The dividing line between before and after immigration of my life is thick, and not always transparent. While I would never classify immigration as “trauma,” it is such a life-altering event that memory takes on a life of its own.
My family immigrating to the United States from the USSR seems to be the dividing line between my clear and unequivocal memories post-immigration, and my scattered, uncertain memories. Prior to immigration, there is a group of things, events, places and people that are as clear to me as if I am staring at them — at least I think they are clear, with all the others are ephemeral as smoke. With these memories, I feel as if I am walking through a house that I built myself but one whose layout is as foreign to me as the mountains of the moon.
Across the street from my grandparents’ apartment we would walk to a little park. Inside this park stood a small, two-screen cinema called Cinema Belarus. On the first level you could buy snacks, like ice cream or a regular sandwich, and then you could watch a movie. A ticket cost 10 kopeks (about 10 cents, which in the 1970s was normal in the Soviet Union). The last movie I saw there was about aliens who came to earth, and the only way to tell was because they could look at the sun without hurting their eyes (their planet had a much stronger sun). Man, did I ever try to look at the sun like those aliens! I cannot believe I don’t have lasting vision problems now! This particular memory is true and real, which makes me happy to have to have it, because I am certain, were I to go back, there would be no more little cinema. There probably would not be the little park, and I have doubts about my grandparents’ apartment building still being there.
I also remember a boy in my school class, smaller than most, blond and shy. His name was Ilya. He was picked on terribly. I remember, one day, someone hung him by the back of his shirt on a hook, on the wall, in the middle of the classroom before class began. Some kids laughed — admittedly, he did look silly, swinging his arms and legs around, like a puppet without a skilled puppeteer. He also looked uncomfortable, but then he started laughing — he laughed the loudest. But here’s the tricky part. I don’t know if I’m remembering this or it was something I saw in a movie or read in a book.
Once, my parents took me to see one of our distant relatives. The old woman was laying in a bed, in a dark, nearly airless room, and the room stank. It stank of rotting meat and sickness. When I came close to the bed, I saw why. The woman had a foot that was sticking out of the sheets, and the foot was dark green and black — gangrenous. This scene is cemented in my memory — but it keeps changing perspectives. One minute I am sitting far, far away from the sick woman, the next I am staring at that gross foot: like, I cannot even look away and I’m super close to it. But did it really happen to me or did I see this scene in a movie?
Another memory is impossible — I am about 2 years old, watching myself on a sled, on a wintery afternoon, being pulled along by my mother. I am watching from behind. It’s cold and snowing. We are two bundled dark spots on an otherwise white frame of my vision. This memory actually stems from a story my mom told me once. She said she was pulling me on a sleigh, and then, suddenly the sleigh got lighter. She looked back and saw that I had fallen off a few feet away, and was laying on my side, calmly, in the snow. Is this a planted memory from a story my mom told? Could be — I have a vivid imagination.
All I am saying is that my memories are not to be trusted. I may be sober right now, but my memories meander, stumble and hiccup. On the minus side, I could be making up my whole life. On the plus side I can fashion my own life to a large degree. For a writer, this plus side is just gravy.