“I need a drink with baking soda … my throat is burning and I can hardly swallow.” This was my grandmother’s signature phrase. Her custom was to deliver it with urgency and pathos at the entrance to my parents’ living space in our family home in Plovdiv. She would lean forward through the half-opened door, her hand timidly resting on the door handle. My grandmother’s craving for the unassuming white powder hovered over the table in our dining area.
As I grew older, I learned to recognize the slight variations in tone and wording depending on the person who my grandmother addressed. I sensed that my grandmother’s need for baking soda revealed something crucial about her personality. It also had to do with her position in our family.
Baking soda was one of the goods that were available on the semi-empty shelves of Bulgaria’s communist economy. However, my grandmother didn’t keep baking soda in the shabby cupboard of her attic kitchen. In a way, it was odd that the powder she daily craved was not within her reach. It was the jar of baking soda in my mother’s kitchen on the floor below that held captive my grandmother’s interest. She believed that jar to be the key to her dilemmas, beyond easing the discomfort of her acid reflux. In a figurative sense, it opened the door to her daughter’s domain.
My grandmother and mother occupied two different realms underneath one and the same leaky roof. The improvised bookshelves in our dining area held together my mother’s world. They reached all the way up to the ceiling and completely covered the glass wall, thus blocking the light and leaving the room dimly lit. It seemed as if my mother used her books at the entrance to her living space to protect herself from a threat only visible to her.
The books on these shelves spelled out the geography of my mother’s mind. Most of them were European classics with a strong bias for German literature — Heinrich Böll, Hermann Hesse, Max Frish, Günter Grass and Thomas Mann. There were also Russians and Soviets– Lev Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov and Mikhail Sholokhov. Latin American authors were more sporadic — Jorges Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. There were some US ones — John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey. The end of the bookshelves were spilling piles of LIK, a Bulgarian magazine on literature, art and culture, with which my mother unfailingly kept up to date.
My mother had strong ideas about the countries from which these authors came. Germany was the place of my grandfather’s graduate education. It was a destination to which my mother would have gladly traveled, if Communist Bulgaria had allowed its citizens to freely go abroad. She aspired to be like my grandfather. She considered him to be a savant who had followed his intellectual pursuits despite losing his university job. (This was the price he paid for not chiming in with communist propaganda.) West Germany was also the country to which my uncle had defected in order to pursue his Ph.D. degree. My mother would have gladly followed his example. However, she believed that as a woman, she lacked the necessary courage and determination. Supposedly, even as a ferocious reader, she could never match the intellectual prowess of a man.
My mother was shrewdly aware that the books she was reading were censored. In the Bulgarian translation of Böll’s Billiards at Half Past Nine, all passages in which its author criticized totalitarian states were missing. The communist elite was afraid that such reading could instill critical thought in common folks and they might recognize that Bulgaria was also a totalitarian country. Who knows what would have happened then …
Even though the publication of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was posthumously allowed in the Soviet Union, the parts critical of the regime were also left out. Bulgakov’s complete manuscript was only printed behind the Iron Curtain, in France and West Germany. For my mother, West Germany was a place of intellectual freedom, while the Soviet Union stood for censorship and repression. After all, this is where the Bulgarian ruling class got its ideas for abusing the civil rights of its citizens.
I suspected that my mother considered the geography of her mother’s mind to be limited. Its center was my grandmother’s attic kitchen. Its outermost location was Koprivshtitsa, where my grandmother was born. In between lay the farmers markets and grocery stores that my grandmother frequented in her daily effort to tend to our family. My grandmother read mostly French novels but my mother hardly ever asked about them. She addressed my grandmother only to inquire about the daily menu. The casual way in which she used my grandmother’s first name, thus breaking cultural conventions, suggested slight derision. It implied that she didn’t think much of her mother’s daily efforts to feed the family.
For my mother, it was vital that her books hovered over the food my grandmother cooked for us. When she sat at the table in our dining area, she looked up to them and not down at the mundane stuff that my grandmother had served on her plate. Food for thought was far more important than common sustenance. My mother believed she could numb her sense of taste by staring at her books and going through their titles in her head.
The superficial ignorance of youth was certainly behind my mother’s disparaging attitude towards her mother as our household cook. However, way deeper than this lay a subconscious fear that, in spite of all her efforts, my mother could not really get ahead of her mother because, like her, she was a woman. An awareness that, even with a university degree and an impressive array of knowledge, a woman could not accomplish much in Bulgaria’s patriarchal society made my mother angry and bitter. It was culturally unsuited for a woman to make big decisions that influenced the world. This was a man’s job. Even the German political theorist Hannah Arendt had supposedly said so. Arendt’s misconstrued views on gender provided my mother with some meager consolation. And so did her inconspicuous efforts to put my grandmother down.
On the surface, my grandmother accepted her daily humiliation with humility. She was soft spoken and met my mother’s slight derision with an obliging faint smile. Most of the time, while setting the table and serving our food, her gestures were timid and she kept her gaze low. On all counts, it seemed that my grandmother had agreed to her role as a cook and housekeeper so that my mother could tend to her intellectual pursuits. Upon my mother’s marriage, my grandmother had quietly retreated to the attic in her father’s house, thus leaving the spacious second floor to her daughter’s family. She came downstairs to bring our food and serve it. When we were finished eating, she re-appeared to tidy things up and do the dishes. Then she was once again quickly gone until she appeared to request a drink of baking soda.
My grandmother’s attic kitchen was confining for sure. However, it was still over our heads where my docile grandmother scurried along in pursuit of her insignificant daily tasks. Usually the sound of her feet was muffled and soft. However, on occasion, my grandmother stomped on the boards and then a cloud of dust from the overfilled bookshelves would fill the air of our dining space. To me, it looked as if a mass of baking soda had suddenly swept over my mother’s head.
Mid-afternoon, when we were all fed and her services were no longer needed, my grandmother’s head would pop in her daughter’s doorway to request a drink with baking soda. Her gesture of hesitantly placing her hand on the door handle conveyed humility. In itself, her request appeared rather innocent. However, the tone of her voice and the way she stressed each word rather than what she actually said conveyed her real message: my grandmother was seriously unwell. Her throat and chest were burning. For all she knew, her life might be even in danger. Therefore, her daughter should jump to her feet to get her baking soda in the nick of time.
My grandmother’s eyes would stare accusingly at my mother’s face. How could her daughter forget that her mother had her own needs! It seemed as if she almost wished her daughter would falter for a second. This would give my grandmother a chance to fall to the floor, presumably dead. And then, on whose conscience would my grandmother’s demise weigh? On her snooty daughter’s of course!
My grandmother was like Franz Kafka’s Josephine the Singer. Her unsurpassed dishes gathered us around the dining table. They filled even my mother with awe, even though she pretended to ignore them. Throughout the day, my grandmother worked magic in my mother’s household and she seemed to modestly accept her role as my mother’s housekeeper. However, she also knew how to reach for my mother’s jar of baking soda and tip the scales of influence in her favor. Her imposing request for a drink with the white powder could make my mother jump and drop her issue of LIK.