DREAMING TRUE

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I’m not talking daydreaming here. By its very nature, a daydream isn’t true. Or isn’t true yet. It’s what you wish would happen. Or think you wish would happen. (Have you ever thought of what it would really be like to live twenty-four seven with the man of your dreams – buff and studly and always with only you you you on his mind. Spare me!) All right, two weeks in Paris, five-star hotel, three-star eating, all expenses paid, with a somewhat less buff and studly guy, maybe even your own husband – yes, that would be lovely. But is that what you really daydream about?

Dreams when asleep are another matter. You might think they aren’t true either. But you could be wrong. I once had a colleague whose husband had awful nightmares about his second wife at least twice a week and sometimes more often. My colleague’s view was that her husband’s unconscious apparently went on hating this wife even twenty years after their acrimonious divorce, although he never saw her again after the court hearing. On the other hand, maybe dreaming about wife two was a metaphorical way of letting himself know how he really felt about wife three, who was my colleague. So perhaps the husband had been dreaming true, in a poetic manner of speaking.

Now if I had been the colleague, I don’t think I would have told me. A husband’s repeated nightmares about one’s predecessor could certainly suggest to others that one wasn’t really on top of things, wife-wise. She tried to make a joke of it: “When I married him, I didn’t think she’d be in the bed, too!” I laughed, to be polite. All the same, I would have kept it to myself.

I only dreamed about a spouse once. It wasn’t really a nightmare, although it was unexpected and therefore somewhat scary suddenly to see through the windshield of a car I was driving in the dream that the nose of the car had my second husband’s head on it in profile – rather like the three ships that used to adorn the nose of Plymouth automobiles when I was a little girl. We’d been divorced for at least seven years by the time his profile, featuring a large nose of his own, showed up on the car. So I don’t understand this dream at all. It couldn’t have meant I thought he was still trying to lead me around, because I was the one doing the driving in the dream, not him. By then I was entirely independent of him in real life anyway. And it couldn’t have meant I thought he was an ornament. He was all right in the looks department, but not particularly ornamental. Whatever my unconscious was trying to tell me, it failed.

I also once had a scary dream which might have qualified as a nightmare: an unknown masked man rang the doorbell where I was living with my mother, pointed a gun at me when I opened the door, and pulled the trigger three times. I heard the pop, pop, pop – but nothing happened. The man had shot blanks. I didn’t fall down dead or dying. (And no, it wasn’t about unsatisfactory sex – even though that could have been truthfully said about real life with my first husband, with whom I was still living at the time.) But I was in therapy when I had this dream. The therapist thought the unknown man was my father, and that my unconscious was telling me not to be afraid of him anymore because he was harmless. The therapist was probably right, as I had already figured out that my father was mostly bark and no bite. So that was another instance of perhaps dreaming true. But if I already knew what the dream was telling me, what did I need the dream for? I decided I had dreamed it to be able to tell the therapist about it. Then we could stop talking about my father and move on to my mother – a conundrum of a woman if ever there was one.

But mostly I don’t dream much when I sleep, or don’t remember the dreams, even in fleeting fragments. Although not so long ago I did have one amazingly real-seeming dream I remember very clearly. It was about another stranger, younger than me and definitely not my father, a strong and sensitive man who was making wonderful love to me. He knew exactly what to do and where and how to do it. Unfortunately, just after the preliminaries and his entry (if I may put it that way), Sophie – our younger cat – decided to pay my stomach one of her nocturnal visits with her paws and woke me up. Pouf! The delicious stranger was gone! It may not have been an instance of dreaming true, but I wanted him back so badly.

Which illustrates the most important difference between daydreams and dreams when you’re sleeping. (Unless you’re a shrink treating a patient, in which case content is always important, day or night.) The ones when you sleep seem so real. Really real. As if they’re happening.

That’s why for several months when I was fourteen, I was entranced by a late nineteenth-century novel in which the heroine taught the hero, whose life was not happy, a thing or two about dreaming. They had loved each other as children, and met again as adults after she had been married off to another, thereby becoming the beauteous Duchess of Towers, and had also had a son. Alas, they were parted for life when he accidentally killed his guardian in self-defense and was condemned to life imprisonment. The book is Peter Ibbetson, the first of three novels by George du Maurier, who was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, which was made into a Hollywood movie for Joan Fontaine to star in when I was a girl.

George du Maurier’s most famous novel was Trilby, but Trilby didn’t do it for me. It was Peter Ibbetson — sentimental, anti-Semitic, and turgidly written that grabbed me. (You can safely deduce from the three adjectives that you shouldn’t go running off to read it. Or if you do, don’t say you weren’t warned.) One night  before he gets to prison, Peter has a dream more real than reality in which he meets and speaks with the Duchess of Towers and in which she teaches him how to “dream true.” (Yes, the expression is du Maurier’s, not mine.) From then on, he is able to return to his happier childhood past in dreams.

