Grandmothers walked the streets in search of empty beer bottles to recycle. Pigeons that wobbled around the garbage containers outside of five-story brick buildings realized that even trash was scarce. And, if you were lucky, a stick of butter and half of a rye bread loaf would greet you when you opened the fridge. The place was Moscow, Russia. The year was 1994 — a good year for my family to win the lottery.
In November of 1994, my father, Andrey, was getting ready to sit down to celebrate my mother’s birthday. But first, he walked up these stairs to the mailboxes attached along the wall.
There, he found a large yellow envelope.
It was an invitation to become a permanent resident of the United States.
My parents had won the U.S. green card.
(Not bad for a birthday present.)
They had to make a decision.
At the time, the decision to leave was not a difficult one.
Yes, it was all for the children.
The children, meanwhile, were busy enjoying the summer. It smelled of linden trees, sounded as the swooshing of bicycle tires and tasted as waffle cones with vanilla ice cream. Summer was perfect.
When they departed, they packed everything they could into six bags.
“The condo. Books. It all had to be left behind,” Andrey says. “All we could take with us were six suitcases,” he says.
“And on top of that all, we lost two of the suitcases in transit,” Andrey laughs.
The luggage and all of its contents — children’s clothes, bed linens and even pillows — were later recovered.
The lottery was a huge win. But, the loss that came with it was also consequential. The only thing they had no room for in their suitcases was: grandparents.
My sister, Marian, was seven when the family emigrated Russia. She says she does not remember much of her grandparents, and the two times she saw them in her 20 years abroad she described as “normal.”
“Everything looked a lot smaller and congested,” Marian recalls the trip she took 13 years after leaving her home country.
“It’s a very fashion-forward place, but not somewhere I would want to live.”
The culture is different, she says.
Fashion was one of Marian’s biggest challenges while she tried to adapt to the U.S. lifestyle.
Today, Marian works as a sonographer in an emergency room. And, even though she does not feel a deep connection to her grandparents because she had only interacted with them twice since coming to the U.S., she partially credits her grandfather for her start in the medical field.
While volunteering at a retirement home at 16, she quickly realized that many of the caretakers were experiencing caregiver stress. The longer they worked here, the less compassionate they became, she said.
“I was just thinking, if my grandfather was here, I wouldn’t want him to be taken care of by these people. So, it made me want to do more. I felt like I could take care of people more, you know, make people feel better,” Marian said.
She felt bad that her grandfather spent the last 20 years of his life alone, caring for his ailing daughter. Her work with the elderly was her way of helping, she says.
“Piano, old phones, really ugly wall paper,” are some of Marian’s memories of her grandfather’s home. She remembers the lack of some of the modern amenities.
After they left, he wrote letters to his grandchildren regularly and saved contour drawings of their hands. When they returned to bury him, only a few things remained.
For Andrey, this journey had often been a struggle. And like in any battle, there are victories and there are casualties. Andrey says he won; his children won.
They have a broader view of things and more choices, he said. I asked if he thinks his children will have a better life that his.
“They have to. They have to have a better life than me. That’s a rule. Our kids should have — must have — a better life,” he said. “That’s what we are working on as parents. That’s our dream.”