- WRITING PLAYS AND POEMS WHICH NO ONE NEEDS
I had a student who fell totally in love with me or, rather, not so much with me as with what I had my students do during those fifty minutes they spent in my class. Usually, we would read a short play, each student playing the character of his or her own choosing, and once their imaginations were sufficiently tickled, I would tell them to write their own play. And they did. Without being told how to do it, without boring lectures on the structure of a play, they wrote short plays, usually about kids their own age in the throes of “a problem” with a parent, another kid, or…well, a bear or wolf. Soon enough they were writing not only short plays but also poems and stories. It all happened naturally, without my forcing them to do it, or explaining how it is done. Monica, the student I mentioned in the first sentence here, seemed so much in love with writing that I didn’t know how to stop her when the bell rang. First, she wrote only in my class, then she started writing at home, and she would report on her home writing activities on our way from their main classroom to mine with so much zest that I had to temper it somehow. She wrote during summer vacation, and when she came back in September, she showed me a folder which seemed to be bursting at the seams: “See, how much I wrote, Miss Nina!” She would write stories and poems and plays, and when I stood in front of a class, she smiled when I smiled, laughed at all my jokes, even not very funny ones, and looked at me with adoration, which I thought was almost too much. That’s why I was a bit surprised when her parents, during one of our usual parent meetings, told me that Monica was just wasting time in my class and that they want her to stop coming to me. “But she loves to write,” I said, perhaps a bit more defensively than I should have. “She is missing a science class,” they said, “and certainly science is more important than writing little plays and poems that no one needs, and which will not bring her any income in the future. “Ask her,” I said, “whether she wants to stay in my class. I’m sure she wants to stay; she loves writing. And it’s generally not a good idea to do anything against a child’s will.”
I don’t know what happened at Monica’s home, what sort of conversations the parents had with their daughter, but one day, when I came to work, I saw a letter from the homeroom teacher in my mailbox (not an email, but a real one: they still exist). The letter said that the parents decided to pull their daughter from my class as they didn’t want her to miss science. That day, when I came to pick up my group, I waved to Monica and said, “I can’t take you anymore because your parents…” She nodded and stayed in her seat. In the following days and weeks, when I came to pick up her group, she didn’t just remain in her seat — she didn’t even look at me. At first I wondered about it. How can this be? I thought she loved my class, loved to write, and she adored me to the point which seemed to be almost too much. And now she didn’t seem to remember that she came to my class every Tuesday and Thursday for two years, writing all those “little plays and poems that no one needs,” as her father put it. Ah, parents’ influence! It’s a thousand times stronger than that of any teacher, no matter what they say.
LOVE THY MOTHER
Before I tell you what happened, I have to tell you that my mother is very old, and like many old people, she needs help with sitting up, lying down, eating, all the usual daily functions, except standing, because with or without help, she is not able to stand, period. When she lived with us, she had to have a home care aide at our home all day. If you never lived with a complete stranger in the middle of your rather small living space, you wouldn’t understand why it was hard, so just take my word for it. We couldn’t use the kitchen or the bathroom; as the aide was always doing something with my mother in the middle of the apartment–no matter what part of the apartment they actually were in—it felt like a “middle”, because our place was small.
After my mother—like most Russian speakers, I call her “mama”—fell down in our bathroom two and a half years ago, she was taken to our local hospital. Doctors told me that she had broken several bones. A week later she was transferred to a rehab to receive physical therapy. To make a very long short, she was not able to do anything in physical therapy; she couldn’t even swing her legs while seated in her wheelchair. She certainly wasn’t able to return to the timorous perambulation of the period before her fall. Without my knowledge, she was transferred from the sixth floor to the fifth: the same place that was called “rehab” was now called “nursing home.”
I go there so often that I know every nurse and every aide by name; I know all patients by name and how often they are visited. Some are visited by their grown children every Sunday, or Saturday. Most are not visited at all. Mama is lucky: she is the only one on the entire floor who is visited every day. I’m not going to tell you what a good person I am or that I feel about my visits what Sisyphus must have felt about his rock: my visits do nothing, yet I’m condemned to go there and spend several hours a day in this place of shadows.
