Leaving

Story posted on March 13, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Part 1: Exit Visas 

The heavy wooden doors of the grey, gloomy official-looking building slowly close behind them. Two people stand there for a few minutes, observing, digesting the importance of what just happened. Then they start walking away, their pace getting quicker, as if trying to get away from this building as fast as possible, away from the cold grey office where a portrait of Gorbachev recently replaced that of Stalin, away from the cold grey official bureaucrats, away from their cold grey official suits, their cold grey official eyes. 

It’s three in the afternoon and all around them citizens of the ancient city hurry along, minding their own business, paying no attention to this middle-aged couple. My parents, my mom’s arm hooked around my dad’s, her head tilted slightly towards him, eyes looking down, walk briskly towards the metro station. Dad quickly glances behind him, expecting to see official grey suits running after him. No one is there. As if to make sure he did not imagine it all, he pats the breast pocket of his coat, feeling where five pieces of paper with magic powers are neatly folded and stored. He feels their thickness and weight through the rough wool of his coat, suddenly aware of the heat of freedom they radiate – their Exit Visas. They are like the key to an old rusted lock, the key that will open the gates to a new exciting world and will close the doors to the old one, probably forever. He shudders, as if hearing the door slammed shut behind him. 

Suddenly the immensity of his decision weighs heavily down on him, forcing him to lower his head, causing him to droop his shoulders. They are leaving. A realization that they will leave their friends, leave their home, leave this beautiful ancient city where they spent most of their lives and where they created their family, raised their children. This realization is like a cold hand that wraps heavily around his heart and grips it painfully. Fear for the future, almost paralyzing, grabs hold of him. What will happen to them over there? How would they live? Where would they live? What would they do? Myriad questions start to race through his mind and he shakes his head trying to shake these thoughts away. The time to worry about these things is yet to come. But it’s not now. 

Right now he needs to focus on other things, on more urgent matters. Almost simultaneously both my parents raise their heads and start talking. Their pace quickens, becomes more determined, as they start to orchestrate their departure. Asking each other questions, they start making simple decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. 
- We have to start selling the furniture.
- Yes. What about the chandelier? We just bought it, it’s so beautiful… 
- Well, we can’t take it with us, we’ll have to sell it too. 
- What about our books? We should take them with us, at least all the Russian classics and poetry. 
- We can ship them, I guess. 
- We would need big, sturdy suitcases. I have to find out where to get them… 

They talk as they walk towards the metro station, preoccupied, excited, determined. For the next six months these tedious, minute, life-changing decisions will occupy their lives, keeping fear and sadness away. Keeping nostalgia at bay though it has already started to work its treacherous way through their hearts. It will attack with full force later, when “over there” will become “over here,” and “now” will become “back then.” But right now, as they briskly walk towards the metro station, they realize that the most life-altering decision of their lives has been made. They are leaving. 

Part 2: The Battle of the Enamel Washbasin 

We had 6 months to get ready for the Big Move. These were a sad 6 months, as we sorted our lives into two piles. One pile was marked “taking with us”, another “leaving behind”. Our lives - 20 years of mine, 16 of my sister’s, 50 of my parents’, 75 of my grandmother’s, were meant to be packed into innumerous bags, suitcases, duffle bags, parcels, backpacks. 

In her entire life, my grandmother Miriam only had to move 3 times. The first time, in 1941, she ran from the fast-advancing German army, from Kiev to a small town in Kirgizstan, crossing the entire country with her baby son and her elderly mother. On the way, most of her possessions, including anything of value, were stolen. The second time, in 1945, she was returning to Kiev as it lay in ruins at the end of the war. Miraculously, the house she lived in was still standing, its rooms void of any belongings. She had nothing but a shirt on her back, her small son and an even more elderly mother. And now she was a widow. Her third move was a happy one. In 1969 she moved into her own brand new co-op apartment. 