At a subsequent meeting in real life, the Duchess reveals she has had the same childhood dream as he — and at the same time! They had been in the same dream together! However, she forbids their meeting in further dreams because she feels bound to her husband. Stern mistress!  But after he is condemned to prison for life, he dreams the Duchess appears to tell him her husband and child are now dead, so that although separated by prison walls, they can be together by “dreaming true” again. Thus, for twenty-five years Peter lives willingly in his prison, each night rejoining the Duchess, whose given name is Mary, in their beautiful childhood home. The years of their joy pass swiftly by. The lovers get so good at dreaming true they can travel into past centuries together, visiting the forebears from whom they descended.

You’d think so much nightly happiness might be enough. But wait, there’s more! Mary dies. Unable to reach her in his dreams anymore, Peter goes mad with grief and is confined to an asylum. While he’s there, she finds a way to come back to his dreams to give him hope that one day they may be together again. Naturally, he gets well immediately and is released from the asylum to live out his days in prison. There he continues to dream true, returning in sleep to the childhood scenes he still loves, where sometimes Mary manages to come back from death to join him.

In 1935, Gary Cooper made a movie version of Peter Ibbetson. (Ann Harding played Mary.)  I was four at the time and therefore didn’t see it. But ten years later I discovered the book. What a wonderful concept! There were so many people – not surprisingly, all male – with whom I wanted to dream true:

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, for starters. If he could come back from the dead in a dream, why not?  I was afraid of meeting Byron, and Keats was too tubercular, but I did think Shelley might like me. (Older and wiser now, I’m sure I was wrong.)
  • Thomas Wolfe. I would take a class with him in our dream, come up to his desk when the hour was over, standing very close in a snug cashmere sweater, and then the ball would be in his court. I knew he wouldn’t fumble.
  •  Leonard Bernstein (when in his twenties). He would discover me, a sudden orphan, selling records after school in a music store; enchanted, he would adopt me and wait willingly until I grew up, when we could enjoy even greater bliss together.
  • Gerard Philippe. My high school French was getting better every day.  Even if he didn’t know English, we could therefore redo “Diable Au Corps” (“Devil In the Flesh”) together every night by dreaming it true without that milksop of a French actress who had also been in the movie.

Reader, I tried so hard. How I concentrated after I had turned out the lights! What bargains I made with whatever entity out there might be running things! I even ventured into formal prayer. Nothing doing. “Dreaming true” was just not for me.

So what brings it to mind again after almost a lifetime? In a word, death. So many people I used to know are gone. Often it’s hard to grasp they’re not still here – at the other end of a telephone line or a quick email. It’s easier to believe in “dreaming true” than that I won’t ever see them again.

Which suggests that perhaps I’m not wholly a skeptic, even now. “Dreaming true” may not have worked for me. But if you decide to give it a whirl, do let me know how you do.

TWEED

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[From a novella in progress.]

Anna’s mother parted her hair on the side, so you could see her widow’s peak. Her upper lip had dainty points in the middle. Her ankles were lovely, with bones that showed. And when she got dressed, she looked more beautiful than any other mother in the playground.

Sometimes Anna went into her mother’s closet and stood with her nose pressed against her mother’s good clothes and fitted coat; they smelled delicious, just like her mother. Her mother said the fragrance she wore, that lingered on her clothes, was Tweed.

After Anna grew up, she would sometimes ask for Tweed at perfume counters. The salesladies always shook their heads. “That’s an oldie,” said one. “Lentheric used to make it. I don’t know who carries it these days.” Then Anna found it, in a specialty fragrance store.

But when she sprayed it on herself at home, it wasn’t at all what she remembered. Well, she didn’t have her mother’s body chemistry. (Or — come to think of it — a widow’s peak, or visible ankle bones, either.)

She resealed the bottle as best she could and mailed it to her mother. The next time they spoke on the phone, her mother thanked her but said she hadn’t worn Lentheric for years.

Somehow that made Anna sad. She had so loved standing in the dark closet, breathing her delicious mother into herself. Now her mother was a different person, and they were separate people forever.

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART VI)

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[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.

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Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.

