In the summer of 2005, I finally came back to Russia for the first time since I immigrated. It had been eight years. My family had changed, my city had changed; I had changed.
Instinctively, I understand that I cannot possibly live there again. Despite this, there is something profound about Russia. I cannot but feel it like an unspoken, innate longing for maternal affection.
Recently, I saw a news report from Russia, where the reporter stood in front of the old cement glazed houses with yellow and light orange paint cracking off their foundations. These houses were the kind with huge arabesque-like antennas over the roofs and mini flower balconies with barely enough room to stand in them — “ the kind that seeped through me with the city’s rhythm every day of my visit. They had windows with the small rectangular openings bearing ventilators not of the most technological value.
Still, they give the windows just the kind of character that makes me appreciate the kind of humble life I had before, or perhaps fear the kind of humble life I could have had. My mom and I strolled down Lenin Street, past the busy shoppers and the colorful aged buildings. We stopped at Maternity building No.
1, the oldest one in the city, and she pointed out to me the window of the room in which I was born. In this quiet fascination; in this strange implicit reconciliation with the past, I watched a life that was once the only reality to me become only a fantastical glimpse into what I no longer knew. Every morning, I would get up and find my grandfather sitting sideways on his stool in the kitchen, contemplating the zooming cars below on the busy Red Prospect.
He rested his left elbow on the light blue tiled kitchen windowpane, holding an old cup to his lips, with his other hand clasped tightly on his knee. He’d put the cup down, and there’d be a singular kind of scrape of opaque glass on ceramic tile. Beside the cup was a plate full of peas still in their coverlets, straight from the country house ‘dacha.’ It had only been a week then, since we’d been to my aunt’s dacha and picked platefuls of berries and soaked them liberally with milk.
There, we sat around a wooden camp table, with its checkered tablecloth quietly waving in the summer breeze, as we smiled lazily in contentment. Daily, my mom and I would pass the courtyard in front of my grandparents’ house, enclosed by the shade, and warmly alleviated by the rustle of the trees. I remember an old seesaw that would only rise up a mere inch or two.
It was no longer there. But the picture was yet much unchanged; once again I ran my hand across the old, rusty monkey bars and walked on the dirt ground, filled only occasionally with sparse grass. Laundry swayed lightly on a string tied around a tree on one end, and around a playground pole on the other.
Elderly women in head shawls, floral cotton dresses, and dark stockings sat on a bench nearby, gossiping and munching on sunflower seeds with trembling jaws. As we passed a neighboring courtyard, I saw two old wooden tables layered in graffiti, on which ten or fifteen kids about my age sat and talked. That’s one thing I could not recognize. I still wonder if I once knew these kids. Perhaps I once played hide and seek with them in kindergarten. Perhaps I would be there if I never left. I can never know. But everything, even the laundry and disheveled playgrounds, was home-like, almost comforting. Someone more experienced than I may tell me that I am foolish to extract comfort from something so outwardly degraded. That’s beside the point, though — experience.
A moment out of a person’s daily life can suddenly strike them as seemingly unsubstantial, nothing less than itself and nothing more, but suddenly peculiar, embodying an essence in every sound and smell and minutiae of sentiment as something altogether extraordinary. That is not experience. It is merely a fleeting spirit trapped in the grasp of time. And that is what Russia was to me. I grasped only barely this spirit, which flittered away within five weeks, as a butterfly escapes a net. Now, it is all a mere recollection. Nevertheless, this trip has imprinted an old life in my heart — an indelible secret I will always treasure.
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