It’s a Russian term of endearment for Grandmother. It’s also used to describe those nesting dolls we remember.

For me, it was something else.

It meant that it was raining, snowing or windy, and I’d be wearing one of those traditional triangular scarves tied under the chin; the Babushka.

babushka-prayingIf you go to one of those ethnic churches in small town America, you will see the last of them; elderly women of Orthodox heritage, clinging to rosary beads, praying in their native language , and respectfully covering the head.

As elementary school children, we were tasked with keeping the tradition alive. It didn’t work. We wore them to the bus stop, or at least until we were safely out of sight. They were quickly stuffed in our book bags and lunch boxes, where they stayed until we returned home that afternoon.

Girl with babushka

It was better to arrive at school with a wet head than to identify with a culture that already defined us as different.

We were the West End girls, the ones from the other side of the tracks, literally. Our homes were separated from town by extensive Pennsylvania rail tracks; the same tracks that carried loads of iron and steel to and from the mills nearby.

It was a private school, so we wore uniforms, the great wardrobe equalizer; but our coats, hats and shoes gave away our economic status. We loved and respected our grandparents, but we were not wearing that headscarf.

babushka cat

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52 Responses to Babushka

  1. A mesh of cultures, and beautifully shared.

  2. roweeee says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It can be quite hard for the children to swing between cultures. My aunty who has a German heritage used to have pumpernickel bread for her sandwiches and was quite embarrassed. My daughter is very conscious of wanting to fit in, blend, conform. I couldn’t even work out “the rules”.

  3. writerinsoul says:

    Man, nothing screams stuck-in-another-time-or-another country like one of those scarves, does it?

    We wore scarves in a *slightly* hipper fashion, tied behind the ears. I wonder did you also have the clear plastic “rain bonnets” that sometimes came in very tiny plastic purses and unfolded? They too were very stylin’.

  4. I cringed when we moved to the states from Germany and my mother made me wear those thick ribbed stockings German girls wore….and American girls didn’t. The need to conform at that age is universal, I think. We won’t even mention the bangs! The cruelty of it all!

    • I have pics of my mother as a child in those heavy stockings…she looks angry! Her ancestors were Germans here in Philadelphia since the 1800’s.

      • lbeth1950 says:

        My mother made us wear saddle oxfords for years because she loved them when she was in high school. Nobody else wore them. Mine were always dirty and scuffed. I was a messy kid. They looked horrible.

      • Buster Browns…we wore them also. They made us polish/clean them a lot so that they’d last longer.

  5. It’s interesting that the need to “fit in” often requires a need to “no longer fit in” with some element of family rules. I’ll bet people were talking about this stuff a thousand years ago. For me and my friends, it was our hair – peeling out braids, ponytails, and buns at the bus stop and reinstalling them on our way home at the end of the day.

    • The pixie haircut was the style we didn’t have any choice. But..oh, the stories. I have to share my “makeshift bra” story sometime. White cotton uniform blouses showed bra straps, or lack thereof. I found a solution, difficult as it was to pull off !! Thanks, Diana. ☺ Van

      • Oh my. Ha ha. Off course these days, showing the bra seems to be popular. What’s next in line for rebellion?

      • I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough. ☺

      • lbeth1950 says:

        Oh, the lack of a bra that one notified me. I was the last in my class to get one. Even the boys remarked. It was so humiliating. My mom kept saying she couldn’t find one. I know she just didn’t bother then made excuses.

      • I think it went deeper than that for my mom. She didn’t want me to grow up. My sister matured early, and they never got along. (hormonal clash ??) I was stalling, not on purpose, mostly because I was grossly underweight.

  6. LaVagabonde says:

    That Babushka Cat is hilarious. I can imagine your pain at having to wear one (a babushka, not a cat) to school. The babushka scarf is alive, though fading, here in Slovakia. Only the oldest ladies wear it. I actually plan to reblog a post about it in a couple of days. Once again, we’re in sync, Van.

  7. That’s a really interesting insight into the cultural assimilation of multicultural children. I will have to tease out from my kids if there are any Scottish things they are self-conscious about now that we live in America.

