When my grandmother pressed our drapes, she would run her wrinkled hand over the surface of the lace fabric. A smell of clean laundry would rise from the cloth. Babushka (what I called her) washed and ironed the curtains, which took away that naked and unfriendly look from the windows of our small apartment. The curtains even made the outside of the building look better; they softened the sand mound in front of our house, giving an almost inviting look to the gray Soviet building.
Now I am in Toronto, and a touch of nostalgia sweeps over me as I look at the windows of my elderly European neighbors — also framed by lace curtains. As I begin to decorate my own home, I decide that these are the curtains I want. My husband disagrees: “It looks like my grandmother’s very Old World home.” I counter, “Maybe your grandmother had good taste.” We compromise, and frame our windows with an updated version of soft curtains and opaque blinds. “Clean look. New world,” our decorator says.
Thirty-three years after my family’s exodus from the Soviet Union, and in my first year in my newly decorated house, I begin to see that the modern blinds gracing my windows divide every room in two. One side is for the family I’ve created — my husband and son — and the other side is for the grandparents left behind, who died when I came to America. The world I left exists alongside my current life, frozen in the time and place where our lives diverged.
There, on the other side of the curtains, my grandparents talk, move, and cook. At times, our experiences mirror each other. They smile when they hear me speaking in Yiddish to my son, “Gay shlufen, kinderleh,” “Go to sleep, my child” the very words they spoke as they bedded me down in my cotton nightgown. Sometimes I can’t tell if it is my son in the bed facing the wall, or me.
Kitchen smells linger decades after immigration, the ship’s passage across the Atlantic, the crisscrossing of place during our early years in America. When Mama and Papa come to visit me now in Canada, I can feel Dedushka (grandfather) and Babushka cross over to our side. We sit down to eat with the living and the dead. Like Elijah’s cup set at the Passover table, I set a place for them.
“Crowded, isn’t it?” asks my American friend.
“Well, I guess on occasions such as this. Perhaps I need a larger table,” I say with a sigh.
On their arrival, after Mama and Papa comment on my son’s height and share news, they begin to reminisce. I can feel it coming; that dark, stone-like sense of dread. I am transported back to 1979 and I hear my grandfather speaking to Mama: “Why not Israel? Why do you want to go to America? You are going from galut to galut [exile to exile]. I will go with you only if you go to Israel. I longed for it all my life.”
I had only seen her cry once before. Mama’s voice pleads softly: “We have decided, Papa. We will go to America. Come with us.”
And though we were accustomed to doors slamming and to turning away from each other in an argument, we weren’t prepared when Dedushka refused to join us in America and then died shortly after this argument in 1979, when five members of my family — my parents, sister, and my grandmother — left for the United States.
During our departure and the time leading up to that event, something came undone in all of us that was never healed. We just layered our new life over the ruins of our old life. Like most immigrants, we had no choice but to grab hold of a new life.
Now, decades after that arrival, we are educated and settled. My sister and I have raised children for whom English is a native language. We live and breathe North American culture during the day. But for me, and for many immigrants, life is divided between the world we left and the one we came to acquire post-immigration. These worlds live side-by-side. The Old World enriches the new one; my home became a place for the living and the dead. Surprisingly, dividing my rooms in two makes me feel more whole. And I no longer hope that the ache of rupture will lessen.
Most of us experience a world that moves and changes. Even though I have a family of my own and I am a professional, at certain moments and in certain circumstances I return to the emotional state of a new immigrant, speechless and guilty — someone whose arrival to the New World caused a death of someone she loved. Guilt, memories, and humor blend with my cooking, enhance my love of poetry, and make me serve my elderly Jewish congregants with added affection.
The morning’s sunshine emboldens me, holding the promise of a new day. I lift the shades and let the day in. One day, my son will have a home of his own. It may be less crowded or complicated than his mother’s home, but I hope it’s just as rich.email print