When I was 14 years old, my mother left me all by myself for the first time in my life. She had an opportunity to go to England for her teacher’s training for 4 months, and after much hesitation and considerations, it was decided by the family that I could support myself for that time.
It was a school time, so I had to be in Minsk, and pretty much fend for myself. My mom left me a few easy recipes, and my aunt would send some food in jars with my older cousin, who would come each week for his studies from their small town in the province.
I won’t lie; it was a difficult time for me. I had always been a loner but never quite as alone. I missed my mom, and living by myself was unusual, strange and hard. I would come home to the empty apartment, do my homework, watch whatever was on 2 channels of TV, cook some food and go to bed. My mother wrote letters to me, and it was a tremendous joy to open the mailbox and find a letter from her. Weekends would be particularly hard: there was no school, my cousin would be at home with his mother, there was no mail and I would spend the entire days in the apartment, counting minutes till the new week.
My mother left for England in the mid-August; she was due to return some time around Christmas. One weekend, at around the end of November, I suddenly got a phone call from uncle Sergey, my aunt’s husband and my cousin’s dad. My aunt was in the hospital for several days for some checkups, and my cousin Yura was away on some school trip, so he was lonely, too. He invited me over to his house in Stolbtsy for the weekend.
This was strange indeed to me. My uncle Sergey was a burly, grumpy, sombre man. He was never known for any kind of affection, care or any other feelings. My aunt spent her life fighting him and his alcohol addiction and anger bouts. My grandmother has always nagged him for being lazy and drinking too much, and even my cousin has been closer to his mom than his dad. In other words, uncle Sergey was somewhat of an outcast of the family. His relation with me has not been exactly non-existent, but very marginal. He would semi-jokingly threaten to punish me whenever I would forget not to throw toilet paper into their commode (which would clog it), and made fun of my lack of physical stature, but one thing we did together was solving crossword puzzles. I was a clever boy in my preteen years, and uncle Sergey would get a new crossword puzzle several times a week with his newspaper.
“Why don’t you come over, Zhenik?” he said on the phone. “Aunt Ira’s gone, it would be just you and I, no women, no yelling or nagging. We’d watch some TV and solve crossword puzzles. There’s food here, so don’t worry, you won’t be hungry.”
I hesitated for just a little (it was, after all, weird to be at my aunt’s house without anyone but my uncle around), but then agreed. I packed my little backpack, locked the door and went to the railway station by the city bus.
It was already cold and snowy. I took the late Friday evening train to the town where he lived. The train journey was only about two hours long, but it was a world apart from my Minsk life. It got dark early, and I could hardly see anything but snow through the icy window of the frigid train. I bundled up, trying to read my book, Jack London’s “Martin Eden”, and keep warm on the hardwood seat of the suburban train Minsk-Baranovichi.
My uncle’s house was another 15 minutes walk through the snowy path from the station. I tried to keep my feet dry, which was difficult in a foot-deep snow and dim lights of the small town in midnight. When I arrived, uncle Sergey was happy to see me; in fact, happier than I had ever seen him before. He warmed up some buckwheat porridge and pork chops, and opened some fruit compote for me, He was very friendly, and cracked funny jokes as we sat together, watching late night TV in his well-warmed living room.
Uncle Sergey made bed for me in my cousin’s room, and I slept so well; in fact, better than I had ever slept since my mother departed for England almost 4 months before. I slept in late the next morning, and my uncle made breakfast and tea. The day was frosty but sunny, and we had spent it watching more of TV, reading, solving crossword puzzles and playing with the cat. It was beautiful and snowy outside, and it was quiet and peaceful in the house, without the usual hustle and bustle whenever my aunt, my mom and my grandma were around. Later in the evening, uncle Sergey made dinner, and we again, watched TV and solved crosswords.
I left back for Minsk on Sunday, ready to spend the remaining couple of weeks before my mom’s arrival in good spirit. That weekend was the only time I had ever spent with my uncle. He went on being his old lazy alcoholic self, at least according to my aunt and my grandmother. When I saw him last on my trip home a couple of years ago, he was a frail shadow of his former self. He died of diabetes complications on Christmas day, shortly thereafter.
I don’t remember many specifics about being in my early teens, but that weekend with my uncle stuck in my memory, with all the smallest details. It was certainly the best time I had of those miserable four months that I was alone.