A Courtyard of Childhood

I am on a bench in my Leningrad courtyard, a St. Petersburg courtyard now.  My old nursery school, with its smells of mothballs and yesterday’s soup, is no longer here, but hopscotch squares are still chalked on the asphalt, just as when I used to live here.  It is the end of June, and most children are in their dachas, tending reluctantly to their mothers’ patches of tomato seedlings, shivering on the windy beaches of the Gulf of Finland between the watering and weeding.  In the center of the yard five poplars, tall and creaky, rise around the playground, and tufts of fuzzy seeds float through the air in a blizzard of summer snow.

I come here every year, like a felon drawn to the site of the crime.  I zip my American passport into the inner pocket of my handbag and pull out my Russian one as the plane taxies past the edge of the northern forest and stops at one of the eight gates of Pulkovo Airport.

It is a week of visiting with my sister and my friends who didn’t emigrate; a week of eating and drinking and talking in kitchens until the sun comes up after an hour-long June night and melts away translucent dusk, thin enough to let us read without light.  It is a week of walking along the canals and breathing in the briny wind that knifes right through your heart, a reminder that this is one of only four cities in the world built above the 60th latitude.

I left 30 years ago, when my classmate Nina and I were teaching Russian to visiting American students at Leningrad University; when the stores were empty, the streets were free of cars, and the city was draped in red.  My refusenik friends (those refused permission to leave the country) were losing their jobs and their minds.  I married one of Nina’s students and six months later had an exit visa stamped into my newly minted passport, opening the heavily guarded gate out of the Soviet Union and into the United States.

Nina drives my sister Galya and me to the cemetery where my father’s grave still stands behind several patches of trees and brush in a lot overgrown with nettles.  Galya and I plunge into the waist-tall grass and walk along a barely-discernable footpath, to a tilting stone with his picture washed away by forty years of Baltic weather. We pull out thick graveyard weeds and scrape the moss off the stone.  Then we sit on a little bench and fight off mosquitoes.  I ask Galya about our father, and she tells me little stories I never heard.  She remembers him better than I do; he died when I was only ten.  I ask her about my country, which is her country now.

I sit on benches a lot when I am in St. Petersburg.  People ask me questions about streetcar stops and empty bottle return stations, thinking I am a local; I apologize and say I’m not from around here.  But I am from around here.  I know this city and these people down to the inside of their bones. I can see through the upholstery of protective tissue to their soft and unguarded core, to the marrow that had once sustained my own life.

I am now on a bench in my courtyard, with its eyes of windows still watching over me – no longer Russian and not really American – someone with two passports and two countries, way too many of both for one stranded soul.  When years ago a taxi took me to the airport, I didn’t know if I could ever come back.  I was a traitor, having chosen a capitalist over a perfectly good Russian fellow, familiar and dependable.  Tiny cells in the body of the mighty collective, those Russian men I knew marched in citizens’ parades, toiled on Five-Year Plans when they were sober, and, like everyone else, abstained from asking questions.  They were svoi, our own – as opposed to all those foreign chuzhoi, unknown and unwanted.

After my flight headed for the Western hemisphere, Nina learned that she lost her university teaching job because she hadn’t informed the dean of my impending American marriage.  My mother and sister grew old in our kitchen, sipping scalding tea and wondering in injured whisper if I was going straight into the mouth of a shark, as Pravda insisted on calling America.  My father remained under the snow and rain, with Baltic dampness slowly erasing his picture from the stone.  They all stayed, and I left.

A gust of wind from the street tosses the poplar dust against the playground fence, where a permanent puddle used to sit in an asphalt crack when this was my courtyard.  I am unmoored and disconnected, like all emigrants, like these poplar seeds blown into the crevices of the buildings, into the corners of the world.  Those who left will forever remain slaves of doubt, with souls twisted into a miserable knot, no matter how much happiness our new country grants us.  We stoop under the relentless burden of giving up home and stubbornly go back to the courtyard bench of childhood, as if this brush against the shell of our lost innocence could possibly bring it back.