08 Jun Babinsky. Early Years (1945 – 1952). 5: Normalcy. Friendships
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Normalcy Restored: 1951 – 1952
Avram worked late hours. To Rakhil’s annoyance, he usually brought work home. After supper, he pulled on his oversleeves, spread the papers on the table and let his fingers fly over the black and yellow abacus beads at a speed that blurred the beads and the fingers. When engrossed in work he became oblivious to his surroundings.
Every winter, he went to Moscow to submit the plant’s annual report to the Ministry. He returned loaded with goodies: oranges, honey, a suitcase of butter, wool leggings and a sweat suit for me. Swollen avoskas hung from his shoulders and his neck. We listened, spellbound, to the stratagem used to get more than the limit set for a particular queue and to keep his spot in multiple queues.
As the Moscow provisions ran out, on some days the adults subsisted on bread, potato soup, or potatoes stewed with onions. In the morning, Polina treated Avram to a few slices of fatback from the market—men needed more energy than women.
On winter weekends we breakfasted on herring, potatoes boiled in their skins (in Russian: in their uniforms,) and hardboiled eggs. No menu could be tastier. I remember helping Polina make three vareniki filled with potatoes, just for me.
When I blurted out the exciting news to Rakhil, she glanced at Polina incredulously. “All I had was one potato and a little flour,” Polina said. The look of anguish they exchanged has stayed in my memory.
If there were more instances of scarcity I was not aware of them—I never went hungry. If adult’s plates had less than mine it simply meant they did not want something.
The Soviet cooking bible, The Book of Delicious and Healthy Food, a four-hundred-page 9’ x 10’ tome published in 1953 and 1954 opened with Stalin’s words: “The distinguishing feature of our revolution is securing not only freedom for our people but their economic wellbeing and a prosperous and cultural life as well.” Rakhil removed that page but I found it in a friend’s copy.
The thick, smooth pages showed off an unimaginable variety of foodstuffs.
The foreword titled “To Abundance!” compared the caring prosperous socialist society and the heartless, chronically hungry capitalist society.
It advocated the advantages of concentrating food production in giant government-owned factories versus bourgeoisie-owned bakeries and shops. It declared fast-approaching liberation of Soviet women from kitchen enslavement. The recipes in the book called for ingredients so consistently unattainable, or unheard of, that their inclusion mocked the readers.
On winter Sundays, a man in a coughing, foul-smelling pickup delivered logs and buckets of coal. He unloaded them by the building and stood ramrod straight waiting for payment. He put the money into his pocket, while keeping his eyes on Avram’s hands holding a glass of vodka crowned with a crust of bread.
I watched the ritual from the window, enthralled. The man inhaled the content of the glass in a single gulp—head thrown back then forward like a marionette’s; the shudder of delight; the return of the empty glass; the brush of the sleeve across the mouth; the rapid sniffing of the bread; the grateful bow; the humble backward walk to the pickup.
Avram expertly chopped the logs with an ax—I was in awe of his physical prowess. With my help, he brought up the firewood and stacked it under and around the kitchen window.
Avram astonished me also when once, as Rakhil was generating a plume of arguments for or against an issue I was not old enough to understand, he interrupted her without raising his voice, “It will be as I had decided.” Unable to fathom opposition to Rakhil, I did not expect her reaction: she held up her palms meekly.
What Avram said next, has resonated with me since: “Remember, Benochka, eighty percent of everything around you does not matter; you may go along with others if they want it their way. But hold on to the twenty percent, don’t let anyone railroad you – stand your ground.”
Similar scenes played out very few times in their almost sixty-year relationship. (At Avram’s eightieth birthday party in Chicago, I thanked him for sharing his philosophy with me. He did not recall the scenes that had impressed me so much and denied having a philosophy.)
In the fall of 1951 and the spring and summer of 1952, Rakhil woke me every day at dawn to take me to a Froebel group in order to shelter me from the influence of local children.
Not counting the cows, we walked alone on the unpaved half-mile lane leading to the main street where we took a streetcar. Rakhil feigned confidence but once she noticed a cow gaining on us, we would leap toward a fence. Half-way down the hill the cows turned left. They seem to float in the fog, not yet burned through by the sun.
We arrived at the Botanic Garden before opening time because Rakhil still had a long streetcar ride to work ahead of her. For two rubles a week, the ticket-booth lady started early to keep an eye on me until the other five or six children arrived.
Two sisters, one heavy and one skeletal, supervised us. Each child brought a little basket with a sandwich and a glass for water that the sisters brought in a green milk pail. In bad weather, we stayed in the sisters’ spacious basement room with damp walls. The sisters kept the light always on.
We played quietly. Passersby’s feet strode past the upper half of the unwashed window, the bottom half looked at a wall. If one had to go to the bathroom, the sisters ushered all of us there which minimized the number of trips and the danger of being spotted by the neighbors and thus bringing down the illegal enterprise.
The skeletal sister taught the boys to open doors for girls, she called her rules good manners. The sisters taught us German phrases that sounded like Yiddish.
In the games and skits, my Froebel-mates pushed the undesirable parts on me. When I finally got to play Sleeping Beauty, the sisters placed a paper crown on my head and a bright scarf around my neck. At the end of the performance, the Sleeping Beauty lay down on a bench and closed her eyes waiting for the prince. In my case, the prince got distracted, I fell asleep.
On the way home I told Rakhil with steely firmness, “I will not go to the group again.” I cannot articulate the reason but I recall a palpable sensation of great distance between me and my Froebel experience. Rakhil must have recognized the twenty percent that Avram would hold on to. “Like with your father, I know better than to argue,” she said. “Now you will be surrounded by Kurenevka hoodlums.” Avram commented on my decision with “Nicht gefehrlich (no big deal).”
The hoodlums kept their distance: at the first glimpse of them I flew to the vicinity of our window with a panicky “Bábushka!” that brought Polina, ladle in hand, into view.
My ambition was to join two girls who played house every day—a game called daughters-mothers in Russian—on the wooden table between the buildings where men played domino in the evening.
One girl created elaborate plots and always played the mother. She pretend-worked as an asphalt spreader or a trolley conductor; spanked her pretend-daughter with a tree branch; her arms akimbo, she fought in pretend-grocery lines; cooked; and did laundry on a washboard.
Acknowledging my artistic limitations I begged to give me the most insignificant part. The producer sized me up, wrinkled her nose, and appointed me, younger and shorter than them, to play the father.
The mother pretend-served me dinner and a glass of pretend-vodka, she threw toy dishes at me, I browsed a newspaper, pretend-smoked, bought her ice cream, hit her on the side of her head with an open palm, played domino, and swore (she supplied unfamiliar words that she warned not to repeat at home.)
By the end of July our production was in full swing. The producer complained of my insufficient fierceness and height: my feet got in the way when I hugged her on the pretend-ice-cream outings.
On the morning of my seventh birthday, a new dress hung over a chair; and a set of child-size apron, kerchief, and straw slippers lay on the dining table.
I had pined for straw slippers like Polina’s for years. They had acquired a romantic glow as a launch pad of Polina and dédushka Bena’s love. Had I known them as lapti I would have been insulted by the gift.
Polina said, “Yitzart, mein kind, darf du nicht trinken die vodka oder shloogn veiber, du kenst shpielen ein bábushka (now, my child, you don’t have to drink vodka or beat women, you can play bábushka.)”
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