I recently returned to Russian-language study after a long hiatus during which I was focusing on writing. The process has been a shock, discovering how much one can forget, even in a few short months. Newly lost to me were not only vocabulary words, but grammar and spelling too, after several years of lessons. Now begins the long process of reviewing all the basics. In the meantime, I’m thinking, this is my mother tongue – literally, the language of my mother – how could I forget it? She began teaching me almost as soon as I could speak, but when she became severely delusional could no longer continue. When I began studying it again, childhood words she had taught me began to return to me: flower, butterfly.
There is a Russian expression, Obshii Yazik, common language. It came to mind when I was thinking how difficult it is sometimes to relate to others, especially if you’re not speaking the same language. In 2001, I took up Russian again, partly because it had been so long, but also to prepare for the first visit I made to my family in Russia for nearly 30 years. I had no idea what to expect, and although I’d corresponded with them sporadically, didn’t really feel I knew them.
That feeling changed as soon as I stepped out of security at the airport in Moscow. As my aunt Natasha and my cousin Slavik ran forward to greet me, memories came flooding back. That feeling changed when I saw them in nature, as they showed me rivers, forests, their dacha or country shack and plot of land where they grow vegetables and fruits – nearly all they need. As I looked at my aunt, my mother’s happy, healthy sister, living so closely with her family, digging with a hoe in the rich black Russian earth, that feeling changed and I had all the words that I needed to know. Any differences between us – culture, customs, interests – faded into the distance.
During the entire stay I thought of, and we spoke of, my mother. How could such a brilliant woman, with no family history of schizophrenia, decline so terribly, become so disabled? I had spent my teenage and earlier adult years largely estranged from her, ill-equipped and unable to deal with her. After my Russian journey, though, something in me softened. This stubborn, hard-to-relate-to woman gradually began to become a human being again before my eyes. No longer was she merely a sick, frightening person. I began to see her for her strength, her kindness, and her great love. What a circuitous route to come back to her! Mother, for me, Russia and Russian are you.
[NOTE: 10/2-8 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. We all know, or know someone who knows, someone with these devastating conditions. Here’s to less stigma, and more education and help for the ill and their family/friends! (see NAMI link at right for details)]