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So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART V)

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IMG_0534[Continued from the four previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home. Her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

BEING JEWISH.  Berta Isaakovna’s two pre-marital conversions seem to have been concessions to the requirements of her husbands, without spiritual content. Whatever Vladimir Vainschtain might have offered had he lived, there was no religious instruction in my mother’s life. No attendance at synagogue. No ritual holiday celebrations. No prayers. No belief in God. At some point after I began to read, I learned from the books my mother purchased for me and also regularly checked out of the childrens’ library that other children said prayers at night. I thought that might be a good thing to do and asked my mother, then the source of all wisdom, how to pray. From a colored illustration of Christopher Robin at bedtime in my copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” I knew that you got down on your knees by the side of the bed, put your palms together, fingers pointing upward, lowered your head, closed your eyes, and addressed yourself to God. But who was God?

“A kind of spirit,” said my mother, trying to be helpful.

It wasn’t helpful at all. And what did you say to God?

“Whatever you like,” said my mother.

There was nothing in particular I wanted to say. I felt foolish on my knees beside the bed. And it was much warmer, and more comforting, under the covers. I soon gave up the experiment.

The papers with which she left Baku in 1922 declared my mother to be “Juive.” She regarded this classification of herself as being a mark of Cain, singling her out for bad luck and unfair treatment, and certainly nothing to advertise. It brought her no spiritual solace, no community, no source of help in troubled times. Irrespective of what she said to me about God and prayers when I asked her, she always believed in surviving on your own, no matter how difficult the problem or situation. No recourse to higher powers. “We’ll get by somehow,” she would say. With a sigh.

IMG_0556LISA.  Her cousin Lisa arrived in my mother’s life shortly after the separation from her own mother. She must have been Berta Isaakovna’s niece, as she seems not to have been connected to the married half-sister. Always referred to by my mother as “my cousin Lisa,” she had been at what my mother called “finishing school” in Switzerland when war broke out. Somehow she managed to get back to Russia and came to live in Baku. I have the impression she stayed with or near Berta Isaakovna, at least for a while. She would have been seventeen or so when my mother, aged ten or eleven, first met her, and she made such a strong impression that I may have heard more from my mother about this idolized  — and idealized? — young woman than I ever heard about herself.

Lisa was accomplished. She spoke languages — French and German probably, as well as Russian. She could play the piano, draw and ride horses. My mother thought she was beautiful. She is not especially beautiful in the one photograph that my mother brought with her, but she does look sweet, and intelligent, and — a word my mother would have used — “refined.”  Everyone liked Lisa. She was warm, and kind, said my mother, and took an interest in everything about her. Lisa was adventurous, too. When food grew scarce in Baku during the later years of the war, she took it upon herself to feed the family. She would ride her bicycle out into the country, where she bought sacks of potatoes directly from the farmers. Burdened with the potatoes, she would then manage to hitch a ride back with the soldiers on the troop trains heading into Baku. (Did they also hoist her bicycle on board?)

Listening to all this in the kitchen when I was thirteen and fourteen, usually when my mother was ironing and had time and some inclination to answer questions, I had mixed feelings about her cousin Lisa. I wanted to have what she had had, as perhaps my mother had also wanted it — finishing school, languages, horseback riding, charisma, sense of ease in the world. Lisa even had a romantic older brother, who had converted — ah, those convenient conversions in the Shulman family! —  and become a Cossack. He was attached to the Imperial Family, and fell in love with the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the Czar’s four young daughters. When his love letters to her were discovered, he had to be smuggled out of the country in a haycart!

But I also resented my mother’s admiration for Lisa. Did she love her more than she loved me? On the other hand, how could you hate someone who had evidently been so kind and affectionate to a little cousin without any real home?  Thinking about Lisa sometimes made me feel mean-spirited and selfish.  Especially when I learned that although Lisa was very attractive to men, she purposely sacrificed herself for the good of the family.  Beautiful and desirable, but living in perilous times, she sold herself to a wealthy and older Turkish businessman who had proposed to her, because he agreed to help her relatives with money in exchange for her hand in marriage.  At this point in the narrative, I would picture lovely Lisa in a white nightgown on her wedding night, lying meekly with parted legs beneath a fat and oily dark-skinned man with pock marks and garlic breath — all to save her relatives from starvation. No objective correlative supported this unappetizing picture;  my mother, who had actually seen the groom, said merely that he was “all right.”

IMG_0559Then Lisa and husband went away, to wherever he had come from, and there was in due time a little daughter whose photograph at age six or seven, with a big bow in her hair, Berta Isaakovna mailed after my mother had come to America. The daughter didn’t look “Turkish” at all.

Maybe when I grew up, we could go to Turkey and I could meet Lisa?  No, my mother told me. Lisa was dead. Of tuberculosis.

How old had she been?  Twenty-eight.

It’s possible my mother had no close woman friend during the rest of her long life in part because no one else could ever measure up to her cousin Lisa.

