Thursday, July 17, 2008

Inherit the Family

“If this rabbit goes, I go, too.” My wife’s aunt had her hands locked to the cage, fingers twisted through the wires for a solid grip.

“Pack your bags then,” I said. My hands were wrapped around the other side of the cage and I was pulling hard. “Give me the fucking rabbit!” I often switch to English when angry. While pulling for my half of the rabbit, I wondered why it was my job to fight with this 75-year-old woman who wouldn’t permit me to give away the rabbit that had chewed through the electrical cords in the house? She wasn’t even related to me.

There are all sorts of stories about Eastern Europe which circulated in Canada in the early 90s. One was that for a pair of Levi’s blue jeans you could buy a car. It was said that for a pack of Marlboros you could have anything smaller. The women were purportedly both gorgeous and dangerous, capable of weaving especially wicked webs.

A few years after arriving in 1992, I married an Estonian woman. None of the warnings that circulated in Canada turned out to apply to Liina. What they should have warned me about were the standard marital issues which apply in every culture. Like the fact that when you marry the wife, you inherit the family.

In Estonia, when a relative gets old the young take care of her. In my North American culture, when a relative gets old we ship her off to the old folks’ home. She usually goes willingly, because independence is such an ingrained part of our culture that she doesn’t want to be a burden. We don’t consider it cruel, though in some respects it surely is. I think the Estonian tradition is much more humane, a poetic role reversal where the young care for the old. It’s beautiful. Or so I thought before I had first-hand experience.

I had met my wife’s aunt on several occasions before we married, and I knew how important she’d been in Liina’s life. The aunt had been the worldly role model. The old gal could be a real charmer, too, and liked to dress up and sashay through town, chatting up all the neighbors. I knew that when we built a house, we’d need to account for her. I imagined a sweet old woman who could help with the gardening, babysit the kids, and tell witty stories from a forgotten world. So we built a house in Nõmme with a small apartment for her where she could spend her retirement years quietly.

That’s when the trouble started. All of her possessions wouldn’t fit in the apartment, and she refused to give them up. She had a veritable warehouse of Soviet crap, including 53 brand new berets, more shoes than Imelda Marcos, and what was probably the world’s largest collection of metal serving trays with pictures of blood sausages on them. She had a mild nervous breakdown when the items went missing (stolen, she was convinced), and I tried to sooth her by replacing her black and white television whose Soviet-era antenna wouldn’t plug into a modern socket. “Get out of here with that!” she screamed at me. “I like my television.” But there were only two things important in her life: her Wednesday public sauna and any TV program starring Hannes Võrno. She finally agreed to take the new TV set only in the name of seeing Hannes.

Living in the new house, I soon learned that even her own family avoided her. She could be so hateful that her own two brothers refused to visit. So why was I so gullible?

After the TV episode, I tried to keep my distance from her, but she was unavoidable. She trapped me in her apartment—which reeked of grilled fatback and rabbit shit—and shouted me down if I tried to interrupt her discourses on the best Tallinn markets for buying pig tails. She would also demand I recharge her telephone card and then verify I’d done the job right by dialing the Estonian equivalent of 911. “Sorry, wrong number,” she giggled like a child making a prank call, as soon as the emergency operator picked up. She would call me down to fix her TV remote, and I would clean out the food stuck between the buttons with a wet cloth and readjust the antenna. It was on one of those days, bent down behind the TV set, that I noticed her rabbit had eaten through the electrical cords. I told her the rabbit would have to go and she brushed me off. “He only chews through the small cords,” she said. “That’s not dangerous.”

“What about this big fat cord I’m holding in my hand?”

“The builder did that! He’s always scraping things!” The week before, she had told the builder that I was plotting to kill her. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of asking Hannes Võrno to stop by and say something nice on my behalf.

I advertised in Soov and arranged for the rabbit to have a good home in the countryside, replete with green pastures and happy children. The day the rabbit’s new family arrived to get him, I asked them to wait behind the gate while I went to get the rabbit. The aunt first refused to believe the rabbit had to go. I mentioned the electrical cords. She denied it. I gave her a cross look, and she told me to turn off the electricity in her apartment. “I don’t need it. I’d rather have my rabbit than electricity!” There was nothing else to do but take the rabbit.

She pulled from her side, and I pulled from mine. She screamed. I swore. The cage separated into pieces and the rabbit scrambled for cover. As she cried, I quietly gathered the creature by the ears and took it out to its new family.

Why did I have to deal with a nutty old woman whose own family wouldn’t talk to her? Why was this my problem? Feeling guilty over the rabbit affair, I asked Liina that very question.
“Just why do you?” she replied.

I guess I felt sorry for the old gal. And because I was several thousand kilometers from my own family, and because I craved for a deeper connection to my new home than a stamp in a passport could provide. I was trying to be a part of the family I’d inherited. But I should have been smarter. Had a paid a little more attention I would have noticed there was good reason her own family had abandoned her. Had I planned a little it, I could have found a better defense. I could have pretended to be deaf or to not speak Estonian.

What happened to the aunt after the rabbit left her? Nothing, really. We got her a dog the next week, and she hasn’t mentioned the rabbit since. She still tells whoever will listen that I’m trying to kill her, but then she still begs me to come down and clean the food out of her remote control. I guess that means we’re back to where we started. Which perhaps isn’t a bad place to be.