WHAT’S IN A PET NAME?

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Early in my girlhood, I became aware my mother and father called each other a name I visualized as “Mi” although they both pronounced it “Me.”  I had no idea what it meant or where it came from but knew it was not a name I was supposed to use.  It had something to do with whatever went on between them that didn’t concern me (lower case), their daughter.

“Mi” was used more affectionately than another mysterious word they sometimes called each other — the one I visualized as “Bubi” but sounded like “Booby.”  “Bubi” was matter-of-fact; “Mi” meant something a trifle more intimate. I eventually figured out “Mi.” It was the first syllable of both their names in Russian — his, “Mikhail,” or “Mischa,” hers, Mira (pronounced “Meera”).  Since they were using it while speaking English, it was a trace of their early days together in Baku before they emigrated — the memory of which was exclusively theirs. The provenance of “Bubi” remains unknown to me to this day.

My father sometimes had another word for my mother: “Youshka.”   It showed up in the context of satisfaction with or approval of something she had produced around the house — a good dinner, nicely ironed handkerchiefs, the fragrance of lemon-scented Old English furniture polish.  When reminiscing about his boyhood to me many years later, he once mentioned his family had had a servant called “Youshka” whom he had liked very much; she had brought back candy for him from her day off.  I don’t know if my mother ever heard this anecdote.  She can’t have been very fond of being called “Youshka” though; she never called him “Youshka” back.

Bill recalls his parents called each other “M.”  “M” was the initial letter of each of their first names: Morris and Mary.  (Bill’s grandmother, who was Mary’s mother, called her daughter Miriam. But that began with “M” too.)  No one else called either of them “M.”  It was just for, and between, them.

My first husband, when pleased with me, called me “cute sweet.”  It’s scribbled all over dozens of household notes and post-its which I stuffed into a large manila envelope after reading them with increasing irritation.  Whatever affection all those “cute sweets” may have contained, they sounded patronizing to me, as if I were some small something that he had acquired and was fond of but wasn’t in any way central to his existence.  He was nine years older than I and over six feet tall, so I couldn’t really have called him “cute sweet” back even if I’d felt like it.   It may be I never threw the “cute sweets” away because as long as I felt I had to stay in the marriage, that might have been bad luck. Then I forgot about the envelope after things went from not-so-good to worse and he stopped calling me that or using it in little household notes. An upside to keeping them:  although the last “cute sweet” was probably written in 1959, because I run across the envelope from time to time while looking for something else in the basement, I still remember all those “cute sweets” well enough to tell you about them.

My second husband didn’t go in for pet names, So any pet names arising in my marriage to him were the ones I used with my small children when tucking them into bed at night, Since they would now be extremely embarrassed were I even to hint at what they were (if indeed they remember them), I won’t.  When they reached adolescence, the pet names fell into disuse. But they developed special names for me and their father when speaking about us to each other, which I got to hear but he didn’t.  I was “the Ya!” and he was “the Uh!”  I have my own views on what ” the Ya!” and “the Uh!” meant, but if I go there, we will need to commence an analysis of that marriage and our somewhat different approaches to parenting that would be unwise.  Besides, “the Ya!” and “the Uh!” are not pet names within the meaning of this post. I believe they too were abandoned by the time their users reached college.

Bill and I also began our life together with pet names for each other, reserved for that private place between the sheets where they will stay.  All I will say about them is that (1) these names are not based on either the initials or sound of any syllable of our respective first names, which isn’t what you wanted to know, anyway; and (2) a pet name as I conceive it must be accepted by both parties, the one who speaks and the one to whom it refers.

As witness the day when I suddenly burst out not with my usual pet name for Bill, but with “Baba!”

“Baba?” he not unreasonably inquired.

But when I explained I had no idea where it came from but it meant him and it was good, he soon began calling me Baba too. Not always, you understand.  Just, impulsively, now and then.  I even made up the first two lines of a little song about it. (You will have to create the extremely short tune for yourself.)  “I’m a Baba; You’re a Baba; We are Babas two.”

When I connect with my brain, I suspect that “Baba” is a corruption of “Baby.” But believe me when I say that at such times as “Baba” falls from my lips, my brain is usually in sleep mode.

Then came the cats, Sasha and Sophie. Sometimes, when one of them was being particularly adorable, I began calling that cat Baba, too.  What do you know? Before you could blink an eye a couple of times, we were a family of Big Babas and Little Babas!

Is “Baba” sufficiently acknowledged by the cats to qualify as a name accepted by both parties and therefore a bona fide pet name of the sort I’ve been discussing? (As distinct from a “pet” name given to dogs, cats, or parakeets.)  I believe I can assure you that it is, at least as far as the cats “accept” that their individual names are Sasha and Sophie.  They do know the difference between those two “S” names and sometimes come, correctly, when individually called. And when they feel like it.  By now they will also come to the sound of “Baba” — when they feel like it.  Of course, they may simply be coming to the sound of my voice, the voice of the treat-and-food provider.  But these are mysteries beyond the purview of this post.

