|Sister Pasha's house in Solntsevo, on the site of the old house|
I loved sharing a bedroom with her. Every night I would ask babushka to tell me stories about her childhood. Or 'stories about the village', as I used to call them. And tell me she did, again and again, during those long Ukrainian winter nights, often falling asleep mid-sentence.
She was the tenth surviving child in a well-to-do peasant family in Western Russia. I've never been to Solntsevo, the village she was born in: the old house didn't survive anyway and the new one was occupied by babushka's older sister Pasha until she died before I was born.
But it's easy to imagine the place. White clay houses, surrounded by kitchen gardens and fields, a stream running in between weepy willows and fruit trees, unmade roads, that turned into mud baths in the rain, and daisies. Lots and lots of daisies.
It was a busy household. Mariyka's mother Natasha would be busy cooking, cleaning and washing, helped by the older girls. The boys would be working with the father in the fields. A typical life of a peasant family.
Babushka's first job was to look after geese and she didn't like it that much. They would hiss and pinch - a bit frightening for a 4-year-old girl. But everyone had to pull their weight.
It was mid 1920s when the Soviet Russia, starved and exhausted after two wars, allowed private enterprise, previously banned, to pop up all over the country, creating jobs, producing goods, growing and selling food.
My babushka's family was considered to be a 'kulak' family. A name given to well-off peasants, who could afford having hired help for working on the fields.
They were tolerated for now, at the end of the day, the new proletariat, which flooded the cities needed bread, and the 'kulaks' were particularly good at growing and selling food. But it wouldn't last too long...