I knew what to look for
It was August. After an absence of nearly half a century I returned to Kiev, my birthplace. I was only 6 when we left, but I had stored a lifetime of memories that seemed like pictures thrown on a screen: daily walks with Nanny along the Shevchenko Boulevard to the zoo (where once a bear calmly wandered from its cage). A stop at the envelope factory where I could watch a machine spit out finished envelopes. Finally to market for produce. These were not mere faded memories; I knew where to go and what to look for, but would I find it? Would Thomas Wolfe succeed or fail to convince me that ''you can't go home again''?Skip to next paragraph
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The Shevchenko Boulevard began at the hotel and stretched for miles to the center of the city. It was hard to believe this was the same boulevard a little girl and her nanny walked every day, nearly 50 years ago. The poplars, enormously tall, still edged the walkway that separated three lanes of traffic on either side. In the near distance, about four blocks away, was the cluster of golden cupolas topping St. Vladimir's. The church stood in a large square, and ''my house'' had been just around the corner. As I walked into Church Square, I suddenly remembered these were the identical cobblestones - uneven and unpaved. The four streets radiating from each entrance of Church Square seemed smaller, narrower, also cobblestoned; but the chestnut trees spread a canopy which only years could supply.
At the end of one block was house No. 33. How was it possible for a building to remain so intact, so identical with my recollections of it, all these years, including a war and a German occupation? The scrolled balconies remained, statues still flanked the upper windows, and the rusty gates remained permanently fixed to the entrance of the courtyard. I was transfixed by all this strange familiarity - a kind of rerun of an old film.
Suddenly I was 5, looking for a kitten that escaped from our apartment the night before. There was a tiny mewing sound and I began to yell. ''Nanny, come down! The kitten is behind the drainpipe! Nanny, come down!'' The fourth-floor window opened and Nanny's head came out. ''I can't, the jam will burn. Call grandma.''
I turned to the opposite windows and yelled so loudly several heads popped out. ''What's the matter?'' my grandmother called down. ''Why are you yelling so much? I can't be running down three flights. Call Nanny.''
''She's making jam, it'll burn. Come down, I need you - now!'' In a few minutes we were walking toward the drainpipe. ''Your parents spoiled you rotten.'' She said, pinching the back of my neck.
It was all so suddenly real that I felt the clasp of my grandmother's hand and smelled the quince jam fragrance drifting down. Slowly I began to walk toward the far corner of the courtyard. A cat and two kittens sunned themselves. As I approached, their eyes spoke reproachfully: What took you so long?
I carefully focused on all parts of the house and courtyard, snapping pictures until the film was used up. With these scenes in the camera, I realized they were also securely fixed in my mind, welding the past and present together. Tomorrow, I thought, I'll be back for a longer visit. I found it difficult to leave until I heard someone ask, ''Are you looking for someone?'' and had to reply, ''No thank you, I'm just waiting.'' Then I turned and walked back to the church square. From there I walked to the boulevard, made for the nearest bench, and began to write swiftly: Through rusty gates slant shadows stalk and all things coalesce. The memory-knife slips under the window, upper right - our balcony with iron scrolls unrolls the seasons. Here I had sat my dolls and served them tea. The corner bricks - charred, settled into history of 1943 when landscapes trembled and hunger flourished on red stones now gently folded into shadows. Today the poplars rise on boulevards, The poet Shevchenko still sits embraced by 90 years; though algae-green his face bears witness where bronze and weather share the blame. I touch the gates, the trees, and harbor in my skin each stone on my own private street, and know those days are anchors that hold me recorded in the soil.