Lately, when Sophie — the dumber of the two — is particularly slow to grasp something, such as that it’s okay to eat from her dish while Sasha is eating from her own dish — I have begun  to call her “Poo-poo,” or “Poozie.”  Bill is still trying to wrap his mind around that one — “Why? Why?” he asks — so it may not become shared family vocabulary. If it doesn’t, it will simply be my way of venting annoyance that both our Little Babas are not equally brilliant (for cats).

How did I fall into this seemingly nonsensical post, anyway?  Because if I can’t think of something to write next, I look at the title of the blog.  This time, it occurred to me that when one of us survives the other (as will certainly happen when two people are getting old together), the pet names for each other will go too.  But not the pet names we gave together to our relatively young cats. And that will be a comfort.

When my father died, my mother had no one to call “Mi” and “Bubi” anymore, except perhaps in her heart. She didn’t even have cats. But in her last years she did start feeding a non-feral stray cat, lost or left behind, who came to her door every morning and evening for the cream and tuna she put out.  “Why does she keep coming?” she asked me ingenuously.  She looked forward to it though. So I do hope she gave the cat a pet name she didn’t share with me. A name that was private — just between her and the cat.

A pet name means more and more as you get older.  It means you’re still not alone.

MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER: A REBLOG

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[Bill keeps saying he’d like a dog.  A small dog, that could relieve itself on a wee-wee pad and didn’t need much exercise.  One that’s no trouble at all for me. (Notice the “me.”  No mention at all of “him.”)  Maybe an elderly Havanese.  Bill’s never before had a dog — or a desire for a dog. Or any desire to walk a dog. This is something that’s come upon him recently when neither cat responds to his calls to cuddle. Duh. Unlike me, he knew about cats; he had them in both prior marriages.  I was the one who’d led a hitherto mostly cat-deprived life. 

A couple of weeks ago he even got into friendly telephone conversation with a not-too-far-away Havanese breeder who had a six-year-old nearing the end of its reproductive life and needing a good home.  I have assured Bill — and hopefully by extension the breeder — that ours is not that home. We already have litter boxes for the two cats in both bathrooms (one upstairs, one down), and there’s no more room in either for “wee-wee pads.”  Besides, who do you think would be the one running out to the store for these pads, finding a place to stash them until needed, and then disposing of them?  Also the vet predicts our otherwise peaceable cats would not be happy at the introduction of a canine interloper and might express their displeasure with, ah, toilet malfunctions.

It’s not that under other circumstances (such as no cats), I might not like a little dog. But not so very little as a Havanese, cute though it might be. The stationer in town has a darling black cocker spaniel named Sasha (like our cat) who’s sort of what I might have in mind if there were to be an “if.” But it’s not going to happen in this lifetime; I’m 83, Bill’s going to be 87 next week, and there’s a limit to how much menagerie our surviving children may be able to tolerate.

In lieu of a dog, I have therefore suggested to Bill that he revisit the TGOB post from November 2013 in which I reviewed my life as a dog lover.  It will pretty much give him the ups and downs of it. As we grow old, we must make do with literature and lesser forms of reading matter, such as blogs.]

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MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER

One of the pleasures of the ninth decade of my life is Sasha, now a nearly six year-old British Blue shorthair cat. She’s been with us since she was five months old. Although her breeder was thinking of keeping her — she was a nearly perfect kitten by breeding standards — she let us have her because the sibling kitten we had driven fifty miles to see had already been sold. So Sasha was a happy accident. As many happy things are.

She was even more of an accident because I’ve always favored dogs. Fruitlessly, I yearned for a dog in childhood. At last I took matters into my own hands by accepting a puppy from a lady down the street whose cocker spaniel had been erotically careless. I was eleven. Jimmy was brown and white and warm and cuddly. And he didn’t cost a cent!  My parents let me keep him.

Jimmy waited by the front door every afternoon when it was time for me to come home from school, barking joyously at my arrival. He was also noticeably fond of my mother, the food source. And especially fond of her hamburgers and peanut butter cookies. But no one denied he was “my” dog. Wasn’t I the one who’d found him? Then we moved east from Los Angeles, and Jimmy couldn’t come. My best friend took him. I used to think about him sometimes and hope he was having a nice life. There were no more dogs in mine.

Until I had children of my own. (Second husband, if you’re counting.) How could we deny them a dog? Despite living in a somewhat cramped fourth-floor apartment on West 86th Street in New York City, I even envisaged giving them a first-hand experience of the magic of birth. Our dog, when we got her, could have puppies in the second bathroom!

Second husband, who had not been permitted a dog in his own Brooklyn childhood, was willing.

We began with two false starts that cost nothing and produced nothing. First there was Mick Humble (a name somewhat inspired by Mick Jagger but more suitable to a trembly little dog). No magic of birth in the bathroom, but free is free. Poor Mick lay in misery behind the toilet for several days before we realized he wasn’t just frightened but really sick, and needed to be taken back to the ASPCA to be put to sleep.

Next came Bonaparte, a frisky cutie if ever there was one. He was given to us by a grateful neighbor with an unspayed black Lab who — like Jimmy’s mother many years before — had yielded to an unplanned amorous impulse. Little Bonaparte had to be returned because he grew too large too fast; when at fourteen weeks he took to jumping on the children in friendly play, he nearly knocked them down. His father must have been a mastiff.

