This Apple Falls Far From the Tree: Portrait of My Mother 

My dorm room was cold as I sat on the phone with my mother, my knees perched up against the desk as we had another conversation about her childhood. We were talking during her free moments, when my father and brother weren’t at home. It was just a few months since Roe v Wade got overturned.

I was no stranger to my mother’s early-life experiences  in Russia’s Southern region, Kavkaz. Growing up, I both craved and dreaded hearing my mother’s stories, because they brought me closer to her and to the severity and horror of her childhood community. Now in  adulthood, I try piecing together some of what she told me. I believe it makes me the woman I am today: cautious, proud, terrified. My mother’s story doesn’t speak to the stories of all women, but for the longest time I believed I was fated for the kind of life women in her culture experienced. 

But talking to her now, in the privacy of my dorm, not whispering in case anyone else might hear, I initiated the conversation. I didn’t wait for her to tell me her stories as I did when younger. I wanted to write a feature’s piece about her for a class I’d been taking, and felt that asking her questions as an objective third-party interviewer would be a fascinating way to re-explore the woman she is. It also felt painful, because the stories she told me were for my ears only. By approaching her in an interview style, I opened a door to her life. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever know whether my mother resents her culture as much as I do. But learning about her experiences as a little girl reaffirmed my distaste for Kavkaz, for the rigid gender roles its culture imposed. Fuelling this disdain, my father tried instilling certain values within me while I was growing up, like chastity and celibacy — telling me that a woman’s place was behind her husband. Because all that a woman should ever really be is a wife and mother. I hated it. 

Talking to my mother on the phone that night also allowed me to sit back and let her piece her story together, which was new. As a child, I was the one stringing along information to concretize my understanding of our background, but to hear my mother share the full breadth of her story was refreshing. She has a voice that other women in her community do not have, and I am in awe of her strength in recounting and retelling the often painful stories of her childhood. 

“Back in Russia,” she explained to me, “we lived in a tight community. Everybody shared the same values.” I’ve grown up with the same values, despite being born in a country rooted in western ideas and progressivism. These core values, as my mother illuminated, were “morality and modesty.” Girls in her community were prohibited from having sexual relationships outside of marriage and were barely allowed out of the house without guardians. 

When I was sixteen years old, my parents didn’t let me go out with my friends without a chaperone, either. I’d argue with my mother about it, but she’d tell me that she had it worse growing up. Looking back now, I see how it must have been hard for her to raise a daughter in a culture that clashed so much with hers. She thought she was doing the right thing. But while I was told to stay home, my brothers were encouraged to get out of the house and explore themselves and their sexualities. 

This had been true in my mother’s family also. 

In Kavkaz, there was always pressure placed on families to ensure their daughters remained virgins until marriage. “If they weren’t, it would cause communal shame,” my mother explained. After each wedding, the bride and groom would consummate their marriage. Later, his friends would dance with the handkerchief that had her blood on it — proving that she was a virgin.  And if she wasn’t, her family would be shamed. Her sisters’ chances of getting married would diminish. Crazily, my father told me the same thing about myself when I was seven or eight. As if the most important thing about me was my virginity.

But I stopped wanting that life when I met people outside of my culture and learned about theirs. Other girls my age were allowed to have normal childhoods, not constantly being told that they had to maintain their virtue and purity — these things didn’t matter in their homes. I vowed they wouldn’t matter in mine when I had a family of my own. 

The oppression women in my mother’s culture faced transcended sexual repression. My mother remembers being “raised not to work, but to be a housewife.” Women were expected to care for their children, husbands, and parents-in-law. They received an education, “but it was supposed to be a backup.” Barely any women worked. My mother hadn’t entered the workforce until she was twenty-four and a new immigrant. She had no other way of making ends meet for her young family. 

Even now, as I apply to graduate schools, my father tells me that I should consider a career that allows me to make time for my future husband and children. He believes that the traditional path is correct, and sometimes taunts me for not being married yet, because my mother had two children at my age. It is not the life I want for myself, and the only way to escape it is to put distance between myself and my family’s culture. 

Despite everything, my mother considers herself lucky. She married someone she liked, which wasn’t a privilege shared by many. “My grandfather’s sister was kidnapped by a Chechnyan man and forced into marriage,” she told me. The marriage was unhappy, but it lasted. “She didn’t have much of a choice.” 

 It was their norm: “We didn’t know any better. We had no other way of life. Here, it’s different. In America, that kind of lifestyle is much more difficult to accept.”  She still finds beauty in some of those communal values, but she is glad to have escaped the social role women were constricted to. She told me that she wants me “to have the opportunity to get an education for yourself.” My mother wants more for me than to care for my family. “I want you to have the best of both worlds.” 

Those words make me emotional. My mother has been my strongest support system– despite coming from such a different background, to this day. My parents are deeply politically conservative, and even my mother, who is sympathetic to the feminist cause, remains rigid about many things. When I was in high school, a friend and I left school early to attend an abortion ban protest when some states threatened reproductive rights. My friend and I made signs, and even though my mother disagrees with the pro-choice movement, she helped us carry them and attended the rally with us. Her doing so may have been to keep me safe, but she nevertheless joined us.

As a woman growing up in Kavkaz, she was precluded from living a normal life. The men in her community were able to find themselves in ways that she couldn’t. Growing up with her stories made me realize just how badly I wanted to get away from the Kavkazi community and all its gender restrictions. 

I want to celebrate my female identity in a way that is unencumbered by the will of others, including my father. That’s why highlighting my mother’s voice is so important to me: she represents the strict femininity that I want to escape, and yet her strength has inspired me to find myself.