When I try to remember my childhood, what comes to my mind first is the village where my grandma used to live. I visited her each summer. My cousins, four boys and one girl, also came to our grandma’s house when I was there. I was the oldest child, but I didn’t realize that. I just played the same stupid boyish games like everybody else, including another girl, my youngest cousin (now my grandma has two more granddaughters who have no idea of what our childhood was at that time).
My grandma lived in a small one-floor house with a garden, a yard, and a toilet outside, which was a problem because the commercial break interrupting our favourite Turkish TV show was not enough to pee. It was also an advantage because we could pause the game and return to it quickly. Sometimes my uncle set up a tent in the yard, and we were sitting inside although it was too hot for all of us. Sometimes we played cards and quarrelled every time blaming each other of cheating. Sometimes we played the usual catch-up; sometimes we played a special version of it in which the catcher should walk like a zombie saying “I’m Kozhanov” (Kozhanov was the name of the policeman who stopped my uncle for speeding).
When my cousins and I wanted to go home, we had to wash our feet first. There was someone at the door, my mom or my aunt, or grandma herself, who brought a big metal wash bowl, and we put our feet one by one, or all at once, into the water. We all tried to get our feet washed before others because water was brown from dirt in the end.
There were three reasons to go home: if it was time to eat and if it was already time to sleep, and between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, dinner and sleep was time for tea. We were drinking a lot of tea, strong black tea with milk and 3 teaspoons of sugar, mixed with cold water so it wasn’t too hot. With tea, we had bread-and-butter and biscuits (mostly the simplest sort with rabbits). When my grandfather was alive, tea and bread were his breakfast, lunch, and dinner; he put a layer of butter on the piece of bread and dipped the whole thing into his tea to make it soft: he had no teeth. Sometimes we, his grandchildren, repeated after him. Adults reacted differently. Some of them laughed because what we did was funny; some of them scolded and told us not to do so because uyat bolady (we must be ashamed!). Perhaps that was the first time I was introduced to this concept of shame making Kazakhs please older people and more important people, people of power and all other people. We must act like people want us to act, choose the profession people want us to have, play the role they want us to play, invite 500 people to our weddings so that my father’s brother-in-law’s niece won’t be offended, marry someone people want us to marry, bury our deceased appropriately: not too posh, not too stingy.
Back to my memories. I remember the dark living room: two sofas, two windows, two carpets, on the floor and on the wall. An old TV that nearly fell on my head once, which I don’t remember, but I was told this story several times. Above the TV, there was the photographic black-and-white portrait of my unknown relatives, a man and a woman, just their faces looking directly at you with their super serious eyes like all Soviet people on old pictures do. I never asked who they were. Maybe I did but forgot the next minute. I just knew they were there – when we made our beds on the floor where we played until my grandma said, “Children’s time is over,” and when I fell asleep trying not to freak out over the cockroaches that could get inside my head through the ears. Sometimes we woke up because somebody was knocking at the window. It was often my uncle who had some business until it was very late. We would turn on the light at the door outside, and run to greet him, and women would make tea, and we would gather in the kitchen like we did million times, and would never ever do it again.