In 1904, at the age of 20, my grandmother Sonia Chafetz Uzilewski (later Green) disembarked at Ellis Island. Because of her age, and because she lived within an immigrant community, she never acquired much English, and as a result my conversations with her were strictly utilitarian. I was curious about the old country (White Russia, now Belarus) but she spoke little about it and what she did say was difficult for me to construe. Two pieces of information about her childhood have stayed with me: first, that in the old country, they brought the cow into the house in the winter "to keep warm" and secondly, that, as a girl, she "slept over the fireplace."
I was puzzled. All I could imagine was a house like my own pleasant childhood home, but with a cow on the carpet and a young lady perched precariously on the narrow mantle over the fireplace (if we had had a fireplace, which we didn't). Frankly, I couldn't make much sense out of her story.
It wasn't until I happened to find myself in benighted Lithuania in 2003 that I figured out the cow-in-the-living-room puzzle. I visited one of those large open-air museums which are not uncommon in eastern Europe, in which traditional peasant dwellings, along with churches, mills, foundries, etc. have been rescued and sprinkled around a landscape. At such sites, a very common form of low-end dwelling consists of a barn or animal shelter on the dirt ground floor, with a wooden second floor for human habitation erected just above. I believe that when grandma said that they brought the cow into the house, she meant that they stabled the cow down below, and that some of the heat from the animal disseminated into the living quarters -- as would, incidentally, some of its pungent effluvia.
So one problem was solved, but the mantle-sleeping remained a mystery. However, just this past week the New Yorker featured an essay on traditional Russian cooking in which there was a paragraph on a long-ago-and-far-away kind of stove. Here's the pertinent section.
"A traditional Russian kitchen starts with a pech, a huge brick oven with many winding vents designed to retain the heat from a wood fire. A pech was once the centerpiece of traditional peasant homes; it took up about a quarter of the available living space. It heated and ventilated the house, it dried food; children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it."
"Children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it." Mystery solved!
Sonia told me that she slept over the fire, which I interpreted as a fireplace. But I was wrong. She slept over the stove. For all I know, she might even have used the world pech, which I couldn't possibly have translated or understood.
Now I know, that like other children at the very bottom of the nineteenth-century Russian social ladder, she slept on a ledge built into a pech, with the cow lowing just a few feet below her.
Need I mention once again how glad I am that she decided to pull up stakes and head for new world.
More on Sonia Green: here.