Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Before we left the Soviet Union on December 31, 1976, my parents had our entire apartment packed up in boxes, which were stacked in the middle of our bedroom. We lived in a communal apartment--the kitchen was shared, and one bedroom was occupied by my parents and myself and the other by my mother's cousin Larissa, a single woman who was always smoking and studying. Before my mother's cousin moved in, my father's parents lived there. Which must have been fun for my mother, living in the same apartment with her inlaws. But we were considered lucky because we were able to share a communal apartment with family members and not with complete strangers, although I'm unsure to this day which version would have provided more comic value.

"I think you're going to be leaving Russia," my friend Natasha told me one day at school. Various classmates have hinted that my family was moving, although personally I was in deep denial with a hint of stupidity.

"Oh no." I protested. Because my parents didn't tell me anything about leaving Russia and surely that's not the kind of thing that you just spring on someone. Unless you're my parents, that is. I was an obedient child, so I can see why my parents thought that I'd roll along with those particular punches as well.

I imagine that the Witness Relocation Program must work a little like this. It was the middle of the night and my mother shook me awake. "we have to go," she told me.
I realize that it would be better for this memoir if I, you know, remembered what my thoughts were at that point, but I was so fucking obedient, that I probably didn't allow myself to have any thoughts that weren't authorized by my parents. Which, incidentally, is why it's so annoying to me that my own children were born with this strong will that won't bend to mine. My parents woke me up and told me to go to the bathroom and to get dressed. Because in their wisdom they decided that going to America will be smoother clothed and on an empty bladder. I got dressed and by the time that I moseyed out of our room, I saw that Lenny and his parents were there.
"Hug him," my mother told me. I'd done more than hug Lenny, but never in front of an audience. I was exhausted and sort of nervous and confused, so I wasn't into doing a kiddie porn act on demand.

Our parents were not going to give up that easily, of course. "Hug each other," they prodded. "This may be the last time that you see each other." Lenny and I hugged each other and although I probably loved him most, I remember it as one of the least intimate event of my life. As if on cue, my father's parents appeared and we had a repeat of the "this may be the last time you see each other" line, since it worked so well the first time around, with Lenny. If I hadn't known any better, I'd think that my parents were moving to America in order to trademark their winning "this may be the last time you see each other" phrase in an effort to get everyone to embrace, as a '70s precursor to the We Are the World act.

We said good bye to everyone, relatives, neighbors and people that I've never seen before who appeared at our door, and I am in semi-hysteria, but also sort of sleepy, Because we are bringing our most valuable possessions with us on the plane, I am handed a stuffed Santa Claus which is approximately half my size and told to carry it. He is mildly terrifying, but I lug him along. He is my companion and potentially my murderer.

We get to the airport and have to go through customs. My mother, who never wears jewelry is outfitted in diamonds. Well, just one diamond ring, but it's more bling than I'd seen on my mother before or since. The customs guys patted down my Santa and looked into my teary face. "Going to Israel?" he asks. Because although our airline tickets are for Austria, everyone knows that it's just a midway point for Russian Jews. Officially, we're all going to Israel, to be reunited in the motherland. Not officially, most of us will change the country that we go to when we arrive in Italy. We will change our minds about Israel and the Judaism that we wish to practice and decide to go to America, instead. Because the jeans there are pure klas.

We got on the plane. It was December 31st, the equivalent of Christmas Eve for the non atheists. There was trouble with the plane, we were told soon after takeoff. We would have to land in Poland and spend a few days there.

When I was sixteen, I saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time and I loved the moment that she lands in Oz and the screen is in technicolor. Because that is what landing in Poland was for me. Well, not the airport itself, maybe, but being in the hotel that we were moved to was inspiring. I was enthralled, having completely forgotten about Lenny, my grandparents and whatever loyalty I had towards Mother Russia. It was sort of like what I imagine being being adopted by a movie start must feel like. I mean, sure, you miss your birth mother and the orphanage is not without its Dickensonian charm, but OMG, ANGELINA!

My parents were similarly impressed. It was New Year's Eve and there were pine inspired arrangements on the night tables in our rooms, with a lit candle inside each one.
"This is beautiful," mama said. "I can't imagine that they'd ever allow anything like this in Russia," she said, referring to the notoriously strict safety rules and regulations. Everything was in technicolor, we were drunk on freedom, and in my parents' case, I suspect on vodka. I did feel a little dizzy with emotion. "When will I see Lenny again?" I asked. "Probably never," my parents told me. "But look," they pointed a storefront window, "gum!" It seemed like a fair trade and a smooth transition to capitalism. Sure, I lost a best friend and possibly a soul mate, but who could argue with the multicolored gum balls. I hadn't even known that such a thing existed and here they were, lined up in front of me.

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Blogger Vicki said...

Beautiful. You create the mood so well.

Although, I don't know if anyone told you, but the other Soviet Jews are stealing our memories, and I am bitter. http://www.jewlicious.com/2009/08/hias-hero-ruins-my-life-and-my-novel/

Can't wait to read more!

