Springtime without fruit-tree blossoms and a little girl13 april 2011, 10:58
Every April a plum tree and a cherry tree burst into bloom a few steps away from the Nazik coffee shop at Dostyk and Vinogradova Streets in Almaty.
And every April until now, I have been able to see how much a little girl has grown.
I don’t know her name. She sits or plays along the street with her babushka as Grandma asks passersby for money.
I first saw the two when I arrived in Almaty in 2006. The girl was just a few months old.
Grandma, a sturdy ethnic Russian about 60, would hold her as she sat. Or feed her from a bottle. Or let her sleep in her carriage.
I got to know Grandma as well as anyone can know someone when there’s a language barrier. My Russian is terrible, and her English non-existent.
But somehow we communicated. She always flashed a warm smile when she saw me, and she never forgot to say thanks when I slipped a tenge note into the plastic bowl at her feet.
I also learned that she was a good person, that she had a conscience. Once, when I gave her money for the third time in a week, she put the note back in my hand, saying something in Russian.
I knew she had said: “You’ve given enough. Thank you, but keep this.”
I also learned that Grandma was not seeking money from strangers because she was afraid of work. I came across her at the Green Bazaar one day, helping a vendor stack goods in a stall. She obviously had a part-time or a temporary job.
And I thought: “This woman wants to work. She likely has a limited education and limited skills, but she wants to work.”
From the start, I wondered about the circumstances of the woman and her granddaughter. Was Babushka taking care of the child because Mother was working? Was Mom in another city, or even deceased?
In either case, looking after a baby is taxing for someone in her 60s, no matter how good the Grandma’s health might be.
The first year I met the pair the most I could tell about the girl was that she had light blue eyes and sandy-blonde hair. Her features were still being formed.
Each year that the plum tree and cherry tree blossomed, I get a better picture of her looks and her personality.
On the second April after I had met the pair, the girl was walking and talking a little. Her features were taking shape, and it was apparent she was going to be pretty.
The third April, she was not just walking, but scampering around and playing with a toy. She had a lot of energy but was shy. When I smiled, she would look away.
One day I heard her ask Grandma if she could get a candy bar at a nearby minimarket. Grandma said no -- I assume there wasn’t money for such an extravagance -- but I didn’t think that that answer would do.
I emerged from the minimarket with a Snickers, and offered it to the child. She held back, not knowing whether to accept it.
Grandma smiled at me and told her it was OK, and the little one grabbed it and said “Spacebo!” with gusto.
I tried not to think about the future that was in store for the girl because it made me sad. With Grandma having to supplement the family’s income with money from passersby, my guess was that it wasn’t bright: This little one wasn’t going to get into one of Kazakhstan’s top universities.
Unless, of course, there were a miracle – and with most poor families, regardless of country, miracles seldom happen.
April of 2010 was my fourth in Almaty. The girl was becoming more confident, smiling at me and saying hello, no longer looking away or bowing her head in silence. It was the kind of confidence a child gets when someone like her babushka gives her a lot of love.
Six months later, I was in Astana in a new job.
It’s April again – the fifth April I’ve been in Kazakhstan -- and the area where I’m living has no plum tree or cheery tree. Grandma isn’t here and neither is the girl.
I wonder how they are.
And I think with regret: “You know, I don’t even know their names.”