Two sides of forest, one side of river, and one side of wild west of Siberia city block surrounds the compound of my large Catholic social aid organization.
Two large buildings, one smaller monastery, three playgrounds, and a few other assorted landscape features (a small fountain, decorative gnomes, etc.) comprise the compound. The orphanage, one of the large buildings, is a world of its own. As a social unit it exists almost independently, like an island. Few things from the orphanage get over to my building. Exceptions include nasty stomach bugs.
The building I live in, officially Annakina 29/1 (the orphanage is 29/2), has eight different stories. The first is the basement, a labyrinth of storage space. It includes the caretaker’s workshop, the laundry room, the water boiler, and donated winter coats, strollers, and toys out the wazoo. Second is Kids Club, basically a giant playroom. You have to keep the door to the stairs that lead to the basement locked, so that small children from Kids Club don’t wander down there and get lost. The third floor (ground level) is the most civilized. It houses the office, the conference room, and the smaller office of the “night grandmother,” who keeps order in the Mothers’ Home from 6 pm until 6 am. The fourth floor has two kitchens, one shared between Kids Club and volunteers and guests, and another, larger, cleaner one for the office workers. Normally, a professional cook runs the larger, cleaner kitchen, but the organization is now between cooks. Across the hall on the fourth floor is a dining room with white-lace and cream-gauze curtains trimming windows that look out on the Ob. Sister Alexandra (German) chose them. She’s an ace at decorating. Above the breakfast nook in the dining room hangs a jig-saw puzzle that, presumably, Sister Alexandra put together and framed. The picture is of a mountain chalet in summertime, somewhere in the Alps, a reminder that places completely unlike Russia exist, too. On one side of the fifth floor is the kitchen of the Mothers’ Home, and its dining room. On the other side of the hall are two bedrooms for volunteers, and one for guests. On the sixth floor is the play room for the children of the mothers home, Tatianna Yurevna’s office, from which she hands out diapers and formula to the mothers, a sewing room, also for the mothers, a psychologist’s room, also for the mothers, and Olga Alexandrovna’s office. Olga Alexandrovna works in the Mothers’ Home. The seventh floor is Living Block 1 and Living Block 2. Together, Living Blocks one and two room up to twelve mothers and their children. The eighth floor is the attic, which doubles as an additional guest room. I have rarely been up there.
Last Tuesday night hovered between a degree above freezing and a degree below. The rain came down sometimes as rain, sometimes as snow, with strong gusts of wind blowing the slush through any open window. A thirteen-year-old girl was on the roof of the orphanage in shorts and a T-shirt, but because the orphanage is a world of its own, that information is extraneous. Around 8 pm, I finished cleaning the kitchen, and noticed that I had once again, misplaced the key to my room. This is nothing strange. I lose my key all the time. But last Tuesday night was my Dad’s birthday (his morning, my night, exactly 12 hours from U.S. eastern time) and my computer, which I had with me, was rapidly losing charge. My computer charger was up in my room. So first I searched everywhere, not all eight floors, but close to it. I got down on hands and knees and looked under the kitchen counters, which was disgusting. I asked Ludmila, the night grandmother (third floor) if she had seen the key. I asked Andrei, who teaches dance in Kids Club, but at this time was finishing the mural on the Kids Club wall (second floor) if he had seen the key. I asked Lena and Nadia, two mothers, drinking tea in the dining room (fourth floor) if they had seen the key. No one had seen it, and so I went to bed without brushing my teeth (toothbrush in bedroom) in the spare guestroom, and did not call my Dad.
Without an alarm clock, I slept late, and when I woke up, Olya, a mother from the mothers’ home, already stood on the threshold, ready to hand off her baby, Danya. The other mothers won’t take Danya, because Olya rarely takes care of their kids, and besides that, she makes some of the softer mothers cry. I take Danya while Olya is at work, and peace is preserved.
We went together to the kitchen, and there was my key, placed neatly on the table. “Patrick” I said to the new German volunteer, “did you find my key?” No he said, head still in the refrigerator. “But did you eat six of my hot-dogs and half of my kielbasa?”
