*Featured Image “Family” by Temo Svirely
I hear a loud knock at the door. A knock is always a surprise, even when expected. But this one is different–this knock goes right to my heart. My body freezes and my first reaction is to wait, as if waiting would change anything.
It’s too early for guests, and it isn’t the polite knock of a neighbor asking for a few potatoes, or carrots, for soup. That knock happens often in a building with a hundred flats, where everybody knows each other, because even your enemies have to eat their soup. I have done that knock myself. I know that casual, pleading knock.
And it’s not a telegram, either. Тhat knock is also loud, but the one who knocks makes an apologetic and intermittent sound: most of the telegrams in my country are about death. Good news isn’t worth the money.
I am still in bed, waiting, and I want to pretend that I did not hear the knock–that would be so good–nobody is knocking–the day can go the usual way–when the knocking comes again, louder, more intense, and stubborn. Now I am sure something is wrong.
I hear my father open the front door. There is a moment of heavy silence, then a set of questions including my name. I can’t hear everything, maybe because they are too quiet and they don’t want me to hear, to know, or maybe my heart is beating too loud.
My bedroom door opens without anyone knocking. There are three men looking like triplets, like they are supposed to look. Official. Gray. Earnest. The figures of nobody in power. They enter like greedy hunters expecting fear from prey that has no armor, no place to escape, no place to complain. My father follows them and I see how pale his face is. But I also know that my father is on my side; I feel a wave of love towards him that helps me to pull myself together.
My father and mother are trapped in this country, waiting for many years for permission to immigrate. Every six months he patiently goes alone to the Soviet Visa Department just to be humiliated and called an enemy of the people, and to hear “Come back in six months.” No explanation, no advice, no promise. I know that he is very cautious in his behavior so as not to invite another reason for refusal. But I also know that he admires dissidents and that every night he listens to the Voice of America on his tiny radio that my mom calls his second wife. Because the Soviets jam airways, this radio voice sounds like it has incessant bronchitis. But my father is proud that he is still getting through.
There is nothing in this house, I think, nothing that will put me in jail. The next moment is a hell that lasts three hours. I try to get up from bed, but they won’t let me. They won’t allow me to move, to change into my clothes, or to even go to the bathroom. My room becomes their room. They decide now what chest of drawers to open, which of my possession to touch; they are checking every inch of my room. Nobody talks while they pull out old things whose existence I didn’t remember myself. I would never recognize their faces if I met them on the street, but I might if I entered their offices. Gradually I see which one is in power, and which one is the meanest and most dangerous. The third one seems almost embarrassed by this situation, but also the one who is the most shameless in devouring me, twenty years old, with his squinty eyes.
Meanwhile, they throw all my clothes and books on the floor, and suddenly I remember that under my pillow I have a forbidden religious book that I read at night. I hope that they won’t look there, and also I hope that they won’t search my father’s room. Who knows if he left some quotes in his small notebook that he carries everywhere.
As time goes by, I am getting more convinced that they are up to something, that they know what they are looking for. Their confidence feels dangerous even though I know that I am not hiding any drugs or anti-Soviet literature…at least not this lucky time.
At the same time, I am almost embarrassed by their certainty. I’ve heard from my friends that they plant some things in people’s houses when they are really on your case. My eyes follow them sharply. My manageable horror is mixed with curiosity about what they are looking for, what they are so sure they will find. And in spite of the fear and chill in my gut, I still have to suppress a tart joke that is almost begging to come out of my mouth.
Meanwhile, they open my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and find her syringe. Their eyes light up with triumph, but not for long – they don’t see any drugs. They say they will take the syringe to the laboratory to find out what was used in it. My father and I exchange quick glances with something close to relief, but it is too soon to relax. There are still predators in our house.
Now, they reach for my private letters and the photo album that I have not even shown my family. There is nothing in my life that I can protect from them except my dignity, I think with a lump in my throat. They are looking at pictures of all my underground friends, so free and independent – none of them look like “decent” Soviet citizens. Now they look at the pictures of my beautiful naked girlfriends. They try to be professional, but they are suddenly slowing down, turning every page of the album with pedantic mindfulness, as if every detail will help them to find what they are looking for. It feels like they forgot for a second why they came here. I bitterly wonder if they ever saw a naked woman in their lives.
