“Engaging With Souvenirs from the Old World” Club

If you had to pack up your life into two suitcases, what would you bring? I ponder this occasionally when I find myself using something my parents brought with them from the Soviet Union in 1979. Today I poured water into a stemmed glass adorned with a train decal. I inherited these six glasses from my mother because I had mentioned to her I liked them. They used to be one of the few, special, unused treasures which lived behind a glass wall front in the living room of our Staten Island house.

I cherish the stainless steel bowl coated in white lacquer, which I’ve scraped over time, but it’s the only one with the perfect bottom for dipping french toast. Other items my mother couldn’t live without: TWO wool blankets, called plyeahd in Russian. Ironically the word sounds like plaid and they were plaid – dark red and navy blue, draping on our taupe (read: brown) leather couches. Alternative throw blanket options were cozy fleece ones or fake animal furry ones – but not for the Soviet immigrants; we had two itchy wool plaids. In the summer, if I wore shorts, the leather would get stuck to my sweaty thighs and when the air conditioner turned on, I froze because the couch lived directly under the AC vent. I desperately wanted to snuggle with a blanket, but the ‘Can’t Leave it Back in Russia plaid’ was all I had.

My mother also brought hundreds of black and white photos of my childhood my dad had developed in our bathroom. Another import: world’s softest sheets, a contradiction to the plaid blankets. Handed down and slept on for generations, the tiny flowers on the sheets practically dissolved into the background after so many hand washings.

My grandmother, the most practical woman I’ve ever met, couldn’t leave the communist nation without her Ukrainian dolls (which I later learned were made in Germany, the irony!) These plastic dolls lived on display, out of reach, in her glass cabinet. They were among the only untouchables in her apartment, so they were the most tempting. One set of the dolls wore traditional Ukrainian garb and the other wore itchy turtleneck sweaters. They all had a kewpie doll likeness with non-closing brown eyes and curled eyelashes. I desperately wanted to get my hands on them but was forbidden. They didn’t possess monetarily valuable but represented her old life. They were her memory triggers to a lifetime ago an ocean away, and these invisible threads connected her to where she was; her piece of there, here.

A few years after my daughter’s birth, she noticed these dolls. My grandmother, 85 at this point, and slowly giving everything away, was overjoyed my two-year-old expressed interested in anything of hers. She instantly had me get them down for her. Just like that; the prizes of history melted away to a new generation. The dolls no longer represented anything; she realized by this point the plastic gets left behind. Their symbolism also faded, after all, it will all turn to dust.

Occasionally early immigration leaves you with a perpetual feeling of wanderlust or easy flight. It’s easy for me to pick up and move, find a new apartment, new city. I never fit in, so I stopped looking for places where I could. I’ve managed to create a community within my four walls, and I embrace my heritage of scattered plastic, wool, and glass which remind me I came from somewhere, just like these remnants.

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