August 20, 2017

The Orphan

The Orphan
Maria Konyayeva explains a photo to the author. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

It is hot in Kolomna even at 8 in the morning as Misha and I set out for breakfast and a stroll to see the city’s well-restored kremlin before the day’s activities begin. At the gates to the complex a rotund fellow in the nineteenth century policeman’s outfit gives us the once over, surely wondering if we are going to ask to have our picture taken with him as thousands of tourists must. We do not.

“Isn’t that uniform a bit warm?” I ask instead.

“Not yet, but it will be soon enough,” he replies, the anticipation of sweat and fatigue leaking out of his voice.

We stroll down to the river, Misha has his run-in with the church matron, and then we pick up some famous Kolomna pastilles for our host. The town once had a famous pastille-making factory (as chronicled in Russian Life magazine back in 2011), and the art is being resurrected, so we avail ourselves of the chance to get a taste of history before walking back to our hotel.

* * *

Were it possible to estimate the number of orphans created in Russia by the three decades of war, famine, and revolution that occurred between 1914 and 1945, it would surely present a devastating and depressing figure. Especially since few would have had much chance of survival on their own, and would not likely have lived far beyond the life expectancy in Russia at that time of around 35.

Maria Konyayeva is surely an outlier, as she has lived to be 100, despite being orphaned at 13 when her mother died; her father had died eight years before.

Maria was taking care of her mother at the time and one morning her mother, lying in bed, said, “There is no need to make kasha today.” She died that day.

With piercing blue eyes, a warm disposition, and a playful sense of humor, Maria is a sincere soul who needs to be looking into the eyes of her interlocutor when she is recounting a story. She is making a connection; break her gaze and her story trails off.

Maria in happier times, fifth from left in the front row. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

The centenarian has scarcely left Kolomna, a town about 100km southeast of Moscow, her entire life, and was not even evacuated during the war, when the Germans loomed over the capital in 1941. She began her working life as a domestic, then worked for five years in the local bread factory. During the war her full time job became raising the family’s two children.

We ask how she met her husband, and she laughs, her face overcome by a beautiful smile. After a long pause, she says there were dances, and she went to one with a girlfriend.

He asked, “Can I walk you home?”

“As you like.” She said. “Let’s go. I’m not going to put you in my pocket in any case… We went together for three months… very properly, very correctly. He was a very good husband to me, and all my friends liked him. First of all, he did not drink, he was not a drunk. Of course, we had a little drink on holidays… He never swore at me and I lived with him for 54 years. We celebrated our golden anniversary.  He was a very good husband… We never raised our voices or swore at one another.”

“Did you fall in love with him right away?” we ask.

“Well, what do you mean? It was fine. I liked him. He looked after himself, was clean.” Then, after a long pause: “He did not paw at me.” [Он мне руками не хапал.]

Maria Konyayeva and her husband at VDNKh in Moscow. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}
Maria Konyayeva and her daughter, Galina. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Despite having just four years of education, or perhaps because of that, Maria raised a family that valued learning and self-improvement. Her daughter Galina, now retired, became a teacher of physics.

The amazing geological collection of Maria's son in law. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Maria is justifiably proud of what she calls her “clan.” And it would not be surprising to find that someone orphaned as a teen put special pleasure in having built a strong family.

“My entire clan has higher education,” she says, listing off their various degrees and achievements. Then she remembers with fondness how many of them gathered for her birthday in March.

“My eldest grandson, he brought me 51 roses,” she says, her face lighting up as she chuckles at the memory.

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