[To be continued….]

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART IV)

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IMG_0534[Continued from the three previous posts:  “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home.]

LOSS.  My mother’s only words about losing her father were these: “My father died, and my mother took my brother and me away to Baku.”  [Nearly seventy years later, I can still hear her voice as I type. Like many Russians, she could never pronounce “th” properly; it always came out as a “d.”   The “o” sound in “mother” and “brother” also gave trouble; it sounded more like “ah,” as in “far.”]

Even in my early teens, this violent fissure in her childhood sounded awful to me. Had her mother taken her and her brother away because of the war?

“No. Because father died.”

What had her father died of?

“He was older than mother, and had grown children already.”

Was this an answer?  Had he died of a heart attack? Cancer?

She didn’t know. “He was old.”  Which must have been what she had been told at ten, and had never revisited.  Rather like Vilna being forever “now part of Poland.”

And why had her mother chosen to go to Baku — so far south on the Caspian Sea?

She would shrug. “I had a half-sister there.”

It was exasperating. But at thirteen and fourteen, I didn’t know enough to ask more.   And at ten, she probably hadn’t understood enough of what was happening to be able to explain, even if I had known what more to ask. Now I wonder why Berta Isaakovna could not have remained in Vilna. Had the property been sold and the proceeds divided between the widow and all the children under the terms of Vladimir’s will? Did he leave it to a grown son by his first wife, who knew how to run the business? (Was there such a son?) Did he hold the land and house as a life estate, which terminated at his death? Had he merely rented the land and house?

Or was war already rumbling on the border when he passed away, so that his widow snatched up her children and traveled as far away from the front as she could, leaving the liquidation of her husband’s estate to his lawyers?  This last hypothesis presupposes Berta Isaakovna as a woman who played it safe. The German army didn’t actually reach Vilna until 1915.  It’s true that between 1915 and 1918, when it was under German occupation, food shortages and discriminatory levies on the Jewish population in Vilna did make living conditions there increasingly difficult. However, if Vladimir Vainschtain died when my mother was ten, then Berta Isaakovna left the area with her children in 1914, the year World War I began but a year prior to Vilna’s occupation by German troops.

Irrespective of the real answer to the question of why mother and children moved south, which I will never know — for the little girl who was my mother it could have made no difference. All at once she lost her father, her home, her friends at school. These losses were soon compounded by another. Berta Isaakovna apparently now needed to work. After reaching Baku, she entered a military hospital as a nurse, taking five-year-old Osia with her. Ten-year-old Meera, my mother, went to live with a married half-sister, so that she “could go to school.”  It’s likely that she never again actually lived under the same roof with her mother.

I don’t understand this. Osia would also have needed to go to school within a year or two of their arrival in Baku.   If there was a school for him near this “military hospital,” why not one for my mother? Moreover, my mother remained in Baku until 1922, long after the conclusion of the war and even after the conclusion of fighting between the Red Army and the Whites. Why couldn’t Berta Isaakovna at some point thereafter have taken her daughter back to live with her? But there it is: as best I can tell, mother and daughter continued to live apart, although both in Baku, until my mother left for America.

This separation may not have been quite as harsh as I first thought when I heard of it as a young girl, and as it still sounds when set down without qualification. At that time, I even imagined a wicked half-sister  — rather like a wicked stepmother — and a resentful half-brother-in-law.

Was her half-sister nice to her?  “Oh, yes, very nice,” my mother would reply. “She had no children of her own.”

And I now think it must have been true that the half-sister was very nice, for my mother took with her to America two pictures of a small, slender dark-haired young woman, aged about twenty-five, with heavy eyebrows and round dark eyes, who — by the process of elimination and laborious translation of the inscription on the back of one of the pictures — I conclude must have been this nameless half-sister.

IMG_0553 If I’m right, she was probably no more than thirteen or fourteen when her father married my grandmother  — perhaps in part to provide her with a step-mother. She must therefore have been living at Vilna when my mother was born.  Until her own marriage, she may also have been a kind of second “mama” to my mother.  My grandmother’s choice of Baku as a destination after Vilna may thus have been specifically predicated on this young half-sister’s residence there with her new husband.

The second of the two photographs of this half-sister also includes (a) my mother, aged eleven or twelve, in a plain pinafore and blouse; (b) a little boy about six or seven who is probably Osia, because he is the right age and looks like photos of Osia when older sent to my mother after she came to America; and (c) another woman, seated, with a strong family resemblance to the half-sister but slightly older, whom I take to be a second half-sister.

