Interviewed by Carol Zuckert (with interpreter)
CZ We're here in Tucson, Arizona. Mila Vasser Anderson and Carol Zuckert at Carol's home and we're going to talk about Mila's remembrances, memories of her times in the former Soviet Union. When were you born?
MVA January 17, 1970.
MVA In Kiev, Ukraine, Soviet Union at that time.
CZ Can you tell me something about the circumstances of your birth? Were you born in a hospital?
MVA Yes; it's an interesting story. My dad and my grandma dropped my mom off at the hospital and figured they wouldn't hear any news for a while because Mom had a very long labor with my brother - two and a half days. She came to the hospital, they sent her home, she went back later, it was a long ordeal. So they figured it would be the same thing with me. But literally an hour and a half later I came out. And then she got a cold, so she ended up staying in the hospital for a month with me. She was in a room with 15 other women in the maternity ward. The nurses would wheel in the babies for feeding. And I was a small baby; I was two and a half kilos.
CZ Which is the equivalent of about six pounds?
MVA Five and a half pounds. My mom was tiny and she didn't have much milk. Other women who had plenty of milk were encouraged to express it, so I had extra from these other women. This didn't help my Mom develop her milk production and hurt me in the long run; she couldn't feed me for long. But the main reason she was there so long was because the ob-gyn found out that she was a translator at the Kiev Institute of Microbiology, so he kept bringing her articles to translate. He was working on his dissertation at the time and she helped him, so he kept her in the hospital and brought her extra food.
CZ Journal articles?
MVA Yes, medical journals. I was a month old when I came home; I had gained quite a bit of weight in that month. Mom said she walked in the house with me and there was a huge gathering of all the relatives; they all came to see the baby. And my brother (he was 8 at the time) was passing out surgical masks to everyone so they don't breathe on the baby, made sure they don't touch the baby; he was protective of me actually for many years.
CZ But I'm wondering if you had a vast store of antibodies that some other child wouldn't have had, having been wetnursed? Were you a healthy child?
MVA Yes. I was fed by a neighbor after that because my Mom lost her milk when I was about three and a half months, although my brother she nursed for a year. But for me she bought milk from a neighbor, who was a healthy, strapping woman, with plenty left over after she fed her boy. I had it pretty good. Mom says I didn't get sick at all my first year and a half.
CZ Probably good, sound basis for your upbringing. How long were you breast fed?
MVA Well, my mom had to stop at about three and a half months and then she was getting milk from the neighbor in a bottle. So I had breast milk for about a year.
CZ And was that traditional in the Ukraine?
MVA I don't know whether traditional or not, but it's just something that my Mom insisted on very strongly since she knew this was the best form of antibodies. She insisted, and they had to pay the woman a lot for it.
CZ How old is your brother?
MVA He is eight years older, he's 38 now.
CZ Where does he live?
MVA He lives in Monterey, California.
CZ So your Mom was able to afford to have the breast milk purchased. What was she doing? She was working as a translator?
MVA Well, there are certain things that she felt really strongly about and she would push for her agenda. She worked as a translator in the Institute of Microbiology, a translator and librarian, she worked with articles and journals, and she interpreted for visiting delegates. And my dad was an economist at the main gas plant for Kiev county.
CZ What kind of positions were these considered to be?
MVA Middle class. Once you get into the professions, everybody's pretty much the same. There were small variations as far as pay went. My dad was making 150 rubles a month and Mom was making 120 rubles a month, which was pretty much average.
CZ One of my interviews was with a woman whose mother was the head of a whole bread factory. She was a chemist. She was making 200 rubles a month. That was all.
CZ Bread apparently is such an important component in the diet of Ukrainians or Russians.
MVA Right, it's a huge staple of the diet. But somebody's who's working in a food industry probably had an opportunity to make a little extra on the side.
CZ Black market?
MVA Well, sure, grab a couple of loaves to give as presents. There's potential there. Often doctors got food presents for their services.
CZ I see. So there wasn't potential for your father as an economist.
MVA No. What could he do? Pick up a suitcase full of gas?
CZ Where was he trained, your dad?
MVA He had a master's equivalent from Kiev University in Economics and Political Economy.
CZ And tell me first about your mother's training.
MVA She actually started out training to be a nurse. She had to leave that program because she couldn't do the clinical part of it. She went through the first year, which was all classroom learning, but in the beginning of the second year they had to give patients shots and she just couldn't do it. It was pretty traumatic for her to leave the program, depressing even. But then she went to work at a shoe factory, where she met my dad. After they were married she went to the Institute of Foreign Languages.
CZ I see, so she was good at foreign languages.
MVA Yes. And from there she got a job at the Institute of Microbiology. So her medical background isn't that extensive, per se, but she sure knows all the technical terms for all the viruses and diseases.
CZ And your father went to the university. From some of the people I've spoken to from the former Soviet Union, they kept you out of the university, but you didn't have any sense of that restrictions?
MVA Oh, certainly. I know that there was a quota for Jews. Mom didn't get in to the Foreign Languages Institute the first time she applied, so she applied the next year and got in. When she was applying the second time, she was pregnant with my brother so she hid the pregnancy and then started in the fall after he was born.
CZ OK, so your Mom, what other languages did your Mom speak?
MVA Russian, English, she understands Ukrainian and Yiddish and some German from knowing Yiddish, that's it.
CZ What about her religious background?
MVA She's Jewish.
CZ How do you know that?
MVA Well, we're a Jewish family. We've always known that.
CZ But see, some people don't know that from the former Soviet Union. They don't know it in their heart. They have it on their passport. What happened to you to know that you were Jewish? What made you really Jewish?
MVA Well, that's a different story, but I'll backtrack to my Grandma, my mother's mother. She grew up in a little shtettel called Boguslav not far from Kiev. She grew up in a traditional Jewish home. Her first language was Yiddish. She didn't start learning Russian until she was 14 and the family moved to Kiev. So she had all that in the home, the candles and the Shabbat, very traditional mother. Grandma's name was Chaya-Zisel, which means "long life" (I hope I'm getting the second part right), they called her Chaya, but when they moved to Kiev and got all Russified, she changed it to Klara.
CZ Could she read Hebrew?
CZ Just Yiddish.
MVA Well, it's the same alphabet, but Grandma doesn't know Hebrew.
CZ But did they pray in, was the prayer book in Hebrew? Or it didn't matter?
MVA I don't know how they prayed.
CZ Before we get too far would you explain, would spell please the name of the schtettel, as best you can.
MVA Boguslav. It means, literally, Bogu is 'to God' and slav, from slava, is 'glory,' so it means 'glory to God.'
CZ Very cool. And it was mostly...
MVA It was Jewish.
CZ Oh, it was all Jewish.
MVA Yes, or at least mostly Jewish.
CZ What did the family do there?
MVA Her father was a furrier.
CZ And what kind of furs? Do you know?
MVA I don't know specifics. He made coats and hats.
CZ For whom? Do you know?
MVA I'm assuming the people in the town.
CZ ...or did he sell them to the Russian Army?
MVA No, no, I can't imagine he had a "government contract," because they didn't have that kind of money. In the stories my grandma tells about her youth, they were poor. Her mother was very sick. She had tuberculosis. In 1917, the Bolsheviks came to the town and then bandits came and raided, the family ran to hide and hid in a swamp; they stayed in the swamp all night, and she got tuberculosis after that.
CZ Now you're talking about your maternal grandmother's mother.
MVA Right. Her name was Rachel. One of the stories that Grandma likes to tell is that her father would buy her mother little presents because she was sick and that would be his way of nurturing her. One time he brought her a little piece of chocolate. And it was sitting on the table. And my Grandma, youngest of four kids and spoiled, ate the piece of chocolate that she knew was intended for her mother. Her father was very disappointed with her. So clearly they didn't have much money, if they could afford a little piece of chocolate for just one person in the family.
CZ What was their lifestyle like? Do you have any idea? You said they were practicing Jews, which meant on Friday night they lit candles?
CZ They have challah?
MVA Oh, yes. Her father would go the shul, there were actually two not far from them, and he took her with him. She says she loved going, was full of awe.
CZ Does she have any brothers?
MVA Yes, the oldest one was a brother and then three girls. My grandma's the youngest.
CZ I see. And did the brother go to shul?
MVA I don't know. The only thing I know about him was that he was bitten by a dog on the cheek when he was young and that he died very young in the war.
CZ So as far as you know your great-grandma was a traditional housewife in this little schtettel in the Ukraine. OK.
MVA And then they moved to Kiev.
CZ About when? Do you have any idea?
MVA When Grandma was 16 or 17, so 1933 or 1934.
CZ I see. And why did they move to Kiev?
MVA Because in Ukraine there was famine.
CZ In the schtettel, in the outlying area, not in the main cities.
MVA And so they moved to the city to try to find work. Grandma would tell me about how they would get food relief packages from the States.
CZ Still do that.
MVA Yes. Actually one of her fondest memories is about these canned hams in the relief packages and they are, with the traditional Jewish background, and hungry. And she remembered it in her mind as this delicious, wonderful food. And then when we came to the States she attacked these hams because of the memory of that taste in her childhood, but of course once she tried it at age 62, it was a whole different taste. But it wasn't a matter of an internal conflict about eating pork as a Jew - the hungers in Ukraine and during the war and even after the war pretty much took care of that. In fact, Grandma makes the best pork chops in the world. One time Grandma was carrying a heavy food relief package and leaned against a window sill to rest for a minute and apparently leaned too hard and broke the window, but her dad was really nice about the whole thing; he paid the people and didn't make a deal about it.