It finally dawned on us that you get what you pay for. So one sunny Sunday, we all climbed into our aging Volkswagen and headed a couple of hours north of the city, where according to the classifieds — remember them, anyone? — breeders were less grasping in their pricing practices. The trip was productive: we came back with the golden retriever puppy who would grow up with us; see our children through their childhood and my second husband and I through our marriage; and imprint for good on all of us the conviction that a dog is indeed a best friend.

“What shall we call her?” I asked during the car ride home. The two children sat in the back (no car seats, no booster seats in that faraway time ), a puppy the color of golden sand between them. With one voice, they cried out, “Sandy!”

Not being Little Orphan Annie, I aimed higher. “How about a more interesting name?” I inquired seductively. “Think of all the deserts in the world full of sand! Gobi! Mohave! Sahara!”

And now I could tell you about training Sahara to hold it for the street despite the temptations of the elevator floor, and about generously dispensing dollar bills to the elevator man for “accident” cleanup. About my West 86th Street walks with Sahara early and late, and the people I met at the end of her leash. About mopping up behind Sahara on hands and knees during her first period, an experience definitively ending plans for puppies in the second bathroom. About how Sahara covered clothes, children, rugs, furniture and car with her golden hairs, and how we learned not to mind. About the time my older son (aged twelve) saved Sahara’s virginity from another golden retriever, a large and horny male. About how Sahara comforted my younger son when his brother went away to school. About how walking with Sahara by the ocean kept a fraying marriage together after we left New York for a beach town in Massachusetts because living in New York had became too expensive and too difficult.

I could even tell you the sad part, although it would be much harder to write, about when the children grew up and left us. Soon afterwards I too went away, leaving Sahara to grow old in a cold and empty house alone with the children’s father. I still feel guilty about her. We both wanted out. But she wanted only to be with our family. And then there was no more family to be with….

SECOND POSTSCRIPT

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[In addition to twenty-two pages of memoir, my father also left behind notes about what had become of his parents, sisters and brother after his departure on the “Marmara” from what he always continued to call “Russia.”  His information was derived entirely from letters; there were no international phone calls. It is therefore sparse. But if you want something about how it was for them all after 1922, when the memoir ends — here it is, to the extent that we can now ever know it. The end of their stories.]

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FROM MICHAEL RAGINSKY  

August 1984

Died:

  • Father, at age 64. Diabetes. Died in a coma in a hospital. Got very ill on April 16, 1936. By then had bad eyesight and poor hearing.
  • Mother, at age 77 or 78. Was ill and bedridden. Died in bed at either Bertha’s or Bronia’s home on May 26th, 1949.
  • Monia, was in bad shape but still alive in 1946. Do not know when he died.
  • Mulia, Bronia’s first husband. Died at age 55, on December 14th, 1945. Bronia was then 51.
  • Foma, Bertha’s first and only husband and Yulia’s father. Died in early 1973.
  • Bertha, at age 82, after two months of illness at home, on July 22nd, 1974 . (Had diabetes and hypertension.) Funeral was July 23rd, 1974.
  • Bronia, at age 81, after severe heart attack on July 17, 1975 and suffering for three days, during which she did not eat or drink. Died at 12:30 p.m on July 20th, 1975.  Funeral  was July 22nd, 1975, at 5 p.m.

Other events and dates from Russian letters:

  • Bertha and Yulia [mother and daughter] lived in the same room on Ulitza Basina 35, 3rd floor (formerly Balachanskaya) since the time Monia and I left Baku in 1922, and then with Foma [Bertha’s husband] — until they got separate apartment in 1962. Forty years in misery and horror with enemy neighbors. Foma and Bertha married in 1915, when Bertha was 21 and Foma 25 or 26. They divorced after twenty-two years of marriage in 1937. Foma had left for a younger woman. (After Father died.) Yulia was then 21.
  • Bronia and Mulia [wife and husband] got an apartment in a new building in 1935, with bath, phone, gas, etc. — a luxury at the time. Lived at same address till Bronia died, and now Yulia is living there with Volodia [her husband]. Baku-370010, Az.S.S .R. Ultiza Solntzeva 24; block 12. Apt. 116.
  • In 1940, on June 1st, Yulia married Volodia [Vladimir] Kalinin. Yulia was then 24 and Volodia was 26; after marriage, they went to live with Bertha [Yulia’s mother] in her room on Ulitza Basina 35; all three lived there till 1962, when all moved to a separate apartment.
  • Bertha never re-married because, Mother wrote me, she was very choosy. Or, who knows why?
  • Bronia, after Mulia’s death, desperately wanted to leave Russia and begged to come to live with Myra and me [in America]…which was impossible to do at that time. Besides, in 1946 at age of 52, without English, what could she do in America with her outdated dentistry? [Bronia had become a dentist.] She thought she could move mountains….  Not being able to go to America, she married, in November 1946, an old patient of hers: Piotr Michailovich Kasitski, engineer, age 50. Bronia was then 51 or 52. She had known him already for 15 or 17 years. He had a job in Moscow, and they lived there for a while: Tovarisheskii Pereulokl 26, kwartira 7. But in less than a year, Bronia was dissatisfied with her marriage and she returned to Baku, where she continued to ask for help to emigrate to America. At age of 53 or 54, since nothing came of coming to America, she apparently divorced her husband and in 1952 married for third time a man by name Semion. I forgot his last name. This marriage also was not what Bronia wanted. I do not know whose fault it was. But it lasted for 11 years. In 1963 Semion died, of cancer of stomach, in hospital, in terrible pain. Funeral September 23rd, 1963. On April 1st, 1968, Bronia went out on pension at age of 73. She only lived on pension seven years. Went on pension too late, considering her heart condition and hypertension. Never wanted to quit working. Died at home from massive heart attack.
  • Now, from all of our Russian family, the only ones left are myself and Yulia…..

