of girl who couldn’t make decisions for herself. She wanted her to be a feminist, but not too much of one. To balance her desire to buy frilly, girly clothes and toys for Ann, she bought austere white toys, some yellow blocks, and a blue truck. When Glenn stole the blue truck from Ann’s room, she thought to herself, “Well, you can’t fight nature.”

It was only when Ann seemed to have trouble speaking at an early age that Ann’s mother began to worry. Although Dr. Dover, her pediatrician, had assured Ann with a calm tone that everything was going to be fine, she felt guilty for not feeling assured. She tried to assume a look of assuredness when the doctor spoke to her in a tone especially crafted for reassuring. His deep, stentorian voice resonated in the small, clean office. With a voice that reminded Eunice of her days in community theater before she had even met Hal Whitby, Dr. Dover reminded his patient that some of the brightest children in the world speak very late. She nodded her head in agreement with the low, rumbling tones of his voice. Her eyes were deep and wide. She had a broad smile that did not match her eyes. She was terrified. The baby was mute! She would not speak! They were unfit! She was a terrible mother!

The doctor said to bring Ann in for her regular visits and to keep an eye out for signs that she could not hear. After all, it didn’t appear that Ann had trouble with her hearing, but maybe the blanket that she liked to wear around her head was interfering with her ability to hear well. The doctor prescribed a lighter blanket for the child, a day off for the mother, and billed the family’s insurance for the maximum amount allowed for a routine visit.

Eunice was true to the doctor’s prescription. She overcompensated in her worry; she bought Ann a pile of different blankets, all light-weight and brightly colored. If her child was going to be a mute, Eunice reasoned, she was going to be the most festive and cheerful mute anyone had ever met. Mother presented her daughter with the new blankets, all decorated brightly. Ann held her chubby hand out over the options like a fortune-teller divining. She placed her hand on the deep blue one with repeating red and pink roses. She dropped her nubby headscarf that had been fashioned from her bedclothes and replaced it at once. Eunice tested it for auditory compliance, snapping lightly, like a tentative beatnik, beside either ear. Ann followed each snap! with a light turn of her head. The blanket was fine. Her child could hear. Just then, Ann began to burble her first sounds. Eunice was overjoyed. She called down to Hal. Hal responded that the football game was just finishing up, but that he would be up in a minute. When Hal’s echoing “YEE-AAUHH!” bounded up the stairs, Hal soon followed, overjoyed that his team, not the damn Browns, had won. Eunice and Hal listened closely.

Eunice put her head closely to her child’s face and said, “My little babushka, don’t you have anything to say to Mommy and Daddy?”

Ann looked up and spoke: “Da.”

Hal, beaming with pride, yelled “Yee-Auhh!”, for the second time today. “That’s Daddy’s girl! She said ‘Da-da.’”

“Hal, don’t gloat.” Eunice said, trying to mask her irritation. “There you have it. Mothers kill themselves for their little girls, but who do they love best? Daddy.” She put her hands on her hips and walked out of the room calling back, “You watch her, Hal. I need a bath.”

Ann grew and grew. The babbling became odd and full of fricatives. For a week, Ann repeated the curious word “volga” again and again. She was inordinately proud of her father, saying “Da” nearly all the time. She seemed to babble all the time, in her own private language. When she did respond to questions her family asked, she spoke in a quavering tone. She seemed timid. Eunice was concerned. She took Ann back to Dr. Dover.

“Dr. Dover, I’m concerned.” Eunice held Ann’s fat hand in hers. “Ann seems to have trouble speaking. She almost has an accent. Is there something wrong with her mouth? Her tongue? I try to look in there, but she thinks it’s a game and tries to bite my hand.”

Dr. Dover looked down at his little patient. He brought his large face down to the level of Ann’s. He spoke loudly, in his characteristic low tones. “Ann, dear, open up your mouth and let me take a look.” Ann held out her hand and graps the hairs of the doctor’s thick beard. She smiled, saying “Da”.

Eunice laughed, “Don’t be silly, dear. That’s not Daddy.”

The doctor took a look, peering into the tiny mouth with a penlight, holding Ann’s smooth chin in his rough hand. “Hmm,” he wondered aloud, looking at a smudge on the otherwise pristine white ceiling in his impeccably clean office. He dropped his hand and Ann used the opportunity to gather her scarf around her face tightly, her fat cheeks bulging out of her headdress. “Well, Mrs. Whitby, there’s nothing wrong with her mouth. I wouldn’t worry much about it. Some children have some pretty idiosyncratic ways of speaking. My own brother said ‘shoe’ just like you and I say ‘show’. Now he’s a partner in a law firm in Poughkeepsie. You’d never know about his old speech impediment.”

Eunice knitted her brow. She was concerned. She said in a concerned tone, “Well, Doctor, if you think it’s best.” She took Ann’s hand, signed the required forms, and suppressed a tear as she said to her daughter in the parking lot, “Don’t worry, sweetie. Everything’s going to be just fine.” Eunice patted her child’s head and thought that maybe this was a challenge from the Higher Power. She resolved it then: she would just have to face it and help her daughter the best she could.