They put the letters and the album in the same box as the syringe while I notice with an inner smile that my father has been also peeking at the pictures with curiosity. Later he will ask me why I did not show him this non-traditional piece of art before it was taken away forever to their dark and damp basements.
Now they are asking me to stand up and are searching my bed and under my pillow. The leader asks about the book. It is about Buddhism, I say. He is almost happy to find something illegal. But he also knows that though it is bad for my reputation, it is not a crime.
Finally they get tired and decide to take a cigarette break in the kitchen. They flick their ashes in a little teacup. My father joins them, even though he quit smoking years ago. There is a need for some human exchange with the uninvited guests. I hope this cigarette brings my father some relief but refuse to smoke myself.
Our kitchen is very small and quickly starting to smell like a claustrophobic barroom. Standing near the open glass door, I see how they are melting in cigarette smoke. While becoming more human they are telling me how lucky I am. They were really going to take me away this time, they say. With handcuffs, they add, and for the first time during this visit I can’t define the tone of their voice – regretful or weirdly empathizing.
And then they leave without checking my father’s room. He shuts the door. He tells me he is glad my mother was not home. He also says that he is glad they did not search his room. My father reminds me that he has a big map of the USA on the wall.
Chop Train Station
The day my father’s parents left Ukraine for the USA as refugees, in the Chop‘s train station, they asked him, “When do you think we’ll see you again?” It was 1979.
My father replied, “Maybe I will join you in six months.”
“You must be joking,” said his mother, “we are not going to wait so long.”
But they would not see each other again for eight long, sad years. The KGB wouldn’t let my parents go because once, hundreds of years ago, my father repaired a TV in the Kremlin. He and all our family were called “otkazniki” which can be translated literally as “refuseniks.” People in this category had to wait until the old technological secrets they were privy to were updated and no valuable information could be delivered to enemies. My father had just been fixing a TV there, but who knows what he might have noticed as a potential spy?
And now, ten years later, we are finally in Chop–the small closed military town in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine, in that small railway checkpoint at the Austrian border. This is the beginning of the usual route for Jewish refugees who receive permission to leave Ukraine. First, they reach Austria, then Italy, and then some of the refugees fly to Israel. Others, who prefer to go to the USA, stay around four to six months in Italy, waiting for their documents. This adventure is extremely exciting for people who have never been to foreign countries. But my parents are also feeling a little lost since I have decided to stay behind, in Ukraine, and join them later.
I am here illegally. The rule of this town and its tiny train station is that nobody has the right to be there, except soldiers and refugees like my family, who are considered traitors. But despite the risk of being arrested and paying a big fine, I decided to accompany them. According to the plan, the moment everybody leaves customs and the train station becomes empty, I will need to hide in the restroom until my local train comes.
The station is full of Jewish families, anxious and timidly joyful. Despite the advice of those who left before not to take a lot of baggage, each family has anywhere from ten to twenty suitcases that they count from time to time. Everybody has a notebook with notes about what to do at each travel point including important English words transcribed in Russian. The names of train conductors, the places in Italy where you can eat for free, the best currency exchange kiosk, and the names of the people in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society who are particularly helpful.
There is the fear of the unknown running in their historical veins – never to trust. But there is also expectation. The letters from their relatives and friends are optimistic, describing an unthinkable society of respect and generosity. Some of the older generations still suspect that maybe the FBI forced them to write these positive letters. But their youngsters are uncompromising in their conviction about leaving the country, so there is no choice.
The long line through customs gives me time to feel my parents – their groundlessness and spirit of adventure. We cry and laugh – this is the first time we are going to be apart. But when it is time to really say goodbye, I don’t want them to ask me when we will see each other again because I don’t know. I need to stay with my husband and take care of his ninety- two- year- old grandfather.
Soon they will leave me in this claustrophobic train station full of soldiers who, if they find me, can be rude, or worse. You never know with them. But I need to witness my parents and Grandma Rachel going through the dark and gloomy borders toward something that promises–if not bliss–at least an ordinary and decent life. They don’t know anything about what such a life would be, but there is something already in the air that makes me unselfishly happy for them. I try not to think about myself going back alone in the deep night, crying in a dirty train, suppressing regret that I am not with them.