Toughened and taught by war, evacuation, Stalin’s repressions, famine and life in the Soviet Union in general, where practically everything was scarce, from salt to cars, Grandma, like most Soviet people of her generation, threw nothing out. Clothes were carefully mended; coats and jackets that were worn out on the outside were literally turned inside out and made new again. To throw out a piece of bread was a crime. Throughout her life, by hard work and a thrifty lifestyle she carefully accumulated a small material wealth that made her feel comfortable. Her pantry was stacked with bags of salt, flower and sugar, and cans of beef and sardines. She had enough linens, stockings, coats and thermal underwear to grow old comfortably. 

Suddenly, at the age of 75, she was forced to move again. This time across the ocean to America, to a completely unknown country of evil capitalism. What little information Grandma had about America was gathered from a propagandistic movie that came out in the Soviet Union in the late 1970’s. In this film, Grandma saw long lines of homeless people headed to a soup kitchen; homeless people sleeping on the streets; and dead homeless people thrown into unmarked mass graves on a nameless island. Convinced that this was the life waiting from her in America, grandma was determined to go as prepared as possible. 

When the time to pack came, the question of Shakespearian proportions, to take or not to take, wedged itself between my grandmother and my dad, creating an armed conflict. On one side was my grandmother who wanted to take everything with her to America. If she was being forced to make a cross-continental move, she was leaving nothing behind. Grandma was armed with a guilt-inflicting phrase “If this is how you treat me, kill me!” used by Moses himself and with equally guilt-inflicting threat “I am not going; leave me here to die!” On the other side was my father who was trying to limit the number of bags we would carry across half of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to under 20. Dad was armed with nothing but reason, common sense and a bottle of Valerian drops.

While items of clothing for all seasons, necessities like a blanket, a pillow, a set of sheets, a set of pots and pans, were put in the “to take” pile, my father remained calm and collected. But when Grandma begun to add to the pile numerous sets of linen sheets and pillow cases, each weighing a few pounds, 2 dozen pairs of thermal underwear and cotton stockings, crystal stemware, an old record player and dozens of old records, my father reached for the Valerian drops. To Grandma, all of these items were absolute necessities she felt she would not be able to find or buy in America, and without which her life in the New World would be impossible. 

As they fought over each item, Grandma was not shy to skillfully use “if this is how you treat me, kill me!” With each pair of thermal underwear moving into the “to take” pile the number of bags in my dad’s mind doubled, tripled and then quadrupled. Finally, after hours of negotiations, threats and pleas, grandma stood triumphant over her huge “to take” pile. The “not to take” pile consisted of a few pairs of stockings beyond repair, a cracked plate and chipped cup, a few crystal grasses broken in the heat of battle, the old record player and all the records that went with it, and a box of tree ornaments (although a tiny porcelain Grandfather Frost was safely tucked into a pair of stockings). Grandma felt good. Dad was exhausted and running out of Valerian drops. Her spirits up, Grandma moved to her final item. From the bathroom she carried out a large enamel washbasin, bigger than a kitchen sink, white with navy blue trim. She used it to make strawberry preserves. 

Every summer, in late July, Grandma embarked on a trip to suburbia where old peasant women sold fresh strawberries and other freshly-farmed produce to the city women who were busy canning and preserving vitamins for the winter. Grandma would return with two buckets full of ripe, fragrant, delicious strawberries. Each berry was absolutely perfect! You could search both buckets, but you wouldn’t be able to find a single blemish on a single strawberry. Each berry was carefully washed and placed in the washbasin, together with a few kilos of sugar. This berry-sugar concoction bubbled on the stove for hours. Grandma periodically stirred the bright red brew with a giant wooden spoon, smiled and muttered something in Yiddish. It was true magic. The end result of this magic was out-of-this-world divine, swallow-your-tongue delicious strawberry preserves. 

Back to the infamous day of packing: as grandmother came out with the basin, dad came to the painful realization that the basin was coming to America with us. Judging by the determined look on Grandma’s face, resistance was futile. He was out of Valerian drops. She placed the basin on the floor next to the “to take” pile. It was either all of this, including the giant white enamel washbasin, or she was not coming to America at all. 