CZ That's pretty funny. What did your grandpa do then when he was in Kiev?
MVA Grandma's father got a job at a fur factory making coats and hats. Or do you mean Grandma's husband?
CZ Yes, Grandma's husband.
MVA He worked with her in the court. He was a lawyer, a prosecutor.
CZ She worked in the court?
MVA Yes. She got a job in the Kiev Supreme Court. She was everything from a secretary and a record keeper to stenographer. She kept crime statistics for all of Ukraine, the whole republic, she had a security clearance to handle all kinds of paperwork. It's very surprising because she was the only Jewish woman in the court.
CZ Do you have any idea how that came about?
MVA Actually it was a friend of her father's that got her in there as a big favor. But to backtrack, back in Boguslav, Grandma didn't go to school until she was 9 and then she went to take the entrance test and she placed into the third grade. She knew German really well.
CZ How? Maybe because of the Yiddish?
MVA Probably. Then she came to Kiev when was 14 or 15 to go to a Jewish teacher's college. She was even doing student teaching. She went for a year and a half, but when she came home for holidays, she got sick and had surgery, and after minor surgery got an infection and got so sick she couldn't go back to school for months. By then she missed so much class time that she had to drop out. She says by that point she sensed how much anti-Semitism there was in Kiev and that there wasn't much future in Jewish schools anyway. Then the rest of the family moved to Kiev after that and Grandma thought about what to do next, so she went to truck driving school. And she's tiny, she's about 4 foot 9, so they didn't want to take her because somebody said, how's she going to drive a big truck? And someone else stood up for her and said, OK, she can drive the mail cars, the mail vans. So she went to the school, learned some auto mechanics, she was getting a good stipend, but she never worked as a mail delivery person. She just wasn't hired.
CZ What did she do after that?
MVA By then she was 19 or 20, a friend of her parents' arranged for her to get a job at the courthouse, working with actual trials. Then later she was transferred to a different branch of the courts in a different building, the prosecutorial branch where the case is investigated and put together before going to court. But she met her future husband at the courthouse before that. He was this big dashing lawyer and everybody said stay away from him but she fell in love and married him against her mother's wishes.
CZ Why did they object to the marriage?
MVA Oh, she says her mother could see that he was a playboy, a rogue. But she was in love. The rabbi's son from Boguslav tried to court her and he came out to Kiev before she married to see her and tried several times to woo her. But by that time it was too late. She was already in love. And so they married in 1937 when Grandma was 20 and my mother was born in 1939.
CZ Before that though, tell me the names of all the people you're going over.
MVA My grandmother is Klara Loyeva, she's always kept her maiden name.
CZ That's traditional.
MVA Yes. In fact, my Mom kept her maiden name Tverskaya until we came to the States and all of a sudden they made her Vasser in the process. And my grandfather's name is Gregory Tverskoy.
CZ Is he Jewish?
MVA Yes, he was Jewish. His father was a rabbi, in fact. And his family has some interesting stories. His family was wealthy landowning gentry in the Kiev area before the revolution. The wife (my mom's grandmother) ran the business, took care of everything, while the grandfather prayed and studied. They had a bakery and kept it running through the famines.
CZ That's pretty unusual.
MVA Yes, very unusual. Mom jokes how she should be so grateful to the Soviets for liberating her ancestors from evil bourgeois influences. In 1917, when the Soviets came to power, they started rounding up all the rich people and arrested Gregory's mother and she was going to be executed for being wealthy and landowning. They took her to prison with what she had on, so she had on her rings and she bribed the guard with her rings and she escaped with her life.
CZ Wow. They were tsarists probably? Or somehow they were seen as tsarists.
MVA Well, anybody who was wealthy or owned property was suspect. Part of the reason why there was hunger in Ukraine was because the Bolsheviks went around to all the well off farmers and took all their livestock, crops, possessions. This was called collectivization. Many farmers killed their livestock rather than give it up to the Bolsheviks. So that's why there was the first of the waves of famines in Ukraine.
CZ OK, so now, your great-grandparents moved to Kiev, and then your Grandma marries the dashing, rich attorney.
MVA Well, at this point his family is no longer rich.
CZ Because they've taken away everything.
MVA Right. The family had lost almost everything. It's an interesting family. My mother's father had a brother and a sister. The sister reportedly was very beautiful and there was a neighbor guy who stalked her and one day killed her with an axe. Her name was Roza; my mom was named after her. She left behind two little kids, a boy and a girl - my mom's cousins; he became a physicist and she became a doctor or researcher, I believe. But the family had lost all their land holdings and wealth. They had owned the house where my Grandma ended up living. They had owned the entire house. It's three story, big, I don't know how many rooms it has, but it's an old, big house, built in 1870. It's on Gogol Street, in the old section of town. And then when the Soviets came, they allotted the family one apartment.
CZ This is back in the Revolution days?
MVA Right, the government gave them one apartment. And then by the time my Grandma married her husband, they had one room. The whole building was divided up into communal apartments, which means a whole family lives in one room and all the families in the apartment share the kitchen and toilet. There were five bedrooms, one of them, I swear, was probably originally a closet - it was so tiny.
CZ You remember them?
MVA Definitely, because I lived there with my Grandma from age four and a half to six and a half. She had the best room out of the ones in the apartment. She had the biggest room with a balcony. But still it was one room. And there was one toilet down the hall, and each family had its own toilet seat that hung on a hook on the wall. There was one big sink in the kitchen and two stoves to share and there was no refrigerator. You needed to have your own fridge in your room. There was running water but no bathtub.
CZ Even when you lived there?
MVA Even when I lived there in 1974-1976, there was no bathtub so people had their own big metal tubs in their rooms or once a week they would go to the public bath.
CZ Your mother's parents had how many children?
MVA Just my mom. She was born in March of 1939 and when the war started her father sent Mom and Grandma off to Kazakhstan to evacuate. They evacuated out of Kiev and he stayed on. He was a prosecutor through the war and later on he became prominent in the party and even participated in the Nuremberg trials. He had a car and a chauffer later on.
CZ Where were they in Kazakhstan?
MVA I don't know, some village.
CZ Do you know anything about any of those stories?
MVA What I know is, this is my Mom's formative time, so the stories are basically of her, how she coped mentally and so forth. It was very, very traumatic. On the way out, when they were in the train, the train was being bombed as they're going. And my Mom had dysentery, so Grandma had to get off the train every time the train stopped to have Mom go to the bathroom. Mom was so sick that the people on the train were telling Grandma that Mom won't survive, her skin was all blue. And at one point they barely made the train - the train started moving and Grandma was running with Mom and she handed her to some people by the door and she still has to jump on and the people pulled her up onto the train at the last second. That was one of the most terrifying moments in her life. I can tell by how many times she talks about it and repeats it just how traumatic the experience was. And when they got to the settlement or village where they were in Kazakhstan, Mom did not want to be in daycare and my Grandma had to go to work to survive; otherwise they wouldn't be able to eat. They hardly had any food anyway. The Soviet government was paying for the refugees and mom's father sent them some money to survive. At some point later on when Mom was able to express herself better, she refused to go to daycare. So Grandma had no choice but to leave her alone in their room. Mom remembers it as spending most of the time under the table hiding. Mom was between ages 2 and 6 during the war. Clearly, you can imagine how that affected her. There's a lot of really interesting little vignettes. One of my favorites is when she was 6 years old, at the end of the war, right before they left, she had her first egg. Grandma somewhere procured an egg. And just the way Mom describes, she says, "I sat with that egg for three hours." This clearly is an exaggeration but you can just picture this little kid slowly, deliberately eating this egg, this awe at this egg.
CZ I wonder what aspect was so important to her. Did she know what an egg was?
MVA I'm sure she had eggs as an infant before the war broke out but didn't remember. Grandma was telling me how when Mom was 5 or 6 months old, the two of them went out to a farm for a while and Mom got all fattened up with fresh foods, fresh cow's milk; I'm sure there were eggs there too. But during the war it was something that she was deprived of and now here it is, now she's got it. Now here's her egg. And they came back after the war from evacuation, they went to a town called Saratov, where Mom's father was working; he greeted them at the train station and said that he met another woman and is living with her and that they should leave. During the whole evacuation Grandma had no idea this was coming; in fact he had come out to visit them and everything was normal. Apparently he sent a letter telling her what was going on, but some women intercepted it so as not to upset Grandma. So you can imagine how devastated she was when she got there. She saw the other woman at a store and started yelling at her, but some women got her out of there. He got her a room so she and Mom would have a place to stay for a few days, and some people there stole her clothes. So after a few days she packed up my mom and they went to Kiev and Grandma tried to reclaim her apartment, which had belonged to her husband's family. But there was another family living there, and it took her a long time fighting in courts to get the apartment back, to prove that she had lived there before the war. So during that time they lived with Grandma's sister Rose and her son. Her husband had died in the war and she had a little boy the same age as my Mom. They were all in one room, sharing one bed, trying to survive. But that was pretty much the last Mom saw of her dad. She saw him once when she was 13 and once right before we left Kiev; that was pretty much it. When we were leaving the Soviet Union, there was a law that everyone had to get their parents' permission to emigrate, so Mom had to find her father and get his permission, after not seeing him for so many years. At first he gave his permission and then he took it back, so Mom went to see him in Saratov and said, if he can interfere like that, then he's taking on the role of her father and she's moving her whole family in with him so he can take care of us better. That worked, he signed the papers. His wife, that same woman he left Grandma for, told Mom to tell Grandma that Grandma was lucky to get rid of him when she did, that he made her life miserable, cheated on her constantly. They have two daughters, both doctors; in fact, he told Mom that out of his whole family, she's the only one who doesn't have a Ph.D. Mom went to see one of her half-sisters at the institute where she worked and she had Mom thrown out. Mom has no idea whether her father is still alive or not, or how he died or when. She's tried to find out through official records, but no luck.
