The babushka, or grandmother, is a wondrous institution. Most Russian households seem to have one, perhaps sitting quietly in the corner sipping a drink one moment and in the next, bundling up the grandchildren for a brisk winter stroll in the park and a spirited game of ring-around-the-rosy.
The truth is that babushkas are indispensable. Russian mothers have long worked outside the home, and it is the babushkas who do a lot of the heavy-duty child-rearing. Often it's the babushka who fixes up a skillet of kotlety to greet the hungry parents when they return from a long day at work. Or it's the babushka who nurses an unwell child back to health; or provides a steadying influence on the children if Mom and Dad aren't getting along so well.
But the babushka is more than just a glorified (and unpaid) nanny. She's the revered matriarch, probably a widow, with a long and colorful memory of times past - of the Great Patriotic War and Stalin's reign of terror and the stagnant but strangely comfortable days of Leonid Brezhnev.
My children had a babushka once for a couple of weeks. Our regular baby sitter was on vacation, and we brought in Baga - short for Babushka Galina - who had emigrated from St. Petersburg a few years back (and, in American fashion, was not living with her emigre children here).
Baga didn't know a word of English, but she knew exactly how to communicate with my kids. When little Rebecca began to cry as I started to leave, Baga got right down on the floor with her and had her laughing in moments. She fixed the children noodles, took them to the zoo, lay down on the bed with them to make them take their naps. In no time, my kids were blurting out Russian phrases.
We've since lost touch with Baga, but if she ever wanted to take a spot in our home as the honorary babushka, we'd be happy to have her back.