It took a while to figure out how to fit this large round object into any of the bags. After days of packing and re-packing, it was finally packed on the bottom of a giant duffel bag, with my grandmother’s thermal underwear, stockings and linen sheets placed in it and around it. It clanked, banged and clattered across half of Europe, drawing curious glances from our fellow emigrants. Embarrassed, we explained each time that it was an enamel washbasin in which our Grandma planned to make strawberry preserves. It made a lot of noise in Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, to our sheer embarrassment and to the horror and astonishment of the security and custom officers. On April 24, 1990, it landed with a bang in JFK Airport and seamlessly passed through US Customs, where the officers had seen much worse than a giant enamel washbasin from the Soviet Union. Once in America, the basin was never used to make preserves. Very early on my grandmother discovered that strawberries in America, although available year around, tasted nothing like strawberries in Russia. Grown on capitalist soil, they lacked the fragrance and sweetness of Russian berries. In addition, American supermarkets were full of all sorts of preserves, granted not nearly as good as Grandma’s, but good enough to eat. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, the art of making strawberry preserves and all the magic that went with it was forever lost. As for the basin, it was retired to a top shelf in a closet and eventually lost during one my family’s many moves. 

Part 3: Farewell 

The last three months leading to our departure, I live in the past, present and future all at once. My present is painful, full of tears and despair. In my mind I keep turning back to my past, distant and recent, recalling all the great times I had with my friends, things we did, songs we sung, places we visited. My future stretches only as far as our last day in Kiev and all my emotional energy is concentrated on imagining, anticipating and re-living this day in my head. The words “never” and “for the last time” attach themselves to everything I see, touch, everyone I talk to. I take inventory of all the things I will never do again, people I will never see again. I am devastated and heartbroken. I live in a constant state of farewell. As time races by, that day looms, and suddenly the dreaded future is here. Our last day, our departure day, the day of final farewells. Everything is packed. The hallway is crowded with innumerous, countless suitcases, bags, parcels, duffel bags. Our lives are packed, stuffed, wrapped, and seemingly ready to go. 

For the last time, I go into the bedroom that my sister and I shared for the past 13 years. The room is empty and feels larger. All the furniture is gone, sold or given away. I walk along the empty walls, my hand traces the outlines of my desk, my bed, the armoire, my sister’s piano. The piano occupied a corner by the window for 11 years. I cried when this big black German instrument was wheeled out of our bedroom, down the hallway, into the freight elevator and out of our lives. Soon all our furniture was wheeled, carried out of the apartment the same way, each piece leaving a shadow on the wall behind it. Now only these shadows remain, rectangular memories, ghosts of a life lived here. The wallpaper is bright like new in the spots where each piece stood. I remember how much I liked the wallpaper design when I first saw our room at the age of 8 – it was so delicate, so girly. Now I see it as if 13 years haven’t passed, the design is untarnished, perfectly preserved hidden behind the furniture: small bouquets of violets, bright, every detail is crisp, flowers are of rich lavender color and the leaves are dark juicy green, each bouquet is tied with a blue ribbon. 

I walk to the wall-to-wall almost floor-to-ceiling window and look out. Our playground, the little hill we used to sled down in the winter, the swings, the volleyball court that was made into a skating rink in the winter where I first learn how to skate. I look farther – framing the road are the tall poplar trees that were the cause of my terrible allergies every spring. Still farther – the park, river Dnepr, graceful bridge that was built in front of my eyes, the new neighborhood across the river that grew as I grew. And farther still, the woods, the fields, the un-urbanized terrain. I try to take it all in, commit it to memory. How many hours I spent staring out this window, mesmerized by the view, my mind far far away in a wonderful daydream, until one of my parents would remind me of my homework and bring me back to Marxist philosophy. 

