FRIENDS AND FAMILY
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 that he became the father of another baby girl, he forgot to be polite and left, to wander the streets in disappointment. The child (I) was so sickly from the beginning that 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 me, she smacked me on the head and ran away crying. She learned to be more patient later on: the first thing in life I could remember was the face of my older sister, watching over me in the darkened room by the light of the lamp.
So, how did the adults managed to keep their humanity and their families intact in such circumstances? They had to have a mighty strong motivation, a hope. Sometimes, it was a hope in the better future, brought about by following the communist dogma. Sometimes, after the terrible losses of the war, they 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, 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, to smile more and was 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 I was when a sickness claimed me. Rimka grabbed her, I let out a yelp of pain. When mom frantically questioned dad, who was supposed to be babysitting, he told her that, he was playing with the baby, throwing me 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 my 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, benignly looking at myself and Lera, who were 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, mother managed to get an apartment. It had a large bedroom and a den, so dad's mother and a step-father came to live with them. The step-father was a
The family had a food cabinet that was shared by all. Father, 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 that she grabbed an axe and chopped the cabinet to pieces! Since then, the grandmother rarely left her room; she watched children there, put us for a nap on her tall, soft bed or holding us 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 the me or to gain a degree of confidence from that small contact.
The children were growing. No more toddlers, we donned the smart little school uniforms and "the Children of October" pins (the star shaped pins with the picture of Lenin as a child in the middle). Every day Rimka put giant white bows, bigger then their heads, in our hair. Although Lera was six years older, she and I went to the same place from the first grade to 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 mother's life's purpose became 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 my meal, or standing in the corner for stubbornly refusing to do so, I gave in.