“Others’ Memories” is a piece published in Twenty Seven Zine, an online magazine that published 27 pieces relating to the number, age, and idea of 27. My piece was about my parents’ twenty seventh year of life, where they moved from the former Soviet Union to Chicago, Illinois and began their lives anew. Check out that piece at this live link or at this pdf link: Others’ Memories at I am_ twenty-seven. You can also read it below in plain text:
by Danielle Levsky
Editor’s note: The names of the author’s parents have been changed to protect their privacy. M (Michael) refers to her father, A (Anna) refers to her mother, and D refers to Ms. Levsky herself.
D: I recall memories that are not my own. They live and breathe in the minds of my parents, my Mama, my Papa, and resonate in HD picture through my mind. I grew up with stories of waiting in long lines for toilet paper in the Soviet Union, of camping adventures through Ukraine and farm volunteer hours in Russia, of how my parents came to know each other at 13 and love each other at 20, of my family’s departure to America, of how happy this country made them. There are certain images that are permanently entangled in my own recollections; they are so vivid, so real, and yet, they are just stories.
M: We were both on the cusp of turning 27 when we left the Soviet Union. That was 1992 and it was a very interesting year. Like everyone else who declared his or her departure, we were fired from work pretty quickly. Most of the year was spent selling off things from our apartment. We sold the cabinets, Anna’s favorite bed. Most of our advertisements were plastered on the bus stop sign when we didn’t have enough to put one in the paper. Anna cried when we sold that bed.
We sold somany miscellaneous things. Just anything and everything we could. Buckets, chipped cups. People were willing to buy this junk because there was barely anything to be found in the supermarkets. Lines around the stores would last four, maybe six hours, and all for a gloriously overpriced stick of butter. So we sold everything. Not for much, but we were able to get by.
Buying anything was so expensive. The prices were just insane. I can’t even explain how expensive it was just to buy some vegetables. No, wait; yes, I can. We sold almost every component of our kitchen: the chairs, the table, cabinets, closets. For that, we were able to get my purple winter coat. It’s the same one I use to shovel snow in now.
A: I cried when we sold that bed. I had never slept on a more comfortable bed in my life before. The mattress was this rouge color, from Czechoslovakia. It molded to our shapes perfectly. Later, when we moved here, I learned that what I had been sleeping on was essentially a sofa bed. For that pink futon, I got a single pair of shoes.
Michael’s father made us a bed. Back then, we saved up all of our glass bottles. You could go to the store and exchange them for pennies. There, his father exchanged the bottles and also found some wooden crates that he fashioned into a bed for us.
My 27th birthday was March 4, 1992 and we arrived in America on April 27, 1992. In March, we had to make all of our travel arrangements. The plane tickets from Moscow were already paid for, but we had to pay for the suitcases, the train ride from Kiev, and a taxi to the airport in Moscow.
So many people were leaving the Soviet Union at the time that train tickets were hard to come by. It was slightly terrifying, because on the taxi ride from the train station to the airport, a lot of people were mugged, robbed, and even killed by bandits. There were gangs who understood that these people were leaving with only their most prized possessions, but when those prized possessions didn’t serve any monetary value, they just took their money and killed them.
One of our friends referred us to what we knew was another gang that offered safe passage from the train station to the airport for an exorbitant price. If, say, a taxi ride cost 100 rubles, these personal rides cost 1000 rubles. It was a very interesting moment because we had no idea if we were actually going to be taken to the airport or if we were going to be sold off to the other bandits. When we climbed into the private vehicle, it was Michael, my mother, and my very sick father. I guess all you could do was pray to your God that nothing terrible should happen.
When we arrived in America, we realized that we would have had nothing to give away to those bandits. We might as well have brought empty suitcases, because all we ended up using was toothpaste, soap, the kitchen coat, and the sofa-bed shoes we brought.
