June 22, 2017

The Full 100

The Full 100
Maria Nikolayevna Ryabtsova, on her 100th birthday, in St. Petersburg. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

On the eve of our visit, the ambulance came for Maria Nikolayevna Ryabtsova: there was something wrong with her neck. The doctor examined her, but found nothing serious. He did an EKG and was surprised: “if only everyone had a heart like yours,” he said.

In the morning, Maria Nikolayevna was active and happy, as usual. Generally speaking, she is not used to being sick: there’s work to be done and she has no time for hospitals. In recent years, just one ailment has been vexing her: she has been going blind. To this day Maria refuses to believe that her sight will not return, and she continues trying to mend her own clothes and to sew on lost buttons.

She moves about her Petersburg apartment swiftly and surely, which is not surprising, given that she has lived here half her life. In the middle of the last century, her husband constructed apartment buildings in this section of the city, and so they were given a two-room apartment in one of the five-story structures.

Today, Maria Nikolayevna lives with her grandson and his wife, who are both very young. Alexander and Natalya help their babushka with everything, but do so tactfully, in order not to insult her or infringe on her independence.

Maria Nikolayevna shares some photos with the author. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Maria still prefers to do her own shopping and to cook her own dinners. “Why should I take up the young people’s time?” she says, “they have plenty else to do.”

On the day of our visit, Maria Nikolayevna was going shopping. She and Natalya walked for about an hour, at a very good clip, and managed to cover a city block and visit two stores. After their walkabout, they measured her blood pressure: 123 over 68.

“You could fly to outer space,” Natalya certified as she removed the pressure sleeve from her babushka’s arm.

“Well, we’ll fly tomorrow, then,” Maria laughed. The following day, June 14, she had big plans: she was turning 100.

Natalya helps Maria Nikolayevna get ready for her big day. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

The grandkids were entirely consumed by the celebration, but of course the hero of the day also had plenty to worry about. She had to get dressed up in a handsomely pressed skirt and blazer (a row of medals having been affixed to the latter); meet with city representatives and receive their congratulations; answer phone calls and read a letter from President Putin; act a part in our Children of 1917 film and fill our team up with tea; take part in a discussion of “how much juice needs to be purchased for the party”; get her hair done and change into an elegant, bright-green dress; then go visit her grandchildren. And all of this had to be done before the special celebratory dinner, which was being held in a restaurant.

Only the very closest relatives were able to make it to the party. There were just 20 people, but they represented four generations. The most striking and cheerful guests were two of Maria’s nieces– the twins Rosa and Lyusya, venerable 70-year-olds. They sang drinking songs and fired up the competitions, in one of which they were the undisputed leaders. The task was to name the most significant events of the last century, those in the history of the country as well as in the life of the honoree.

To be fair, however, Maria Nikolayevna ought be given her due. In her merry making, she was the equal of anyone at the party.

A special portrait session at the party. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Around about the middle of the celebrations, at six in the evening, we began to make serious inquiries of her relatives, whether perhaps Maria Nikolayevna might be tired and going home soon. The question was met only with surprise: “What do you mean? She will hang in there until the end!”

We realized that we could not compete with Maria Nikolayevna on this front, as the following morning we had to leave Petersburg at five a.m., to be in Pskov oblast for another 100th birthday party. So we had to leave the party when it was in full swing.

We said our goodbyes to Maria Nikolayevna warmly, as friends. And she, who had all day been smiling and laughing, waved goodbye while quietly wiping away tears.

Maria Nikolayevna's big day. {Video: Yevgeny Mashchenko}

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