It finally happened: This summer I turned 50! I knew it was coming, and I alternated between embracing my mortality
and total denial
As is often customary with big dates, I’ve been reflecting on the long string of my birthdays past. The recent ones blurred into one happy summer party
but some earlier ones managed to stand out… Like the summer I turned 20: I had to fight off a bunch of unwelcome party guests with a jar of olives
Or the one when we were so worn out by our one-month-old son that we forgot my birthday entirely
However, a distant summer that comes to my mind the most is the one when I turned 11.
Back in the times of the Soviet Union, school children had three-month-long school summer breaks from school. My family solved the dilemma of what to do with me by shipping me away with my grandma to the countryside.
My Grandma Mila was a geologist, inventor, and polar explorer who traveled across Chukotka on her dogsled during WWII. Grandma Mila was tough and extremely handy. Born and raised in an urban and highly educated family, she could, nevertheless, build a house all by herself and survive a winter in the North Pole region.
For our summers, Grandma would start preparing early. After all, the house was just a simple wood shack with no heat, running water, telephone, or TV. Getting food was not easy either. The grocery store in the village had limited supplies and very long lines, so Grandma was working hard on being self-sufficient.
Starting in early spring, she would clean and repair our dacha, fix a greenhouse, plant fruits and vegetables, and buy live poultry. By the end of May, little yellow chicks and ducklings would overtake her small kitchen in her old apartment in the city.
Those hens and ducks would grow to become our major protein source, which my unsentimental granny would butcher herself.
With the house, animals, and vegetable garden under her care, Grandma Mila had very little time for me. I was expected to show up for lunch and be home before dark, but otherwise I was free to entertain myself whichever way I liked. I would start by getting a library card.
But my favorite thing to do was to go on exploratory adventures riding my uncle’s bike.
I was way too short to ride it properly, so I rode it standing up. Of course, no helmet, and I liked to ride it barefoot. It was fast!
I was a tomboy. I thought boys had all the fun, and girls were boring.
However, I kept my options open with a group of girls who played on our street. It was useful for catching up on gossip.
I was intrigued. After all, my own great ambition was to become an organ grinder and travel the world with a monkey on my shoulder.
Once, while browsing a general store in my village, I overheard a store clerk’s remark:
I was ecstatic with joy! Not only was I mistaken for a gypsy, but they thought I was a boy! Considering that Mowgli was my fashion icon, mistaking my gender wasn’t that difficult.
As shocking as it may seem today, at that time I was often going around bare-chested and barefoot, wearing only a pair of orange shorts. Grandma didn’t care.
But that summer brought some strange changes to my body, I was observing them with a little annoyance, and much ignorance.
No one was talking about the changes my body and I were soon to undertake. I don’t think it had ever crossed my grandma’s mind to talk to me about puberty, and my mother was mostly away working. My lack of interest in friendship with girls was another reason for such naiveté.
One morning I was riding my monster of a bike to the sand quarries when I noticed a bunch of boys on bikes watching me.
They must have been those “bad boys”! I sprang to get away, but the gang was following me closely.
After trying to get over a creek on a narrow plank, I finally crashed into the water.
On close inspection, the “bad boys” turned out to be not that bad. We became quick friends and they showed me their secret hideout.
The day was going well until
They were in true shock. But after some consideration
They let me stay
I was having a lot of fun with my new friends. The only unlawful activity we did was steal apples and berries from our neighbors’ gardens.
We rode our bikes everywhere, even down the sand cliffs
On rainy days we played cards. Most of the boys were just like me: city kids on a summer break. Except for Vlad, our leader, who was already 13, and a local.
I also spent hours entertaining my friends with stories I read in my books. I wasn’t familiar with “Peter Pan” at that time, otherwise, the parallel between myself and Wendy and her “lost boys” would surely have crossed my mind.
It was funny how, despite my desire to be a “real boy” to my friends, I was taking a sisterly role nevertheless.
I was stealing food from our kitchen to feed my crew
And I was getting better and better at mending our never-ending cuts and bruises
The summer was rolling by fast, and my mid August birthday was approaching. Now, since I had so many exciting friends, I was planning a real party! With Russian salad, lemonade, and a cake, which my mother was going to bring from the city. We were all very excited.
The day arrived. My mother was here with a cake and a new party dress. The dress was beautiful! I didn’t like dresses, but that one was different, I couldn’t resist.
As I put it on, I felt strange, scared and excited at the same time. I felt new, different.
I wanted to show it off to my friends. But their reaction was not at all what I had expected.
I guess their suspicion finally had proof: I was an imposter; I was a girl after all. They acted rude toward me, but still I went into the woods with them. I just couldn’t believe our friendship could end so abruptly.
The boys didn’t really try to hit me or the bird with stones, but they wanted to show me I was no longer a part of them. I ran home. I felt confused, sad, angry, but also guilty for betraying my friends by being a girl. I was hoping they would forgive me, come to my party, and we could be friends again.
but they never came.
Soon, it was time for me to return to the city. I had a growth spurt over the summer and was in need of a new school uniform. I chose a dress with a pleated skirt, which moved well around me as I swirled. I picked a white lace collar to go with it and a new pair of shoes with little heels.
I didn’t want to be a homeless orphan anymore. I was a girl, and I liked it.