CZ Let's go back to after the war when your mother and grandmother are back in Ukraine.
MVA Back in Kiev, yes.
CZ Is your Grandma working? I mean, they're trying to survive?
MVA Yes, after a while she went back to her job at the courthouse, again after having to fight for it. Actually she ran into her old boss from the prosecutorial office and he wanted her to come back to work there, but his boss refused to hire a Jew, so she went to the courthouse. Later she was transferred to the Kiev Supreme Court.
CZ Nice position, probably doesn't pay very much though. Was she managing financially?
MVA No, not really. I mean, they were at a very basic subsistence level, where you had to save up for six months to buy an article of clothing. Once an acquaintance offered to pay Grandma to help her sell clothes on the black market; Grandma was afraid but the woman said all she had to do was stand there. It ended with Grandma literally running away from a policeman, running through a store and running out the back and hiding. So much for that. But Grandma had second jobs in the evening on and off throughout her life.
CZ Did she get along with her sister?
MVA Oh yes. Actually they've always been close.
CZ And the kids get along?
MVA Sure, they were OK. They didn't live together all that long. Grandma Rosa and Eesya, which is Isaiah. He later changed his name to a Russian name.
CZ What happened to them?
MVA She was a cleaning woman, so she had a very small income, and she had the tiny room.
CZ And what did the boy do?
MVA He grew up to be an engineer, I believe, definitely a good profession. He did well financially in Kiev. He and his wife had an almost unheard-of luxury - a car. Then when they came to the States, he got a job in his field and made decent money. Not often do immigrants get jobs in their profession in the States, mainly due to language.
CZ And he changes his name away from the Jewish name.
MVA Yes, he became Vladimir, and went by Volodya, which is the nickname for Vladimir.
CZ And Vladimir is common like John, right?
MVA Yes, it's a very common name. There's a Saint Vladimir in the Russian Orthodox church who's very important; maybe that's why it's a common Russian name. And he married, had a son, they came to the States two years after we did, lived in New York. Grandma's sister, Grandma Rose, died seven years ago. Grandma and I went out to visit them in 1986. They wrote each other every month, Grandma and her sister. But it's an American reality that families are so spread out and they only saw each other that one time.
CZ Are they still in New York?
MVA Yes, the family's in New York. Volodya died of stomach cancer three years ago. His son Alec is my third cousin. He's a big computer whiz, has a big house, is married, has two boys, is a practicing Jew, from what I understand.
CZ Then what happened with your grandma?
MVA Grandma never remarried. She tried dating a little bit but Mom didn't take to it very well. Besides, Grandma was used to fending for herself, being defensive about her space, so she had a hard time letting people in. And keep in mind that after the war there were probably three women for every man, so the pickings were slim. She dated a shoe maker for a while, a nice man, he made a good living. He wanted to marry her but she turned him down because she wasn't in love with him. Just goes to show how independent she was.
CZ Well, think of your poor mother, though. Spent all those years alone.
MVA Yes, she was alone a lot. She read all the time; when she was a teenager she sometimes ditched school to go sit in the library and read. And Grandma was a loner too, not many friends. She worked two jobs most of the time. After the courthouse job she worked in the evenings. She worked in a daycare for a while. She even worked as a night guard at a warehouse, which is funny because my grandma's absolutely tiny and it's really hard to imagine her in that kind of jobs. But she's just got such a strong character.
CZ Did what she needed to do to get by.
MVA Did what she needed to do and convinced people she could do it and was very protective.
CZ Of your Mom?
MVA Yes, and of her space. And she had to fight for everything.
CZ I lost something. Your grandfather, he was in the war?
MVA No, he did not fight in the war. He was a military prosecutor throughout the war.
CZ Oh, so he's the one that took off.
CZ So she never saw him again.
MVA Right. He's out of the picture and not sending any money.
CZ Your Grandma is raising her daughter alone and it's after the war.
MVA Yes, and it's under Stalin, the Stalin era is coming up. My mom is growing up.
CZ Your Grandma has two jobs.
MVA Mom's not making it much easier. She would ditch school.
CZ Now why, do you know?
MVA Well, I don't know exactly. Maybe it was partly that she just hated to be confined indoors. Even today she needs big spaces, needs to be outdoors, to be doing things. And it was incredibly rough growing up without a father, financially, emotionally. She would tell kids at school that her father died in the war. Of course this was before the days of school counselors. And Grandma just didn't know what to do with her. So periodically she would send her to her oldest sister who lived out on a farm to be with her cousins in the fresh air and get fattened up and healthy over there. Of course, Mom was pretty much traumatized by older male cousins. When she was 7, they threw her in the water and she didn't know how to swim, and so to this day she has a phobia of being in the water. She says she spent the rest of the summer hiding in the kitchen and eating tomatoes. They had these big buckets of tomatoes sitting there and that was her refuge. Those boys really tortured her; when she was older one tried to molest her.
CZ Terrible, when you think of the anxiety of the war, and then having to spend those early ages, years alone in that apartment. We're post-World War II now. Go ahead.
MVA When she finished high school, she went to nursing school and she did one year, which was the theoretical year and she did fine. And in the second year they started doing the practicum.
CZ The clinical practice.
MVA Yes. And she could not do it. So she snapped and had a fight with some of her classmates and she was so miserable that Grandma told her to go ahead and leave the program and she sent her again to Kamenka to the farm to recuperate and clear her mind. And then she came back and went to work at the shoe factory and that's where she met my dad.
CZ How do you think those cousins in Kamenka survived World War II and the Nazis?
MVA I have no idea. I don't know whether they were there through the war or evacuated too and then came back.
CZ Maybe they went to Kazakhstan or someplace as well.
MVA That is an interesting question. Anyway, my mom and dad dated for a year and then got married when she was 20 and dad was 23.
CZ She's at the shoe factory?
MVA Yes, she's working at the shoe factory and Dad's working at the shoe factory and trying to go to school.
CZ To become an economist.
MVA Yes. And she is applying to the Institute of Foreign Languages. She didn't get in the first year. I think she got in the second year. She applied when she was three months pregnant with my brother and school started when he was a few months old. He was part of that whole experience. She would have study groups at girlfriends' houses and she would bring him and he would be playing right there next to her. At first, when Mom and Dad got married, they had no apartment of their own, they got on a waiting list. So first they moved into Mom's mother's apartment because it was bigger - I say apartment, but I really mean room - it's a bigger room in square footage. But Dad and Grandma could not get along at all, they fought all the time. Grandma spent all those years of being alone and protecting her space, safeguarding her stuff from neighbors; she likes things to be just so, she's very particular. And just trying to be emotionally strong to raise a child alone - she's not used to giving an inch. And here's this guy who is a stranger...
MVA ...interloper in her house. And Dad grew up without his father, his father died in the war early on. He was one of the first to go and was one of the first to die. So Dad also went with his mother to Central Asia. So he was used to being the man of the house.
CZ And he's a man. In that society.
MVA Yes, yes. And he was used to his mother giving him her money and saying, you take care of the money. So Mom and Dad lived there until after my brother was born, so probably two years they lived with Grandma.
CZ Oh, they made it that long?
MVA Yes, they did. Mom says every day on the way home from work she would pray, don't let them kill each other. Just don't let them be fighting again.
CZ It was that bad?
MVA They argued a lot. Yelling and screaming and slamming of fists on tables, and Mom was caught in the middle.
CZ We're talking about 1960...
MVA They got married in September of 1959, my brother was born in February of 1962, so two and a half years, let's say three years. And then they couldn't stand it anymore and went to Dad's mother's apartment, which was a tiny little hole. There was space literally for Grandma Sonya's bed and my parents' bed right next to it and Sasha's crib in the corner.
CZ How romantic.
MVA Exactly. Mom told me how on their first night there she felt somebody pulling her arm in the middle of the night. She had her arm on top of Dad, and her mother-in-law is saying, don't put your arm on him, it'll make it hard for him to breathe. So this is the start of communal living. Then Mom started going to school in the evenings and working part time during the day, she was working in a library. And so Grandma Sonya was the lady of the house. She did the cooking and she was taking care of my brother. And she would complain about her daughter-in-law to all of the neighbors. They called her "student boarder."
CZ Probably pretty appropriate title, huh?
MVA True, but Mom didn't see any humor in it. Even today, after so many years that whole situation upsets her.
CZ Well, it wasn't tongue in cheek. They probably meant it.
MVA Right. She says the neighbors would gossip about her, say what a nice man Mark is and he brings this woman home who doesn't do anything, and at least if she were pretty, it wouldn't be so bad... But Grandma never stood up for her.
CZ How interesting. So they lived cheek to jowl in this apartment.
