Monday, May 13, 2013

FRIENDS AND FAMILY - ch. 1, 11/15/14

Thank you for viewing my blog.
Here is what happened with Rimka and Meyer after they got married.

                                 FRIENDS AND FAMILY


     They were lucky: there were only four families and, all together, 11 people in their apartment. Some apartments were more overcrowded. Each family had one room. There was one bathroom and a shower for all of them and a cavernous, damp, and dimly lit kitchen with four stoves in it. At least the toilet was inside. Their previous flat had no such luxury: the tenants had to use the outhouse. Sometimes, when they became desperate and the outhouse was occupied, they had to run to the cafeteria a couple of blocks away, to take care of business! Rimka liked the outhouse, though, at first, because it was the only place where she could be by herself. Later, she even made a friend there! It was a rat, - a gray, scrawny thing with a long bumpy pink tail. The rat would show up every time Rimka went to the bathroom. The animal would sit quietly in the corner, twitching her nose or grooming herself. After her initial reservations abated, Rimka began to talk to her companion about her day and what was on her mind. The rat then moved into Rimka's and Meyer's room, occupying a small vanity cabinet. The humans, true to their unfriendly nature, tried to scare the rat away by borrowing a fat tom cat from the neighbors. The cat and the rat didn't like the look of each other one bit: they ran in opposite directions as if they saw the devil himself! Rimka was, somewhat, sad to lose her friend. The rat never returned, and soon the young couple moved away.

     Now they lived in the tenement known as the "Barracks". The 11 people in four rooms with one bathroom and one kitchen for four women were slowly driving each other crazy. Soon, Rimka had a little girl, adding to the atmosphere a smell of diapers and the baby's cries. Meyer's distant relative came to Moscow, and they let him have a cot by the window. All day long he, a cobbler by profession, sat and clip-clip-clopped the tiny nails into the soles of the shoes. Rimka's baby-daughter, Lera, laid in her crib and craned her neck and screwed up her beautiful Jewish eyes, trying to see, who made all that interesting noise. Her parents came to believe: this was the reason, why she turned a bit cross eyed and had to wear glasses very early in her life. She was perfect in every other way: plump, cute and mild tempered.

     The Barracks sprawled in the poor part of Moscow, surrounded by rising new apartment buildings, amid the eternal puddles and mud pits. Rimka once noticed a small boy falling into such a mud pit. The mud began to suck him under. Forgetting her big pregnant belly (a child number two), Rimka grabbed a wooden pole left by the construction workers and stuck it into the pit in front of the boy. She then was able to pull him out! That earned her a lot of respect from the other tenants, - for a while at least, - until the next kitchen war erupted and her heroic fit was forgotten.

     When Meyer came to the Maternity Hospital and found out, he became the father of another baby girl, he forgot to be polite and left to wander the streets in disappointment! I was so sickly from the beginning, I couldn't come home for a long time. Lera was always left with the neighbors, or alone in the crib to wait for her mother. She grew so frustrated by the sudden loss of parental attention that, the first time she was able to see her sister, she smacked me on the head and ran away crying. She learned to be more patient later on: the first thing in life I can remember, was the face of my older sister, watching over me in the darkened room by the light of the lamp.

     Although the life in the communal flat was, by no means, easy, it held some undeniable benefits. There was no room to misbehave, at least - not too much! Everyone knew, what was going on in the neighbors' lives. The kids were surrounded by the built-in baby-sitters. They learned to respect the adults and mind their manners because, if their own parents were lax in that kind of education, there were plenty of people to show them the way. They played unending games in the dark corridors smelling of moth balls, garlic and borscht, among the countless coats, parkas and bicycles.

     To keep their humanity and their families intact in such circumstances, the adults had to have a mighty strong motivation, a hope. In some, it was a hope in the better future, brought about by the communist dogma. Others, after the terrible losses of the war, were in love with life itself, determined to beat the stubborn grimness of their reality. They re-built the world, birthed children and refused to give in. They worked and came home to their families. They loved and, some, nourished their inner lives to a point, when it gave them strength to overcome the external difficulties.

That business of life... Were they happy or not? Did it matter? Rimka was too preoccupied with keeping her younger daughter alive to ponder such things. I seemed to attract every childhood disease that was there. Some well-wishers began to tell Rimka to let the baby go, but Rimka wouldn't hear of it. She fought for me until I started to show the signs of improvement. I began to put on some baby fat and to smile more and seemed out of danger. Then came the day when Rimka returned home from work, went to look in on the baby and found me staring solemnly, eyes huge in a drawn pale face, just like before. Rimka grabbed me, I let out a yelp of pain. When questioned frantically, Meyer, who was supposed to be baby-sitting, described how he was playing with the baby, throwing her up and down. Even though he was trying to be careful, on one throw he almost didn't catch me! I was plummeting to the floor, when he managed to grab my arm and jerked me up. He saved me from a worse injury, but the shoulder was dislocated. Meyer was (to his relief) banned from babysitting, and the job went to Babka (Gramps) Natasha, one of the elderly neighbors from the same flat.

Babka Natasha looked ancient. The wrinkles, holding her toothless face together, made her seem wise and amiable. They hid the fact that, she was the worst hater and gossiper in the whole apartment! Once, as she benignly looked at me and Lera, playing on the floor of her room, she casually remarked to Rimka: "Its too bad, Hitler didn't finish what he started with you, Jews! Now look - you're multiplying like rabbits!" Unfortunately, there was no one else to take care of the kids when the parents were at work, so Babka Natasha still did that until our family moved out.

By pushing here and pulling there, greasing some palms on the way, mom managed to get an apartment. It had a large bedroom and a den, so dad's mother and a stepfather came to live with them. The stepfather was a stern but fair man. He liked the grandkids and spent his days shuffling about in the apartment, but as soon as he heard Rimka's key in the door, he would hurry to his room, muttering: "Gendarme, gendarme!" (an old word for a policeman). He disliked her intensely, for constant nagging and arbitrary rules she imposed on her in-laws. One time, he made a mistake and in his haste walked right into a flat pan of paint used by father to paint the apartment. He didn't even slow down, just kept on shuffling, as fast as he could, leaving green streaks on the shining blond parquet floor!

The family had a food cabinet shared by all. Meyer, wanting to please his parents, built a divider, to make two separate compartments. When Rimka saw it, she became so enraged by this breach of her authority, she grabbed an axe and chopped the cabinet to pieces! Since then, the grandmother rarely left her room; she watched children there, put them for a nap on her tall, soft bed or holding them to her soft, pillowy frame. When she dared to come out, she always seemed to hold my little hand in her own, whether to keep an eye on me or to gain a degree of confidence from that small contact.

We grew. No more toddlers, we donned the smart little school uniforms and "the Children of October" pins (the star shaped pins with Lenin's picture as a child in the middle). Mother put giant white bows, bigger than our heads, in our hair every day. Although Lera was six years older, she and I went to the same place from the first grade through the High School. It was our time to discover the world and ourselves. I came home invariably covered from head to toe in ink. A kindly cafeteria lady would dunk me in the tub in the kitchen and use industrial strength (and smell) soap to take off the worst of the stains.

I was skinny, almost see-through, and Rimka's life's purpose was to make me eat. The cafeteria lady and every other caretaker joined her in that purpose. After many years of being made to sit at the table until I finished the meal, or standing in the corner for stubbornly refusing to do so, I gave in.

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