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I’m not sure how many chickens my grandmother had to slaughter to stuff the pillows I currently sleep on, but I’m guessing there were many. My mother tells me that every chicken was a sort of pet before it hit the kitchen table—and certainly before it was slaughtered, my grandmother calmed it by whispering old stories of the motherland. The chickens were bought at Montreal’s Jean-Talon market, brought back to my grandmother’s home in Park Extension (or “Parking Station” as my dedushka used to call it) and allowed to run around in her basement for a week, eating at will before their inevitable fate in her white double oven. Babushka would get to know the chicken, talk to her, and on her day of judgment, sit the chicken in her lap and stroke it before slitting its throat. The feathers were collected and eventually stripped for their down.
The last time I saw my grandmother she was sitting at the end of my bed a couple of hours after my daughter was born. Babushka was wearing her one green suit that she had made for herself years ago for special occasions, and the black heeled oxfords deformed by the bulging bunions on both her feet. She smiled at me and disappeared. My daughter who is now 14 refers to this incident as post-natal hallucination. For me it is a memory I cannot forget and one that has become a story in our small family, however far-fetched it might seem. When my babushka died it took under an hour to gather up her belongings. Years before, my mother had successfully retrieved the two gold chains that my grandmother had hidden in a profusion of plastic Provigo bags. Aside from those chains, her suit, and her deformed oxfords, babushka owned very little. She was of the generation that understood need over want and her carbon footprint was a small one indeed. Today I have one of those gold chains, a few photographs, and a collection of stories that make up part of the tapestry of her life. Oh, and the pillows.
Perhaps my babushka’s reverence for food began when both of her brothers were struck and killed by lightning while attempting to steal potatoes in what was then Poland and is now Russia. While my babushka was not a religious woman her respect for nourishment was paramount in her approach to food. There was little waste. Marrow was sucked from the bones after it had been smeared onto rye bread and sprinkled with salt. Leftover bread, when there was any, was made into breadcrumbs and the pot of soup that stood bubbling at the back of her stove was a receptacle for flavour and local ingredients. Her cabbage rolls were stuffed to overflowing, her apple pies bursting with fruit, hrustiki were flaky and bathed in icing sugar, pickles were crisp and squeaky, and the steaks she fried for us sang in butter and garlic, the chunks of fat fried extra crispy. For very special occasions my dedushka would go all out and buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In those days, it was a Sunday treat only bettered by dessert at Dairy Queen.
This past summer I thought I caught a glimpse of my babushka standing at the end of the dock with my 10-year-old son who was desperately trying, yet again in what seemed like the driest summer ever for fish, to catch something with a tail and gills. “I caught one!” Edward was swaggering at the end of the dock and luckily my mother ran over and helped him haul in the three-pound largemouth bass. I’d never intentionally killed an animal but I was determined that this one was going to make it to our dinner table—what we do for our children. I could only find a bread knife but I ran down and looked at the mass of fish flopping on our dock. I took over when after a strong knock on its noggin from Edward it flip flopped again, mocking our weakness. Wham! Wham! This fish would not give up and when it finally did, I felt Babushka standing willing me to understand the importance of never letting your next meal suffer. Under Edward’s instructions I cut off the head and cleaned out the guts. When on my next try with the second two-and-a-half-pound bass I killed it with one blow, Babushka disappeared. We stuffed those fish with lemons, barbecued them along with the pickerel frozen earlier in the summer. We raised a toast to the fish.
In the days when my babushka worked at a shmata factory in Montreal, her two-week summer vacations were spent at Sainte-Basile-le-Grand. She and my mother would take the bus to a farm where they would rent a room. Normally, my mother’s bedroom window looked out onto a bordello, but here she could see a pink horizon and at night a celebration of stars. During the day, my mother and grandmother would pick berries and help out on the farm in return for extra food. And at night, Babushka would leave a night line in the river, waking up early to see what would be on the dinner table. Just as Edward caught his fish as we were leaving, so did Babushka catch the catfish of all catfish the morning she and my mother were to board a bus back to Montreal. My mother tells me the catfish was three feet long and my grandmother hauled it in gently and held it in both arms as she masterfully worked the hook out of its mouth. Babushka wrapped the fish up in towels, filled a bottle with water and mounted the bus with my mother making sure to give the fish water en route. The fish was named and when they arrived home, the bathtub was filled and the fish was lowered in. The catfish stayed in that tub for a week—and each day my babushka would talk to it, feed it, and wonder at the food that it would bring. And then finally the time came for her to wrap up that catfish once again, hold it on her lap, calm it, and slit its throat. They ate catfish for days, catfish soup, catfish cakes, fried catfish, baked catfish.
There is a Russian fairy tale about a fisherman who catches a fish and upon letting it go the fish shows her gratitude by telling the fisherman that whatever he wishes, he need only ask the fish and that wish will come true. The fisherman’s wife is a greedy woman who commands her husband to ask for more and more until, literally, her wished-for life falls apart and she goes back to what she had been at the start of the story. My babushka would have shaken her head at both the stupidity of the fisherman and the greed of the woman. Babushka never said grace before a meal—I now know that her appreciation for what lay before her came long before the pot hit the stove. At some point I’d like to calculate how many chickens were needed for those two pillows. At the moment however, I’ll stuff my farmer’s market chicken with lemons and limes, roast it until it’s golden, and savour the sweet memories of my babushka.
Anna Rumin is a Montrealer of Russian heritage who has lived and taught in Quebec's Eastern Townships and French-speaking Switzerland, and currently resides in Guelph, Ontario.