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RIP

POSTSCRIPT

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Before he began the abruptly truncated memoir I’ve transcribed in the last six posts, my father made a rough outline of what he meant to cover:

  • Forward
  • Childhood
  • Ukraine 1905
  • Germany
  • Baku
  • School, Barsuk
  • Music lessons
  • Gymnasium
  • Moving to apartment [from living quarters behind store]
  • War years
  • Crisis at school
  • Teen age
  • Revolution 1917
  • Awakening as a musician
  • Red Revolution 1917
  • Dangerous times
  • Departure from Baku to Volga (7 of us)
  • Civil war
  • Terrible months
  • On the road to Siberia
  • Tomsk, school and peaceful life again
  • New friends, and new activities
  • Summer, and first winter in Siberia
  • Spring, Fall and last winter in Siberia
  • Defeat of Kolchak and White armies
  • Return to Baku

Since he managed to address only the first five of these topics before giving up, looking at the entire list shows me how little I ever knew of what he intended to narrate, and now will never know.  He did leave a note to his typescript explaining Barsuk was a tutor who came to the house to prepare him for the examinations that would determine whether he could enter a Gymnasium. Although he knew addition, multiplication and division, he would apparently have failed subtraction without extra help.

However, while he was a convivial storyteller in company, I heard nothing at any time of his crisis at school, his awakening as a musician, his experiences of teenage angst, or his take on the 1917 Revolution and the concomitant dangers it presented for a Jewish family living in Baku. I knew the family had left the city for a time during the war, but thought they had gone to Kharkov and then come back to Baku when the danger was past. I see from the list I was wrong. (Perhaps it was my mother who spent some of the war years in Kharkov with her sister.  When I first heard these city names, I was too young to know where they were, and may have mixed everything up.)

I also see from his topic list that by the time the family evacuated to the Volga during the 1917 Revolution, Bertha was already married and a mother, since he says seven people departed, not six. Which makes sense when I think about it. Bertha was ten years older than my father, and her daughter Yulia was born in 1916. But where was Foma, her young husband? Fighting on the side of the Whites?

I heard nothing of the “terrible months,” the trip to Siberia, or the nearly two-year stay in Tomsk.  I just looked up Tomsk to get some sense of its distance from European Russia. It’s far. It was known as the cultural center of Siberia and was equally famous for its wooden architecture, much of which has been preserved. There’s a French language website where you can see early twentieth-century photographs of what it must have looked like when my teen-age father arrived, and a contemporary photograph of a modern Tomsk street in summer which made me want to get on a plane and fly to Siberia right away, at my age — to see what it might have been like to be there at his age.

Discovering these tantalizing hints of what I never knew about my father also makes me sad.  Perhaps there are some families where parents do tell their children about their own lives in a meaningful way. That was not true in my nuclear family of three. Or perhaps part of growing up involves freeing ourselves of our parents so completely we tell ourselves nothing about how they lived their lives can possibly have any bearing on how we’re going to live ours, and it’s only when we’re older that we begin to wish we had asked more questions while there was still timeI

It’s true I did overhear a few of the stories my father told to other people.  But he told them only because they were good stories. Among them were two of the “adventures”  he promised in his Forward but neglected to include in his list:  (1) how he contrived to obtain exit visas from the Soviet Union in 1922, a time when that was almost impossible; and (2) how he gamed the process for getting permits to immigrate to the United States from Constantinople before the 1922 British embargo of the Black Sea shut down all inbound and outbound travel.  You can read about the first of these adventures here.  I put the second one in the mouth of Anna’s father in the “Luck” section of At Roscoe, which is here.  And if you’re interested in what happened to Bertha’s little daughter Yulia, one or two years old during the family’s exodus from Baku to Siberia during the 1917 Revolution, you’ll find all I know of her here.

What do I make of the twenty-two typed pages that do exist?

(1) I am endlessly grateful to my grandfather, who I never knew, for his enterprise and courage. If he had not managed to bribe his family’s way out of pogrom-plagued Ukraine and into Germany in 1905, my father might well have been slaughtered at the age of three and I would never have been born.  [If my mother had had a girl child by another husband, would she have been me? I leave that philosophical question for another day, but my hunch is “no.”]  I also applaud my grandfather for bringing the family back to Russia instead of remaining in Germany, despite his admiration for all things German.  Any child my father might have fathered had he grown up in Berlin — whether “me” or not — would likely have gone into the ovens at Buchenwald or Auschwitz, or else died in a camp like Anne Frank, before ever reaching adulthood.

