When I was about to turn 12, my family informed me that we were leaving the Soviet Union for good. Because our departure day was in October, I didn’t return to school that year. Instead, I sadly walked around the different favorite places in my town and mentally counted everything I saw as “the last time”. The last time to walk down my favorite park, where I played since childhood. The last time to smell the nasturtiums near our house. The last time to see birch trees. Like Vicki, I thought birch trees were the quintessential Russian tree. I was sure I wouldn’t see them anywhere else in the world. As the train pulled out of the station and started chugging due West, I burst into tears at the sight of the lovely nature we were leaving behind. An older boy, who was accompanying his emigrating family until Moscow, tried to console me. And that’s how I got my first kiss: full of sadness, on a speeding train out to the unknown.
Thinking back, I understand that my best memories of Russia were associated with nature and of walking around alone. As a latchkey kid and an only child, I was used to being alone with my thoughts and observations about the world. I took great pleasure in reading the short nature stories of Yurij Kuranov, a writer whose prose found a grateful audience in my heart. His way of stopping and listening, looking down to see what new life is about to pierce through the moss underfoot, of noticing the quiet beauty, had informed my adolescent years. His book, “Pir na Zare” (A Feast at Sunrise) remains one of my favorite books of all time.
It may sound silly, but I prefer to hold on to the old, hopelessly romanticized memories rather than visit nearly thirty years later. I am really afraid the illusion will shatter and I will have to face the reality. My former classmates are grown-ups; they have grown-up lives and families and businesses. They lose their hair and their marriages; they have adult children and some might become grandparents within the next decade. New buildings have sprung up in our city; new words have entered the everyday printed and spoken language, words that sound harsh and foreign to me.
In my mind’s eye I am still that 12-year-old-girl, looking out the train window. In America, I was happily surprised to see that birch trees do exist here.