Russia’s Steel Magnolias

by Hanna Miller

According to my grandmothers – Amy Loring, 90, of Collins, MS; and Elaine Husser, 76, of Franklinton, LA – southern womanhood is an exceptional womanhood. As these two women expressed in a series of oral history interviews, southern womanhood is marked by resilience, compassion and appeal-to-all and is a family’s real-life woman “how to” look book. For Amy and Elaine, or Granny and Nenane (respectively, affectionately), femininity is as delicate as it is authoritarian. Their mission is our emblem: maintaining their steely resilience is maintaining our identity, our south, our contradictory impulse to at once reconcile but be separate.

Having each outlived her husband(s) and having lived to love grand- and great-grandchildren, Granny and Nenane have reigned influence over four generations. Somewhere between their fried catfish and rules about young girls chastely undisclosing their no-no spots, each woman currently enjoys watching her grandbabies “go” – may that be to the local Jr. Food Mart for fresh cooked chicken livers or to a big and scary foreign country for nine months.

In Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan, Russia, with an English Teaching Assistantship, I am doing my best to use what these two women have taught me: in order to survive the six-month winter, I must cling to what I know and what comforts, and what I know and what comforts are grandmas. Russian grandmas know and comfort and feel like the home that I miss that is too much food and too much pertinent but paltry hair and nail advice. Here, I have found a population that is fortitude itself, that is utterly and accidentally feminist, that is as outwardly contradictory as its inward foundation, that fits my grandmothers’ definition of the steel magnolia, the “true southern woman.” Snow-covered and coat-furred, here is Collins, Franklinton, something beyond, something good.

When I asked Granny to define southern womanhood, she said, “Well, [to be a southern woman] means you’re loved by most everybody you come in contact with….Well, for one thing, if you’ll think back and if you’ll look over that bunch from New York and all – we’re better lookin’.”

I wasn’t shocked. She said stuff like this all the time. I still didn’t agree.

It turns out Granny was onto something, but it wasn’t overt like the just right shade of red-chipping lipstick.

Nenane delineated: “I think that [all women] have the ideas to raise our family and our children in the right way so that they can have a happy and lasting and pure life before ‘em. And i think for the southern woman, it’s always been important that she stays close to her family and sets examples for ‘em.”

Then, a key point was made. I inquired about Nenane’s tactics for example setting, her self-prescribed significance, her clout. How’d she manage to wrangle four kids every Sunday morning for church so that she and our Good Lord could set the good Christian example of Christ Our Savior? She said, “Well, sometimes when [my children] were little and we had lots of work to do on the farm, I would polish all the shoes – all four pairs of shoes for the children – […] and I’d line ‘em up on the fireplace on Saturday night and they’d be polished and ready to go. The children’d get up on Sunday morning. They’d be whining, ‘Oh, why can’t we sleep a little later?’….And then they’d say, ‘Oh, mom polished the shoes. That means we’re headed to Sunday school.’ That’s the tactic I used to instill in mine.”

Warmhearted trickery: the key point that was made.

Combined, Granny’s and Nenane’s definitions of southern womanhood paint the portrait of delicate, appealed-to, and appealed femininity, a seemingly soft exterior that everyone seems to adore. Appearance, the shoes’ shined polish, is the lure that softens the blow of knowing. Southern women know. The steel magnolia, despite an allusion to passive and tenderhearted, knows what is good for you and has the resilience to convince. She has an imperturbable inner strength. She is dressed in mismatched pretenses that are one heartfelt intention – that’s better lookin’ than New York, mind you. She will make you adore early rising Sunday mornings, setting off to Sunday school. She will direct and divert your attention because she loves you; watch out. Southern women/grandmothers/steel magnolias are your/my/our action.

Sitting with my legs ladylike crossed, I recently interviewed Russian grandmothers in this Russian industrial city because I sensed early on their familial influence. Faraway in Mississippi, faces light up when Russia is mentioned: Sochi?! But before that: babushkas?! Russian grandmothers are at once cohesive cultural icons and as contrary as a loaded statement. The Russian grandmother as a national symbol abounds just as the southern grandmother is representative of a region, propriety, how to use butter.

I asked a similar set of questions about feminine identity to a group of Russian grandmothers who work together at a local kindergarten in Naberezhnye Chelny. Ulifira, 60; Nadezhda, 65; Natalia, 51; Elena, 50; Galina, 49; Natalia (age withheld); Elmira, 49; and Natalia, 56 sat in munchkin-sized chairs at munchkin-sized tables and shared answers all their own, all bound by a familiar frame of inner strength and outer tact. With the steel magnolia template, I asked about examples of fortitude, modern duties, cajolery.