August 11, 2009 at 9:08 AM  
Blogger Mwa said...

Loved that. I would buy the book.

August 11, 2009 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger *Akilah Sakai* said...

Ha! I remember the significance of gum.

Ever heard back from relatives about what Lenny did with his life?

August 11, 2009 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger Anna See said...

What a night this must have been. Will we hear the next stage of the journey?

August 11, 2009 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger K.Line said...

I cannot even imagine what this would have been like - though my own American parents were into moving me around without giving me any advance notice. What? It was the 70s!

One of the most moving posts I've ever read on a blog is the one where you discussed having a piece of gum in Russia and splitting it between friends and having a tiny morsel each. Honestly, I think about that ALL the time.

August 11, 2009 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Coffee with Cathy said...

And then what happened? And then what happened? And then what happened? You've got me hooked!

August 11, 2009 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Kabbalah Rookie said...

I love this post. It's nice to know that I am not the only one who was so totally fucking obedient...

Some very funny lines in this, but poignant too. When do we get to hear more????

August 11, 2009 at 10:00 AM  
Blogger Always Home and Uncool said...

You -- obedient?

Well done, M. Keep on chewin'.

August 11, 2009 at 10:10 AM  
Blogger Loukia said...

I loved reading this... and I wanted to read more... you need to write a book. You are a fantastic writer!

August 11, 2009 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Nap Warden said...

Well no disrespect to Lenny here...but gum is pretty fabulous;)

August 11, 2009 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger Kate Coveny Hood said...

What a brave young woman. And a fascinating story. If you aren't already - you should really consider writing a book about it.

August 11, 2009 at 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who wants to know more about Lenny?

This was nice, Marinka. I'd totally read the memoir, if you wrote it. Until you do, though, I'll have to hound you for more stories like this.

August 11, 2009 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Andrea's Sweet Life said...

You need to write a book. Seriously.

August 11, 2009 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Christy said...

I can't imagine having these kinds of memories...but you capture them so well. You should really write a book about this (I hate to mimic those ahead of me, but I think it's true) experience. I know I would buy a bunch of copies for me, and to give as gifts.

August 11, 2009 at 11:23 AM  
Blogger Janie at Sounding Forth said...

I want more! I loved it!

August 11, 2009 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Julie B. said...

I love all your stories about mama and papa. The story was great - very bittersweet - but with a happy ending...right?!?! I was also very obedient. Amazingly, my younger brother was the opposite of me and he was still the favorite. Go figure!

August 11, 2009 at 12:55 PM  
Blogger Issas Crazy World said...

I can not even imagine just leaving one night. (although half my family did at one point.) This is a great post Marinka.

But um, did they buy you gum, or did you just get to look at it?

August 11, 2009 at 1:20 PM  
Blogger Nanny Goats In Panties said...

This is going into your best-selling memoir, right?

August 11, 2009 at 1:32 PM  
Blogger stephanie said...

What a wonderful post. You are SO good. I remember when my sister-in-law and nephew arrived at JFK on their lottery visa from Chelyabinsk. Misha was seven, spoke no English, was bewildered. He got sick in our car, not from motion discomfort, I think from the trauma of leaving everything behind. And my sister-in-law broke down and wept the first time she saw an American supermarket -- the abundance was literally too much for her to absorb!

August 11, 2009 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Denise said...

Absolutely fascinating!!! How old were you? What ever happened to Lenny? Did you ever see any family members after leaving Russia? Was it difficult for your parents to arrange? How long did they have to plan it? I would love to hear more.

You know it's funny you shold mention bubble gum. I remember when we sent my great aunt (chocha)back to Russia she was given a huge bag full of gum balls. We also had to sew her money in her girdle so they wouldn't take it back in Russia. When she got home her relatives didn't know her because she had on a wig and make up. Of couse that was back in the 70s. Things are different there now. I also remember how difficult it was to get out even for a visit. THey were afraid people would defect so you never know if or when they would approve your visa. My aunt given her permit to come at the last minute. So we have barely any warning.

August 11, 2009 at 1:49 PM  
Blogger Maureen@IslandRoar said...

More, I want more. How did you get here, what did you think at first? You are such a great writer; thanks for sharing this with us.

August 11, 2009 at 3:14 PM  
Blogger Kathleen Lewis said...

Echoing previous sentiments...get to work on that book ms. mara. You're funnier and more interesting than a lot of what I've read.

August 11, 2009 at 3:20 PM  
Blogger OHmommy said...

Dammit. I had a departure post floating around in my head for 2 weeks now. Sounds so much like yours... and you beat me to it. Grrrr....

August 11, 2009 at 4:22 PM  
Blogger Heather, Queen of Shake Shake said...

It makes me realize how much I have taken for granted since a child.

I hate to be selfish and all "to hell with Lenny" but I'm so glad you came.

August 11, 2009 at 4:57 PM  
Blogger Tracey - Just Another Mommy Blog said...

