Departure

by Marinka on August 11, 2009

Before we left the Soviet Union on December 31, 1976, my parents had our entire apartment packed up in boxes, which were stacked in the middle of our bedroom. We lived in a communal apartment–the kitchen was shared, and one bedroom was occupied by my parents and myself and the other by my mother’s cousin Larissa, a single woman who was always smoking and studying. Before my mother’s cousin moved in, my father’s parents lived there. Which must have been fun for my mother, living in the same apartment with her inlaws. But we were considered lucky because we were able to share a communal apartment with family members and not with complete strangers, although I’m unsure to this day which version would have provided more comic value.

“I think you’re going to be leaving Russia,” my friend Natasha told me one day at school. Various classmates have hinted that my family was moving, although personally I was in deep denial with a hint of stupidity.

“Oh no.” I protested. Because my parents didn’t tell me anything about leaving Russia and surely that’s not the kind of thing that you just spring on someone. Unless you’re my parents, that is. I was an obedient child, so I can see why my parents thought that I’d roll along with those particular punches as well.

I imagine that the Witness Relocation Program must work a little like this. It was the middle of the night and my mother shook me awake. “we have to go,” she told me.
I realize that it would be better for this memoir if I, you know, remembered what my thoughts were at that point, but I was so fucking obedient, that I probably didn’t allow myself to have any thoughts that weren’t authorized by my parents. Which, incidentally, is why it’s so annoying to me that my own children were born with this strong will that won’t bend to mine. My parents woke me up and told me to go to the bathroom and to get dressed. Because in their wisdom they decided that going to America will be smoother clothed and on an empty bladder. I got dressed and by the time that I moseyed out of our room, I saw that Lenny and his parents were there.
“Hug him,” my mother told me. I’d done more than hug Lenny, but never in front of an audience. I was exhausted and sort of nervous and confused, so I wasn’t into doing a kiddie porn act on demand.

Our parents were not going to give up that easily, of course. “Hug each other,” they prodded. “This may be the last time that you see each other.” Lenny and I hugged each other and although I probably loved him most, I remember it as one of the least intimate event of my life. As if on cue, my father’s parents appeared and we had a repeat of the “this may be the last time you see each other” line, since it worked so well the first time around, with Lenny. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d think that my parents were moving to America in order to trademark their winning “this may be the last time you see each other” phrase in an effort to get everyone to embrace, as a ’70s precursor to the We Are the World act.

We said good bye to everyone, relatives, neighbors and people that I’ve never seen before who appeared at our door, and I am in semi-hysteria, but also sort of sleepy, Because we are bringing our most valuable possessions with us on the plane, I am handed a stuffed Santa Claus which is approximately half my size and told to carry it. He is mildly terrifying, but I lug him along. He is my companion and potentially my murderer.

We get to the airport and have to go through customs. My mother, who never wears jewelry is outfitted in diamonds. Well, just one diamond ring, but it’s more bling than I’d seen on my mother before or since. The customs guys patted down my Santa and looked into my teary face. “Going to Israel?” he asks. Because although our airline tickets are for Austria, everyone knows that it’s just a midway point for Russian Jews. Officially, we’re all going to Israel, to be reunited in the motherland. Not officially, most of us will change the country that we go to when we arrive in Italy. We will change our minds about Israel and the Judaism that we wish to practice and decide to go to America, instead. Because the jeans there are pure klas.

We got on the plane. It was December 31st, the equivalent of Christmas Eve for the non atheists. There was trouble with the plane, we were told soon after takeoff. We would have to land in Poland and spend a few days there.

When I was sixteen, I saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time and I loved the moment that she lands in Oz and the screen is in technicolor. Because that is what landing in Poland was for me. Well, not the airport itself, maybe, but being in the hotel that we were moved to was inspiring. I was enthralled, having completely forgotten about Lenny, my grandparents and whatever loyalty I had towards Mother Russia. It was sort of like what I imagine being being adopted by a movie start must feel like. I mean, sure, you miss your birth mother and the orphanage is not without its Dickensonian charm, but OMG, ANGELINA!

My parents were similarly impressed. It was New Year’s Eve and there were pine inspired arrangements on the night tables in our rooms, with a lit candle inside each one.
“This is beautiful,” mama said. “I can’t imagine that they’d ever allow anything like this in Russia,” she said, referring to the notoriously strict safety rules and regulations. Everything was in technicolor, we were drunk on freedom, and in my parents’ case, I suspect on vodka. I did feel a little dizzy with emotion. “When will I see Lenny again?” I asked. “Probably never,” my parents told me. “But look,” they pointed a storefront window, “gum!” It seemed like a fair trade and a smooth transition to capitalism. Sure, I lost a best friend and possibly a soul mate, but who could argue with the multicolored gum balls. I hadn’t even known that such a thing existed and here they were, lined up in front of me.

One year ago ...

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Reconnecting with Lenny from Leningrad | Tue Night
May 29, 2015 at 10:14 am

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