LOVE AND DEATH: Mother Loves a Mad Monk




What would you do if your mother was obsessed with Rasputin?


My mother has held a torch for the mad monk for nearly 15 years, and while I suppose it's never kept her from leading an otherwise normal and healthy life, every once in a while I'm reminded that other people's mothers love the Chad Mitchell Trio, or mystery novels, or Feng Shui, or Finno-Ugric languages. Very few love a Russian priest who helped drill a few extra holes in the Romanov dynasty's sinking ship and who was unsavory in his personal habits to boot. Should I be concerned?


The whole affair began with a high-school paper of mine (the dubiously conceived "Grigory Rasputin and His Impact on World History") that left me as uninspired as it did my mother enchanted. After pouring through my library books - it was surely the classic photo of him tugging at his greasy beard that won her over; she's always been a sucker for facial hair - she raced to her sewing machine and let inspiration take over. Several hours later, Rasputin the rag doll was born, resplendent in a peasant blouse with embroidered trim and snappy felt valenki. Unraveled yarn recreated the greasy beard to perfection. Black button eyes gleamed maniacally. The doll was a minor masterpiece.


Still, the family was nonplussed. We congratulated her on her work the way you congratulate an artist who has just dedicated the last five years of his life to constructing a giant jelly bean out of toothpicks. Nice craftsmanship and all, but why would you do that?


Popular or no, Rasputin has enjoyed household-fixture status ever since. One could almost get the impression that the persuasive spirit of the original monk lives on in Gainesville, Florida, where the rag Rasputin continues to enjoy the solicitous attentions of his sponsor, my mother, who remains ever-considerate of his material needs. Over the years, she has stealthily added to his cache of personal possessions. First it was a silver cross blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest. Then it was a miniature mahogany chair with a blue velvet cushion that cost more than many people-sized chairs. Then a pair of sunglasses - not historically accurate, perhaps, but a bold fashion statement, and a quick answer to those nagging questions about what Rasputin might look like if he came back as a traffic cop - and a white fur hat with red silk lining. For her latest project, my mother has been designing a special leather knapsack, presumably for all of his stuff. There has also been some talk of a cloak. Those Florida evenings get chilly, I guess. What's next? A Faberge egg? In perhaps the final insult, Rasputin has even been granted a girlfriend - my childhood doll Eloise, who has thick black braids, a more contemporary wardrobe and ultimately deserves far better in life than to sit out the rest of her days hip-to-hip with the mad monk in the mahogany chair, which has been placed for maximum viewing potential in the living room of my parents' house. Rasputin's arm is thrown nonchalantly over her shoulders; his puffy little legs are crossed in a rakishly bon vivant style. My mother gazes adoringly on and considers buying them a tiny tea set. The rest of the family exchanges glances and wonders where it will end.


Many mothers, it is true, have a tender spot for the underdog. This includes stray animals, character actors, losing sports teams and, usually, their children. Having looked wistfully into the black waters of the Moika River in St. Petersburg, where Rasputin famously went down fighting, my mother with her usual revisionist approach has clearly decided that this star-crossed monk was a sympathetic character, charlatan or no. I suspect she's got a dartboard with Felix Yusupov's picture on it somewhere. Her commitment to Rasputin is so strong it completely obliterated her original devotion to Charles Bronson, another unlikely idol who may have been craggy or tough or dependable in his heyday but is not the sort of person whose portrait you expect to see hanging in the average home.


I give my mother credit for one thing: I have never once seen her speak to Rasputin. This may seem like a minor triumph, but it puts her head and shoulders above a number of her acquaintances, who, in one of the strangest phenomenon known to humanity, have plush inanimate objects of their own which they insist upon not only carrying around but also talking to and even introducing to strangers. This is bad enough with a toy rabbit or a Beanie Baby; it would definitely be a flop with a long-haired monk doll wearing corduroy knickers and sunglasses. "Hi, this is my friend Rasputin!" Maybe she's waiting until she finishes his knapsack.