(2) Less self-referentially, I am struck by the degree to which the lives of my grandparents and their children were shaped by the anti-semitism of the world in which they lived.  Except for one of my father’s aunts, all adult and nearly adult members of the family changed their Hebrew names to Russian ones, evidently to deflect prejudice and enhance their chances of survival. The little boys were too young, but later they changed their names, too — my father first, and then my uncle.  My grandfather shaved off the traditional beard that characterized the adult male Jew, wore a “German”-style mustache, and paid mere lip service to religion, and then only on the high holidays (although my grandmother continued to light candles on Friday nights in the privacy of the home).

Money which might have gone for other things was spent on bribes for fake documents and fake passports. More money went for education. The children had to attend private school, for which there were fees, unless they could qualify — if necessary with paid extra tutoring — for the 10% of places available to Jewish children in the official government Gymnasiums.  The family had to flee pogroms, leaving almost all furniture behind. I was struck by my father’s little-boy recollection of nearly bare apartments and of sleeping on sheets on a bare floor until necessary furniture could be very slowly acquired again.  Even when the family became comfortable once more, my father and his brother — five or six years apart in age — continued to sleep together on a sofa in the living room, after company had left, and do their homework together on the same dining table in the gallery. Only after two years in Baku, was there enough money to build a real kitchen in the living quarters.

Much of the family’s money also went towards my grandfather’s efforts to bring all of his extended family out of Ukraine to  Baku, which was apparently relatively safer for Jews and the reason they moved out of a real apartment into quarters partitioned out of the space behind a store — lowering their living standard, as my father put it.  I say “relatively” safer in light of what he had already learned from a little playmate named Volodia before he was old enough for school:  that if someone were to kill him, there would be no punishment for the murderer because my father was a Jew.  Indeed, another playmate — Solomon, who was Jewish too — was killed by other children in the neighborhood:  for fun they threw him into a deep well, where he drowned.  My father observes no one was ever punished, so that what Volodia had said about getting off scot-free after killing a Jewish child was correct.

(3) Finally, although he may not have been aware of the extent to which it colored his writing, my father was clearly envious and resentful of his older brother Monia, the favored first son.  I have not until now written anything, in this blog or elsewhere, about my paternal uncle — even omitting his existence from accounts of my mother and father, because his story is too complicated to explain in passing.  In fact, I never knew my father had a brother until my twenties, when he showed up in some old photographs and I asked who he was.  That is also when I learned this uncle came to America at the same time as my father and mother, perhaps only at the urging of his parents, who may have felt he would have a better life outside of the Soviet Union.  One of these days I may write about what happened to him once he was here. But it’s difficult. Suffice it for now that he eventually became a burden to my father, resented and then (with guilt) abandoned. I have never decided for myself what should have been done, or what I would have done in similar circumstances.  But my father’s account of their early relationship, and the ambivalence he inadvertently expresses explains a lot…..

[I’m not quite done, although nearly.  There’s a rather sad Second Postscript for next time, if you can still bear with me.  What good is a story without its end?]

 

 

FROM MY FATHER (Part Six)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned it up a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech. 

This is the last installment of the typescript. Readers who may have just now stumbled upon these memories of his can find my transcription of the earlier pages in the previous five posts of this blog. I wish there had been more to offer. But after the August 12th, 1984 entry below, he put away what he had written and never came back to it.  Perhaps my mother discouraged him. (“Who will want to read it?”) Perhaps he felt too tired and weak to continue what would have been a considerable undertaking. I will never know….]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

By then [1909], we had a new helper for Mother: a nice young Russian peasant girl who came to work for the family a couple of years before. Father had an addition built to our living quarters: a kitchen with many cabinets and room for the Russian girl to sleep there. Our own living quarters were expanding as the family was growing up; there was a piano in the house now, although no one could play it, but just in case Monia needed an accompanist to play his pieces with a piano.

I did not start yet on my music lessons. The Russian girl liked me very much and devoted much time to me. She would put me to bed and before I would fall asleep she would tell all kinds of wonderful fairy tales. I loved all her stories and she was telling them very masterfully. Later, I read Anderson’s Fairy Tales, and most of the stories she told me she was repeating word for word. Most likely she had the book and was reading the stories before she was telling them to me, although sometimes I would ask her to tell me again some story that she told me long time ago and which I liked very much; she would remember everything and the story sounded the same like I heard it the first time.

August 12th, 1984

She was not making much money, I guess, but she always was buying me candy and presents, and even once she dressed me up in long pants, which I was very proud to wear because up till then I was always wearing short pants, like all the little boys were wearing. Then she dressed up herself in her best velvet Sunday dress, and both of us went to a photographer to take a photograph together. It must have been very expensive for her; most likely all of her wages for the month went on this memorable outing. I still remember the photograph: she was standing tall and very erect, holding my hand, and I was standing very close to her, coming up to her waistline. Her name was Masha, or Mashenka. I never knew her last name; everyone in the family called her Masha.

