I was 11 years old and I was the one in my family responsible for calling Russia.
In 1985 we had just moved to Staten Island; we were in our ivory-wallpapered living room, on the taupe leather couches. The house was immaculate with its modern window treatments and cream-colored carpet. It hadn’t yet been soiled by the mastiff’s muddy footprints or by the stench of glazed donuts and spilled cognac. Those memories hadn’t soaked into the floors yet; this was early still in our family’s tenure at the Staten Island house.
Calling Russia was a small ordeal, but it was just a nightly comedy for us; as my parents were accustomed to a world where you waited in line for toilet paper.
I got to do it – or they wanted me to do it. I can’t really recall, but I took great pride in it. I had a clear speaking voice, without any hint of a Russian accent and I felt I could communicate with the operator much more efficiently than my parents, who with their heavy accents, often needed to repeat words. I was effective and knew when spelling our last name, to use examples for every letter. N as in Nancy, E, M as in Mary, I, R as in Robert.
Making the calls meant I was up late into the evening because we wouldn’t begin the proceedings until 11pm, when the rates drastically decreased. We watched the clock, and as soon as 10:59 clicked over, I was picking up the handle, my finger on zero.
“Hello, I’d like to make a call to Russia.”
“What’s the number?”
“011-380-44-698-5929” Don’t quote me on that but there were too many numbers and the sequence always began with a series of zeroes and ones. A U.S. exit code, a Russian entry code, a city area code and then the 7-digit number.”
“Can you repeat the number?”
“Hold on a second please.”
Then we’d usually get disconnected so we did this once or twice again.
Once the line connected, you heard a distinctive click, as if Russia’s operator accepted our friendly request, and kindly allowed our signal through (I always made sure to articulate my sincerest please and thank you). Sometimes we were greeted with a busy signal – or else we got the distinguishing Russian phone ring – long and baritone, almost nasal, as if it’s annoyed to be rung. It always sounded in direct contradiction to an American phone ringing as we imitate it, ding-a-ling-ling or brrrrrrrr-ing, upbeat and cheerful, like the phone ringing is a good thing, full of the promise of friendly chatter or even maybe we won something.
In Kiev, usually around seven in the morning, my grandmother or my aunt would pick up the phone and say, “Allo?” and instantly my heart would skip a beat a little. I’d feel elated that we made a successful connection; mission was accomplished. But I never spoke; I threw the phone, like a hot potato, to my dad who would start a round of, “Allo…Can you hear me? I can hear you. Can you hear me? You have an echo. I can hear you. Can you hear me. Da! Privet!”
What made this comical and predictable routine so annoying was that he was wasting precious dollars engaging in this repetitive banter. Eventually they continued in standard conversation about what was going on here and there, how the girls are growing, we bought a house, we have a donut business. At some point towards the end, he’d give me the phone so they could hear my voice. I always said few words; not really feeling any connection to these people so far away that I hadn’t seen since I was four and a half. What did I know as a sixth grader about nurturing a relationship, a few sentences at a time, every few months. It was a blur of niceties in repetitive conversations year after year until my grandmother died, and eventually my aunt joined us in America.
In retrospect I should have savored these magic minutes; I should have used these moments like I was trying to squeeze every last bit of soap from a sponge. I could have gotten some colorful tidbits or anecdotes about my father’s early life. I could have received a phrase or a piece of wisdom; something to carry with me besides her hereditary round face. Instead my brain holds onto the humorous interactions with the operators.
We were grateful that there was some sort of wire connecting us back to the voices across the ocean – even if it was a dollar a minute. My father always held onto a semblance of guilt over the fact that we were here and they were still there. But it was their choice to stay; my grandmother thought she was too old and my aunt wouldn’t leave her mother. We had super markets and disposable needles and they had restrictions.
When my father left Kiev in 1979, he said goodbye to his mother – and how could he have predicted that he wouldn’t see her until 1988? What does any child ever think leaving his parents for a new country – he was just like millions of others all over the world, carving out his life, following his path wherever it was meant to take him.
It’s funny what brings us home again.
My father was ultimately able to go back to Kiev to see his family in 1988. A year later my grandmother died and he flew back home for the funeral. While he was there, he visited the cemetery plots of his father and his younger sister who died before he was born. The next time he would see Kiev was a decade later for a business opportunity, to open a donut shop. There, he met his second wife, and eventually brought her to be here with him.
Now she’s the one that calls Kiev. It’s so easy nowadays without any third-party intervention; Skype for free or with a phone card for 13 cents a minute. I’ve always intoned that everything will come back around to close the circle – and there will always be invisible wires connecting us to where we started.