I take a last look out the window and walk away. I come to the door and stop, unable to cross the threshold and forever leave this life behind. I touch the doorframe, feeling little carved scars that trace the map of our growth. There 13 years of our lives are neatly mapped on the doorframe, our birthdays and heights climbing up in accurately carved grooves. Mine starts at 8, my sister Anna’s a bit lower at 4 – the year we moved into this apartment. It was a yearly ritual. Every year on our birthdays, dad would put me or my sister against the door frame. We were barefoot and had to stand tall and still, as dad placed a ruler at the top of our heads and marked the spot on the frame with the pencil. Then, as we gently stepped out from under the ruler, he took a pocket knife and carved a small groove in the wood of the frame. Then with a pencil he wrote the year, the name and the height. And every year Anna and I could not wait for this moment, eager to see how much we grew.

1976: Sasha – 1 m 27 cm 
I am 8 years old and we have just moved into the new apartment. Everything is new – neighborhood, neighbors, playground, furniture. Everything in the apartment is shiny and beautiful. All the rooms have wallpaper on. My sister and I have our own bedroom. Our apartment is on the 16th floor, we have 2 balconies and the view from our bedroom window is breathtaking. 

1978: Sasha - 1 m 35 cm; Anna - 1 m 15 cm 
Anna is 6 years old and is enrolled in music school. One day, a piano, a giant black beast is rolled into our room and is placed in the corner by the window. It’s old and it’s German and it has a lot of medals that are engraved in gold on the inside cover. It’s very exciting at the beginning, until my sister begins to practice scales every Sunday morning. My dad, who is absolutely, profoundly and unquestionably tone-deaf, is designated to supervise Anna’s daily exercises. He can’t read music, but claims to have good inner ear and so every time she makes a mistake, he stops her and sends her back to the beginning of the exercise. It’s torture. 

1979: Anna - 1 m 21 cm 
Anna turns 7 and starts school. On September 1st we all go together. My little sister has a brand new backpack. Her hair is cut in a neat bob, a la Mireille Mathieu. Her new brown uniform has pretty lace cuffs and collar and the white apron has ruffles on it. She is proudly carrying a bouquet of peonies for her teacher. She is probably nervous, but she does not show it. My parents are beaming with pride, taking both their daughters to school. 

1980: Sasha - 1 m 50 cm 
My grandfather passes away at the beginning of the year. I am away for winter vacation and don’t have a chance to say goodbye to him. I am heartbroken. 

It’s the year of the Moscow Olympic Games. Dad and I go on vacation to the Black Sea and we watch the closing ceremony on a giant color TV in the hall of the sea port. I cry at the closing song, as the big brown bear, the mascot of the Moscow Olympics, is carried up and away by colorful balloons. I have never seen anything so magical in my life. 

That year Vladimir Vysotsky dies. My parents and their friends have a memorial evening in our kitchen. Behind closed doors they talk about America. 

1985: Sasha – 1 m 56 cm
I graduate from high school. Between finals, prom, saying farewell to school, to our teachers and my friends, summer passes by unnoticed. At the end I fail the placement tests and don’t get into college. Mikhail Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of CPSU. 

1986: Sasha – 1 m 57 cm
For the May Day celebration, I plan to go to Odessa to visit my best friend Katya. On April 26th there is an accident in Chernobyl. There is nothing on TV or radio, but dad comes home pale and tells us the news. Anna is sent to Leningrad to stay with grandmother, I go to Odessa and stay there much longer than intended. Rumors are terrible, official news reports are scarce, everyone is terrified. That Spring and Summer Kiev, the entire city, its trees, parks, streets, buildings, is washed several times a day. It’s super clean, all its parks are bright green and completely devoid of children. In June I pass the placement tests and am enrolled into the university. I make new friends and join student theater. We are all looking forward to 4 years of fun together. The words glasnost’ and perestroika are on everyone’s lips and constantly on the news. In one day, 70-year old Soviet history is turned upside down. Jews are allowed to leave. 

1988: Sasha – 1 m 58 cm
On November 7th, on the 71st anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, our closest friends emigrate. They give us their bookcases and my dad asks a historical question: who will we give these to when we leave? In his head he already made the decision. 