She was always there to help me in every way. When there were guests, or the family stayed up late in the living room where our sleeping couch was, she would put me up in her own bed in the kitchen, and when my couch was available would carry me still sleeping in her arms to the couch and tuck me in for the night. When she told me the stories before I fell asleep, she was holding my hand. She was a plain-looking Russian girl, with typical Slav features, but to me she was the most beautiful person in the world! When I started to take music lessons on the cello in the music school, the cello was bigger than I in size, and Masha always walked with me to the school, carrying my cello, and waited there till I finished with my lesson, and again walked back home with me again carrying my cello for me. The school was not too far, about 15 minutes walk from our home. Masha stayed with us until I was about 10 years of age. Then, saving up some money for her marriage, she went back to her village to marry someone arranged by her priest and parents.

When Masha left, Mother needed another girl to help out. I never knew how did Mother find the girls to come to work for us until, after Masha was gone, Mother took me along one day to go and find another girl. We went to the center of town, where there was a large park. In that park there was an area specially reserved for women who wanted to find a job as houseworkers. There I saw very many women of all ages sitting on the ground and chatting among themselves until a prospective employer would appear. Then they all would spruce up and sit neatly and quietly. Mother would look the younger ones over, would talk to some, ask questions, and finally — when decided on one –would tell her all about the job, salary and other details that the job entailed. If the girl agreed to accept the job, she would give Mother her passport. (Everyone in Russia had to have a passport, which had to be registered with police in each city or town where the person was to reside or work.) Mother in turn would give her our address and ask her to come with her belongings next morning. Then, the ritual would be to take the girl to public bath house, and after her bath to dress her in everything fresh and clean and then bring her home to start work!

And so, coming back to the time when I was 7 years of age, my real preparation for entering Gymnasium started, as well as my entrance into music school to study cello. The cello was not my idea of the instrument, but Father’s. He heard a cellist play a solo piece in Odessa and was enchanted with the idea of having another son play the cello, which had such a lovely sound, like human voice!  And this is how the cello became my instrument.

I was not very enchanted with the idea. The instrument was very big, bigger than I was in height, and it was very difficult for me to carry it around. It did not have beautiful case like my brother had for his violin. I always had to find an empty corner where to keep the cello, and it was not always easy!

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[Although those are the last words of the typescript, my father also drafted a list, before he began, of the topics he initially intended to cover in his account of his first nineteen years. There are twenty-seven topics in his list, of which the typescript addresses only the first five. The list also stops short of what he promised in the Introduction — the story of his adventures in getting himself out of newly Sovietized Russia and on the way to, as he put it, “U.S.A.”  I did hear two of those “adventures” at the dinner table when I was growing up. So I will try your patience next time with a “Postscript” of sorts, in which I tidy up these matters and also set down my thoughts as I typed my way through what you’ve just been reading….]

FROM MY FATHER (Part Five)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned up his manuscript a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech.

I have no idea who will have the patience to follow along with a dying man trying to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes, and at the same time reliving his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — just let me know in the comment section below. On the other hand, we’ve got only one more post from him after this one. So perhaps you can hang in there. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But you always came away with something in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

My father was naturally very busy with his business, but outside of his love for music he had other hobby; he loved photography and loved to take pictures himself, and also to go to professional photographer to take pictures of our family together and separately. Unfortunately, I do not have many of the interesting pictures that were taken in our growing years. Father also loved to read detective stories, mostly American, Nick Carter, Pinkerton — but also English: Sherlock Holmes. And he loved good food and his beer! Very often he would send me out to the corner store to get him a couple of bottles of “Giguly” beer. The beer drinking was part of his admiration of everything German. He was not a drunkard, but he wanted his beer with his meals.

Mother was very sentimental and loved poetry. She had a book of poetry by a young Russian poet by the name Semyon Nadson; that poet died very early, at twenty-five. His poems were full of pain and suffering about his Mother, who died when Nadson was a few years old. Of course, he also wrote about other things, but every one of his poems had pain and suffering. I read some of them and never liked that book. Mother was also very good at arithmetic and was very helpful with my arithmetic problems when I could not solve them for myself. I was always wondering how easy it was for Mother to do my problems in such a short time. I thought she was a genius!

My pre-school years were spent mostly playing with my cousins or a few boys of my age who lived in the building. One boy who lived with his Grandfather shocked me and started my education about anti-semitism, about which I knew nothing before. The boy’s Grandfather had a store next to Father’s store. He was a framer who would frame any picture or photo with a fine frame. He had many frames in his store, gilded, colored, etc., and he had a cutting machine in the back of his store. There I used to sit and play with Volodia, his grandson.  The Grandfather’s name was Golikoff, and he had a married son who was Father of that boy, Volodia. The son got killed in the Russian-Japanese war and left a young widow with the little boy. The Grandfather lived then in some other Russian city and was also a widower. So he took the young widow and her son with him to Baku, where he established himself in the store next to ours. Volodia was about the same age as I was, and we were getting along fine. But there is no doubt that the Grandfather and/or his Mother were anti-semitic, and that is where anti-semitism fell on very receptive ears of Volodia.

