The only play dates I’ve ever been on are the ones with my own children.
In 2016 America (and the Internet), parental and educator rhetoric professes the vast academic and developmental benefits of play dates for our children. They all agree good social skills are essential to helping your child lead a happier, healthier life – but these skills need lots of practice and coaching.
My husband, a peanut butter-and-jelly-on-white bread, midwest-born American, raised on a steady diet of logos (out of a can), was shocked when I told him I never had play dates growing up. If his childhood was epitomized by carefully-planned play dates, what did this say about my deprived childhood? His look was so empathetic, I could tell he was imagining me living a la Harry Potter, locked away in a closet under the stairs.
Russian play dates took place at the same time for grown-ups as they did for children. They centered around evening family parties celebrating holidays or birthdays and everyone sat very tightly together, often at several tables that were pushed together, covered with decorative tablecloths, and we all ate the same food. Kids didn’t get chicken fingers in the shapes of dinosaurs with french fries; we ate pickled herring with onions and boiled potatoes with dill sprinkled on them. Adults took turns thinking up toast after toast, all seemingly to our health and wealth, as we went round and round the table clinking our ornate, crystal shot glasses, juice in ours, vodka in theirs, all yelling L-Chaim in unison. The almighty booze was the Grand Play Date Equalizer, where children and adults together have excuses to act like assholes.
While other kids made their quick escape under the table to go play, I lingered around the table, enjoying the praises of being a good girl. I often sat with my mouth agape, under a thick haze of smoke, as if hypnotized by the adult conversation. I sat there, filing it all away — the Russian phrases only grown-ups were allowed used, funny anecdotes littered with sexual innuendos, curse words that only identified themselves by the hushes that followed.
Fellow children always seemed to grapple for words, which was always trying on my patience. My only problem with words came with filtering them. And maybe that’s because not much was filtered in front of me.
Playing with children also meant entering a world where I wasn’t always in control and preferred to stay grounded in reality – even at age 5. My brain seemed inflexible enough to engage in other children’s trivial or ridiculous activities. The only real thing I remember playing with other kids was “house,” where I felt at home, comfortable that I was doing it right, confidently mimicking the behaviors of adults around me.
By the time we landed in America in March of 1979, after a three-month mandatory immigrant pit stop in Austria and Italy, my mother was 24 and my father was 29. These seasoned Soviet parents not only had to learn a new language, they had to figure out how to make money (which for immigrant meant lots of “courses”), find a place to live – and figure out how to go food shopping with so many freaking aisles and new cereal choices.
It always seemed like my parents were on an uphill climb, carrying satchels of collective struggle and guilt from generations before us. They never had a childhood, how would they know how to give it to me? The very concept of childhood was not only much more American, but a new one altogether. (In fact, the term play date was not officially coined until 1985.) The concept of a Soviet childhood simply meant you were too young to drink vodka.
My parents never shielded me from their hardships. I witnessed their trials and frustrations, a 5-year-old shadow in their perpetual sadness and disappointment, and while I didn’t feel sorry for myself, I certainly didn’t want to be another burden.
If they worried about money, I worried about money. When someone asked either of my parents “How are you,” there was no fake smile or exclamation of, “Great,” like Americans do, just to be polite. No — my parents always said, “Still alive,” as if the very notion that they actually made it through the day was accomplishment enough and what else can you possibly want from them?
Well, certainly not play dates.