By Alisa Minyukova
Alisa blogs at minyukova.com
It was the 1980s on the Lower East Side. I lived with my mother, a despondent, chain-smoking artist. My childhood – a gritty blur of heatwaves, public pools, public schools, public transportation, public beaches, public assistance and public housing. I was eight when a Puerto Rican man was killed in front of our kitchen window at night during a torrential downpour. His body was taken away, but his boxing gloves were left in a puddle sectioned off by yellow police tape. Until then, gang violence had little to do with our Soviet immigrant matriarchy. But as the crack epidemic came, the gunshots became more frequent. Despite the times, our door was rarely locked and my mother’s bohemian friends were welcome to slip in and grab a cigarette from her pack of Vantage 100’s while she slept, which seemed to be always.
Meanwhile In Queens, my grandmother slept with two knives under her pillow, prepared to mutilate anyone who dared climb in through her first story window or pick the lock in the middle of the night. A former criminal lawyer from Russia, she had seen things, things worse than the dead boxer.
The gravity of Stalinism and war made my grandmother unsympathetic to my mother’s lackadaisical existence. My mother’s behavior was perplexing to many. When she wasn’t sleeping she was falling down manholes, or in mid-sentence while trying to sit in an imaginary chair, dropping things or hitting her head on cabinet doors which she never closed. When I fractured my elbow in gymnastics, she took me to the emergency room. There, she almost choked to death on a take-out calzone. I think the safest place for my mother may actually be in an emergency room. When I was twelve she had a nervous breakdown. I recall her sliding to the floor of the elevator in the projects and asking me to call my grandmother. At my grandmother’s house she began screaming for air, I was terrified. If there was not enough air for her, how could there be enough for me, I thought, and had a panic attack.
Who knows how all this would have turned out if my mother wasn’t rescued by a shaman from Jackson Heights. His ad in the Russian paper read: I cure depression without drugs. My mother moved in with him and left me to live with my grandmother. “Well, now we know his cure!” My grandmother cackled.
The mystic was a bearded widower with two children and a crystal ball. He healed my mother with “energy” and then kicked her out a year later to cure someone else. This despairing way of life went on for years. My falling mother, my grandmother with her neuroses, and my panic attacks. Somehow, in this aberrance, I reached adulthood.
After years of therapy, my panic attacks passed, my mother discovered Prozac, I had a son and my grandmother died. At forty-two, the existential fog seems to have dissipated. These days I soberly look at my seven year old child and wonder, how do I get this right when there is only one chance?
Recently, I surprised my son by letting him miss school. Instead I took him to movies in Greenwich Village, got him pizza and then took him to Washington Square Park. On the playground, we met a barefoot boy in silk pajamas and his Burmese nanny. It was forty-five degrees, and my son, who was still dressed for Russian winter, befriended him right away. I watched them play and contemplated the eccentricity and radiant confidence of the barefoot child, who was free to play without a coat and shoes. I wondered who his parents were.
Filmmakers? Professors? Developers? Whoever they were, I could tell that he was not burdened by woes. He was liberated.
“This is what I wish for my son,” I say to myself while looking at the boy’s feet.
“Dogs pee here and it’s freezing!” I hear my grandmother reply from beyond.
On the train ride home to Brighton Beach, I am happy. Happy that for a day I got everything right. Almost…