MVA For eight years. I asked her recently why she couldn't just hang up a blanket on a rope or something to separate out their bed from Grandma's bed area, and she says she didn't even think of doing that, and if she did, it would be considered rude. My immediate reaction is to fight for my space. I'm approaching the situation from a 1990s independent American woman perspective - it's a whole different psychology.
CZ You were born there?
MVA I was born right after they moved; they got a bigger apartment finally after waiting for 10 years.
CZ Right after?
MVA Mom was pregnant with me when they moved.
CZ Wonder how she managed that?
MVA Actually, Dad wanted to have another child before, he wanted a girl, but there was no money for another child. There was no room for another child, literally, in that room at Grandma Sonya's. There was no way to bring in another child. But I guess when they heard they were getting an apartment, they went for it.
CZ Interesting. So then she has you eight years later and she's working at this point?
MVA Yes, at this point she's already been fully established at the Institute of Microbiology and my Dad was at the gas plant. And they move into an apartment that has two bedrooms but it's called a 3-room apartment because the living room is counted as a room. My brother has one room, Mom and Dad have another, and my crib is in their room, and Grandma Sonya came too, she didn't want to be alone.
CZ And they needed a babysitter.
MVA And they needed a babysitter, exactly. And that's what babushkas are for. She slept in the living room. She took care of me during the day. I remember I was always a picky eater and it was a huge challenge for her to feed me, to distract me long enough to sneak some food into me. She would get all the forks and spoons out and I would play with those and she would feed me. One time she brought in the neighbor's cat and the cat was fighting to run away and screaming; I don't remember this but Mom and Dad told me. There's not much I remember about her unfortunately. She died when I was 3. She was 63, died of a heart attack pretty quickly.
CZ Do you remember that?
MVA I remember her being carried out by the ambulance. I remember they didn't have a stretcher. They came with a blanket and they carried her out on the blanket. That is the most vivid image I have of her, which is pretty bad.
CZ Earlier we've already dealt with your birth to some extent, stay in the hospital. And your Grandma took care of you for a couple of years because she was around and your brother was in school. Regular school? MVA Yes, regular school. He wasn't a good student in the later grades, didn't want to go to school.
MVA He was just bored. He'd read his books and fall asleep and then Dad would sit down to study with him, but it didn't help. He was always really good with his hands, making things, good in drafting class. I remember when he was 13 or 14 he built a telephone from scratch. Mom says Grandma Sonya would say, "He's a genius, you all just wait and see, he'll surprise you all." CZ OK. What do you remember of those early years? What was your life like? What did you do? Did you go to playground?
MVA Yes, we lived in a 9 story building
CZ In the middle of the city?
MVA Actually, we were in a new neighbor toward the outskirts of the city. The neighborhood was built up in the '60s. It was by a canal of the Dniepr River, right overlooking the water. It's a 9 story building, divided into blocks across, there were 5 or 6 blocks across, 4 apartments per floor in each block, and each block had its own front door. We were up on the 8th floor. And the way they have the buildings, they would have like maybe 5 or 6 buildings sort of making a loose square and in the middle there would be a playground. And on the first floor of most of these apartment buildings were stores. So the first doesn't count. They count the European way, the second floor is considered the first floor.
CZ Can you tell me some of your memories?
MVA Sure. Probably my earliest is when I was about 2 years old and I went to the bathroom to get my little potty and I brought it out into the living room to do my business and Mom telling me that this is not how it's done, that you don't share that with everyone else, and laughing her head off. I remember I was 3 and my brother Sasha and I were left alone at home and he says, let's open the windows, pour water on the floor - it's all parquet floors - and it'll freeze and we can ice skate.
CZ Oh, creative.
MVA Yeah! And I said, great - I'm 3 years old - I think this is great.
CZ And he's 11 so he's not understanding the implications.
MVA Well, sure he knew. We didn't do it; he was just teasing me. I remember my crib was at the head of my parents' bed and I would reach through the bars, twirl my mom's hair around my finger and fall asleep holding her hair. Later she explained to me she would wait for me to fall asleep and free herself. In the summer sometimes Dad and I would sleep on the balcony; there was a big daybed out there. Sasha would take me for rides on the bar of his bike. We were close. Actually the story is that I was a pretty spoiled kid. Mom loves to remind me of the fits I threw. One time we were all outside somewhere, came back home in all our winter gear - hats, coats, gloves, galoshes - and I wanted something and threw a fit and wouldn't get undressed, so Mom just left me there by the coat rack and a few minutes later I was asleep in all my clothes on the floor. It's one of those "just wait until you have kids, you'll see" stories.
CZ Who lived in your apartment building? Did you have friends next door or down the hall?
CZ And who were they?
MVA I don't remember so much. There was an old couple across the hall, the man was a veteran, he lost his leg in the war. I played with kids out on the playground, but don't remember anyone specific. When I was four I was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, which is a kidney disease; they said my right kidney stopped functioning. I spent 3 months in the hospital, June, July and August, where they didn't do anything. All they did was keep me on a salt-free diet and take my blood every couple weeks. That's all they did. I don't remember getting any medicine or anything like that, but they just kept me there. I was in a room with probably 15 other kids. On the way to the hospital we got a ride from some friends of my parents, it was my first time in a car, and I got car sick and threw up on the floor of the car. The poor people, such thanks for their troubles. Grandma came to see me every day because the hospital was close to where she lived; often she brought me fresh berries from the market in a little glass jar. And when it was time for me to go home, the doctor said I couldn't go to daycare because I wasn't supposed to catch any colds, get any germs, and so forth because this was such a serious life threatening condition. So my Dad called my Grandma and told her she needs to take me. She quit her job and took me to live in her apartment. Then I had my tonsils taken out right after the 3-month stay in the hospital, my tonsils and adenoids. I remember that really well because I wasn't put to sleep or anything. I was tied to a chair. I had my hands and feet tied to a chair and I remember getting a shot, the huge needle going in, then this instrument going in and the doctor pulled some lever and I remember spitting up all this blood on the doctor.
CZ And you're 4?
MVA I'm 4 years old. And they didn't let anybody come see me so I was in this children's room alone. It was a dark little room and there were a lot of kids in bunk beds, but one girl had her dad there and I was so upset that I had no one to be with me. But that dad gave me a piece of marshmallow, my only comfort of the day. I was totally a daddy's girl and Sasha was with mama. She had a really, really close relationship with him. She took him everywhere. When she went to visit her girlfriends, she took him; she took him to museums, and took him places, everywhere. They talked, played.
CZ Because you weren't old enough yet, really.
MVA Right, I was a lot younger and then I was kind of sickly and so I was left behind with Dad and they went off.
CZ But you hated it?
MVA I remember feeling something missing. One time I rebelled - Mom and Sasha went to the beach and I wasn't allowed to go out of some health consideration, I don't remember what the deal was, but I ran away to the Dniepr, which was right outside the house, and stripped down to my underwear and laid out on a blanket, and Dad had to come get me.
CZ You were feeling left out?
MVA And once I moved in with my Grandma, I would be with Grandma during the week and on the weekends Mom or Dad on Friday would come pick me up after work, we'd take the subway and bus to their apartment and I would be home for the weekend.
CZ This is post tonsils, right?
MVA Right. This is at 4 and a half, when I moved in with Grandma at the end of the summer after the hospital. And then at 6 and a half I went to school, which was younger than most kids; most go at 7.
CZ No kindergarten?
MVA No, there's no kindergarten. There's preschool but there's no kindergarten that's attached to the school like we have here.
CZ What did you do? What was Russian life like?
MVA Well, Grandma kept a pretty tight rein on me. The instructions from the doctor, coming home from the hospital, was that I was not supposed to exert myself, I was not supposed to get sweaty. I was given very limited rein about playing outside, running around and playing outside. I had some friends but Grandma would go out on the balcony and yell for me to come inside if it was a tiny bit cold out. I wasn't supposed to catch cold.
CZ She was very protective.
MVA Very protective. Because everybody was very fearful after I had this illness. In fact, years and years later, after getting a clean bill of health, even as a teenager here in the States, Dad would still say, "Don't forget! You have those kidneys!" It made a huge impact on my life, since I wasn't really active as a kid, I was lousy at sports, a little wimp. Now I wonder whether it was the right diagnosis, because if it was, glomerulonephritis is a very serious disease. I mean, even here in the States people go on dialysis. But I don't remember getting any treatment at all. CZ Yeah, I was wondering.
MVA So I don't know. And how can you know? But at the time when the doctor tells you, this is what you need to do, you do it. So grandma took care of me and fattened me up.
CZ Did Grandma have a radio?
CZ And what did you listen to? Did you listen to the radio?
MVA Yes, and she had a TV.
CZ She had a TV! And Russians love TV, don't they?
MVA Yes, she had a little black and white TV. I think we had two channels.
CZ Did the program come from Moscow?
MVA I don't remember that as much as I remember listening to the stories, the plays on the radio. And I remember reading those a lot. I remember she would read to me and she was very much into detective and murder stories. But some of those got really gory and scary. I mean, she spent so many years in the courts and she transcribed a lot of the testimonies and she kept crime like statistics. That was her promotion later on - keeping track of all the different murders, different crimes for the whole Kiev area. All that gory stuff. So she didn't think that was too much for a little girl and she would read me these detective stories. I remember this one about a husband who chopped his wife up into pieces and buried under the floorboards, and then the police came and he said she left him and they said, why are her clothes still hanging here? That's one story that sticks.
CZ She read to you. So you didn't learn how to read then?