  8. LadyPinkRose says:

    Oh I had to laugh at this, Van, because I am familiar with the babushka, but only since I have been married. But, some of the clothes I had to wear identified me as to the location of where I lived, and as a child, it is very embarrassing. Yes in hindsight now I can laugh, but then, it really wasn’t funny. Great post, my friend. And no still to this day, I will not wear that babushka. LOL Love, Amy ❤

    • We also had the “mantilla”, a kind of Spanish veil, to wear to church, which required our head to be covered. In a pinch, we would clip a Kleenex to our head..the things we did ! Thanks, Amy, glad you could relate. ❤

      • LadyPinkRose says:

        Ah, I remember the lace mantilla well, and yes same thing, IF we forgot our mantilla, we had to wear a kleenex on our heads. We could not have bare heads in church. Is that not nuts? I look back and just shake my head. Truth be told, I really Loved my lacely mantilla. Even young it made me feel special. I was too young to know what sexy was, but even then, I knew I just Loved lace. I do to this day. 🙂 LOL ❤

      • Well, there’s the positive spin….☺

  9. Erika Kind says:

    It is sad, but I totally understand that you took the scarves off. I would have done the same as a kid.

  10. Silver Threading says:

    I grew up with babushkas! I know exactly what you mean. My heritage is German/Russian. A curious mixture of both. A few years back when I found out I had thyroid problems (Hashimoto’s) I told my Dr. I did not want to end up like those women I remembered from when I was a kid – a big bulging neck wearing a babushka as they heaved their heavy bodies down the street. He looked at me like I was nuts! What a great post Van. Thanks! ❤

    • Interesting, Colleen. On my grandmother’s immigration record, it was listed that she had a goiter. She was 22. Not sure why it was so prevalent. And they were indeed heavy, we were told it was a sign of prosperity; that you could afford to eat well. ??? ☺ Cultural differences. Glad you liked the post. Van

      • Silver Threading says:

        Yup. I had a goiter and Hashimoto’s. They took out my thyroid and I am on snythroid. Nothing is ever the same as the actual. I cope and work through it. I have also found that I have issues with Gluten. That is also part of Hashimoto’s I have recently found out. My mother was born on the boat coming to America from Russia. We were Germans living in Russia for quite a few generations. On my Dad’s side the same. My Great Grandfather was 6 when he came to America in 1902 or so. Interesting stuff. 🙂

      • Wow..your mother was born on the boat .. I wonder how often that happened ? I know the transit took a while, but what courage for your grandmother to even make that journey. Strong stuff, there, Colleen, survivor instinct in the gene pool ! Sorry about the thyroid and gluten issues limit your diet, but there is more awareness and a greater product variety than even a few years ago. ☺ Van

      • Silver Threading says:

        True and I cope fine Van. Interesting what we inherit genetically. 😊

  11. Silver Threading says:

    Oh, and I forget to tell you! I had to wear babushkas too! 😀

  12. I remember both my mother and Grandmother wearing Babushkas, but I don’t often see them being worn anymore.

    The word also reminded me of the wonderful Kate Bush and her song with the same title.

  13. ninamishkin says:

    Being twenty years or so older than you, when I was in grammar school and high school I too wore a large flowered wool square scarf folded in half on the diagonal and tied under my chin (that you call a babushka) to keep my head warm and hair dry all winter long. But I was far from the only one. It was quite common in New York City and not a cultural marker. I believe I still have the last one I owned (navy with red roses) as well as a more recent Soviet one in red with multicolored flowers that my son brought back from a guided high school trip to the Soviet Union shortly before it collapsed. (The fabric of the Soviet one is inferior.) Large square scarves are still worn that way by society women photographed in Town and Country magazine, but the scarves are by Hermes and cost $300+! I’m sure they don’t call them babushkas, though.

    By the way, those little nesting dolls are more generally called Matronya dolls. The traditional set you show in the photograph are of babushka (grandmother) dolls, but there are also nests of Matronya dolls to be purchased in Russia representing a wide variety of political figures as well.

    • Hi Nina, Pretty sure that Hermes wouldn’t tag their fashion statement scarves as babushkas, you’re so right. ☺ Thanks for the info on Matronya..was not familiar with that one. I’ve seen a few of those political nesters, as well as a few sports-related ones. I did pick the image on my post because each doll is sporting the scarf, even the smallest one. Van

  14. Love the babushka cat.

  15. Nurse Kelly says:

    Love how you ended this so adamantly followed by that hilarious cat!

  16. olganm says:

    I also love the cat. How curious about the mantilla. The proper hand embroidered ones can be very expensive in Spain, and still to this day in some circles are very fancy accessories. Of course you also need a peineta…. Thankfully not in my part of the country… although they can be very beautiful.

  17. Outlier Babe says:

    Born in the Chicago area, of course I saw plenty of babushkas, but my Grandma considered herself fashionable, and poked fun at that style. For church, as good Catholic girls we all wore either mantillas, or small circular lace doodads that, for all I know, were originally sold for antimacassars. No one was leaving greasy head spots on OUR hair!

    There was nothing cultural we four kids had to hide. (We were hiding plenty, but not that.)

    I, too, am enamoured of Babushka Kitty. Not that I like cats.

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