A Russian Soul Rooted in New York
IN an essay, Primo Levi writes: "I believe that I represent an extreme case of the sedentary person, comparable to certain mollusks, limpets, for example, which, after a brief larval stage during which they swim about freely, attach themselves to a sea rock, secrete an outer shell, and stay put for the rest of their lives." The rock to which I have attached myself is Manhattan Island. Indeed, I have lived almost my entire life in a 32-block area.
Born at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue; raised at 98th and 96th Streets; living now at 73rd Street. I can, with ease, on a Sunday afternoon walk, cover the geographic boundaries of my life.
How different from my mother's life which was deeply affected by the Russian Revolution. At age 16, she was uprooted and forced to leave St. Petersburg, the city of her birth and childhood, and her country. During the remaining 53 years of her life, she returned only twice for brief visits.
The life of an exile is difficult. I never appreciated the full extent of her losses. She lost her city, a beautiful place of canals, bridges and palaces, and her homeland. All that remained was "un-real estate those memories of the past no one can take away - to use Nabokov's felicitous expression.
Her family life was shattered. After saying farewell to her father in Copenhagen, from where in 1919 she traveled by ship to Boston, she never saw him again. He died in London, as did her brother, whom she also never again saw, in Vienna. She did not see her mother and sister for more than a decade.
She lost the opportunity, living in an English-speaking land, to use her mother tongue. Among the few times I heard Mother speak Russian was when she read to my sister and me in the evening from Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin"; usually the letter-writing scene, the most famous passage in the poem when Tatiana declares her love for Onegin.
Russians are very emotional people. Mother had to make the difficult adjustment to an Anglo-Saxon society where "the whirlwinds of the soul natural to a Russian provoked incomprehension," as biographer, Brian Boyd, describes the same experience Nabokov underwent in England.
At times the whirlwinds of her soul swept over us. Discussions at home, whether on politics or family matters, could become highly emotional. Once Mother ordered a friend of mine out of the house because she found his political views so objectionable. She was stricken when I received a low grade in Russian studies, feeling I had betrayed my heritage.
Mother did not complain of her losses. She courageously created a career for herself in the field of international relations, and even more courageously, raised two very young children after becoming a widow at the age of 33. (Father died a few weeks before I was born.) As a result, my sister and I had a very modern upbringing, living at home with a single parent, working mother.
What also made my childhood unusual was exposure to a bicultural background. Through my mother's influence, I developed an abiding interest in Russian literature and history, although, alas, not my mother's facility for languages. As a result, when visiting Leningrad a year after her death, I responded to the city, not as a stranger, but as someone who had been there before.
She grew to love New York, her city by adoption, as she had once loved St. Petersburg, and made certain that nothing would take her away from it for long.
Thus, when teaching non-Western studies at Smith College, and later, at the University of Rochester, she would go through the exhausting weekly schedule of commuting to Northhampton and Rochester. How many winter snow storms she endured to avoid having to move from New York City.
Mother led a vibrant, successful, full life in America, but for an exile the deep sense of loss persists. I was reminded of this recently when reading "Chronicle in Stone" by Ismail Kadare, the distinguished Albanian writer, who describes his return from exile to the city of his childhood.
Some of Kadare's thoughts may have passed through mother's mind when she returned to Leningrad. He writes, "A very long time later I came back to the gray immortal city. My feet timidly trod the spine of its stone-paved streets. They bore me up. You recognized me, you stones... . My street... . My old house... . All are gone. But at street corners, where walls join, I thought I could see some familiar lines, like human features, shadows of cheekbones and eyes. They are still there, frozen forever in sto ne, along with the traces left by earthquakes, winters, and human catastrophes."