MVA Oh no, I was reading at four.
CZ What were you reading?
MVA Fairy tales, kids books.
CZ From where?
MVA I had children's books.
CZ She'd buy them?
MVA They were very cheap, a few kopeks. All of that kind of stuff was cheap.
CZ Was there a library?
CZ Did you go to the library?
MVA You know, we must have because Grandma was reading all the time. I don't remember the library per se. I remember the library over by my parents' apartment, going there later, at about six and a half, but I don't remember the other one. But we would go to the bazaar, the marketplace. I remember that vividly. Grandma and I went probably twice a week. There were two ways to get there from Grandma's house and we alternated the route based on whether she felt like taking the stairs or not.
CZ Can you describe this scene?
MVA It's a European marketplace. A part of it was outside and a part of it was this big, almost like a warehouse type building. Very high ceilings, a huge open area with booths inside, tables with all sorts of stuff. There was a second floor along the wall with little shops, mainly clothes, fabrics, coats, expensive items. I guess it's like a mall, there's like an open space and some upstairs shops. I don't remember going upstairs often. Everything was in the same place, day after day, week after week. The cheese sellers would be on one side and the meat people would be on another.
CZ There were permanent stations.
MVA Yes, everybody had their own place to come to. Outside there were had flower vendors along one wall of the building. In front of one of the entrances there was a big courtyard with lots of little booths and vendors, like shoe repair, some clothing, paints. At one entrance there was an old woman who sold pirozhki, rolls stuffed with all kinds of things - meat, peas, cabbage, cheese, cherries. Every once in a while Grandma got a pea pirozhok for us to share on the way home, but if there was cherry, we'd definitely get cherry. Grandma has a sweet tooth too. One time potatoes were on sale for 9 kopeks a kilo, so Grandma bought a big box and bag of potatoes and couldn't carry both at the same time, so I would stand next to the box and she'd carry the bag ten meters or so, then I'd run to stand by the bag and she'd carry the box a few meters, and that's how we made it home with the potatoes.
MVA I don't remember scribes. For writing things? No.
CZ Think everybody pretty much wrote.
MVA Oh, yes. At this point there was probably 98% literacy.
CZ Tell me what you remember about your Judaism at that point.
MVA Nothing - Judaism was something you try to hide. I don't remember hearing about it in any other context as something that leads to discrimination in our lives. Sasha was beat up in school a couple of times for being a "kike," or "zhid," as the Russians say.
CZ What about Passover?
MVA Nothing, absolutely nothing.
CZ When did this stop for you? Do you have any memory or maybe you never had it?
MVA We never had Passover until we came to the States; well, actually in Italy we had our first introduction to Passover and matzoh. But in Kiev there was no Judaism at all. Everyone was too busy trying to blend in with the rest of the atheist country. I mean, Grandma made the best pork chops.
CZ Now how come Grandma did that? I mean, to expect that you would be totally secularized.
MVA She became secularized going through the war, the Soviet regime, the harsh realities. There was a lot of fear - what will the neighbors think, what will they do? I mean, as far as the foods, it became a question of you eat or you die. So that really wasn't such an issue but as far as belief...
CZ Did you talk about God?
CZ Because it's a Communist country?
MVA More because it's a totalitarian country. Orwell's 1984 is not much off. Everyone was too scared.
CZ And you felt the sense of Communism? You don't talk about that?
MVA It wasn't about having feelings of patriotism or believing in communist ideals - hardly anyone really believed that. It's just that most were governed by fear. You don't want to give people any excuse to turn against you. Grandma probably internalized that fear to a greater extent because she was on her own and felt vulnerable as it is. It's funny though, in Russia, God is big part of the language because of 1000 years of orthodoxy. When something is good, people say, "thank God!" without even thinking about it. There are the same expressions like "oh, God!" in Russian as in English. And you can see the churches, you see all of the icons and everything that's part of the national language, the culture, the history. At least the Soviets didn't destroy all of that. Mom had mandatory courses at the university on socialism, Stalinism, Leninism, and scientific atheism. She went to the institute five years and one of those years, a whole year, was taken up with all of that nonsense. Socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Marxist philosophy, Stalinism. Those were supposed to replace religion.
CZ That's pretty interesting. Nobody's told me that before.
MVA I remember she was telling me in 1953, when Stalin died, the whole school, all the kids were marched out into the front of the school area, into the courtyard, and they were told, "you need to cry." Everybody had to cry.
CZ That's a wonderful story.
MVA Yeah, it's something.
CZ Religion is nonexistent? Anything at Christmas?
MVA Not really, not officially, but since most of the population had been Russian Orthodox, you heard more of Christmas than Jewish holidays. Many quietly celebrated at home, made traditional foods. Russian Christmas is on January 7, from the old calendar.
CZ Do you remember the synagogue?
CZ OK. Now you're with your Grandma and you're staying with her during the week and going home on weekends.
MVA Yes. And I went to school at six and a half. I went to what's probably like a magnet school. It was math oriented.
CZ How did you get into that?
MVA Grandma pushed for it. I had to pass a test.
CZ Everybody take a test?
MVA Everybody had to take a test to get into this special school.
CZ I see. Now how did they know that you would be OK doing that?
CZ How did they know you were bright?
MVA My parents?
MVA They said I started talking very early. Dad says at 11 months he would ask "what's your name?" and I would say "Mila Vasser" and that I would say things very, very early. My parents, Sasha and I went on a trip to Skodovsk on the Black Sea when I was two and a half, and I would run around saying "Mug, mug, I'm a brick, I'm coming in for a landing. How do you receive me?"
CZ Where did you get that?
MVA I must have picked it up from my brother. I also kept saying I was afraid of the fence, afraid of the fence and my parents couldn't figure out what I was talking about. This resort town was rural and there were little houses with fenced yards and geese and ducks in the yards, and I was afraid of the geese but was expressing it by saying I was afraid of the fence.
CZ And that's at 11 months?
MVA No, that's at two and a half. That's not a great example of smarts, but it's a funny story. Mom says she potty trained me very early, as soon as I could walk she started to potty train me, and that she uses as an example of my intelligence. In general, my parents say I was a smart kid. And at six and a half, at this exam, we had to do simple arithmetic and write in cursive. We had to write dictation in cursive.
CZ That fact that you were Jewish, did that have any impact on your going to that school?
MVA It was an obstacle, an excuse to keep me out. I had to do really well to get in.
CZ Were there other Jewish kids there? Or you don't know that?
MVA You know, I just don't know. No one talked about it.
CZ We're talking about first grade.
MVA Yes. By this point Mom had been pushing for us to leave the Soviet Union, to go to America. And my brother got sick at about eleven. He had something that was diagnosed as a heart condition, he was given some drugs and was sent to some camps to supposedly heal him and nothing really took of it. He just gained weight from the medication. Mom was really terrified what would happen when he would go to the Army because he was not really active. He was a chubby kid, was picked on for being a Jew. And he wasn't a good student. It wasn't that he wasn't bright. He was just lazy. And he got away with it, which made it the worst kind of thing.
CZ He got away with it with your mother?
MVA More so with my dad.
CZ More with your dad than with your mother?
MVA Dad is much more lax. His philosophy is that people need to realize on their own the right thing to do, but that doesn't work with kids, or with most adults for that matter. He would just sit Sasha down and he would read to him from the textbook and then Sasha would fall asleep, instead of saying "sit down, read your textbook, do your homework and I expect you to study." And Mom would let it slide until she'd get fed up and then she'd start disciplining him. She was home right after she had me, and for a while when she was still pregnant with me, and she made sure that he studied and he was one of the best students that year. She says she would set her bottle of valerian root next to her to help with the frustration and just go through his homework with him. So it's not that he couldn't do it, he just didn't want to.
CZ Now what's his name?
MVA Sasha is short for Alexander.
CZ Alexander, and he uses what name?
MVA Now he's Alex Vasser in his American milieu.
CZ You know, sometimes names are a little unusual to me. Which name is chosen to be used.
MVA Vasser's the last name.
CZ No, I understand that.
MVA Oh, you mean which nickname?
CZ No, I mean, which would you use, your mother's maiden name...?
MVA No, no, no. You use the father's name.
CZ The children do.
MVA The children take the father's name.
CZ But sometimes the wives keep their names.
MVA Keep their maiden names. Right.
CZ Because that's the case in some of the interviews I've done. OK.
MVA Anyway, Mom was pushing, let's move to America, let's get out of here, let's make a better life for the kids, let's go to America. She was afraid what would happen to Sasha if he was drafted in the army. So they applied. They put in their application with the visa agency in 1977, I guess right when I was finishing up first grade. At that time, when you apply to emigrate, they call and let your employer know, they let everybody know, and everybody's treating you as this traitor, and Mom was fired pretty much right away. We had friends who were fired and waited for three years after that to leave.
CZ There's no welfare system, is there?
MVA No. The husband was fired and the wife kept working so they weren't starving. Now they're on welfare in the Sates, but that's another story. But we were lucky because we got our exit visas six months after applying and that was considered very quick. This was the end of the third wave of immigration. It was expensive - it was a thousand rubles per adult to get the exit visa, and Sasha just made it because in a month he would have turned 16, which was considered adult. Dad's uncle helped us out. I was living with my Grandma and when my parents applied, Grandma and I packed up and moved in with my parents. And I didn't go to second grade because at any moment we were supposed to leave and they notified the school so I wouldn't have gotten a good reception anyway. And all the relatives were saying, "what are you doing? You're so stupid. Don't you know that they're lynching Negroes in America? What sort of a place do you think you're going to? You're going to starve. What do you think you're going to do in America?" There was all kinds of propaganda. But Mom kept pushing for it. My Dad would have never had the gumption to leave if it weren't for her. And they told me, so that I don't blab, they told me they were going to Odessa. So I remember...