One day as we were talking about bandits and killings, he blurted out if someone had killed me, nothing would happen to him because I was a Jew. I was shocked and speechless. No doubt, either his Father or Grandfather were part of the “Black Hundred” gang that were murdering defenseless Jewish families, and this hatred was being carried over through generations to come!  I never played with Volodia anymore. It is interesting that later he found his true vocation, where he could do his killings in life by becoming a member of the dreaded CHEKA, Red secret police and predecessor of KGB, during the Red Revolution. He was by then only in his teens, but he became an accomplished executioner of many, many victims of the Reds!

I had another playmate at that time; this was a Jewish boy by the name Solomon Shtechin. He also was about my age, and he also lived with his Grandfather, who was a tailor. Without his Mother and Father, who perished in the “pogroms” in Russia, and without good supervision, he fell in with a gang of bad boys and ended up losing his life, when as a joke his pals threw him into a water well in the courtyard. The well was very deep, and people used to have to go to the well with pails to fetch some drinking water. So, in that well little Solomon ended his young life, and naturally, nothing ever happened to the young Russian hoodlums that did it! How right was Volodia!

At this time, I would like to describe how and when this gold mine of Azerbaijan and Baku fell into hands of Russia and Russian Tsar! Azerbaijan was really a backward and undeveloped country, but all neighbors had an eye on Azerbaijan because of all the natural riches. In 18th century, it was a part of Persia, now known as Iran. Iran was mainly interested to keep Azerbaijanians Moslem and dependent on Persia. Georgia and Armenia, who were also neighbors to Azerbaijan, had a different problem. They were Christian. Neighboring Turkey was Moslem, and Turkey was interested in taking over these two small countries. In fact, Armenia was already under Turkish rule, and the rule was murderous, as many millions of Armenians were butchered by Turks. But Turkey was also interested in getting hold of Azerbaijan, with all its rich natural resources.

The Georgians needed protection from Turks and appealed for protection to Russian Tsar. The Tsar was only too glad to oblige, because Russian Empire was expanding, and two or three more provinces were very interesting additions to the Empire. And so at the beginning of 19th century, Russia went to war with both Persia (Iran) and Turkey. In 1828 the war with Persia was over, with Russian victory, and the peace was signed: Azerbaijan was split in half — Persia kept the northern part and Russia got the southern part, with Baku the capital of Russian Azerbaijan.The war with Turkey also ended a few years before, with Russian victory, and Armenia was also split in half — one part went to Russia and the other remained in Turkey. The majority of Armenians went over to Russian part of Armenia and many others went to the new gold mine, Baku in Azerbaijan.

Until 1870s, very little activity and production is recorded in Russian part of Azerbaijan. But when the industrial countries of Europe needed oil and Baku and surrounding area proved to be a bountiful production center and the oil was of high quality, many French, German, Swedes, English and others, like Nobels and Rothschilds, poured into Baku to get a share in the riches of gas and oil and other industries. By the beginning of the 20th century, all these oil people had very large holdings and Baku became a place where millions could be made with very little capital. Labor was cheap too, as many Russian workers came from all over the Russian Empire to work there. Of the population in Azerbaijan when our family arrived in Baku around 1905, about 70% were Azerbaijanians, 14% Russians (including all officials and police and military), 12% Armenians. Baku was growing fast!

And pretty soon my personal life was going to change fast too. Goodbye, carefree existence of a little boy. It was time to get ready to prepare to go to school. The year was 1909, and I was seven years of age!

[To be concluded….]

FROM MY FATHER (Part Four)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned up his manuscript a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech.

I have no idea who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and at the same time trying to relive his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — let me know in the comment section below. On the other hand, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing until I get to where he stopped…. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

[Continued from previous post….]

In a very few years after us, there was a flood of new people who came to Baku for better life, and of course among them Jewish families. Baku was growing tremendously, as more and more  new oil wells were established and new factories produced all sorts of goods. After we came, there opened more Gymnasiums, more trade schools, theaters, concert halls, and even a new music school.

One day, Monia heard about that school from one of his classmates and told Father that he would like very much to start studying the violin. That’s all Father had to hear; it was music to his ears. If not himself, then his joy and pride, the oldest son, will become a great violinist!  Father promptly enrolled Monia to the music school and, as luck would have it, the Director of the school, who was a very fine violinist and teacher by the name Samson R. Krongold, took Monia as his student. Later on, Mr. Krongold became very friendly with Father and he and his family used to come often to visit us at home. Monia was talented and was progressing very rapidly on his violin. Father was beaming with pleasure and did not know what to do for Monia!  On his next buying trip to Germany, he brought Monia a present: a nice violin and bow in a beautiful violin case; the top of the case had a fancy plaque with his name engraved in silver. It was a beautiful gift.

