Readings — From the April 2014 issue

Family and Others

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By Nadezhda Teffi (1872–1952), an author of short stories, poems, one-act plays, a novel, and a volume of memoirs. This story was first published in book form, in 1912. Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.

We tend to divide people we know into “family” and “others.”

Family are those who know how old we are and how much money we have. Ages and finances of others are concealed beneath a thick veil of mystery; the moment it lifts, others pass into the category of family.

Family members consider it their duty to rob you of your flimsiest illusion; others like to skew facts pleasantly in your favor. For example, if you run into one of the others in the street, he will be stunned by the freshness of your complexion and the elegance of your attire. Three minutes later, someone near and dear will comment on the paleness of your brow, the redness of your nose, and the hole in your stocking. What could have changed in three minutes?

When you are ill, others send you flowers and chocolates along with touching notes. Your devoted family, on the other hand, plant themselves at your side and interrogate you endlessly about where and when you might have caught the cold; once the circumstances are established, they will turn them into a source of guilt and shame: “How could you be so careless, and at your age! To walk all the way over to Aunt Masha’s without overshoes!”

Others prefer to exaggerate the seriousness of your affliction. “My God, you are coughing, how terrible! Must be pneumonia. Promise me you will get a second opinion. I probably won’t sleep all night from worry.” All this is very soothing and pleasant to hear. Your near and dear just scoff and scold. “Look at her! In bed with such a trifle. Absurd childishness.” Braying offensively, they recall a dozen instances when you moaned and cried about an imaginary disease and two hours later shoveled away an entire roasted chicken. Their recollections drive you into a frenzy and increase your fever. They call it “cheering up the invalid.”

Visiting others is very pleasurable. On seeing you they always pretend to be ecstatic. Since you are not supposed to know their ages, their faces will be cleverly made up, their conversation cheerful, their movements brisk and youthful. And since you are not supposed to know the state of their finances, they will keep up the illusion of comfortable living by treating you to a delicious, expensive dinner; you’ll be received in their prettiest room, placed on the softest chair, and even if you beg on your knees to see the bedroom with dirty curtains and an old coat for a blanket, you never will. Their conversation will touch on the most enjoyable subjects: your various talents, or, if you don’t have any, your new hat, or, if you don’t have a hat, your generous nature.

Visiting family is a depressing business. Since everyone knows how old everyone is, no attempt is made at prettying up, and your cheerless, disheveled hosts will greet you with complaints of old age and headaches. After you are seated, they will spend the next thirty minutes trying to remember how long it’s been since you finished school. “Oh dear, how times flies. Seems like yesterday, but there you go — thirty years, give or take.”

Since you are aware of how much money they have, no one will try to trick you with Potemkin façades. You’ll be poured cold tea out of a teapot with a missing spout, served stale biscuits, and entertained by a lengthy lament about meat prices, janitors’ laziness, and how their old apartment was drafty near the floor, while the new one has cracks near the ceiling but is cheaper by ten rubles.

When you share some plan or future prospect with others, they invariably predict the sunniest outcome. Of course you’ll succeed, they assure you. How could you not? With such talent, such brains, such character, such charm, and so on. Your lovely family is always full of dark premonitions and visions of your failure. Knowing intimately your clumsy, tactless, and irresponsible nature, they prove to you in five seconds that you will meet with a spectacular disaster unless you give up the whole enterprise.

The realization that others are nicer than family is gradually permeating the masses. Recently, on a train, I watched one baleful passenger attack his neighbor: “Look at yourself! Spreading out as if you were alone! If you have no manners you should ride in the car for pets!”

His neighbor was stunned. “You see me for the first time in your life and yet you scream at me as if I were your favorite brother.”

Another time I overheard a young lady comment on her husband: “Imagine, we’ve been married for four years and he still acts as if he didn’t know my name. So sweet.” Her listeners didn’t find that compliment unusual.

Neither did I.

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