CZ That was smart.
MVA Yes, real smart, because I had a friend, a boy friend at Grandma's named Yura, and I remember writing him a postcard saying "we're going to Odessa forever. Farewell!" Seven years old, so dramatic. And Mom started teaching me English. She was home now from work and conducted school for me at home. And I remember asking, "they speak English in Odessa?"
MVA Mom tried to keep my studies going. I had to do reading. We left on my eighth birthday, January 17, 1978. Everything was sold, the furniture, dishes, books, everything. I remember Dad had the entire set of the Nuremberg Trial books, volumes of transcripts. I forget how many books it was. They were these beautiful blue leather-bound volumes. So that was sold off. I remember they had a China cabinet with glass doors in the front and glass shelves and there was this beautiful piece of coral in there from the Black Sea. Really bright orange coral. I remember parting mentally with that piece of coral.
CZ Were they allowed to bring anything with them?
MVA Just our clothes, things like that.
CZ No suitcases?
MVA Oh, yes, suitcases, but you can't take...
CZ No gizmos, no...
MVA Right, nothing that could be considered a relic or anything.
CZ Was there anything? Was there anything like old candelabra?
MVA In our family? No. There was absolutely nothing. We had literally one suitcase per person and two duffel bags that were filled with linen, towels, and then some dishes were wrapped in that linen and towels. Dad still has three little plates from when he was growing up with his mother, and the tiny little sauces where you place your spoon when you're done stirring your tea. That's all he has from his childhood. There were photos, but that's about it as far as momentos go. We didn't take any books. I had one doll that I took, my favorite one named Masha, covered in green antiseptic where I doctored her.
CZ What did they tell you beside the fact that no longer are you going to Odessa. Did you find out that you were going to America?
MVA No, no. They kept the Odessa story pretty much until we left, until we were on the train. And at that point I didn't understand anything, I don't know whether they told me about America or not because I didn't quite understand. It was a long process and I didn't quite understand where we're going and how. And at the train station I remember, they inspected all the suitcases, inspectors went through everything.
CZ They confiscate anything?
MVA Yes. Dad had a bottle of vodka and a box of cigars to be given as presents or to sell; he put those in my suitcase, thinking it wouldn't be searched, but it was. And Grandma and Dad bought some coral necklaces to sell. This was a deep dark red coral that was made into round beads and made into necklaces. So they had that tucked somewhere that the inspectors didn't find. But they found the bottle of vodka and they took the cigars. But with us they were very lenient. If we had been smarter we could've gotten away with more. Because my Mom had this very dopey innocent look about her and Dad must have had this dopey, terrified look and they saw we had these little suitcases and so they pretty much waved us through. My brother had some kind of a set a drafting set or a carpentry set in a case. So the inspector guy asks my Mom, "what's in here?" and she "oh, that's his carpentry set" and they just waved it through, didn't even open it.
CZ You were lucky.
MVA We were lucky. And the people behind us, I don't know what they saw in their eyes but they shook everything out. They even took a rubber doll and took the head off and shook out the doll to see whether there was something inside it. But there were also stories of people sewing rings and jewelry into the lining of coats. One woman sewed her rings into a handkerchief and stood there blowing their nose into it, and needless to say, no one checked the handkerchief.
CZ Can we back up a little?
CZ Because we didn't really do your schooling.
MVA Oh, schooling, OK. That's fine.
CZ You took the test, and that's where you were.
MVA I took the test, started the school year on September 1. Grandma would walk me to school every morning, it wasn't far from the house. We had these desks with two kids per desk.
CZ Next to each other? Side by side?
MVA Yes, they're double desks. And we had a dnevnik, like a daybook where every day the teacher wrote something, put grades in there, put comments for the parents.
CZ They do that here too, more often here. Can you spell that?
MVA Dnevnik. The root dnev comes from den' which means day. It wasn't literally every day but it was important, a very big deal even in first grade. I had homework every day that I had to do very carefully and we had those fountain pens that you dip into an inkwell.
CZ Was it a repository for people's hair as well? For pigtails or didn't they wear pigtails?
MVA Sure, same thing, kids come up with the same pranks everywhere. And there was a lot of pulling of braids. My hair was in two long braids then and I would braid white or red ribbons into it. But school was also a very serious business. There was lots of homework. If you were late, the teacher made you stand in the corner by the door for 10 minutes. I remember thinking that most kids were brought by their parents, so if they were late it was more the parents' fault, not the kid's, so it was unfair. I think I came up with that mid-tear doing my time in the corner. Our teacher was probably more sadistic than most. One time, when kids were changing from their PE clothes, they changed in the classroom, one boy didn't finish dressing when it was time to start class, so the teacher dragged him by the ear to the front of the room and threw him under the desk as an example. It was a horrible sight - this crying boy, now all tangled in his sleeves. Another time she hit a boy with her pointer on the head so hard that it broke. She would ask us to give her sweets from our snacks and her son, who was in the tenth grade at the school, would come and she'd give him the cookies. Alla Andre'evna, I'll never forget her.
CZ So when did you go to school? What time to what time? How long?
MVA I think I was home by about two. Everybody starts September 1st, religiously, September 1st through like June 1st, I believe. We started at 8 o'clock in the morning and we had our morning snack break around 10:15, then a brief recess. It wasn't a full day. I think I was home by about 2 o'clock.
CZ Did you learn the basic things...?
MVA Same things, reading, writing and arithmetic.
CZ Did you feel there was something special about your class given that it was selective?
MVA The school was math-oriented, so in the first grade what we had to do was basic subtraction and addition just to get in. We started multiplying and we started decimals.
CZ First grade?
MVA Yes. I had enough math to get me through fifth grade here.
CZ Oh my goodness. In a year and a half?
MVA A year. And then Grandma drilled me at home. We had to memorize poems and recite them in front of the class. There's much more oral based performance than here, oral tests. Here kids write and turn in their homework. But there you stand up in front of the class and you do it on the board. A lot of the times the exams are oral, especially in higher grades and at the university the final exams would be oral. I still have to explain to my parents that no, I didn't stand up in front of the class for my finals at University of Arizona. But in first grade we had dictation probably every week. The teacher told us the day before what section it would be and Grandma would practice with me at home so that I'd make no mistakes. I remember trying to memorize these patriotic poems that we'd have to recite in front of the class.
CZ And everybody did it?
MVA Everybody did it.
CZ You were too young to rebel. I wonder would have happened had you been...
MVA I probably would not have rebelled anyway because I was pretty much a good girl. Grandma always had me very focused on doing well in school, looking toward the future, graduating with a gold medal (their version of valedictorian), I wanted to go to med school, all these goals so I probably would have behaved. Grandma was a good Jewish mother, schoolwork was sacred. Although one time I and some other kids got thrown out of music assembly for goofing off. We were sent back to our classroom and the teacher had to write it up in my dnevnik and I was in tears and so upset I couldn't tie my hat on and she tied my hat on for me. But at home I would stand up to Grandma every so often, I would get her actually into a fit because I didn't want to do things she told me to do, like clean. And she's very, very meticulous. It had to be just so. The corners of the bed had to be just so. And she still is like that - a place for everything and everything in its place. But most of the time I behaved. There were six of us in my class who got a special certificate at the end of the year and I was one of those. There were 42 kids in the class, so I was one of the six out of that group of 42. There was PE once a week but I was exempt because of my kidney problems.
CZ Were they bothering you?
MVA No, no. It wasn't something I felt, but it was doctor's orders that I not get sweaty or exert myself.
CZ And you've had no problems with that?
MVA No, absolutely not. I also wasn't supposed to have any salt so Grandma cooked specially with no salt. At school I had girlfriends and we would braid each other's hair. Typical girl stuff. And I had a good friend at the house, we would run around and play in the yard together, and a boy two years older I had a crush on, his name was Yura.
CZ Did you play with dolls?
MVA Yes, I had dolls. I was going to be a doctor so I had to treat all my dolls, so they would have various things broken that I had to mend. There's an antiseptic solution that's green in Russia, and my favorite doll was just covered with green because she needed to be cured from her broken arm, broken leg... I had some really pretty dolls, most were presents from relatives. One time, when I was 6, I went with Mom to a resort town. Grandma would give Mom money every year to go to some resort town to take waters.
CZ How did she get the money to do that?
MVA She saved, all her money she saved. Every single penny she would save. Didn't spend, still doesn't spend anything on herself.
CZ Is that right?
MVA Yes. It's almost pathological, but that's a whole different story. So she would give Mom some money to go to where they have mineral waters because Mom has always been sickly. Her stomach, her liver, they told her there's something wrong with the acidity levels, that she had no acidity in her body that's naturally supposed to be there. Liver functions are shot. A lot of times she'll eat something and have horrible stomach aches afterwards. Anyway, one time she took me with her to this spa and I wanted this toy refrigerator. I just kept asking and asking for this toy refrigerator until she got it for me. I had my share of being spoiled. Still I was considered the serious one and Sasha was the rambunctious one. When he was around 7 or 8 he would run away from Grandma Sonya. They would be going somewhere down the street and he would just bolt, run across the street, over a fence, just about give her a heart attack.
