Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 1: 1967 a Big Year. First-Born Arrives

Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 1: 1967 a Big Year. First-Born Arrives

Emily Shklyanoy. Kiev. Year 1968.

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1967: A Big Year

1967, the year of both my marriage and of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, had to outshine any other years, no matter what else of importance took place. And much of importance did take place.

The year began positively. On March 7, the eve of the International Women’s Day, a law came into effect that changed the six-day workweek to five-day workweek. In other words, the one-day weekend was history; USSR citizens received a gift of a two-day weekend! Women rejoiced: they did not have to fit all their chores into one day; they had a day to spend in lines for whatever they needed to buy and a day for cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, darning.

On March 9, a wrinkle emerged: Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva defected to the West and requested political asylum in the United States. As if it was not bad enough that she had a common-law husband, a foreigner, a man from India, albeit a communist, she besmirched her father’s memory in her tell-all book published in the West. Everyone expected a flood of well-deserved denunciations by individual workers and peasants and declarations of outrage by every organization but not a peep came. Nothing would be allowed to distract from the coming gold anniversary.

Avram and Rakhil gleaned more details from huddling around radio sets tuned in to the Western stations at other people’s houses (for our sake, they did not do the listening at home.)

They learned that Stalin had stopped his favorite daughter from studying anything except political science; that the Party did not let her marry her common-law husband whose demise gave her the ammunition for a scheme to travel to India and, thus, get out of the country. Icing on the cake – Svetlana was baptized a short time before her escape. Stalin’s daughter not an atheist!

Another development further clouded the sky. The Arab-Israeli war known as the Six-Day War ended in the Arabs’ defeat under the command of a one-eyed general Moshe Dayan.

The USSR threw a tantrum: it severed diplomatic relations with Israel. Anti-Semitic hysteria saturated the waves galvanizing the ready, able and willing grassroots. It labeled every Jew a Zionist and a Freemason. Meaning unclear, either term translated to traitor.

Some people stopped talking to their Jewish colleagues and neighbors. The phrase “this is not your motherland, go to your Israel” accompanied bus rides and lines for food—the hatred for Jews having a home country seamlessly overlaid the disdain for not having one.

We relished our secretly acquired knowledge: not only did Moshe Dayan work at the British diplomatic mission during WWII but he earned a Soviet military order for his role in liberating Kiev.

First-Born Arrives.

Emily was born on Sunday, June 2, 1968, at six in the evening.

The day before, the ambulance took Polina to the hospital with pneumonia; she prayed she would live to become a great-grandmother and thus go to heaven when her time came.

My district obstetrician had warned not to rush to the hospital because firstborns took a minimum of sixteen hours of labor. Rakhil pooh-poohed that opinion: it had taken her two hours to give birth to me at the age of thirty-three. When my contractions began, she chased Dima out to stop a private car, there was no time to wait for an ambulance.

I was small; the intake clerk first assumed I needed an abortion. Twisting with pain I changed into a hospital gown and answered part of a lengthy questionnaire. “First-timers have no patience,” the clerk snapped. “Go find the delivery room.”

I trudged down the agonizingly long hallways. In the delivery room, three women shared cake and champagne, a grateful new father’s gift. One of them, a doctor, said “First-timer” and rolled her eyes. She ordered me to hop on the examining table. Seconds later, she hollered “Nurse, quick, the baby’s coming!”

Kiev. Maternity ward. Year 1997.

Kiev. Maternity ward. Year 1997.

My baby-girl weighed six pounds. She did not cry; the right side of her face was swollen. The precipitous labor and the umbilical cord entwined around her neck did not bode well, the doctor said, but if the swelling receded, in the next seventy-two hours the baby would be brought to me for breastfeeding. With that verdict, she sent me away to rest.

The post-delivery room was packed. The pre-delivery room—screaming, squealing, moaning creatures writhing on twin beds—had a vacant bed. Soviet medicine did not believe in easing labor pain with medications.

A big-boned woman lay across her bed, hospital gown gathered on her chest, mammoth belly exposed, bare feet pressed against the wall, hair touching the floor. She paused her wailing, “I’ve been dying here for two days and you just waltz in and pop out a baby.” Another voice rasped: “You won’t love your child if you didn’t suffer properly.” A freckled woman held a pillow pressed to her stomach and repeated listlessly, “Kolya, how could you do this to me, aren’t you a communist?”

Baby’s First Week.

For the standard seven-day stay I was transferred to a room on the second floor. It fit two rows of twin beds, four in each row.

Kiev. Maternity ward. Year 1997.

Kiev. Maternity ward. Year 1997.

Three times a day the orderlies placed plates with cold food on our nightstands. Visitations or non-edibles from home, from slippers to a watch, were forbidden for fear of germs (cockroaches in the nightstands were apparently sterilized.)

Flowers could not be kept in the room overnight. The discarded bouquets flanked the toilet bowl of the lavatory serving the entire floor. They gave rise to clouds of wee insects.

