Friday, March 12, 2010

Bestuzhevskaya ulitsa

Yesterday was a bright, sunny day and everyone we met seemed happy and optimistic, and today it's snowing again, and the traitorous black ice is getting buried under a fresh layer of snow. In the winter, St. Petersburg becomes impassable for older people who have brittle bones and difficulty walking. Slippery roads, heavy shoes and coats, tall apartment buildings with no elevators, drivers who don't stop for pedestrians, it all adds up to the fact that in the winter most older people try to stay at home as much as possible and leave the house only when absolutely necessary. When I tell the story in the US, it's hard to believe, but three of my grandparents did not leave their apartments for the last ten years of their lives. Yesterday, my aunt Maya specifically asked me to make sure that next time I visit would be in the summer, late spring or early fall, when she doesn't have to wear her winter coat.

A visit to Maya's is always a very sentimental one for me: my parents lived with her during the first years of their marriage, and her apartment is connected with my earliest memories. Today, it's hard to imagine how three adults and two children fit into the two small rooms completely packed with books. Maya had one of the rooms, and the four of us shared another. My brother and I slept in a bunk bed, separated from my parents' bed by a tall bookshelf. I went to kindergarten, while my mom stayed home with my baby brother. I had two friends in kindergarten, a boy I was in love with, Alesha (my parents teased me for years about him by repeating the songs I used to sing about how I was in love with him) and a girl named Vera, who I stayed in touch with because her family also had a dacha near ours. Vera is now a musician and lives in Texas and we are Facebook friends.

For me, this was the idyllic time of my life: I had three adults who spent time with me around the clock and competed for the right to read me fairy tales; my grandparents came for short visits and brought gifts and sweet things; my brother was very young and I could play with him, but I didn't have to be responsible for him; as I was growing up and becoming more independent, I was allowed to play in the yard with my friends. I was completely oblivious to the fact that my parents were unhappy, that the adults were fighting with each other, that living together was very difficult on them. My little world collapsed one winter when I was five years old, when after a two-week stay at a hospital (I went in for an investigation, did I have asthma or didn't I? and then caught pneumonia at the hospital and had to stay there), my parents brought me home -- but not to Maya's place, all the way across town instead, to my mother's parents' apartment. All of our things were there already, including our bunk bed and books.

My parents moved while I was at the hospital! Without giving me any kind of warning! I can only imagine the kind of screaming and shouting I did when I understood the finality of it; I could not forgive them for years; at least, not until three years later, when the six of us (with my grandparents) moved again -- and then I carried the grudge for that. After that, every trip to Maya's -- forty minutes on the subway and thirty on the bus number 107, past the Leningrad Metallichesky Factory where my dad worked, past the boulevard studded with pylons carrying high voltage power lines near where my cousin Paul lived, exit by the large supermarket, walk by my old kindergarten where I had been so happy with Alesha and Vera -- every trip has always been a return to the lost paradise, where it is always warm, where books, food, and love are always plentiful.

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