rel·ic ~ an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
It’s been a long time since I looked at these letters – twenty years for some of them. Yet I still keep them in one of the oak cabinets that sit in my study. To tell the truth, it’s not really a study, more like a room where I keep books that I brought with me from Russia but never reread, several pieces of furniture that came from my first American apartment, a copy of a famous Russian painting I no longer have an attachment to, clothes I no longer wear but haven’t taken to the Salvation Army yet, documents that are not important enough to store in my safety deposit box, and my family’s old photographs and letters. Why don’t I use this room? The light is not quite right for writing; the old chair is no longer comfortable for my aging body; and also spending time there feels like visiting my own mausoleum.
Yet just recently, while looking for an object that could symbolize WordPress’s new photo challenge “relic,” I opened the cabinet and reached for the letters, packed neatly in an old shoe box. I took off the lid and pulled out the letters. Most of them were written by my mother (the envelopes were signed by my father), several by my first cousin, and a few obligatory letters from my daughter. I opened the first one, and a time-switch in my head flipped on. The letter was dated March, 1990, and it was written soon after we – my ex-husband, my thirteen-year-old daughter, and I — left Moscow for Vienna, which turned out to be a four-month-stop on our way to America (although we didn’t know that then). We received that letter a couple of weeks after we called my parents. We had very little money, and international phone calls, expensive at that time, didn’t allow for long conversations, so all we were able to say was that we were okay, that we were given a room in a four-story house, and our daughter was healthy. We placed our next phone call before our departure for America. In between, letters were our main means of communication.
My parents, who immigrated a year after us, didn’t save my letters to them, but I saved theirs. These letters flew with me over the ocean, and I was looking at them, sitting on the floor in my study, one after another. The first ones were filled with worries and concerns for us. The later ones described my parents’ own preparations for their departure for Israel, and later, their lives there – their futile attempt to learn a new language at the age of sixty, their difficulties in adapting to a different climate and culture, the gradual improvement in their living conditions (which corresponded with the progress of my brother-in-law, who was working to obtain a license to practice medicine in Israel), and, finally, their ailing health.
I had no recollection of reading these letters (although I must have done so). Still, as I read them again, the twenty-four years that separated me from the day I left my repressive and anti-Semitic motherland were erased. In my mind’s eye, I saw once again the waiting room at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport and the hateful glances of a custom officer checking our luggage, the tiny room in Vienna that was furnished with two metallic beds and our suitcases, the line in the American consulate where several American officials interviewed my family before issuing us a permit for entering the USA, our first apartment in Columbia, Missouri, our increasingly unhappy marriage and divorce, my daughter’s departure in search of her own adult life, my first American diploma, my second, this time American, wedding, and much more.
It wasn’t just memories that these letters evoked. They brought to life people who are no longer alive, and they reminded me of people I no longer see – some because they are too far away and some because I no longer want to see them. They resurrected my old feelings, too, some joyful, some shameful, and some sorrowful. In the end, they reminded me that unless you come to a new country as a child, your immigration is never over, even if by ordinary standards you’ve done well. Whatever your circumstances, a scar is left behind that never heals.
Was going through these old letters healing or hurtful? I cannot say. When I closed the box, my eyes were wet and I had trouble breathing. I can say, though, that I will keep them, even if I never read them again. True, they are just reflections of the lives and events long gone. But what other proof of my previous existence do I have? I have very few photographs from Moscow, since all we were allowed to take with us were two suitcases per person. I don’t even have my Russian passport — it was taken from me before I left the country. These letters, however, connect me to my past, to the places I came from and to the decisions I made on my way. And while they have no historical value, and they are not sentimental, they are my only true relic.
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