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The two half-sisters look nothing like my mother or her brother, and therefore probably take after their own mother or else their father.  But this picture of brother, sister, and their two half-sisters may be what my mother considered her surviving family, since there was no separate photograph of Berta Isaakovna, her mother, in her effects after her death.  Admittedly, this is all surmise. But I fear surmise is as good a recovery of the past as I am ever likely to get.

About the half-sister’s husband I can say nothing, except that he seems to have made no objection to his wife’s little half-sister living under his roof for an open-ended period of time. I have some recollection of being told that he wasn’t there much. In the army? At thirteen, I didn’t think to ask more about him. Not surprisingly, my mother volunteered no confidences.

But did that mean she never saw her mother? Yes, she saw her. When there was no school. “And I went to see her at the hospital on Sundays. I had to step over the bodies of soldiers on the floor.”

When I was eleven (in 1942) — only a year older than my mother had been when her mother left her with her half-sister — my parents moved from Los Angeles back to New York, where we all three lived in a furnished apartment in Manhattan during the summer while they searched for an affordable unfurnished place near a “good” school district. What they found was in Kew Gardens, but the lease didn’t commence until after school began. So that I shouldn’t miss the first two weeks of seventh grade at P.S. 99, Queens, my father arranged with a colleague — a Dutch Jewish violinist who had managed to extricate his family from Europe just before World War II — to put me up on a folding cot in his daughter Betty’s room for the two weeks.  Betty was about my age.

Betty’s mother was pleasant to me. (Although she served stewed prunes and brown sugar on brown bread for breakfast and would not make hot cereal the way my own mother did, even when I asked.) I came home to my parents on Friday afternoon for the one intervening weekend of the two weeks. And my mother took the subway out to Queens two other evenings during each of the two weeks to have dinner with me in a neighborhood restaurant. But I missed her so much! I could hardly wait for her to come. When she finally rang the doorbell, I would fling my arms around her, my beautiful fragrant mother. And then, even while we were walking to the restaurant, and ordering, and eating, I would be counting the minutes I had left with her before she would have to go. It was all I could do to stifle the tears when she brought me back in time to get to bed when Betty did. And that was only for two weeks!

However nice her married half-sister may have been, the effect on my mother of permanent separation from her own mother, at a time when she had already just sustained major loss and dislocation, was literally unspeakable. She simply did not speak of her mother, who was my grandmother. I don’t know what my grandmother looked like, what she did, or (with a single exception, to be recounted later) what she said. The one possible photograph of her remaining in my mother’s possession when she died — if it is a picture of her, and it may have been of an aunt, her mother’s sister, who would then have been her cousin Lisa’s mother — shows a large-bosomed woman who is looking down, so you cannot clearly see her face.  If it is a likeness of my grandmother, it probably owes its survival to the fact that it is also a photograph of Lisa, whom my mother adored.

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At one time, I used to suppose this was a photo of my mother in her teens with my grandmother.  But closer inspection of the photography studio’s mark in the lower right hand corner shows a date of ’14.  In 1914, my mother was ten, so the young girl in the photo cannot be her.  As the photo was important enough for her to put it in her luggage in 1922, I conclude it must be of the beloved Lisa, with either her own mother, or — less likely but possible — perhaps with her aunt, my grandmother.

I know my grandmother and mother exchanged letters and some photographs from the time my mother left Russia until the Kirov purges in 1937, after which all correspondence between the Soviet Union and the United States abruptly ceased. But when my mother learned, through revived post-World War II correspondence from my father’s family, of her own mother’s death in 1942 — she threw out all her mother’s letters. And perhaps any photographs of her mother she still had.

“How could you?” I cried when I learned — at the age of fifty-eight, long after the fact — what she had done.

“What did I need them for?” she replied, at the age of eighty-five. “She was gone.”

But once, when I was fifteen and my mother was in her early forties, deeply unhappy for a multitude of identifiable reasons (which would not have been the only reasons), and I sat in our sunken living room trying to escape her misery by reading, I saw her rise from her chair and almost run to her bedroom down the hall, where she began to cry, a thing I had never heard before. Her sobbing frightened me with its intensity. And then there broke from her a single word. “Mama!” It would have been about the time she found out that her mother had died.

[To be continued…..]

 

 

 

OUT OF PURGATORY ( AND ANOTHER POST FROM THE PAST)

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[Although I’ve been out of commission for a while with an obscure form of misery caused by a dermatological virus of unknown origin, I seem to be, slowly, coming back to life.  Not quite there, though. So if you’ll please bear with me a bit longer, here’s a piece from the end of last year, to keep you going until I can organize some of the new thoughts for posts that came in the night when scratching triumphed over sleep.  Finding it helped remind self-referential me that my temporary distresses have been comparatively minor.]

