12 Jun Babinsky. Early Years (1945 – 1952). 1: First Memory; First Year
Next: Early Years. 2: Gloom
Spring of 1949. I am not yet four. I am rolling my ball back and forth across the apartment foyer trying not to make noise.
The neighbor’s door yawns as the ball draws near it. In silent panic, I pitch forward but it has already entered the forbidden chandelier-lit territory. My feet stiffen on the doorsill as though met with a wall.
Under my horrified eyes, the ball reaches the middle of the shining parquet. I want to cry but I shriek. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the neighbors at the table, gaping.
My former playmate Lusya has red bows in her braids. Her parents’ teeth are glinting. Her mother is waving me in. But if I enter, my father will go away forever—it’s called being arrested.
I can’t breathe but my ribcage compresses and expands. The reverberations of the shriek squeeze my forehead like a hoop. The louder the sound the heavier my legs.
Lusya’s mother strolls over to the ball, propels it in my direction with her slipper, strolls away. It arrives at my feet. I shriek desperately, the ground is tilting as I prepare to take hold of the ball.
My mother’s hands scoop me up. Gathered into a firm warm straitjacket, I exhale, my body liquefies, I am asleep before she reaches our room.
This episode is my first clear memory. I try to put it behind me but the vision remains raw, the details distinct, the fear tangible—not soothed by age, not reduced by intervening decades, not diminished by repetitions.
I am the only child of Avram Babinsky and Rakhil Gnoyenskaya and the only grandchild of my maternal bábushka Polina. I was born on July 29, 1945, in the city of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, the third largest city of the Soviet Union, a country dissolved in 1991.
Two months after the Great Patriotic War ended was not the worst time to be born there.
The country allotted me a blue blanket, an entitlement of every newborn in the post-war rationing years. Bábushka welcomed my arrival with a silver dessert spoon, plain but Fabergé, a plush royal-red bedspread (identical, she said, to the one she had received 34 years before as a wedding gift from Khanah),
and fabric for two dresses: flannel, dark-maroon sparsely dotted with tiny white stars, and crepe de Chine silk, soft-brown sprinkled with light flakes.
I, then my daughters used the spoon dubbed “bábushka’s spoon” until it retired to the memento shelf. My childhood pictures attest to the fact that the flannel dress lasted six years.
Bábushka’s crepe de Chine dress, four years later enlivened
That visit to the flea market set Polina back quite a few sewing needles and some wool yarn, a substantial portion of the fortune amassed through bartering in Siberia where she had spent the years of the Nazi occupation of Kiev. Later on, she also acquired there a set of heavy silver tablespoons and forks
that she regularly polished with powder we used for brushing our teeth. Folk wisdom had it that eating from silver guaranteed good digestion.
The first year of my life we lived with Avram’s four sisters and their families.
(On my first birthday, my hair was cut, all of it, in spite of my, I was told, fierce resistance. The hair that had come out of the womb had to go at that age — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The custom also called for saving “the first hair” among the family’s most sacred keepsakes. Mine came to America with Rakhil 31 years later.)
Then we snatched a 140-square-foot five-wall room to call our own (Read the story in Babinsky, Gnoyensky. 5: Family – Year One)
Next: Early Years. 2: Gloom