CZ He came to the United States at a difficult age.
MVA Very much so; by the time we came he was 16. But he had his share of being spoiled too. He was into music and they somehow finagled to save up money to get him a guitar.
CZ And he brought that with him?
MVA No. They sold it before they left. But nothing came of it. I mean, it's not like he picked up music when he came to the States, or anything like that. And he had a bicycle and I remember he took me on rides on his bicycle. He had skates and played hockey. He was my buddy. He took me places with him. And when we were in the process of the move he would take me with him. Mom and Dad would be busy doing whatever they needed to do and I was in Sasha's care. He would take me places with him; that lasted for about a year after we came to the States.
CZ Well, you sold everything, got on a train.
MVA Got on a train in Kiev...
MVA First to Vienna. That was the first immigration stop. And there's a couple of funny stories. All the relatives came to see us off.
MVA Both my Mom and dad are only children so it was their cousins, aunts and uncles.
CZ And they were living in...
MVA In Kiev. My Grandma's sister, Grandma Rose, and Mom's cousin and his family. Their son Alec, my third cousin, is the same age as Sasha and they would play together and when I was around 4 I would say that I'm going to marry Alec when I grow up. And my dad had a whole bunch of cousins. He had a big family because his mother is one of five kids so he had a bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles that he was very close to. There was an aunt that he was very close to, Aunt Ginda. Anyway, these are the cousins who were saying, "what the hell do you think you're going to do in America? You're going to starve."
CZ All of the naysayers.
MVA Right. And they come to the train station and Grandma Rose has this huge pot of pork chops for us to take on the journey so we have food to eat. You can imagine how long that would last with no refrigeration. And somebody else brought a huge bag, probably a five-pound bag, of buckwheat. Just taking care of us for the journey. We get on the train and I am just exhausted. I'm 8 years old and I sense something is going on but I don't quite understand what's going on. And I start throwing a fit as soon as we get into the train car. And Mom and Dad are saying "be quiet, there's a diplomat in the next compartment." And Diplomat was also a name brand or type of briefcase and I said, "I don't care! Daddy has a diplomat too!" I was just a holy terror. That's one of the stories that Mom likes to tell to embarrass me.
CZ Do you remember if you were scared? Do you remember anything about that?
MVA I don't remember fear so much at that point. I just didn't like it. This was something wrong and I don't like it. I don't know to what extent it was fear. I'm sure it must have been. So we get to Vienna and we were in a type of communal house that we were sharing with several other families who were also in the immigration process, each family in one room. Mom made a life-long friend there, Irma, who is still her best friend. What's funny is here they've got all this food packed up for us because we're going to be starving and Dad goes out, in Vienna, to some market and comes back with a box of tomatoes, in January. I remember those tomatoes.
CZ Real special.
MVA Oh, yes. I remember that Mom, Grandma and I we went to the Museum of Natural History. I remember that really well. Then Mom and Grandma went to an art museum; Grandma still talks about it. Oh, and I discovered gumballs, gumball machines.
CZ That was brand new for you.
MVA That was brand new for me, and I had this duck with me. I had my green-armed doll and I had my big plastic duck. And I remember chewing my gum and then putting it on the duck for safe keeping for later. You know, Wrigley's on the bedpost overnight.
CZ How long were you in Vienna?
MVA We were in Vienna eleven days and then we got on another train and went to Ostia, Italy, which is not too far from Rome and is right by the water. The beach was black sand and we were in a big apartment, up on the third floor. It had two big rooms and a kitchen. Sasha and Grandma and I were in one room and Mom and Dad were in the other room. By this point everyone was so on edge. There were huge fights between Grandma and Dad, and Mom was put in the middle. It was like in Italian movies where you see these big blown out fights and you think that's terrible...this was along those lines but much worse because it wasn't a movie. I remember at one point Mom had some water boiling and she and Grandma were yelling at each other and she smashed something and the boiling water went spattering on the floor and she got burnt on her arm.
MVA It was like that. Probably much of that came out of fear of the unknown. Even I had a crisis - I finally understood that we left Ukraine and everything was different. There were all these kids outside I tried to play with who spoke a different language and I didn't understand anything, and I was yelling at Mom, "I want to go home, I want to go home," and I was hitting her and hysterically yelling. It really hit that something is different and something is wrong here. So that's where I had my realization. I guess Mom had to keep everything together. Grandma and Dad fought over money.
CZ Because she was so frugal, she'd saved so much?
MVA She had saved, and he wanted her to give him the money as he was head of household. Of course when we came to the States the money turned out to be insignificant, nothing at all. She and Dad would take the coral necklaces to a marketplace in Italy and they sold the coral and Dad bought me a little fur coat. It wasn't real fur but,...
CZ Rabbit maybe?
MVA No, probably fake fur because it was cost peanuts, but I loved it.
CZ How long were you Ostia?
MVA We were there for two months, three weeks.
CZ Oh, long time. And what were you waiting for?
MVA Waiting for the right visa to enter into the States. Our exit visa was to go to Israel from Soviet Union. In Italy we applied to go to the United States and then we had to wait. It was this long process. Mom got a job using her English skills as an interpreter, so we had some money coming in. Mom and Dad even went for a few days to Venice and Florence, just the two of them, Mom insisted.
CZ Otherwise did you have anything? How would you have lived?
MVA Well, just some that they brought out. A little bit.
CZ So you were there for three months, give or take.
MVA Yes, and Sasha and I were hanging out.
CZ Getting into trouble?
MVA No, no, just walking, just finding things on the beach, just walking up and down. You know, he's being a typical 15, 16 year old boy. He's curious. He discovered pornography, got hold of a girlie magazine. Just being a regular guy. And it was just great. We would just hang out. I discovered potato chips. Potato chips were just amazing. We had all kind of good food there; Dad would buy mandarin oranges by the box and we'd gobble them up. Lots of wonderful fresh produce. A guy with a potato truck would drive through the neighborhood and we'd just go downstairs and get a bucket of potatoes.
CZ OK so, here you are, all of you for three months, and then what happened?
MVA Well, we flew into New York and spent the night in New York and then flew into St. Louis and somebody from HIAS, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, came to greet us. They put us up in a motel for three days and helped us move into an apartment.
CZ And why were you there? Just because they put you there?
MVA You know how Tucson sponsors people? That was the same thing, you can end up anywhere, in any city. You don't know where you're going to go until the last minute.
CZ You leave Ostia, Italy after three months and then what happens?
MVA And then we got on an airplane.
CZ Not any kind of a special charter plane.
MVA No, no. Just a regular airplane from Rome to New York. In New York at the airport I stretched out on top of a duffel bag that had bedding in it and fell asleep and slept through all the to-do there. Then we flew from New York to St. Louis. You were saying when did they tell me we were going to America? Well I didn't quite understand America until we got to America. We were in a motel for the first few days in St. Louis. A woman from HIAS took us to a grocery store and we all went nuts seeing all the food. I kept tugging on mom to get some ice cream and she was embarrassed to ask the woman so as not to seem rude. Finally the woman asked what I wanted and Mom shyly told her and the woman took us to the ice cream bin - a 15 foot long bin full of every kind of ice cream imaginable; I think we all stood there for half an hour picking out an ice cream flavor and finally settled on Neopolitan because it had everything in there. Across the street from the motel there was a car dealership with numbers on the windshield - $300, $400 or so, and Mom and Sasha and Dad were saying that that's affordable, that's not so bad for a car. It turned out that was the price of the down payment, not the car. There was a boy my age at the motel and one time he and I were playing outside in the parking lot and he fell and scraped his knee. My mom washed his knee and put that green antiseptic ointment on it, and later his mom came to ask what that green stuff on his leg was. Then we were renting the bottom half of a two story house. It was a 3 bedroom, real nice place, but my parents couldn't get jobs. Mom had this little part-time job teaching.
CZ We're going to be talking about Mila's father's side of the family, because we haven't really talked about them. Although we did talk a little bit about your father and the relationship, a little bit about your mother and your father, and your father's permissiveness with your brother, Sasha. We talked a little bit about that. So, what do you remember of your father? I mean, he's still alive and living in California, right?
MVA Well, his family, on his father's side, had come from a little town by Odessa called Germanovka, or Little Germany. It had been settled by Jews from Germany at the time of Catherine the Great; she had brought a lot of professional Jews into Russia. It was a little shtettel. His father had three brothers, so Dad had a whole bunch of cousins from that side. His father died in the war right away. He was called up really early in the war and died very quickly.
CZ What do you know of anything about how that conscription occurred?
MVA No, I really don't. My dad said that he was one of the first to go; my dad was 5.
CZ And where was he in the lineup of the siblings?