Now if this were Sherlock Holmes, the reappeared key, the missing meat, and even the girl on the roof of the orphanage would all be connected in a labrinthyne but perfectly logical way, leading to one very clever culprit, tripped up by his own methodology. No, that is not what’s happening here. There were plenty of criminals, but no masterminds.
A bit short of a year ago I stood in Patrick’s shoes exactly — my head swirled by the language, stomach sick from the water, nerves on edge by the constant sounds of the mothers yelling at each other. Lena, the young German volunteer before me showed me my food cabinet, and our refrigerator. She opened the fridge door, pulled out an empty bag and looked a bit sad. “Sometimes you put things in here and they disappear,” she said.
Keys are important in our building. In all, there are more than one hundred of them. There are keys to big things, like the office, and keys to small things, like the Kids’ Club grain supply (flour, rice, buckwheat, and millet). And of all the things worth stealing in the building, in all of the many rooms on all of the many floors, the volunteer’s refrigerator stands alone without lock and key.
You might wonder why so many keys in an organization in an organization, that because it is charitable, effectively gives out food, clothes, and help for free anyway. Here we get into the black side of social work, the side responsible for things like burn-out and despair.
All sorts of people walk into the building each day for social aid, and all sorts of mothers live in the mothers home. The first thing any of my organizations employees will tell you about the mothers home is, “We have smart, beautiful, kind, compassionate mothers in the Mothers’ Home.” The second thing any employee will tell you is, “but we also have psychologically manipulative mothers, that will try to get you to watch their kids from 7 to midnight, and mothers addicted to drugs and alcohol ready to steal to get there next fix. So lock your door.” One former employee, after I’d mentioned to him how bad many of the mothers were at cooking, told me, “It’s like the signs you see at the zoo — don’t feed the animals. Don’t let the animals feed you.” Except that “animals” denotes a bit of cursing in Russian. The more proper translation would be “Don’t let the f**king animals feed you.” He really hates the mothers.
After a year here, I’ve met both types of mothers. More often, though, I’ve met combinations of the two types — like someone who really, really likes alcohol, but knows it’s a problem and tries to quit. Or like who pulls out every psychological manipulation in the book to leave their two-year-old with me on my days off, but unprompted buys me mascara and brings me food when I’m sick. Some mothers are good people down on their luck. Some are basically good people not opposed to stealing kielbasa. And some really are animals.
“Can we do anything about it?” Patrick asked, his sense of decent human behavior newly affronted by flagrant theft. “That’s like dinner for three nights.”
“Pregnant woman can eat a lot,” I said. “But if you want, we can talk to Tatianna Yurevna.”
We took the roundabout route to Tatianna Yurevna. First through the office, where Yulia, twenty-eight, head of “Care of the sick” advised, “These are our clients. There’s nothing we can do about stolen sausages.”
Then into the kids club, where Andrei also said that there was nothing we could do — Tatianna Yurevna was overstretched as it was.
I was about to agree with Andrei, and try to convince Patrick to give up the fight when Sonya Valerevna — 30-years-old, director of Kids Club — walked in, eyes glaring. She (and by implication, the whole of Kids Club) had also been victim to kielbasa theft the day before. And so up we went to Tatianna Yurevna.
First Sonya described how just the day before she had put kielbasa in the microwave, turned the microwave on, left the kitchen, and returned three minutes later to find it gone. “In the middle of the day?” said Tatianna. “That is bold.”
Then I translated for Patrick. “I would be sad, too,” she told him.
Then another one of our social workers, also named Sonya, came into the office and told us all about the mass sausage theft of last week. A mother from the neighborhood had came for free diapers and baby formula. On the way out, she swiped a whole crate of kielbasa.
“But that woman wasn’t here yesterday,” said Sonya Valerevna, “so one or more of our mothers, Tatianna, has been stealing sausage. The kitchen needs a lock.” And that was that. By the end of the day Olga, Patrick, and I each got a new key. The intrigue, however, continued.
“I think it was Alexei’s friend who ate the hot-dogs,” Ludmila Pavlovna, our night grandmother told me conspiratorily that night.
“But the hot-dogs were stolen past midnight,” I said, “and Andrei and his friend left around nine.”