It is finally time to nervously hug and say “See you soon!” for the hundredth time and to watch my family half-disappearing through security. First, the customs officers order everyone to turn their pockets inside out. Then they open all their luggage and look at every book and piece of clothing. One of them very carefully checks my father’s map for secret marks. My mom told him not to take it with him, but he insisted. Without it, for my father, it would be like traveling blind. Another officer is dismantling my father’s pen. He watches my father. Grandma is tired, leaning against the wall. She had a stroke recently and has difficulties with balance. My mom asks a custom officer to give her a chair. He replies,” If she is strong enough to travel to another continent, she can handle standing here for a while.” Nobody argues. They have the power to turn you back. There are still a few seconds left to be cautious.
I see how nervous my parents are. They have never crossed a border in their lives. Now, the customs agents are letting them go and I see that my father forgot to tuck his pockets back into his pants. But he looks perky – he has been dreaming about this day for a long time. He doesn’t know yet that when he finally reaches Chicago, his father will die in a few months, and his mother will soon have difficulty recognizing him. But right now, he is full of joy. He is only sad about not having me with him. I made the decision to stay at the last moment. My mother told me that he cried. I never saw my father crying, and it makes me miss him even before he leaves me with his pockets pulled out like wings.
Then they are leaving customs. I stand behind the intentionally painted gray window and can hardly see them approaching the train. This train looks different from local trains, freshly painted, with crisp, clean curtains and foreign letters.
It is unthinkable to go on to the platform when the Austrian train is still there. Soldiers with guns protect it and they are everywhere. But instead of hiding in the restroom, I make the dangerous decision to go on to the platform, to see the train leave, taking my parents and grandma to unknown freedom.
I stand on the half-foreign platform and my sadness seeing the train slowly starting to move overcomes my anxiety about getting caught. Suddenly I see my father looking out the window. His body language is already different – more at ease. He doesn’t see me, how brave I am. I am making another big mistake. I am waving and crying and saying “Dad, Dad – look here!” Everything becomes blurry from my tears, but I can see a very young soldier coming my way. He stops in front of me. I raise my wet eyes and daringly look straight at him. I see my pain in his face. He struggles. He knows I should not be here. His eyes and brows make questioning movements. He turns his back and walks away. I am alone. And the train is gone.
The Promised Land
It was the summer of 1989 and I had been already in Chicago for a week, having come from Soviet Ukraine for a month-long visit. Surrounded by my big family, and getting used to the American landscape, I was thrilled to be in a different land, meeting people who smiled effortlessly, who took for granted freedom unknown to me. I already owed them. Because of their cultural politeness, I quickly learned cheerfulness.
In my country, where life was legally bad and people had no choice but to obey the law, cheerful people were considered crazy or drunk. Coming from the Soviet background of unquestionable gloominess, I found it delightfully strange to hear people saying “Hi” to me on the streets. It took me a while to stop answering in detail when asked “How are you doing?”
And, of course, shopping’ didn’t exist in my country – we grabbed a bag from our house and bought one thing if it was our lucky day. For somebody who wore the same black sweater and jeans for ten years in a row, shopping felt like going to а museum and buying pieces of art.
But no matter how long you are waiting to arrive in the Promised Land, carrying your brilliant mind that is delightfully restless and greedy for new excitement, the same mind can amaze you with irrational boredom and numbness. It is always surprising to me when tourists describe with unending enthusiasm their new adventures and hardly mention their tired bodies and irritated minds. And this was what I was looking for. How to learn more about what your mind really wants. I was not in Chicago just to see my family, and to enjoy all the materialistic pleasures of, as they said in my country, “rotten imperialism.”
I was here to reconnect with the path that had appealed to me, Tibetan Buddhism. There were no spiritual teachers in my country: it was not allowed, and my husband and friends, who were meditating without a teacher’s guidance, were expecting some useful information from me. So I found a place that sounded right in the Yellow Pages, (nobody could explain to me the meaning of the yellow color) and it wasn’t so far away.
