22 May Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 2: Family Routine. Election Day
The maternity leave kept my job safe for a year. Dima babysat in the evening when I went to class, Rakhil on days I studied at the library and occasionally weekends. When Emily turned one, we enrolled her in daycare. And, of course, her hair was cut, all of it.
The hair that had come out of the womb had to go at that age — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Thanks to Dima’s saintly patience, she almost did not cry. He brought her “first hair” home into Rakhil’s waiting hands. She did not trust me with saving it and whisked it away to store among the family’s most sacred keepsakes. It came to America with her 8 years later.
(Toilet-training began at about seven months by putting the baby on the potty every hour during the day and making sounds that the child would quickly begin to associate with the desired result. Exuberant approval of success reinforced the new skill. By twelve months most children were completely toilet-trained—big help in a society of cloth diapers and communal apartments.)
I defended my thesis, went back to work, and got down to the brass tacks of feeding and clothing my little family. I juggled meal preparation between early morning and late evening, and, like Polina, watched that not a crumb went to waste.
After Emily’s second birthday Polina started teaching her to put letters together.
In daycare, Emily did not contract any of the infectious diseases that affected her mates, not even chicken pox which she eventually caught when she was seventeen. She only got sick twice: with stomatitis and neck gland swelling. The district pediatrician prescribed antibiotics, harmful for the former and useless for the latter, and supplied me with written proof that I was entitled to three sick days.
We then paid a doctor who saw patients privately, by trusted reference only. Private medical care was outlawed. Why allow it in a country that provided it free of charge? For stomatitis, she prescribed a magic green liquid; for the glands, a compress of rye flour and honey. The compress worked miracles.
(Rye flour was not sold retail. The doctor sent me with a note to her patient’s father who worked at a bread factory. She cautioned to carry a small purse in order not to invite a search and thus get him in serious trouble. He glanced at the note, nodded approvingly at my purse, left me in some dark corner, came back with a little bag, squeezed it inside the purse, clicked it shut, said “pass the guards as if you have nothing to hide, or both of us would be arrested for theft of people’s property”, and disappeared. My expression nonchalant, my hands steady, I waived at the guards. Safely out of their sight, I started to shake with relief that the danger was avoided and the precious pound of flour was now secure. Honey was sold retail. We always had it at home because Syuta’s boarder knew somebody who told her when it was going to be “dumped” (word used to describe the fact of a deficit available for sale) at a store across the street from her house. Syuta got up at five in the morning to be one of the first in line when the store opened at nine. )
The week Emily was born Dima received a promotion to head the construction department of his company, an administrative office of some humble ministry.
He took over the design, funding, and management of the building and expansion of factories throughout Ukraine that produced folk craft items, like linen clothes embellished with needlepoint, duvets trimmed with homemade lace, woodcarvings, and painted wooden souvenirs to export for hard currency.
The factory administrators took it for granted that Dima expected bribes but he gave no clue of what he would wish; his interest lay in beams and foundations. They did push a duvet into his hands and a couple of dresses for Emily—they had to give something.
Dima’s business travels to Western Ukraine horrified him by the naked nationalism and animosity. His hosts boasted of rifles hidden inside their straw roofs. They sang about their role model, a pogrom leader. They reassured Dima that Russians and communists were their foes, not Jews.
On the funny side, Dima demonstrated how he avoided alcohol at the picnics with the locals. An amateur magician, he spilled his drinks on the grass lightning-quickly then pretended to swallow the drink in a single gulp. He earned admiration for his ability to over-drink them and to hold his liquor better than they did.
The exalted position got Dima an acceptance into a part-time post-graduate program and two more perks.
One: a crib for Emily. The factory provided pear-tree wood and two artisans who built the crib to Dima’s specifications and varnished it. The crib rocked, its bottom could be raised or lowered, its headboard had wood-burned decorations.
The factory head felt offended when Dima tried to pay. The workers declined cash but could not refuse two half-liter bottles of vodka. The crib served our children in Kiev and friends’ children in the United States.
Two: an ahead-of-line acceptance to a cooperative that began construction of five nine-story buildings a few bus stops from our home.
A bottle of Armenian cognac persuaded the construction manager to hold for us the smallest two-room apartment out of the set-aside stash until we saved the three-hundred ruble down payment. 270 square feet, not counting the common areas, cost near three thousand rubles.
Membership in my family and in the Party was mutually exclusive. Astonished by my stone-cold resolve, Dima sacrificed the job. He started at an engineering firm as a low-level engineer then was quickly promoted to a team leader. The job paid much less but I was happy and, to my relief, so was he.
While I remained a relative unknown at the building where we lived, Dima soon became popular. He knew the names of all the star-athlete neighbors and listened to their stories about competitions and travel. On weekends, he played chess in the building manager’s office where a chess club met.
On every Election Day (election being a misnomer as the ballots carried one name) he collected the passports from some neighbors, took them over to the polling station, dropped the ballots into the box, and returned the passports.
(Like many phenomena of Soviet life, the Election Day routine defied logic. Every big company allocated a conference room to accommodate voting and assigned some of its staff to serve as agitators.
An agitator received a list of about a dozen voters whom he or she would visit regularly in the months prior to the election to implore them to cast the ballots as early in the morning as possible.
The true role of the agitator as a person who answered questions about and agitated for the candidate had long gone out the window.
On the day of the election, the agitator could not leave the polling place until every person on his or her list voted or the polling place closed whichever came first. Since many voters or members of their families were also agitators, the voting usually finished by early afternoon. Invariably, participation hovered just below one hundred percent; and so did the number of votes each candidate received.
When I was a child, the Election Day was highly anticipated: polling places “dumped” a generous amount of oranges to elevate people’s spirits. By the time I reached voting age, that perk vanished and, with it, the incentive to handle the ballot personally. Avram, and later Dima, took care of my ballot as I, an agitator, waited at my place of work for everybody on my list to vote.)