Mario Sironi, The Blue Jacket
Within the span of a measly couple of months, the entirety of my existence was turned upside down. All that was known, comfortable – at the very least, bearable – reverted into its respective opposite. At the time, as with all major change, the long-term implications were unclear, but that did not prevent the short-term tumults from being earth-shattering.
I, a Soviet second-grader at the very dawn of consciousness, received the news one near-Arctic winter day: in a matter of weeks, we would be leaving and never coming back. Such abstraction was lost upon me. I knew what it meant to go somewhere for a few days, several weeks at best (I had often summered in Kharkov with my grandparents), but to leave forever was a concept without any meaning, like telling a six-year-old about the theory of relativity.
My mother told me to begin saying good-bye. I studied the bewildered looks of friends and their parents, teachers and relatives as they heard about my imminent disappearance. The destination was, of course, implied, hushed. To speak of the United States and moving there, even in those final perestroika days of the Cold War, was still anathema; we were moving permanently to another place, and it was left up to the listener to connect the dots. I treated the whole endeavor as an adventure, a game of hide and seek where I would hide somewhere far away.
The actual story, unbeknownst to me at the time, was that we were Jewish refugees, fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in the Soviet Union and seeking entry into Israel as our rightful homeland. Our exit was among the early trickles of what would shortly become a tidal wave, a modern exodus of biblical proportions when nearly two million Soviet Jews would have to leave everyone and everything behind on the slim, intoxicating hope of a better life. The subplot was that I would finally be reunited with my father, who undertook a similar journey two years prior and established a new home base for us.
I spent entire days watching my grandmother and my mother making agonized decisions of what to keep and what to give away. Amongst their most valued possessions were the books: multivolume sets of the complete works of the Russian masters. Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, all had become their great friends, and now tough choices had to be made about who would come on the journey with us. I too helped, selecting my small collection of Classics of World Adventure that I was just beginning to read and admire. Probably no more than a tenth of their library eventually made into the boxes bound for a mysterious place called Boston; the rest were re-distributed among friends and family, in the true spirit of what the USSR was supposedly all about. And then there were the Soviet-era vintage clothes, love letters, silverware bearing the logo of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and random sentimental trinketry, stuffed into bursting leather luggage and placed near the door of a soon-to-be abandoned communal apartment.
I left the Soviet Union on February 2, some nine months before an unknown hero with a sledgehammer viciously attacked a wall in Berlin. A distant relative was gracious enough to drive me, my brother, mother, grandmother, and all the remaining belongings to the airport, where many of our nearest and dearest had gathered. Rounds and rounds and rounds of goodbyes had been said. Chapters were closed. For the adults around me, emotional preparations had been made for a radical, unprecedented transition. My brother and I were children, resilient, a future waiting to be made anew. My mother, in her prime, was forced to abandon the very foundation on which she had based her entire existence. My grandmother would now have to spend her twilight years in an unknown and unfamiliar place. That morning, the departure hall at Pulkovo International was fraught with the aghast realization of permanence.
Despite the heaviness of the adults, I was excited. Somehow the small joys of that morning – the car ride, the anticipation of an airplane ride – crowded out the sadness and fear. How was I to know that the faces reddened by streaming tears would almost certainly never enter my field of vision again? How could I possibly comprehend what my mother and grandmother surely knew, that this particular goodbye was as literal as goodbyes could get. I couldn’t, nor did I want to or care. When we finally separated and stood on either side of each other, wondering who got the better deal, the morning’s most vivid image seared itself into my consciousness forever – the stark contrast of my mother’s best friend’s fiery red hair, bloodshot eyes, wet cheeks, and the brightest aquamarine jacket on that side of the Caribbean. As I walked down the hallway toward the gate, I kept thinking about that garish jacket, so at odds with the muted tones all around it.
How could I possibly have known that this jacket stood at the pivotal crossroads of my life? How could I fathom that everything that had happened before and everything that would come after would pertain to two different lifetimes with so little in common? How could I imagine that a turquoise jacket would be my initiation into the life of an immigrant? And yet, it was, thrusting me into an identity I’ve not been able to shake ever since.