"Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?" ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Yesterday I took a detour. In order to avoid waiting 22 minutes for the 44 bus, I took a walk that brought me back to age 25.
Instead of waiting near Green Apple Books for the bus to take me home, I decided to start walking, not home, but just walking so I wouldn't be standing in the bus shelter for nothing. I headed down Geary, towards the ocean. For some reason, I'm never on Geary, but it was a sunny day, fine for strolling and it seemed a lot better than waiting for the bus anyway, especially since I had no particular place to go but home.
The farther I headed down Geary, the closer I got to Russia. Ever since I can remember as an adult, random Russians (and probably Ukranians, too) have come up to me to ask me something, maybe the time, directions. But in Russian, not English. It used to make me laugh and was always a little surprising. How did they know? I grew up in San Jose. Sometimes I would ask, after explaining I didn't understand the question, and if they spoke English, they said they could tell I was one of them from my nose, my lips. My facial features gave me away.
I was so surprised. It felt odd, and oddly comforting, to be recognized by an ethnic group that obviously I am tied to by ancestry but not much else.
Today I did not get the questions, but some knowing, but very faint, smiles. I returned the tight-lipped smiles. As I walked, I walked further back into my past, into my twenties. I thought of my ex-husband and his family. They had left the Soviet Union, their home in Moscow, back in the mid-Seventies, during the diaspora that sent many Russians (mostly Jews) to the US or to Israel. My husband's father was Jewish by birth but had never been raised in a religious family. But his paperwork branded him Semite and that was enough to make his life difficult. My husband's mother was a Russian Orthodox. But that didn't stop the antisemitism from ruining their lives and his mother was an outcast from her own family for marrying a Jew, and his father was eventually fired from his job as an engineer for being born into the wrong race. In Soviet Russia, Jewishness was a race, not a religion. They had no way to survive or make a home for their two small boys, so they emigrated to the US. To San Francisco.
Little bits and pieces of that past life started to come back to me. I didn't meet my husband until we were in college, although I remembered him from high school. Very shy, with a very heavy accent, he got better grades in Honors American History than the rest of his American-born classmates (including me) and never talked to anyone, at least that I could tell. He had learned to speak English by watching television and had learned to read it by devouring comic books, his only boyish vice. All I wanted to do was save him. And then when I met his family, I wanted to save them too. I wanted to make them happy to be in America. Even though they could not go home, they never seemed anything but dispossessed.
The Russian people —not to stereotype, but nationalities do have their own distinctive character and I came to know the Russian one quite well— and not to be confused with the Ukranian Jewish background of my grandma Annette (and her tales of escaping the Cossack raids and her crossing to America in steerage), but the more modern, pre-Berlin Wall falling Muscovites that survived Stalin and his successors. That dark humor, developed from standing in endless lines to buy black bread, watermelons, cooking oil. The wry understanding that came from bribing officials with black market books and ballpoint pens. The plain white walls and the fake wood paneling. The meager furniture and dull, flat carpets covered in red and blue Persian rugs. The memories of the lazy summers at the dacha. The boiled chicken. The red beets. The pickles. The tea with jam.
They wanted for nothing. They didn't want anything. They only left the house when it was necessary: to go to the store, to run errands. The rest of life was spent at home, reading books in Russian, listening to the radio. I was their connection to the world: the entertainment, the storyteller, the birthday rememberer. God it was hard. It was more than I could handle in the end.
When I left, I didn't look back. Sometimes I regret that ending, but I don't know if I could have done it any other way without crumbling. I think that is why I hadn't been down Geary in a long time. I can go to Chinatown, the Mission, anywhere else in the city without having to deal with my memories. But when these random people smile at me, I feel a twinge, and I miss a little bit of that world.
I stood for a while in front of the Russian Orthodox Church and watched two men talking outside the front doors. One of the men was doing repairs. The golden onion domes sparkled so brightly under the blue sky. In the past, those domes had seemed so huge to me, like St. Basil's in Red Square. But this day, those domes finally felt small, or at least in perspective.