I can still picture that day.
My father and I are driving with the window open. It is seriously hot. Cars in Ukraine don’t have air conditioners but my father doesn’t have it here either. I feel the unfamiliar humidity as if we are in an endless Russian sauna. I hold a paper with directions that my father drew from the map. This is also new. We only used a map in Ukraine if we went to some real wilderness. In Lviv, my roundish cozy thirteen-century city, no maps were needed. All the roads led to the Armenian coffee shop, where, when I was a young girl, I kissed a poet after he recited his unexpectedly talented verses. I was going to kiss him anyway, but his poetry was a pleasant surprise.
But I am not in Lviv now, and sitting in my father’s car I am having doubts that his simple drawing will get us anywhere. Chicago is so big and my father is still new to it. He explains to me that Chicago roads are like a chessboard – very straightforward. But I am not convinced since we already got lost a few times. We stop at a gas station just to be sure we are on the right track. My English is getting better every hour and I am intoxicated speaking to the gas station attendant. Every word feels like I am releasing a beautiful bird from my mouth. We continue driving.
My father’s car is used and it smells like a dusty desert. But he never had a car in Ukraine, so this car feels like a luxury to him. (I buy only American cars, he says). And now, instead of resting after a week of work in a foreign country with a foreign Turkish boss that doesn’t understand either an American or a Ukrainian mentality, he is driving me to some strange place. My father is full of respect. He never wanted me to be materialistic. He likes that I am on a spiritual search.
While we drive he tells me different stories about his confusion in his new life. How he brought a swimsuit when his boss invited him to play pool. How he ordered an orange jew instead of orange juice. How he was shocked when being used to getting a flirtatious smile when complimenting a beautiful woman, he instead found he had offended her. How he was told that it is not polite to ask about people’s salaries. How all his ex-Soviet relatives had changed and how there was less warmth and more competition. How children are respected here and parents can’t punish them. How people are patriotic and police don’t take bribes. His voice is full of amazement. He loves to share and inform me about his new life. I know that, despite his cultural challenges, he is already deeply devoted and grateful to this country that gave him back his individuality.
From the open window, I smell pizza outside, something I only knew from the movies before. It invokes an appetite even after a full Jewish mother’s breakfast with enough calories for a week. But nobody talks about calories in my family or in my country. There is also the teasing and perky smell of coffee, and something else that is so human and busy and dreamy, not definable. I don’t even think the talented poet of my youth would be capable of describing it. Maybe it’s how freedom smells when it is available and touchable?
Now we are almost there. Famous Clark street. It is a cool street but it is not her best hour. The street is sleepy and looks like it is slightly embarrassed about having a crazy party the night before. I feel like a gоurmand that never tasted diversity before. Small, lazy, and half-awake ethnic restaurants, Mexican spices like an ever-hungry fog, an elegant but uptight Japanese store, buildings with faceless offices.
We look around to find the meditation center. In my imagination, it should be a grand place. But there are still no important spiritual indications when we park next to the building we are looking for. In Ukraine, everything is full of symbols – black cat, empty water basket, some esoteric numbers. I am expecting at least some exotic statues or maybe a few Tibetan flags. Nothing like that.
Our destination is on the third floor. Chicago Dharmadhatu. I don’t know exactly what it means, but the dharma part of this word means the teachings of Buddha. I am quite sure this is exactly the place I need, but the veil of ordinariness is still there. I cannot help thinking maybe they are in hiding – like in my country.
There is nothing dramatic in the signs at the door either. Only something like Real Estate, Insurance, Flowers, Dharmadhatu. But I am stubbornly full of high expectations. Even though ordinary is not what I am looking for, still we climb to the third floor. The door is locked. Nobody is there. I don’t expect this. Churches in my country are always open. I cannot just leave – I write a note and leave it on the door with my brief biography, my longing, and my phone number. We ask a polite woman on the second-floor office why it is closed, and she uses a word that is new for me: appointment. You have to make an appointment, she says. I don’t know what to do next, but I am not giving up. Somehow this is good as it is – my first attempt to make an appointment with dharma. I know that I will be back.