On Child-Immigrant Homesickness
It’s whirling & peculiar; a sudden onset of almost-longing that rarely comes during moments I choose. Just last week, I skidded to a stop in front of some dilapidated pawn shop, insisting to D. that it smelled like my childhood. He looked confused. Like mothballs?
Like home. A cozy apartment with antique rug-covered floors & shelves filled by my babushka’s Pushkin hardcovers & other classics, which mama read from nightly. (The tradition continued after we came here, albeit with a much smaller selection; they took so much at customs.)
I remember it so lovingly: daily walks through Izmaylovsky park with my dedushka, how mama scolded him later for letting me spoil my appetite with doughy piroshki before dinner. He’d wink at me, & the routine would happen all over again the next day. I remember spilled grease dotting brown wrappers, how street vendors smiled when I tried to grab those gigantic pies with my tiny hands.
I remember getting my ears pierced with a hot needle in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen, & picking gooseberries at our dacha. (When we went back, fifteen years later, a stately house stood where our shabby one-room cabin once was; a tall fence prevented us from seeing the property.)
I remember dedushka— an expert tailor— trading favors to procure a stuffed alligator toy, a plastic stove just my size, a frilly dress. Treats like saldatiki (little soldiers): crusty bread sliced into squares, topped with butter & red— or sometimes even black— caviar..
I remember another nightly ritual; a children’s show called Spokoynoy nochi, malyshi! (Goodnight, little ones) that I watched after bath time, enshrouded in a towel that came down to my ankles. Mama would always say Slohkim parom when I stepped out of the steamy bathroom (she still says this, actually, whenever I shower at my parents house.)
I remember long lines for socks, for bread. Clutching mama’s free hand while she held vouchers in the other. I don’t remember feeling like we lacked anything.
Nearly four years after our first homecoming visit, I still can’t figure out how to write about it. At once, we explored two versions of the same city: Moscow the remembered (our Moskva) & the globalized present-day version. The pulsing, contradictory, cosmopolitan city that birthed my beautiful mother & nurtured her affinities for crowds, cafes, galleries, poetry, ballet. Her love of leathers & furs & stilettos. Her penchant for aloofness & detached observation, often mistaken for haughtiness. What the motherland passed on to her, she imparted to me.
Child-immigrant homesickness is a slow-burning, complicated feeling. Gauzy memories coated in the naïve veneer of childhood stacked against an unexpurgated account of adult truths: the dissolution of a national economy, a marriage, a home.
After we emigrated, the belongings we brought over became sacred relics. I pored over photo albums, running my fingers over the dried glue that remained where a man’s image had once been.
Our relatives in America called me “Little Larissa”, after my mother. I clung to her side whenever she was around, & I never thought— not once, not for a moment— to ask questions or demand explanations.
Life in America meant being a latchkey kid. Our apartment complex in northeast Philly was almost entirely comprised of other Russians, mostly recent immigrants. Everyone treated each other like family, & I got into the habit of shuffling door-to-door after my mother left for work around 6 AM, wearing only pajamas & a pair of galoshes (or some other nonsensical footwear), asking to be let in because I was lonely & couldn’t sleep.
I saw my mother very early in the morning, very late in the evening, & on weekends. She worked in a lipstick factory, in a nail salon, as a house cleaner. She learned English, & worried about how mine would fare in preschool. She learned computer programming languages. She fell in love with a gregarious cabbie named Michael, whom I also adored immediately, & within a year I was calling him ‘Papa’. Questions arose & dissolved in my mind. My sister was born, & our family was complete. My parents saved enough money to have a house built just for us. Pride eventually replaced my embarrassment about their accents, our last name.
And eventually, the pride turned to longing. The longing turned into a belated graduation gift.
Hearing idioms in their natural home made my heart swell. Every time I spoke to a waitress or asked a local for directions & they didn’t ask about my accent, I beamed. Everyone was so stylish, & so very sullen-looking, which somehow pleased me too. So much of Russian art, literature, music— even the weather— resonates with my own moody temperament. I feel an affinity with the stone-faced, impeccably groomed denizens of my birth city, even though I don’t believe I could ever be one of them.
Nearly everywhere we went, I wept. Publicly, unabashedly, for reasons as varied as they were unknown. Under a statue of Pushkin in his eponymous square, & when we crossed the Red Square toward St. Basil’s, & in the breath-taking halls of the Tretyakov gallery. When we rode a ferry across the river at sundown, my head on mama’s shoulder & a takeout container of berry blintzes in my lap. In lavish theaters, where performers were hand-delivered bouquets by devoted fans after the curtain call. Ornate fountains made me sob. Plain benches made me sob. I stopped sobbing long enough to dance all night in raucous neon-hued discos & drink too many vodka red bulls & go on a date with a handsome financial analyst named Dmitri. We strolled Patriarch’s Ponds, discussing the obvious (Bulgakov, Americans & their boorishness, Muscovites & their materialism), & drank warm rum with muddled cherries at an outdoor café surrounded by heat lamps, & I slept with him just to hear how Russian dirty talk sounded. He even met my mother, leading to a sudden & irrational thought-tangent about alternate lives.
Days later, the thought resurfaced. I said it aloud: What do you think would’ve happened if we stayed? Mama’s eyes lit up for a second, then she shook her head. Without further prompting, she spoke of those early years, culminating in our departure. Not just the usual spiel about wanting a better life for me; she talked about my biological father— his charm & his cruelty— & how nobody approved of the marriage from the start. The lies she had to tell & the documents she had to forge in order to get us onto that plane. The job, the friends, the relatives, the apartment full of furniture all left behind. My mother— the sweet & (often frustratingly) logical computer programmer— spoke of moving instinctively, like a woman possessed. I had to get us away from him. I had to get us away from here.
We sobbed our way through the entire duration of three metro rides, including transfers.
At twenty-six, a childhood cartoon’s ditty about a blue wagon still make my insides prickle. It’s a hopeful song, but the sweeping accordions sound so elegiac.
And slowly do the minutes tick away
Don’t you expect to find them again
Even if giving up the past is a bit sad
Everything that’s best still lies ahead
Just like a carpet, oh a carpet
A long road unfolds ahead
And it pushes up against the sky
Everyone, everyone believes in the best
Rolling & streaming ahead, a blue wagon.
Yesterday, mama sent over homemade salad olivie & cabbage pie from the suburbs. Papa picked me up in his taxi to deliver it, & I couldn’t resist unwrapping the foil to sneak a bite. Later, she emailed me: Did you try it?
Yes, I wrote. It tastes like home.