HOW I GOT TO BE BORN IN AMERICA

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[This piece first appeared under another title in the Spring 2010 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  The editors called it “A Story.”  It is a story, about another story.  But whatever the title, it’s what’s at the end that counts.]

***

I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my father why he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.

My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.

“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.

“Because he was my uncle.”

“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”

“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.

Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.

My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.

Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:

In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.

One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!

“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”

Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”

Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police.

(How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)

But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.

“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”

And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it. He had to leave.

Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”

“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”

And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”

With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie.

He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?

The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.

“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.

“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.

“Then why did he do it?”

“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.

“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”

“You can’t guess?”

Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.

“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.

Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.

After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”

“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”

My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.

Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.

“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.

“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating.  “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”

Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.

“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”

They were my parents.

I promised not to tell.

The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.

I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a little daughter and son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.

What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.

Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.

But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punchline no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.

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A QUICKY

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I heard this one before Russia became Russia again in 1992.  It seemed funny then.  It better be funny now too, because we were out late for Father’s Day dinner yesterday and I was in no condition afterwards to come up with new material.

***************

A man was traveling alone on the Trans-Siberian Railroad when a woman got on, entered his compartment and sat opposite him.

He inspected her for several versts.  “What is your name, Comrade?” he asked at last.

“Olga,” she replied.

“Where are you from?”

“Minsk.”

“And where are you going?”

“Pinsk.”

“Enough of this lovemaking!” the man declared.  “Undress!”

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Yes, I know I should be ashamed of serving up such a trifle.  But since I have, this may be a good time to ask:  Does this short short story mainly demonstrate the boorishness of Soviet men? Or does it just go to show that Pinsk is really close to Minsk?

 

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.

KISS YOU LOVE YOU, COUSIN YULIA

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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 than I , 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.