“No, they slept in Kids Club,” said Ludmila, and I saw Andrei’s friend go to the kitchen at four in the morning.” People often sleep over here, because, in this neighborhood, at a certain time of night, it becomes unsafe to leave.
Probably, Ludmila Pavlovna was right. My mind, however, was not on hot-dogs. Andrei’s friend was the last possible person, free of nefarious intentions, who could have found my key, and placed it on the table. I had already surmised that someone with nefarious intentions would have taken my key to the locksmith (a five minute’s walk from here), had a copy made, and loot my room (which has a camera, a laptop, and that’s about it) when they’re sure I’m out. This is obviously a terrible idea.
The next day, I asked Andrei to ask his friend. The friend said no, he hadn’t found my key. I climbed up the stairs to found our caretaker, when Katya, a mother, stopped me. She leaned over the banister, and balanced her large one-year-old on her hip.
“Someone stole your key on purpose,” she said, also conspiratorily. “You should get your lock changed.”
“I know,” I said. “But who?”
“Someone who you constantly interact with.”
“You mean Olya?” I said.
“Yes,” Lena said. And then she lighted up the staircase without another word.
Alexander Sergeyevich, the caretaker, was in the kitchen with the rest of the office workers. Everyone was chatting, and the microwave kept on dinging so I had to raise my voice a bit. “Alexander Seergevich!” I shouted. “Can you change my lock. I think someone had a copy of my key made.”
Then everyone looked at me. This was grade one gossip. I told them the whole story, including the part with Katya. Tatianna Yurevna, who’d been fighting with one mother over swearing the whole morning, crumpled a bit further when she heard the news. “First sausages now this. This whole place is going mad,” she said. Then she went outside to chain smoke for half an hour.
A week later, life in the Mothers’ Home goes on as usual. Lida, the swearing mother, continues to swear. Aliona, six, has picked up some of these words, which pisses her mother, Nadia, off like crazy. Tatianna Yurevna fights every day to save her sanity in a job where, often, the victories seems few and far between. Tanya really is pregnant again, she must have no brains people say. And I continue to watch Danya for Olya a few times a week.
“You know, they say Danya was born in the forest,” Sonya Valerevna said, as we squatted on the kitchen floor peeling potatoes, while I let Danya crawl around.
“You mean a house in the forest?” I said.
“No,” said Sonya. “Outside
“You mean in the park?” I said, speaking of the forest that surrounds the compound.
“No,” said Sonya, “I mean in the real forest. Where there are wolves. How old is Danya?”
“Nine months,” I said. Then we counted backward.
“Christ!” said Sonya. “He was either born in December or January.”
All sorts of mothers live in the mothers home — victims of domestic violence, prostitutes, women with college educations who work in offices, fifteen-year-old girls straight from the orphanage, fifteen-year-old girls from well-off families whose parents want to teach them a lesson. No one knows much about Olya’s past, but I do know that she is of the sort that really has nowhere else to go. When she arrived here, she had no documents. She didn’t even have a cellphone, because she had no one to call. Many times I’ve imagined the course my life would have to take to end up in Olya’s position. Probably, I’d have to become addicted to crack or heroin. The addiction would cause me to break off all contact with my family. I’d move cities. Effectively disappear. Work as a prostitute in the most dangerous neighborhoods. Live with the absolute lowest of the low in an absolutely deprived situation. It gives me chills just thinking about it.
Now it’s not like Olya’s going to graduate with honors from the Mothers Home, or anything. But if you consider where she started — trying to feed Danya cookies when he was just a few days old — she’s done just fine. She has a job as a janitor in a grocery store. She has a cellphone and people to talk to. She has a healthy son whom she loves. The whole key incident seems fairly incongruous with who Olya’s been lately, but apparently, she has backslides. When she first got here, she’d leave Danya with me for hours. Literally, hours on hours when she said she’d be just three. The last time I watched Danya, which was after the key incident, she said she’d be two hours, and came back in two and a half. I wasn’t annoyed or upset, but she was distressed, and apologized over and over.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I hardly noticed.
She pulled out a large chocolate bar from her purse and gave it to me.
“No really, Olya,” I said, “I didn’t even notice you were gone for that long.”
“Just take it!” she said. And I did.