[Re-blogged from December 29, 2013]

KISS YOU LOVE YOU, COUSIN YULIA

Until I was fourteen, I didn’t think I had any cousin at all. I knew my mother’s brother back in Russia had had a little boy six months younger than I was.   [My mother always called it Russia; actually by then it was, and had been for a long time, the Soviet Union.]   But when she talked about her family, which was rarely, she always said her brother “had had” a little boy.  She never just said, “had.”

That’s because in 1937, her brother had been arrested during the Kirov Purges and was eventually sent away to Siberia.  His wife went with him, at first leaving their son in Baku with his grandmother. [She was also my grandmother, although I had never seen her.  We didn’t even have a picture.]  Then the grandmother died, and his mother returned to take the little boy away with her to Siberia.

There was never another word from my father’s family about either my mother’s brother, his wife, or their child.  In many ways a hard-nosed realist, my mother considered this silence to be the end of her family.  For all practical purposes she was right; we never heard anything about any one of them again.

My father spoke even less than my mother about the past.  All I knew was that his father had died by the time I was five, and that he had two older sisters back in Baku, both of whom were married. Their names were Berta and Bronia. Berta kept house and was fat; Bronia was a dentist and was not fat. His mother lived with Bronia and her husband. Perhaps my father was too busy trying to keep the three of us afloat in what was for him and my mother an entirely new world. Perhaps he had no time to dwell aloud on the past, or on the hardships of Soviet life for his sisters. In any event, even before my maternal grandmother died, correspondence with the Soviet Union ceased. No more letters arrived. Letters mailed to Baku were returned by the Soviet censor.

But after World War II, the foreign-looking envelopes of thin blue paper began again to appear, and provided news of what had happened in the interim. I was given to understand that the letters inside were written very cautiously. And they were all in Russian, of course, which meant that even if I sneaked into my father’s desk when he was away at work, I would be unable to read them for myself.  But there were photographs in the letters, which my father took out of the envelopes so that my mother could put them in an album.

And that’s how I discovered the existence of Yulia. (Julia in English.)  She was the only youngish person in a family photograph taken just after the war. The other people in the photo were middle-aged Berta, middle-aged Bronia and the two middle-aged men who were their husbands. There was a separate photo of my father’s mother, a formidably stern-looking old woman with nothing “grandmotherly” about her in the picture.

Yulia was twenty-nine at the time of the group photograph.  [I later learned she had been born in 1916.]  She was Berta’s only child, explained my mother.  [Bronia was childless.] Unlike the sisters and one of the husbands, Yulia had small eyes.  She looked like the other husband, who must have been her father.

“Why haven’t I  heard about this Yulia before?” I demanded loudly.  A real living cousin!  (I forgave the small eyes.)  After all, she must have been already out of her teens at the time of those Purges, soon after which the letters had stopped.  In fact, she must have been already born and a young child when my parents made their escape to America.  Now that I thought about it, I realized how remarkably secretive my parents were about almost everything in their lives that didn’t have to do with what we were going to have for dinner or the necessity of being careful with money.  You had to dig for information, and even then you might not get much.

For instance, it was only when I bombarded my father with questions about the Yulia in the photograph that he mentioned Yulia had married someone named Volodya (Vladimir) Kalinin in 1940.  She had also recently finished her schooling and was now licensed to practice medicine as a pediatrician. However, she and her husband still lived with her mother and father in a single room of the now crumbling apartment in which my father and his sisters had grown up before the revolution.  [The rest of the apartment was occupied by another family, with whom they didn’t get along.]

“And that’s life in the Soviet Union!” my father exclaimed, with what sounded like bitter satisfaction.  Was he somehow blaming his sisters for not having been able to get out when he did?

“But it’s great Yulia was able to become a doctor,” I said.

“I’ve got news for you,” said my father.  ”A doctor is nothing there.  Especially a children’s doctor.  To be a somebody you need to be a big macher in the Party.  Yulia can now earn a modest living.  If you call that living.”

The letters kept coming, which did not please my mother.  She didn’t like anyone in my father’s family because his parents had not been happy in 1925 when my father wrote he was marrying her.  From their single room on the third floor of Ulitza Basina 35 (formerly Balachanskaya 35) in Baku, they apparently wrote back that she wasn’t good enough for him. Or not cultured enough.  (Ni kulturnaya would have been the kiss of death.) Or maybe it was that her mother had been her father’s second wife. (Did that make her second-rate or something?)  I cannot identify the basis for their objections because after my father died, my mother made sure this letter went into the garbage.  I had only her word for what was in it.  Fortunately (for my mother and later me),  the no-longer-extant letter from Baku arrived in New York City too late.  My parents had already gone to City Hall.