Mama had a roommate who was somewhat younger than her, which doesn’t mean that she was young. Valentina had two things that made her situation much worse than mama’s: she was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, and she was never visited. She had two grown daughters, a son, and six grandchildren. I saw their photos on a wall near her bed, but I never saw any of them in person. When I was in the room, she would ask me to give her a glass of water or to turn off her light. One time an aide saw me bring a paper cup to Valentina’s mouth. She said not to do this, insisting that the lady didn’t want water, she wanted attention. Sitting by mama’s bed I would hear Valentina mutter: “Where did I go wrong?” or “Wasn’t I a good mother to them?” There were evenings when she mistook me for one of her kids and asked about her grandchildren. When it first happened, I told her I was visiting my mama, but the next time I remained silent. Why disillusion a person who has nothing left?
One day I saw Valentina lying with an oxygen mask on her face. I had seen plenty of patients attached to machines, so this sight was nothing special to me. Valentina was lying with her eyes closed, like usual, as if the oxygen mask wasn’t even there. That month she seemed too depressed to say anything at all; even confusing me with her children seemed beyond her strength.
She seemed to be struggling with a cord connecting her to the machine. This could be dangerous, I thought, and when she tried to pull the oxygen mask off her face, I went to call a nurse. There was no nurse on the floor, but an aide followed me into the room, untangled the cords, and placed the oxygen mask back on Valentina’s face.
When I came to see mama the next evening, Valentina’s bed was empty. She was probably taken to a hospital, I thought. The bed remained empty on my subsequent visits; after a few days, I asked a passing aide what happened to Valentina.
“She died,” the aide said. She added that Valentina’s kids had a Health Proxy, which meant they had a right to tell the nursing home staff to take her off her medications. The nursing home explained to them that she would die without her meds. They knew their mother was dying, since they themselves, basically, had engineered her death, and knowing this, they didn’t come to be with her in her last days.
That night I left at eleven thirty. When the staff came into the room at midnight, she was gone. I was the last person she saw.
A SHOP IN DUBROVNIK
When I was in Dubrovnik a couple weeks ago, I did the touristy thing: I went to see the old town. Walking down narrow streets filled with tourists, I didn’t stop at any souvenir shops because I had promised myself not to spend money and time on nonsense. I was doing pretty well until I saw a shop that looked like an artist’s studio, or a gallery. Unusual artworks, half paintings and half collage, were everywhere—on tables, on shelves, and on the floor. All the works had Jewish themes: synagogue doors, old Jews in kippahs and tallit and so on. There was only one person there, a youngish woman who was pacing the shop as she talked on the phone, and when she hung up, I asked her about the artist and why all the pictures had Jewish themes. The artist was her mother, she said, and she used Jewish themes in her works because this—she made a sweeping gesture—used to be the Jewish quarter, and over there—she waved to her right—was a synagogue… And, she added as an afterthought, people buy these paintings because they want something to show that they saw the Jewish quarter. Her mother was Croatian, not Jewish Croatian, just Croatian, and although under different circumstances I wouldn’t have cared about her mother’s roots (I make a point of not caring about such things), now I was confronted by a realization that this woman and her daughter were making money on art with Jewish themes in the old Jewish quarter that no longer had a single Jew because Croatian Jews had been wiped out in the Holocaust. I asked her point-blank about it, saying something about how the artwork made Jewish life in Dubrovnik look like a kind of glowing picnic, instead of how it was in reality. The Jews in Dubrovnik had been killed, so why didn’t the art hint at what really happened? Last but not least, why were they making money by selling images of people who had been murdered?
To mitigate the harshness of my words, I used a soft voice, but she was offended anyway.
“My mother and I did not kill anyone,” she said.
“No,” I said, “Of course not. But you’re making money off the victims.”
I wanted to add a few more things, but it was hopeless; my words didn’t reach this lady, they simply irritated her, so I left the shop.
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Moscow born, Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, painter, and playwright. Her English short stories and poems have been published in US, Canadian and British journal. Her Russian poems and short stories have been published in major Russian literary journals. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, an anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myth, published by Oxford University Press, and a novel. Her new book of poems and translations has just been published. Her work has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.