1989
These are the last grooves, made just this year. I am 21, Anna is 17. She is almost as tall as me. It’s the year we emigrate. 

The day is December 2nd, 1989, the day of the final farewell. We take our countless bags, suitcases, duffels, parcels and walk out. Close the door, lock the top lock, two clicks. After a few trips on the elevator all our possessions are inside the van. I look at our building - one last time, the playground, the movie theater – one last time. As we drive to the railroad station, I say goodbye to the streets, parks, squares, my beloved ancient city. At the railroad station my friends are waiting. We drink champagne straight from the bottle and sing silly songs. I cry non-stop. I hug and kiss them all - one last time. Last call, I get on the train, it starts moving, gaining speed, we wave and yell silly promises, and then they are gone. 

Inside the train, my family is settling in for the night. I sit down in my coat. I can’t move, the sadness is paralyzing. An old man from the next compartment asks me why I am so sad. “You are going to America!”, he says. “It’s amazing luck that you were able to get out! You should be happy!” I look at him blankly, I have no idea what he is talking about. I feel as if I have been yanked out of my past, out of everything I’ve known and loved. But I haven’t been given the future yet. An abstract concept of future life in America is intangible, unimaginable, incomprehensible, blank. Sadness without boundaries fills my present. 


Leaving: a very short story 

The heavy wooden doors of the grey, gloomy official building slowly close behind them. Two people stand there for a few minutes, observing, digesting the importance of what just happened. Then they start walking away, their pace getting quicker, as if trying to get away from this building as fast as possible, away from the grey official bureaucrats, away from their cold grey official eyes, their cold, grey official suits.

It’s three in the afternoon and all around them citizens of the ancient city hurry along, minding their own business, paying no attention to this middle-aged couple. My parents, my mom’s arm hooked around my dad’s, her head tilted towards him, eyes looking down, walk briskly towards the metro station. Dad quickly glances behind him, expecting to see the grey officials running after him. No one is there. As if to make sure he did not imagine it all, he pats the breast pocket of his coat, feeling where five pieces of paper with magic powers are neatly folded and stored. He feels their thickness and weight though the rough wool of his coat, and he can’t help but notice the radiating heat of freedom they release – their exit visas. They are like the key to an old rusted lock, the key that will open the gates to the exciting new world and will close the door to old one, probably forever. He shudders, as if hearing the door slamming shut behind him.

Suddenly the immensity of his decision weighs heavily down on him, forcing him to bow his head and droop his shoulders. They are leaving. A realization that they will leave this beautiful ancient city where they spent most of their lives, created their family, raised their kids, leave their friends, leave their home – this realization, like a cold hand, wraps heavily around his heart and grips it painfully. Fear for the future, almost paralyzing, grabs hold of him. What will happen to them – over there? How would they live? Where would they live? What would they do? A myriad of questions start to race though his mind and he shakes his head trying to shake these thoughts away. The time to worry about these things is yet to come. But it’s not now.

Right now he needs to focus on other things, on the more urgent matters. Almost in synch both my parents raise their heads and start talking. Their pace quickens, becomes more determined, as they start to orchestrate their departure. Asking each other questions, they start making simple decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

–We have to start selling the furniture.

–Yes. What about the chandelier? We just bought it, it’s so beautiful…

-Well, we can’t take it with us, we’ll have to sell it too.

–What about our books? We should take them with us, at least all Russian classics and poetry.

–We can ship them, I guess.

- We would need big, sturdy suitcases. I have to find out where to get them….

They talk as they walk towards the metro station, preoccupied, excited, determined. For the next six months these dull, minute, life-changing decisions will occupy their lives, keeping fear and sadness away. Keeping nostalgia that has already started to work her treacherous way through their hearts in check. She will attack with full force later, when "over there" will become "over here", and "now" will become "back then." But right now, as they briskly walk towards the metro station, they realize that the most life-altering decision of their lives has been made. They are leaving.