The infants swaddled mummy-like in flannel arrived on rolling pallets every three hours, from six in the morning to midnight. The orderlies flipped a bundle into the crook of each arm and slid it into the mother’s hands. In an hour they retrieved the sated mummies.

We did not see our children un-swaddled until we brought them home. The hospital forbade showing them off in the window but we did. Dima later admitted that from his vantage point the swaddled baby resembled a long cigar.

Our personal routine was simple. We wiped our hands with a wet cloth before each meal; at night an orderly equipped with a tea kettle and a piece of cloth gave us a sponge bath; our temperature got taken at five in the morning. The housekeeping nurse inspected our gowns daily for stiffness. She doled out a fresh gown if the old could, in her words, stand on its own, a phenomenon that occurred when breasts leaked. Mine did not. But for extended stays, the gown was changed after the seventh day regardless of the degree of stiffness.

I finally saw my daughter, a carbon copy of Dima, on the fourth day. Still less pronounced than the left, her right nostril was visible. She ate with gusto. Unbeknownst to me, an anti-paralysis injection administered into her teeny bottom had caused an abscess. The hospital required a few more days to finish the treatment – I got my gown changed.

Between the feedings, the women situated near the windows looked out regularly to announce arriving visitors. Communication took place via fortochka and notes passed through hospital staff.

Fortochka. Photo from:

Fortochka. Photo from:

One buttonholed somebody in the lobby to get a note, flowers, and pots with homemade meals to the rooms; we sent notes and empty pots back the same way.

The first note from Rakhil said: “now my enemy has an enemy.” After work, Dima delivered my dinner then returned in the evening when I did not have to compete for fortochka access. He flung little stones at the window until the sound caught someone’s attention. I could not see him in the dark but we could talk.

Rakhil purchased some flannel and gauze for diapers.

Flannel baby diaper. Used over a smaller gauze diaper.

Flannel baby diaper. Used over a smaller gauze diaper.

The Jewish tradition forbade acquiring anything for the baby before it arrived – a sensible superstition in a child-centered people haunted by persecution.

At discharge time, some women complained of sores on their breasts and fever. I was feverish as well but had no sores. Polina waited for me on the stairs. She cried, “A maidele! A danken Gott (A girl! Thank God).”

Baby’s First Month.

Traditionally, the mother chose the name for the firstborn but since I had no close relatives who were deceased, we agreed on Mila, for Dima’s father Moisey. The full name was Emilia that in the United States transformed into Emily.

Added to our propiska at the address where Dima had lived before marriage Emily gave us the 40 square feet per person sanitary norm qualifying us for both the city and housing cooperative waiting lists. She gave us eligibility to a two-room apartment.

(The number of rooms depended on the number of people in the household but few apartments had more than three. In a sign of remarkable progress, some unmarried people purchased studio apartments for themselves. Property ownership attracted groupies, especially out-of-towners who coveted a Kiev propiska. Making it a goal to marry such a prince or princess was as idealistic as expecting to marry one who owned a car.)

The subject of resemblance and the power of heredity had been ever-present in our home. Depending on my expression or on what I said or did, I was Rakhil (and by extension all the Gnoyenskys,) Avram (and by extension all the Babinskys,) or Polina (and by extension all the Averbukhs)—the verdicts as varied as they were definite.

The passion for the subject took center stage in my mind when I entered motherhood. One genetic discovery stood out. Rakhil never uttered endearments. It seemed she choked on words Benochka, or my child, or any praise, for that matter. Now I found myself unable to utter a pet name to address my newborn daughter. Physically unable: my throat tightened, my lips stuck together. Why? But then, why do some people pour out these words indiscriminately?

Rakhil had chosen not to fight that genetic quirk (she eventually admitted to having the same sensations) but I did. And it proved easily conquerable.

For weeks after coming home from the hospital, my temperature was elevated and an areola of my right nipple stretched. Emily’s suckling broke the skin releasing pus from a hidden abscess. At the clinic, a surgeon cut twice to open and clean the wound. She did not use anesthesia that would negatively affect breastfeeding.

As Emily had swallowed some of the pus, a brand-new state-of-the-art children’s hospital admitted her for a week-long observation. A mother of another baby watched her when an ambulance shuttled me to the clinic every day to change the dressing—the hospital had no means yet of sterilizing medical instruments.

Each room had three cribs or beds. There was no accommodation for grownups staying with children younger than three ‒ no chairs or nightstands. In order not to spread germs, the adults were not to sit or sleep with their children. The housekeeping nurse yelled at violators.

She was in charge of cloth diapers as well. She watched like a hawk that the limit of five per day per infant was not exceeded. Diapers from home were not allowed for fear of germs. The mothers, desperate and well-grounded in deceit, would not be stymied: one would distract the nurse after she unlocked the linen cabinet while the others lunged to grab as many diapers as they could fit under their robes.

Emily could not hold her head, did not hear, gained little weight. Doctors shrugged, “Precipitous labor? You’re lucky the child is alive.” The day she turned three months, she held up her head. She gained three pounds in each of the next two months. At six months, she started hearing.

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