We Weren’t the Borrowers, We Were the Beggars — a Childhood Lesson on Survival
We knew they had milk because they had a cow.
When I was little, our clothes and shoes and everything else were second hand. We didn’t have a refrigerator. My grandmother Hannah’s sister, Hallah, was living in a two bedroom apartment in Kiev with her son, daughter, their spouses and one grandson. With five adults in the apartment, who were all working, they could afford new things sometimes. When they got a new refrigerator, we got their old one.
This is one of the memories my adopted son, Andry, shared with me. We adopted him from Ukraine when he was 13. I wonder, “How much do our experiences shape who we are?”
Before the refrigerator, food was kept in drawers and we would eat it right away or the next morning. We would store stuff that could be stored but I don’t remember having a lot of food in the house mostly just jam, jelly and bottles with soft tomatoes and pickles. We kept the potatoes under the boards in the livingroom floor.
Maria, my biological mother, would buy or ask the neighbors for fresh milk for us. We had to be careful not to go to the same neighbor too often. They wouldn’t give the milk to her unless she said it was for the kids. I would usually go with her because if they saw me they would be less likely to say “NO.” I was only five but I knew my purpose. I didn’t do anything but stand there, smile and be polite.
In the morning the cows go to the pasture behind the village. In the evening when the herd comes home, walking down the main streets in the village, everyone who has a cow stands by their gate and gets their cow when she walks by. After they get the cow they milk her. That’s when Maria and I would go ask for milk. The milk would be so fresh it was still warm. You could still see the foam on top from being squeezed out of the cow.
When the old ladies didn’t want to give the milk, because they had just milked the cow and didn’t want to do it again, they would tell Maria to go milk the cow herself. We would bring our own glass jar with a lid. That way people wouldn’t have to give us milk and a jar. It’s awkward enough to have to ask for the milk. We didn’t want to have to ask for a jar too and then have to return the jar, reminding them that we had just begged from them a couple of days before. We knew they didn’t want to see us again.
Sometimes they wouldn’t answer the door. Or people would have excuses “My cow didn’t give a lot of milk.” Some people would say in kind of a rude way, “I don’t have any milk,” but we knew they did because they had a cow. Maria didn’t take it in a bad way. We knew we were a bother in the village and they didn’t want to see us anyway. On another day she would ask a different neighbor. You don’t want to constantly be asking the same person. We weren’t the borrowers, we were the beggars. When you borrow you give back.
Andry shared his stories with me at a coffee shop on Saturday mornings. Through his memories I learned so much about him.
Here is a little more of our story:
…more of our story coming soon.