Five women agreed that their grandmothers had been the greatest influences in their own lives. When asked why, what type of influence did grannies of the past have on these grannies of today, the women answered:

“My grandmother was wisest in the family.”

“My parents worked, and I spent most of my time with my grandmother.”

“My grandmother protected me, she didn’t want anything bad to happen to me or my family.”

“My grandmother took care of our health, she always cooked for us and made us eat before we left.”

“My grandmother had order, she knew that in the kitchen here sat the plates, there sat the pots and pans.”

The small congregation of neatly dressed Russian grannies sat in their mini-wooden seats, hands folded nicely, and by acknowledging their grandmothers’ prior positions, they told me they were the current bearers of familial wisdom, protection, good health and order. They were modest and sure.

With the everywhere-specific generational shifts and divides and with the Russia-specific ’91 fall of the Soviet Union, these grandmothers had a different childhood than their own grandchildren are experiencing. Modern grandma family duties mirror and diverge; responsibilities are footheld in necessity that shapeshifts with post-USSR identity (re)construction, blurred economic lines, governmental and non-governmental propriety standards and delusions.

Women are Russia’s largest population. For senior citizens (65+), women outnumber men 2:1. On average, women live 12-13 years longer than men. Strictly statistically, women (specifically elderly ones) have longer and greater opportunity to craft, maintain, reign. Their time with their families, however, is interrupted in today’s ways of grandmothers working to earn money in order to help support their children and their grandchildren. Russian grandmothers are part of the working class circadian, occupying their own space less and less, mixing with the over-worked, confusedly new capitalist bodies more and more and illuminating a time-money conundrum.

“[We] not only care for our grandchildren, we are still responsible for caring for our children,” one woman remarked. During the Soviet Union, monetary assistance wasn’t as prominent a need. Grandmothers gave to their children, but money bears a new weight, is the legal tender of care. Now, the modern Russian/world/everyone crave for money has placed grandmothers, like the eight who sat before me, back into the working sphere because retirement pensions are neither enough for solitary living nor padded with extra for occasional offerings to loved ones. The eight sat, were matter-of-factly sullen. Although they only work part-time and still spend after-school hours, weekends and holidays with family, it used to not be like this, but their families need the money, so they lose a slice of their extra time, and where is their time for themselves?

Nostalgia for a passed time – communism – settled among us. Memories of stability and time with family sharpened current dissatisfaction and added a more complex layer to my second-hand-at-best understanding of recent history.

Finally, I pried for persuasion. What do you do when your family disagrees with you, with your advice? Do you try to convince them? How? Or do you compromise?

“Well, if it’s a child, we use chocolate!”

“There’s always candy to help.”

“Even with adults.”

“Well, [our families] are free to believe anything.”

“But, we would try to bring them to our side.”

“But, this doesn’t happen so much.”

“Oh, it happens!”

Beyond their initial insinuated leverage by way of being grandmother, the eight women coyly alluded to their own practiced allusions.

Decidedly strong and empowered and empowering, clearly feminine to the bone that is the marrow of taut resilience, authorial in their roles that are quiet and certain and influential, Russian grandmothers govern much like my own southern ones. Being of the same generation often links people and leaves less to be said; there is shared understanding. However, noting the age difference between my own grandmothers and those in this group of eight, as well as considering the differences between a consistent democracy and a forming and wavering one, a generational connection sits secondary to what I posit is the prominent link among these lovingly wily women: from their front porches and sweet tea and Sunday school shined shoes to their kindergarten day jobs and hot cooked meals and modern mollifying money, steel magnolias here and there are emblems of a culture’s unreconciled identity. The steel magnolia is an emblem bound to itself self-consciously attempting to order congruency within and without its overwhelmed circumstances: the racism, sexism (stereotypes?) marring Mississippi; the confused capitalist, hyper-stress boring into Russia. More than seemingly, when contradiction is foundational to execution, it is often the effect of something greater affecting.

Hanna Miller

Hanna is from Mississippi and a Masters of Journalism student at the University of California at Berkeley. Her background is in Russian language + culture, sexual assault crisis response on University campuses, and generational divides between women in the American south. She has experience in documentary + TV production for public broadcasting, radio + web production for the arts and cultural exchange, and non-profit founding, organization, and development.