as we descend the metal stairs of the train car, two women waiting on the platform leap at
Sergei and bury him with hugs.
“David, this is my cousin Ira and her daughter, Zhenia.”
“Ochen priatno paznakomnitsa [It's nice to meet you],” I say, shaking their hands.
Ira has short red hair and Sergei's facial features. Zhenia is twenty-three, with long,
shiny black hair and is wearing the uniform of many young Russian women—skin-tight
jeans and wedge-style shoes that extend her height by a good four inches. Rose liked to
offer commentary on the clothing choices of Russian women, often focusing on their de-
termination to wear high heels or uncomfortable wedges no matter how much ice or snow
was impeding sidewalks. Zhenia leads us, uncomfortably, over chunks of ice and snow to
her car, and we pile in and head for Aunt Nina's apartment. Again, on the outside, a gray,
drab building. We go up a cramped, old elevator the size of a broom closet, enter the flat
itself, and it could not be a warmer place.
While Sergei is saying hello to other family members, Aunt Nina and I are having one
of those conversations with no speaking because of the language barrier. I hand her a box
of chocolates, and say (motion, really), Thank you for having me. She takes my suitcase,
motions for me to open it, and points to a small room with a shower. I now get the point.
As her travel-weary foreign guest, I am meant to have the first crack at a shower, and who
am I to refuse?
Aunt Nina and her late husband were given this flat during Soviet times. They lived
modestly by Soviet standards. She was a schoolteacher who later worked a desk job at a
local prison, where Sergei's late uncle Peter was a top official. Those jobs, along with oth-
er murky considerations the Soviet authorities never divulged, determined their status and
living situation. The apartment has a tiny kitchen with a stove and fridge, a closetlike room
with a sink, a bathroom with a toilet and shower, a small bedroom, a larger bedroom, and
a spacious room that serves as living and dining room. For one or two people, the space
would feel plentiful. But as with many Russian families, generations live under the same
roof, trying to maximize whatever they can get from housing that was allocated for free
during Soviet times. Aunt Nina sleeps on the couch in the small bedroom. She has given
the master bedroom to Zhenia and her boyfriend, who are both out of school and beginning
new careers that don't pay much.
When I emerge from the shower, it is late afternoon. Irresistible smells are already waft-
ing from Aunt Nina's kitchen. She and other family members are arranging the dining
room—pulling up the couch to provide seating on one side, adding chairs in other places. I
can already tell we are going to spend some serious time here.
At five o'clock I am instructed to sit and ten family members join. Aunt Nina is bringing
out dish after dish, one more delicious than the next—homemade borscht with a dollop of