You were a blond seven-year-old girl with enormous, half-your-face brown eyes and a timid smile. You were exquisite in your smallness, and I called you моя Дюймовочка (my Thumbelina.)
Our stories are so similar and so different at the same time.
You grew up in your grandparents’ three-room apartment (such a luxury by Soviet standards!) surrounded by four doting adults who made you the center of their universe and sheltered you from the ugliness of the Soviet reality outside.
Your father and I tried to immigrate before you were born, but our application was rejected for ten years, making us “refuseniks,” pariahs fired from our jobs, not even eligible for a cleaning position at the tobacco shop with the “help wanted” sign on the door.
When Gorbachev’s Perestroika began, we were suddenly allowed to leave. And now, after going through customs at the border of Western Ukraine, where an officer decapitated the only doll you were allowed to bring , we were herded with other immigrant families into a glass aquarium, the first wall of separation from our families who traveled with us to the border to say goodbye. We sat in that glass box for nearly twelve straight hours. Your grandparents kept coming up to talk to us through the glass – we didn’t expect to see each other again, ever. Through all of this, you kept crying and asking, “Mama, why do we have to leave? And why can’t grandma and grandpa come with us?” and I kept responding, over and over, “I can’t explain this now, but when you grow up, I will explain everything.”
We were allowed two suitcases per person, so we bought the biggest ones and filled them with all kinds of junk. For two short adults, these six suitcases were un-liftable, so your grandparents paid a porter the equivalent of two months’ salary to help us – no relatives were allowed on the train platform. Unfortunately, the porter decided to double-book and didn’t show up. As our crying families watched in horror behind the cordon, we slowly dragged you and the suitcasesalong the platform for what seemed like hours, and by the time we reached our train, the doors of our car were completely blocked by people’s luggage. The train station officials sold all the immigrants tickets for the same train car, five times its capacity, and the rest of the train was empty. By then, our entrepreneurial porter finally showed up and suggested that your father climb through the door over the luggage so he could hand him our suitcases through the open window.
With the help of other immigrants, your father pulled the enormous suitcases onto the train, but by then the doors were completely barricaded and there was no way for you and me to get in. The porter suggested that we go through the next car, which was empty. When we tried, we saw that there were five soldiers and an officer in that car. I asked for their permission to pass through, but the officer barked, “It’s not allowed!” In anger, I blurted, “What a bastard!” I turned around and went back with you in tow. As I was walking away, I heard him calling after me, “Woman! Woman! Stop!”
A terrifying thought blistered through my head – they will arrest me for insulting an officer on duty, your father will leave the country without us, and you will be stuck, parentless, in this place. Walking briskly with your tiny hand in mine, I told you, “Anka, remember this – this is why we are leaving.” You never asked this question again. I kept walking, pretending not to hear him even as the sound of his running feet caught up with us. He grabbed my sleeve and said, “It’s OK, woman. Walk through.”
You are now an intelligent, beautiful, and confident young woman – an artist, an activist with interpersonal skills that could not possibly be any genes of mine, and a mom to two giggly brown-eyed girls who make my heart sing. As I look across the time to a young woman on that train platform walking away into the enormous unknown with a tiny hand in hers, the little frightened feet trying to keep up with her determined, mortified pace, I want to call to you across the past twenty-eight years, “Дюймовочка, this is why we left!”