My sisters were enrolled in a private school which was started and run by a former government girls’ Gymnasium schoolteacher by the name of Tutova; her girl students were called Tutovskayas, which meant that they were from Tutovskaya School. And while the school was not accredited by the Government and the diploma was not accepted as eligible to enter University or other officially recognized institutions of learning, the school had very fine teachers, at times even the same teachers who taught at Gymnasiums. It was also a fine preparatory school if any of the students cared to go for examination for admittance to official Gymnasiums or University. But apparently my sisters did not have any ambitions in that direction and so they were contented to remain in the private school and get their diplomas from that school.

Neither of my sisters had any interest in music and neither one took music lessons. They were direct opposites to each other. The older one, Bertha, was a great reader of books, but her choice was mostly love stories and romantic novels because classic Russian literature was studied in schools  and in reading and writing assignments to be done at home for school. The younger sister, Bronia, from early age was very active and a great help to Mother and Father. She liked me very much and was spending time playing with me. She also at early age began teaching young girls dancing at our home, to make a little money for herself. She went with Father once to Germany on a buying trip to help him out with business chores. She was a busy girl!

The girls had their own room in one of the rooms of our store, where we lived, that originally were built simply as warehouses to keep merchandise stored in carton boxes. Their room was very clean and well furnished with two beds, wardrobes, writing desks and chairs, bookcases, and other things that girls needed for comfort. My brother Monia and I lived with parents in the back of the store. We both slept on one wide couch and used the dining table for all our homework for school.  I do not know how well he did at school, as he was so much older than me. Apparently, he always earned passing grades, as he was progressing satisfactorily from class to next class. He was not much of a reader of books. Even some books that were required by his school to be read at home he always asked me to read, and then to tell him all about them. He preferred to use his time to practice his violin.

Monia had a way about him to ingratiate himself to anyone he liked and as a result he was liked by Father very much, by Grandfather also, and by some of his classmates who came from wealthy or important families. Because he was a good violinist, he was paired with a fine young girl pianist at the music school to play sonatas for violin and piano. The girl was very pretty and liked Monia very much, and was inviting him to come to their house to play music together. Her name was Virginia Akopova and she came from a wealthy Armenian family. I envied my brother, but at that time I still was too young to enroll in music school and did not play any instrument.

At our home there were only two publications that parents subscribed to: the daily newspaper and a magazine called Awakening. The magazine had very beautiful illustrations, and the chief virtue and attraction for subscribing to it was a bonus of complete works of many Russian classical writers. You chose the author and his works were sent free with the subscription. The girls chose Leo Tolstoy and every week when the magazine arrived by mail, there was one volume of complete works of Tolstoy. The book was of hardcover size but without a hard cover — just a cover from thicker paper. Also the book’s pages were not cut and it was a chore to cut them, first on top and then the sides. So no one really read much of Tolstoy. I attempted to read War and Peace, but since it started out right on the first page in French, language that I did not know, I gave it up.

At the end, we had a full collection of Tolstoy books that stood in the bookcase until after the Red Revolution, when the shortages of toilet paper became very acute. And that is where Tolstoy’s books came in very handy. A book was hanging on the wall in the bathroom water cabinet and was used for both cultural purpose (reading) and more practical uses. Luckily the book pages were rather soft!

The newspaper consisted of just four pages. The front pages were about Tsar’s doings, and where new oil wells were gushing like huge fountains, and who was becoming fast a rich person overnight! There were many local Armenians and Azerbaijanians who became very rich: Mailoffs (Armenians), Taglieffs (Azerbaijanians) and many others. No Jews were permitted to participate in oil development unless they were very wealthy foreigners, like Rothschilds, or Jews that have converted to Christianity. Of these there were quite a few.

The Mailoff brothers built a beautiful theatre where practically all operas and operettas were performed all year around by traveling companies, but the orchestra was local and so were conductors, who mostly moved to Baku for permanent position and residence. One was Choroshanky, who was a fine cellist and opera conductor. After the revolution, he also moved to America and settled in New York for a while.  The other theatre was built by Taglieff, the Azerbaijanian millionaire. In this theatre were performed various plays — dramatic and comedies — all performed by traveling companies. The theatre operated all year.  Saturday and Sunday afternoons were set aside in both theaters for performances at very reduced rates for all students. The theaters were always packed with students on these days and many, including myself, were standing in the rear throughout the performance for lack of room in the seat areas. I attended many of the operas and plays and always enjoyed the performances!

The boulevard by the Caspian Sea was very beautiful, with wide strolling areas in both directions. In the evenings there was an orchestra playing in the restaurant by the sea. But on lovely sunny afternoons on weekends and after school, very many students were promenading in pairs or groups. The boulevard was the place where boys met girls, and vice versa. Since the schools were strictly either for boys only or girls only, there were very little other opportunities to meet opposite sexes. But here there were romances, crushes, and much gossip! There were some very popular boys and very popular girls! And everyone was mixing freely here regardless of race, nationality or religion. Baku was populated by many Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanians, (tatars and moslems), but not too many Russians. The Russians were mostly officials, police, and workers in oil fields and factories. Jews were mostly tradesmen and professionals. My best friends during the school years were therefore mostly Armenians and Georgians, and very few Jewish boys.

[To be continued….]