My interest in cousin Yulia was fleeting.  Perhaps I had discovered her existence too late. Before you could count one, two, three (years) — I had left home for college, where I stopped concerning myself with anything going on in Baku.   Yulia didn’t know English, I didn’t know Russian.  What was the point of getting all worked up about a relative fifteen years older, with whom I  – the Great Communicator — would be entirely unable to communicate?  Boys  – or by default, male faculty — were more interesting.

Nonetheless, over the ensuing decades, I would hear little bits of information from the letters whenever I came home and — after my parents moved to the West Coast and I married — whenever I would visit:

– Yulia and Volodya never had children.

– My father’s mother, who had been doing the letter writing since 1945, died in 1949, when she was 78 or 79.  She had been ill and bed-ridden for some time.   Bronia then took over the correspondence.

– Berta’s husband left her for a younger woman. Bronia’s husband died young, in his early fifties.  She found a second husband, a former dental patient.  It didn’t work out, for undisclosed reasons.  Then she found a third.  (Must have been a hot ticket, that Bronia.)  The third husband died too, of stomach cancer.

– Berta died in July 1974, after two months of illness at home.  She had been diabetic and hypertensive. She was 82.  The funeral took place on my 43rd birthday. (Although I didn’t know it at the time.)

– Bronia died a year later in July 1975, after a severe heart attack. She was 81.  Her funeral was a day before my 44th birthday. (I didn’t know that at the time, either.)

– On the death of her mother, Yulia and Volodya moved in with Bronia, and after Bronia passed away they stayed on in her apartment. It was in a building that had been built in 1935 and was considered  ”luxurious.” It had a bath, telephone, and gas!

– Of all the family, now only my father and Yulia were left.  He was 73; she was 59.  She had not seen him since she was six.  But she continued the correspondence.

After my father died in 1986, I persuaded my mother to give me his carefully saved letters from Baku.  She was planning to throw them out.  (She had already weeded out the offending 1925 letter, and perhaps others.)  Although for six years I couldn’t read what I had brought back to Boston with me, in 1992 I managed to have the letters translated by a somewhat bi-lingual lady in St. Petersburg. (Another story.  For another time.)

Here is Yulia in 1975 (in translation, and very much abridged), just after Bronia died:

Dear aunt Musinka and uncle Menichka!  I couldn’t even write you because I was nearly killed by my sorrow — July 20, 1975, 12:30 p.m.,my second mom, dear Bronichka, died. Volodya, as usual when something happens, was away in Leningrad…to visit 90 year old mother who is living with brother and daughter-in-law.  I was staying with Bronichka this time. It was very hot — 45 degrees. She was standing all this heroically….I went to my job, everything was all right. When Bronia sat for a breakfast she felt a pain in her heart and she could not breathe…  [She describes the dying, the doctors, the injections. Then she continues.]

They made an artificial breathing, an injection in heart — but she was sleeping.  Beautiful, with copper hair, clean, clever, kind…She was my friend, husband, mother,  everything…. The emptiness is incredible….

Now I shall write you, I have no other relatives except you.  Best regards to Ninochka and her family.  Kiss you, love you.  Yours, Yulia.  We buried her in our place: there are grandmother, mom, Bronichka and her husband.  But there are no more places left; they didn’t think about me.

She went on corresponding faithfully for another ten and a half years.  Two-thirds of the letters remaining in my father’s collection were from her. Always ending: “Kiss you, love you. Yours, Yulia.”

[1978] Are you all right?  Let me hear from you, don’t forget me.  You and Musinka [my mother] are my only relatives….Nothing has changed, only the sorrow is so heavy.  She [Bronia] was an outstanding person. She was clever, she knew life, could understand a human soul and could appreciate everything.  Such a sorrow for us! They say that time is a doctor, it is not true. It smooths a little bit but the wound still exists.  She was a big friend of mine in life.  I have never had and never would have such a friend…I am so lonely…. Kiss you, love you.  Yours, Yulia.

My father was kind, and wrote back.  He sent money, and little gifts.  My mother was exasperated.  ”So sticky, so sweet.”  I don’t think she actually said, “Feh!” but her voice said it for her.

[1980]  Let me hear from you, my only and dear one, just a little bit.  Take care of yourself, don’t get sick.  Kiss you, love you. Don’t forget me!