M: Almost after we arrived, our friend Misha, who had been in Chicago for a year now, called me up and started badgering. “What are you doing, not working? Think you’re walking around like a free man now, eh?” He set me up with a job as a pizza delivery boy.
We all lived in one apartment in a building on Touhy. I worked most of the evening shifts in the bad parts of town. Anna would worry. Her mother would worry more. When I came home, they would tell me over and over again that it was time to quit this job, that it was dangerous. Then, we would all eat the delicious pizza I brought back and complain about eating so late. We repeated this process over and over again, every night until the middle of the summer.
With the money I earned, we went to buy our first car. No one in the Soviet Union really owned cars. At least, no one that lived within a 20 mile radius around us did. I took driving lessons just before we left Ukraine so I already knew how to drive and just had to pass a driver’s test here.
The first time we went to a car dealership, Anna was in tears again.
A: The car dealership was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. No one had cars in the Soviet Union. I mean, some people did, but they were smuggled in or a gift from the corrupt government. None of them were obtained in a normal setting. But this wasn’t one car, it was many cars, maybe even hundreds, just standing there and waiting to be bought. I felt as if I had landed on another planet. Michael was touching the cars, he even sampled a ride in a bright green Cadillac.
This couldn’t have ever happened there. If a car dealership opened up in the Soviet Union, they would have been stolen altogether or had parts removed from them within a day. There would be nothing left of the lot.
And it wasn’t just the cars. It was all the stores. All the merchandise, the groceries. I got lost in an Aldi the first time I went inside. I was so fixated on the different pastries, cookies, trying to differentiate the prices at the beginning of the store that I was separated from the group and couldn’t find my way back out of the store.
One of the first things we bought in America was an iron. In Ukraine, it was a necessity to have an iron, because all the clothes were made with pure cotton and we had no dryers to speak of. Here, with synthetic materials woven into our new clothes and dryers readily available on every corner, we never ended up using the iron.
M: American food was very strange and very exciting to us. For the first few months that we were in America, we received food packages because we were considered refugees. Most everyone in our building was Russian, except for an older Korean couple who also received the packages. Each package contained an enormous quantity of peanut butter, which we had never tried before. Everyone in the building agreed that it was disgusting.
Anna tried to do something about it. She found a recipe on the jar of peanut butter to make pastries and decided to give them a try. After handing them out to the entire building, she discovered that they were totally inedible and disgusting. We ended up throwing so much of it away.
We didn’t go to many restaurants, but finally, on my 27th birthday in September, we went to our first restaurant: McDonald’s.
A: I hated McDonald’s. I had just found out I was pregnant a month before and so I had become overly sensitive to smells. McDonald’s smelled just terrible to me. So did every smoker we passed by on the street.
We somehow managed to clothe ourselves and furnish the apartment, too. As refugees, we were welcomed into a secondhand store where we could get a bag of clothing for free. The owner of the store took a shine to me and insisted I try on fake fur coats, one after the other. Perhaps the coats came from the same source, but they were all incredibly short on my arms. We took one just to appease him. It was actually very fun being able to pick up new clothes without having to worry about our budget.
Furniture we knew we would have to pay for. So, instead, we resolved to drive around at the end of the summer, looking for couches and chairs that others had disposed of to make room for new furniture. For some reason, we would always happen to be out collecting furniture when it had just rained. We picked up a couch, moved it into the apartment, noticed a terrible smell, and then would heave it out the fifth story window towards the dumpster. We did this five times and had even more fun than with the free clothes.
D: When my mother was pregnant with me, she turned down a job to work at a chemical laboratory and started taking English classes at a school in Uptown with my father. They were awarded a grant for refugees and were able to save some of their class money for food and rent. My mother told me that she had never had a professor as brilliant as the one who taught her English. He not only knew the language well, but he savored teaching every word and reveled in the success of his students. While I was growing inside her womb, she was taking in every passionate lesson from this man. In a way, I’d like to think I was taking it all in, too.