Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Here's what happened after Rimka and Meyer got married.

                       FRIENDS AND FAMILY 


      Communal kitchen

They were lucky: there were only four families and, all together, 11 people in their apartment. Some flats were even 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 a cafeteria a couple of blocks away, to "take care of business". Rimka [my mother] liked the outhouse 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 [my dad'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 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. 

My parents

Now they lived in the tenement known as the "Barracks". The 11 people in four rooms with one bathroom and one kitchen 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 in their room. 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 since 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 that he became the father of another baby girl, he forgot to be polite and left to wander the streets in disappointment. The child was so sickly from the beginning that she couldn't come home for a long time. Lera was always left with the neighbors now, 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 little sister, she smacked her on the head and ran away crying. She learned to be more patient later on: the first thing in life that her younger sibling [I]could remember was the face of the older sister, watching over her in the darkened room by the light of the lamp.

Families often celebrated together

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. 
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. For some it was a hope of a better future, brought about by following the communist dogma. Others were in love with life itself after the terrible losses of the war. They 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 such a point that 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: I was out of danger. Then came the day when returning home from work Rimka found me looking, like I did, when I was sick. Rimka grabbed me, I let out a yelp of pain. When mom frantically questioned my dad, who babysat for me that day, he told her that he played with me, 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 baby-sitting, 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 Lera and myself, playing on the floor of her room, she casually remarked to Rimka: "It's 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. 

Dad's parents (here is his
            natural father. His mother remarried
after the war)
By pushing here and pulling and greasing some palms on the way Rimka 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 us, grand-kids, and spent his days shuffling about in the apartment, but as soon as he heard mom's key in the door, he would hurry to his room, muttering: "Gendarme, gendarme!" (a old word for a policeman). He disliked her intensely for constant nagging and arbitrary rules that she imposed on her in-laws. One time he made a mistake and in his haste walked right into a flat pan of paint that Meyer used to paint the apartment. He didn't even slow down, but just kept on shuffling as fast as he could, leaving green streaks on the shining blond parquet floor!
The family had a food cabinet that was shared by all. Dad, 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 ax 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 mom put giant white bows, bigger then our heads, in our hair. Lera and I went to the same school building from the first grade to 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 became to make me eat. The cafeteria lady and every other caretaker joined her in that purpose. 

After a few 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.

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