[1981]  Today is Bertochka’s birthday.  In the morning Volodya and I went to the cemetery and put flowers on the graves of grand mom, Bronichka and mom.  I am in bad spirits.  I came back and decided to talk to you, my dear friend, by letter.  I read all of your letters from the recent time and I felt better.  Your letters are as a medicine for me, they calm me down.  Your letters [in Russian] are so grammatical, not a single mistake!  You are so clever and kind.  You are a wonderful couple, you and aunt Musinka.  Kiss you once more.  Loving you so much, Yulia. I have no one except you…

[1985]  My dear, you smile when I advise you something. [About his health. Which was now bad.]  Of course you remember me to be very little.  I remember many funny things when we lived with you in grandmom’s and grandfather’s house.  Now everything is over.  Nothing but the memory remains… Kiss you, love you, Yulia

Before my father’s death in January 1986, he left an envelope addressed to Yulia in which my mother should put a letter telling her that he had died.  She took her time doing it.  (I can’t blame her for that.)  Yulia answered:

Dear Aunt Musinka!  I received your letter in the envelope with poor uncle Menichka’s hand!  I am in despair: such a wonderful, talented man has died…I have no words to console you…It is awfully hard to be alone. I am crying with you, kiss you, love you.  Was he conscious when he died?  What date?  If you can, please, describe me his last hours.  I know, it is very difficult, if it is not too much trouble for you.  How are you staying alone — it is so terrible to sleep and stay alone.  Maybe, you would better move to Ninochka.  I shall continue to correspond with you with pleasure.  Give me your address if you change it.  You have a beautiful hand, not a single mistake.  I would never say that you have not been writing [Russian] for 65 years….Let me hear from you….Lovingly, Yulia.

My mother never answered this letter. She could not forget the letter of 1925.  [Written when Yulia was nine.]  I used to remonstrate with her.  But I got nowhere:  ”What do I need her for? What is she to me?  They never liked me!”

Six months later, Yulia wrote once more:

My dear aunt Musinka!  I did not get an answer to my letter.  Maybe you left for Ninochka and did not receive it.  Still I cannot believe in dear Menichka’s death.  …Happy New Year. I wish the coming year to be better than 1986.  It was so sad.  Kiss you, my dear.  Let me hear from you and I shall answer you immediately. I wish you health and happiness.  I’ll write you in detail when I learn where are you now. Best regards from Volodya.  Lovingly, Yulia.

My mother stayed in California until she died near the end of 1993.  However, this was the last letter from Yulia.  She may have been emotional and lonely, but she had her pride.

Perhaps I should have taken on Yulia myself, although we had not ever been in touch.  I had the address: Baku-370010, Az.S.S.R., Ulitza Solntzeva 24, block 12, Apt. 116. But during his lifetime, my father hadn’t wanted me to.  He had the idea that if I contacted her, the Soviets would come after me and force me to spy for them — or else!  Or else what?  They would kill Yulia? And what would I spy on?  The inner workings of Public School 166 Manhattan?

But after he died?  I tell myself — now — that the mid-80′s were a bad time for me.  Besides, I still couldn’t write Russian.  And what was the likelihood that anyone who lived at Ulitza Solntzeva 24 could read English?  Yulia was my mother’s job!

That doesn’t really cut it.  Although Yulia almost certainly is no more, I feel I must do something.  Even if it’s too late.

Because maybe, just maybe, it isn’t too late.   If Yulia’s still alive, she’s 97.  Are there nursing homes in Azerbaijan?  Is she still in Apartment 116, with someone from the state taking care of her?

If you’re out there somewhere, Yulichka — your first cousin Ninochka wants you to know you still have a relative, who is so sorry we never met. And who loves you. And kisses you. And wishes you a very happy New Year.

CLOSURE

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[click for back story]

February 16, 2014

 Dear Amy,

I’m using your first name because we met once, although you may not remember it.  Your father brought me to dinner with you and your partner in Revere.  It was a Sunday evening in late January or early February 1988.  I was living in Newton then.  You were beautiful and gracious, and it was a most hospitable meal.  As I told him while we were driving back to Newton.

This is an extremely belated condolence letter.  I learned only a few days ago that your father died last May.  I am so sorry for your loss.  It’s very hard when a parent dies. You become nobody’s child.  Time slowly makes it easier.  But the pain never really goes away.

I knew your father for such a long time, since the summer of 1948, that it was a shock to come across his obituary online.  Although we last saw each other in 2006, when he came to lunch because I was leaving Massachusetts, I somehow thought he would always be there in the big house on Burnham Road, or at least as long as I’m around.  I hope his leaving was easy, and without pain, and that some of his family – if not all of you — were with him.

He was a fine young man in the years I knew him best, and I’m sure he was a good man and caring father all his life.  I do know he loved you, and your sisters and brother, very much.

 My very best wishes,

Nina Mishkin