Ann grew rapidly and seemed to partake in sufficiently normal activities for her parents’ calm and pride of normalcy. Ann made up elaborate fantasy worlds for her dolls, each speaking a bit of her nonsense language. Since it became clear to Ann that her private language made her family, and specifically her mother very uncomfortable in public, she spoke it only at home. She had her odd habits, but as Hal always reminded Eunice when she was troubled about the girl’s particularity, she was good, and more reassuringly, obedient. Anything strange about their daughter would surely fade with school. School would require the curtailing of her unstructured fantasy play. Soon Ann would have her school friends and she would be ensconced in a happy, typical bunch of girls, just like the gangs of children Eunice ran around when she was a girl. School was no place for odd behavior or invented fantasy worlds; Ann would simply be forced to be part of the real world.

On the first day of school, Eunice brought Ann down to the bus stop to wait with her young brother. She asked her to be good and to make friends. She had dressed her daughter in a bright red dress that was very expensive. It was a sacrifice Hank and Eunice were willing to make. Kids could be so cruel. The right clothes were so important for first impressions. Ann had been forbidden to wear her usual blanket, but produced it the moment the bus pulled away from her home. In the schoolyard, the girls her age milled around one another, but none would talk to the strange girl wrapped in a blanket. There was a little boy in a striped shirt and sailor pants. He was chewing on a short stub of a twig. He was not talking to the boys his age. Ana stood beside the boy, but said nothing. He smiled. He was very shy and said nothing, but his eyes were small, dark, and intense.

One day, one of the second grade teachers walked over to the corner of the playground to see what the little girl in the scarf and the little quiet boy were playing at so intensely. She looked down and noticed the complexity of the drawings on the blacktop. There were what looked like little letters, but none that she could read. Beside that, she noticed an exquisite rendering of an ocean liner, right down to the little semaphore flags and portholes. She said to the children in a friendly tone, “My, what a lovely drawing! Where is the ship going?” They smiled and said nothing, walking back together from the schoolyard to where the kindergarten class was lining up to return inside.

The teacher reflected for a moment: those drawings are superb! Then she grew concerned.  She thought to herself that the children must be very advanced. Perhaps they would be happier in a school for different children; children more like themselves. There was a special school that took in the gifted children so that they did not get bored or picked on in the normal school. Academy Prep even gave scholarships to children from families of modest income if they had flashy talents, like playing the piccolo well or being a geography savant. Perhaps they would be less lonely if they were sent there, she thought. She rushed over to the school’s principal and asked him to follow her out to the blacktop, but by the time they stood where the children had been drawing, a sudden storm had gathered strength and washed the intricacies away; the ocean liner was just a boat; the writing was illegible. The principal seemed relieved that the drawings were not as they had been described. When there are gifted children in a school, all the other kids just feel terrible. Why they can’t all just learn the same thing at the same time? This is something the teacher wondered on her drive home from work each day. Why couldn’t they all just sit in the same classroom and do as they were told. Why did they have to be so difficult, demanding attention? Children could be so willful sometimes.

One morning in the early spring, Eunice awoke early to see if she could rouse Ana, as she now insisted being called, from her sleep. Eunice had seen the prettiest Easter bonnets on sale and had been overcome with nostalgia. They reminded her of her own childhood, back in Indiana, when her mother had forced a scratchy white bonnet with an elastic cord onto her head before church. Those pictures had been so lovely. Later that day, she recalled, the bleach-white material’s chemical coating had made her break out into a particularly harsh bout of hives, but for the first half of the morning, the four sisters had all looked alike and penitent. They had made her mother, usually such an anxious woman, so happy and content that day.

As Eunice crept into the room to surprise her daughter with a sing-song “rise and shine!”, she didn’t think for a moment that anything might be amiss. It was nine a.m., the room was filled with bristling sunlight, even with the shades still drawn; the day would be glorious. But when she went to remove the covers from her sleeping child’s bed, she found that it was freshly made, pin neat. This was alarming. Ana was not an early riser. Eunice joked with other mothers that Ana thought she was in a different time zone. She was always sleepy when others were awake, always awake in the middle of the night. That child was never convenient, that is for sure, but she was good. Her goodness was as plain and simple as a pin-neat bed. She called to her husband to wake up Glenn. She had left the tie that matched his fathers out for Glenn to wear. They would have to hurry to make church on time now.

Eunice began to fret when she didn’t see Ana in the yard. She had thought that there was some chance than she had gone in the sunshine to play, but as she made her way down the stairs of the split-level ranch, she caught a glimpse of something she had never seen before on the fridge. There, affixed with a red letter E magnet, was a sepia photograph she had never seen before. It was old, and Eunice wasn’t particularly fond of antiques because they were usually dirty and broken. She picked up the magnet to release the photograph into her hands. It was of a woman who looked familiar, but she couldn’t place her face. The woman looked to be in her twenties. She stood in front of buildings with roofs shaped like inverted turnips. She was smiling, so at first she didn’t place it, but the eyes were unmistakable. Then she noticed that a small ticket with today’s date lay on the floor. It had been with the photograph and had fallen off the refrigerator. The day, April 8th, was the same, but the year was 1917. The type was of an older style, but the blank spaces for passenger’s names had been filled in with a flowing cursive hand.  The boat had left early that morning with at least two people aboard. Eunice tried repeatedly to read the writing on the ticket, but she could not. There were letters, but they didn’t look right. She tried to focus her thoughts and read the words, but nothing made sense. Instead, she stood in her kitchen and tried to remember the last thing that she remembered her daughter had said.

Sarah Gentile lives in Brooklyn, NY. She co-produces the Bad Feminist Readings series and is a founding editor of the literary journal Crown.

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