A short history of leaving
This past weekend marked 23 years since we’d immigrated. There isn’t much to say — the truth is, 23 years doesn’t feel any different from 20 or 16. What’s different, however, is how much, or rather, how little, I can remember of my former life now. The memories are fading and, somehow, that feels like a real loss. It seems that as immigrants, we experience the loss twice — first, as we leave behind decades of our family history, our friends, our home and also the kind of unwavering confidence that comes solely from knowing where one belongs. The secondary loss is realizing 23 year later that the memories of our former selves, of our former lives — arguably, our most prized possessions that could never fit in the few suitcases we were allowed to bring — are slipping away. I write to keep them from slipping away.
The watch and the rings:
In the three years that we’ve been trying to leave Ukraine for Canada, we’ve already been denied once — at the Canadian consulate in Moscow. In 1994 the Canadians open another consulate in Kiev and my father says we’re going to try again. This time the rules have changed. Unlike before, when we could pay in rubles, we now need to come up with $2,000 to begin the visa application process. We are five — my parents, my grandfather, my sister and I — and we are $2,000 short.
My parents are physicists who don’t know how to hustle, which is part of the reason why we’re leaving. They begin by taking stock of the family’s valuables. The first on the list is my grandmother’s watch. Since she passed away three years earlier, her gold watch along with her ruby earrings and the moonstone ring have been locked away in a chest. But now they’re laid out on the dining table as my classmate’s father examines the watch, twisting and turning it, looking for the maker’s mark. He finally buys it for $50. The ruby earrings and the ring are taken to the pawnshop. So are my parents’ wedding rings. My father assures my mother they’ll buy new ones as soon as they get to Canada (and they will.) The only piece of jewelry that survives this purge is my mother’s gemstone ring given to her by both of my grandmothers on her wedding day. She hesitates to part with it. In the end, it makes no difference — the truth is, none of it makes a difference. Having sold nearly all of the family heirlooms, my parents raise just over $100. They borrow the rest of the money to pay the $400 for a single application — my father’s.
The framed photo on the bookshelf:
Miraculously, my father’s application is approved a few months later. We still need to come up with $1600 for the rest of us. That summer, after 15 years of being on the waitlist, my parents finally get the keys to their very own “cooperative” apartment. It couldn’t have come at a better time — they immediately decide to sell. It’s a three-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor of a high-rise and I’m secretly happy we won’t get to live there. I love my grandparents’ old creaky house by the sea, I love our fruit orchard, where I have years-worth of treasures buried underneath the cherry tree.
We take out an ad in the local newspaper and many months go by before we are able to sell the place. In this time I’ve gotten very good at answering the callers’ questions. “How many square meters?” — “forty-nine”, “what floor?” — “Tenth floor but there is an elevator.” It’s a buyer’s market — everyone is selling because everyone is leaving.
We finally sell the place for $19,000 in cash. My parents don’t trust the local banks but the thought of having that much cash in the house provokes even greater anxiety. And for good reason — in the 1990s our sleepy seaside town with its 180,000 or so residents has the unfortunate reputation of being one of the most crime-ridden cities in Ukraine. Extortion racket and contract hits are so common, they don’t even make the news anymore.
After a bit of thinking my parents find a hiding spot for the money — they put the stacks of cash between the photo and the frame of my sister’s 8x11 school portrait on the bookshelf. In this photo, she’s wearing her dark school uniform complete with a white apron and a red pioneer scarf. She is looking into the distance, stern and principled, her long braid resting over her shoulder. No gangster would suspect this little Leninist of harboring $19,000 in cash. The money stays hidden in the framed photo for the next few months until the cash is safely transferred to a bank in Canada. Years later my parents will both admit to having lived those months in constant fear for our lives, for their lives. “What do you remember about leaving?” I’ll ask my mother. “Landing in Schiphol and feeling like we’ve made it across some invisible divide into safety. Like I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.”
It is during that time that my parents begin to keep an axe underneath their bed. [Here my mother wants me to emphasize that the axe was under my father’s side of the bed, since she did not approve of the idea.] I am also not entirely clear how my father imagined using the axe against the would-be intruders; nevertheless, it stays under the bed for many months, right until our departure. Then, one night in late November a man tries to climb into my bedroom window. I open my eyes and see his face in the fortochka behind the sheer curtain. Woken up by my screams, my father grabs the axe, runs into my room and then, outside. There, he finds our neighbor’s lover — drunk, half-naked, half-stuck in the window, trying to get into what he believes is her house. It is raining; he is crying and hurling insults at the woman who locked him out. My father walks back inside and returns a few minutes later with his coat — for the neighbor’s lover. We are just not an axe-wielding household…
That fall three other applications are approved: my mother’s, my sister’s and mine. Not my grandfather’s. My parents are afraid to submit his application — an elderly man, he would surely get denied. And if he gets denied, we all stay. At night I hear my parents talking, thinking out loud through their limited options. Perhaps, my father goes to Canada first while we stay behind and wait until he can petition for my grandfather to come over. But that may take years. Perhaps, we move to Israel instead. Perhaps.
Finally, my father goes all in. He takes the documents, a filled out application in my grandfather’s name and goes to Kiev. There he sits on the steps of the consulate and waits. There are two visa clerks at the consulate: one of them he met during his interview and he remembers her being kind. The other one was a hag. He waits for the hag to leave and then goes into the consulate to find the kind one. He explains the situation. He explains that he is the only son and he can’t leave his father. He explains that we’ve been waiting to leave for three years. He explains that either we all go or we all stay. This Ukrainian woman hears him out, takes his papers and disappears behind the closed doors.
My father sits on the steps and waits. And waits. And waits. Another three hours go by before this woman comes out of the building and hands him the medical forms for my grandfather. He is in. All of us are in.
Never underestimate the power of a kind visa clerk.
“It’s not bad, what you wrote. But you didn’t talk about the time we sold your bike to pay for my driver’s license. And that story about the cigarettes, remember, I once tried to sell them in bulk on the market and got arrested for it?” That’s my dad. He just read this piece and now I am on speakerphone listening to my parents talk over each other, as more memories start to come back to them. For so many years these memories of leaving — some painful, some wistful, some bittersweet — have remained tucked away in the far corners of their minds, like a dusty wool coat from the old country that may be too démodé for the new world.
These are not the memories they come back to when they feel a pang of nostalgia. They remember the warm summer nights in Crimea, the mountains they’ve explored as college kids, their first kiss, the birth of their daughters. Their insights into their former selves are not confined to a handful of stories. By comparison, our histories of our former lives are brief. And so, I hold on to these memories — the stories of living in and leaving the place I once called home. 23 years later, they are the treasured heirlooms I’m keeping out of the pawnshop.