Gum would certainly make you forget the motherland, wouldn't it?

August 11, 2009 at 5:33 PM  
Blogger A Mom on Spin said...

This is good stuff.

I want more.

August 11, 2009 at 7:13 PM  
Blogger MommyTime said...

I have nothing brilliant to add, but I would love to read more.

Also, do you think this explains your current aversion to hugs?

August 11, 2009 at 7:27 PM  
Blogger Donna said...

Great post. I move every few years, and every time I land in a new country, the colors seem "off" (of course, it could be the jetlag talking). I used to live in Moscow, and before that for a time in Petersburg, and I remember the unrelenting grey every time the airplane touched down in Russia. This despite the fact that I loved living there. I'd be interested in reading more about your transition to the States.

August 11, 2009 at 8:23 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

This is really awesome. I love the landing in Oz analogy - wow.

So did you ever see them again? Our Russian goes back to visit his grandparents, but he came over when his dad won a lottery to get out after The Fall.

August 11, 2009 at 8:43 PM  
Blogger Keyona said...

You leave me wanting more...please tell more!!

August 11, 2009 at 9:09 PM  
Blogger MsPicketToYou said...


and hat's the eff off.

August 11, 2009 at 9:19 PM  
Blogger the mama bird diaries said...

i love getting to know more about you.

poor lenny... he's got no marinka and no gum balls. poor chap.

August 11, 2009 at 9:31 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

So happy I found your blog. Love your writing and I'd definitely read your book.

My parents weren't big on the departure warning, either ('79), probably 'cause they worried I might blab about it in school and get pounded by the other kids. After a while they relented and I was told we were going to the Ukraine (imagine my surprise when the train pulled into Vienna) but could not understand why I had to leave my shiny, beloved Czechoslovakian ice skates to my cousin. I was sure it got sufficiently cold for skating in the Ukraine.

On the obedience thing, I think it must have been in the water. My 4 year old is growing up on filtered.... Maybe that's the problem.

August 11, 2009 at 10:10 PM  
Blogger jennilea said...

Wait. You stopped. I wasn't done reading yet. Continue.

How old were you? Who is Lenny? Have you ever been in contact with him again?

Please. Continue. I mean it!

August 11, 2009 at 10:40 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

Marinka. Isn't perspective a funny thing? Your 1976 Poland was technicolor, while citizens of the same country were scrambling to get out as well. It speaks volumes as to what you left behind in your Motherland. Our family fled in 1981, two weeks prior to Marshall Law, and I remember, as a four year old, the frantic intensity of the situation, the tear streaked cheeks of my Mamusia, and the knot in my stomach that let me know something very big was happening. You and I should have a latte, or latkes, or whatever the hell it is you eat. I would love to pick your brain. To compare the similarities and and differences in our experiences as immigrants. I will be one of the first to buy the book.

August 11, 2009 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger TeacherMommy said...

First, I'll be a parrot and say "Loved this! I want more! I'd read the book!" because it's true. I'm just late to the gate.

Second, I remember being overwhelmed the first time I came to the States from West Africa, at the tender age of four. It didn't really get any easier the other times we made that transition, either. The flash, the color, the noise, the aliens walking around who looked like me for once but sure as hell didn't act like me.

I think I'm finally getting the hang of this American thing. I'm still the oddball white girl from West Africa, though.

August 12, 2009 at 1:05 AM  
Blogger Jennifer H said...

I hope this is going into your book?

I loved this.

August 12, 2009 at 2:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More! More! More!

August 12, 2009 at 8:39 AM  
Blogger Shin said...

Oh wow, thanks for the flashback.

I guess i was not as obedient as you were as a child, because my parents told me we were leaving so i will have time to prepare, but i was absolutely and utterly forbidden to talk about it to anyone, which included my friends so i couldn't even say goodbye to them.
Of course, i broke down on the day of the departure and told my best-friend-and-not-boyfriend-because-boys-are-icky Shura, and we cried a little in the grass behind my grandparents' house, holding hands. He also said he envied me because when i leave Russia, i will get to eat soft-boiled eggs (which we weren't allowed to eat because of salmonella) and, if I'm lucky, maybe even bananas.

And then came glorious Poland with the colorful soft drinks and orange juice in cardboard boxes and kids really are easily distracted, aren't they? :)

August 12, 2009 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger Elisa said...

Wonderful post Marinka, I'm so glad you decided to share more of your story.

Though I have to admit I feel a bit sad for Lenny, who surely couldn't have found someone as fun as you.

August 12, 2009 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger I am Barking Mad said...

Beautiful post Marinka. I don't know that I can elaborate on anything anyone else, before me, has said.

Thanks for sharing the experience of your emigration to the states.

Audrey at Barking Mad!

August 12, 2009 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger I am Barking Mad said...

Beautiful post Marinka. I don't know that I can elaborate on anything anyone else, before me, has said.

Thanks for sharing the experience of your emigration to the states.

Audrey at Barking Mad!

August 12, 2009 at 12:28 PM  

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