MVA Dad's father, Abram, was the oldest, then Uncle Zyama, Petya (that's Peter), and Joseph was the youngest. My dad's father was a furniture maker, a carpenter. He loved to read, read everything. Then he was in the army and was sent to Kiev with his unit. While in Kiev, he met with some distant relatives and through relatives met Grandma Sonya. They got married and he settled in Kiev. She was working in a candy factory then, right up until the war. She was actually active in the Komsomol, a communist organization for late teens, early twenties. My dad was born in 1936. In 1941 his father was drafted, sent to the front and he died right away. Grandma Sonya and Dad went into evacuation to Tatarstan, they were in a Tatar village, on a kolkhoz, a collective farm. She worked with chickens and Dad helped out with a cow. Since he was a kid, he picked up Tatar pretty fast and would translate for the adults. There were a lot of Russian refugees there. That's how their war years went. When they came back to Kiev from evacuation, a neighbor had taken their room in their communal apartment. There was a huge housing shortage after the war and it was pretty cutthroat. So Dad and Grandma lived with her relatives for a while; she's also from a big family, Shor is the last name. For a while she worked at a sanitorium, like a health spa; usually they have mineral waters there that people go to drink and get healed from all their ailments, and during that time Dad stayed with an aunt and uncle. Then when my dad was 9 he had rheumatic fever and that affected his heart; he was in bed for six months. He went through school and then he met my mom, I think I talked about that story, they met at a shoe factory and then he went to university. I think he may have started university before they got married, but he went through university and got a degree as an economist.
CZ Tell me about your aunt and uncles, what you remember.
MVA Well, there's a big family. There's always a lot of people gathered, a lot of cousins.
CZ Gathered at what times of the year?
MVA Oh, gathered at holidays, birthdays, big birthday parties. You know, a lot of people at gatherings. Of course now most of them are either in the States, there's some of them who are in Israel, one family in Germany.
CZ Are any of them still in Kiev?
MVA I don't think so.
CZ Do you have any contact with the offspring of these?
MVA My dad does.
CZ But you don't.
MVA I personally don't. But he passes on pictures that I send him to them and they send presents and cards for me every once in a while.
CZ So you sent out pictures of Annika, I presume. Pictures of Mila's daughter.
CZ OK, very cool. Did we cover your father's family?
MVA Well, his father is one of four and his mother is one of four or five, so there's a bunch of relatives on both sides. And I know that one of her brothers was highly decorated in the war and died real heroically, and there's like a mention of him in a book about important Jews in World War II. It's a Russian book.
CZ So do you have any sense of their anti-Semitism they faced? If they did?
MVA Oh, I have an interesting story. Dad's Uncle Zyama grew up speaking German.
CZ In addition to Russian?
CZ And Yiddish?
MVA And Yiddish, in this little Germantown. He was the director of a German school, he lectured on history in German to the upper grades. He was drafted into the army in 1941 or so and at first he was in payroll, he was the bursar for the division, he was a captain. Then his unit captured an SS pilot whose plane went down and they were scrambling for someone who speaks German and Uncle Zyama went where they were trying to interrogate the guy and getting nowhere; he found in the pilot's bag some journal that had an account of what the pilot did in the war and Zyama just walked up to him and punched him in the face. From then on he was the chief translator for the division. Then just as the war ended, his division was in Germany by the river Elba, and they were in a café and ran into some Americans. Everyone was celebrating the end of the war, all in a spirit of camaraderie. Zyama started talking to an American Jew, they started speaking in Yiddish, and because of this he was accused of espionage. He had a pretty high clearance with all the translating and interrogating that he was doing and they were afraid he was telling the American Jew some secrets. He was accused of espionage and sentenced to prison for 25 years.
CZ Goodness! And did he serve 25 years?
MVA He served from 1945 to 1954, until Stalin died and then he was released. He came back to his wife, he had a little girl, his wife was expecting when he left.
CZ How terrible.
CZ Just because he spoke Yiddish.
MVA Yes. His wife Zina was a sniper in a women's sniper brigade; they met on the front. She was 18 when she went to war and he was a captain. Dad told me a story about how Zyama got rid of his competition - there was a young private named Grossman who pursued Zina and Zyama had him transferred to another division. Years later this Grossman ran into my dad in Kiev, recognized the last name, asked whether Dad was any relation to Zalmon Vasser and told Dad the whole story. Zyama was actually married before the war, his wife was not Jewish, and he two boys. When the Nazis came, they killed the whole family. Then toward the end of the war he married Zina. When he was sent to Siberia to do his time, she went back home to Lvov, and when he got out he went there. He couldn't be a teacher after being in prison - teaching was called ideological work and ex-prisoners weren't allowed - so he went to work in a factory making couches. Eventually he moved up and was director of 2 factories. Then he had a shop in Lvov at a time when nobody had any private property, he had a sausage shop, a deli.
CZ Pork sausage?
MVA Probably, all kinds of different sausages. He helped my dad, at various points he'd loan Dad money. He loaned us money to leave Ukraine, and they would send presents. Zyama's granddaughter is a year older than me and I would get hand-me-downs from her because they were better off and she had nice things.
CZ And where is she now?
MVA They're in New York. She is married and has a little boy, has a Bachelor's degree in business, I think.
CZ And you're not in contact. Your dad is.
MVA Well, actually Uncle Zalmon had passed away two years ago.
CZ I was going to ask you, where was his wife?
MVA His wife now lives with her daughter in New Jersey. Aunt Zina. Uncle Zalmon and Aunt Zina and their daughter is Rosa. And her daughter, my cousin, is Zhana, or Jane. She's Jane now.
CZ OK, well, that's very interesting. Now, moving back to where we kind of left off. When you came to Tucson, you flew here from St. Louis.
MVA We lived in St. Louis for eight months. Then we went to New York. I came to Tucson as an adult already.
CZ Oh I see. I don't think I knew that. OK so...
MVA So in St. Louis my parents couldn't get jobs. That's pretty much where we left off. And I went to second grade. You were asking me about culture shock. We landed in the country April 26th, and then had a few days of transition until we moved into our apartment, the bottom half of a house. And it was around May 1st that I went to school and there were five weeks left of second grade. And I'm sitting there and I don't understand anything and nobody understands me. And I'm trying to talk to the kids in Russian. They look at me like I'm an alien. Talk about like stereotypical culture shock. The only thing I could do was math.
CZ You said you had up to grade 5 math.
MVA Pretty much. That was fine, but I couldn't write, I couldn't even figure out how to write my name. I wrote M-E-L-A and I brought that home and Mom says no, it has to be "Mila." It's pretty demoralizing when you can't even write your own name. I couldn't do any of the reading. At recess the teacher would do flashcards with me.
CZ A-B-C-D? Beyond the alphabet? Words?
MVA No, little pictures of things like dog, cat, flower, little words like that. I liked that teacher a lot. When the school year ended, I gave her my Cinderella book. It was in Russian, I think the only book I took with me, and it had pop-up pages, little windows you open, it was really neat. Mom asked whether I was sure I wanted to part with it, and I said yes. It was probably gratitude. And then there was PE. I didn't understand any of that.
CZ You didn't have any physical exercise in school in the Ukraine?
MVA Well, what happened was I had that kidney disease, so I was excused from doing anything like that. And they didn't really have much in first grade anyway; once in a blue moon they would have the kids go to the gymnasium and do something. There were like five of us kids who were excused from exercise, so during that time we had to clean the classroom. Besides, in Kiev they didn't have games like kickball or softball, all that was new to me. I remember one time at PE, I guess it was kickball, I kicked the ball but couldn't figure out that I needed to run to the base, so the PE teacher came and carried me over to one of the bases. So that was pretty embarrassing. He called my parents and explained that I needed sneakers. So we go to buy sneakers and they're $20 and my parents don't have this kind of money, so the shop owner says, well, I have this one pair. One of the shoes was sitting in the window and it faded in the light so it looks a little different than the other one. I'll give them to you for a dollar. So that was my first pair of sneakers.
CZ How did you feel?
MVA Well, you know, mixed emotions. I mean, it's damaged goods and some kids pointed at them but still, it's my first pair of sneakers. This is cool.
CZ It's real American.
MVA Yeah, this is very cool. So it was a mixed bag.
CZ Didn't any little children try to befriend you? To take care of you? The caretakers in the class?
MVA They did. They were nice. But I was just so clueless about what was going on. And I was just there for that one month. I did make a friend. I came out of there with one friend and I remember over the summer going to her house. And I had to go to the doctor for a check-up for school. I had to do the eye chart and I'm doing the letters in Russian. Mom's trying to explain, for example, the English H is the same as the Russian N. Or the English P is the same as the Russian R. She's trying to explain that I can see the letters, I just don't know what they're called in English.
CZ Pretty interesting. Things you don't think about.
MVA Yes, moments like that. And I was under some assistance program at school where I got free lunches, so Mom taught me on the first day to say "free lunch" to the lunch woman. That was my second English phrase that day. The first Mom taught me was "fine" - she said, when kids ask you, "how are you?" you say, "fine." So "fine" was my big word that week, an answer to every question.
CZ And so, in that one month did you seem to catch on?
MVA No, not really. And then over the summer I went to a day camp for part of the summer.
CZ And this is still St. Louis?
MVA Still St. Louis. I had some friends there. In the fall I went to a Jewish school.
CZ Were you communicating with your friends in camp?
MVA Pretty much.
CZ So you're learning how to speak English?
MVA Yes, I'm learning.
CZ And how are you learning?
MVA Just talking to kids. And I had that one friend that I
visited. Her mom would pick me up and take me to her house.
CZ OK, you went to Jewish school in September.
MVA Yes, I went to a Jewish school, went into third grade.
CZ Now why did you go there? Do you have any idea why you went to Jewish school as opposed to the school you had been in for the one month?
MVA Just that's what my parents decided. It was assumed I would get a better education there, not so much Jewish education, but that the regular subjects would be taught better there.
CZ Education was the bigger push.
MVA Yes. There was a little orthodox temple we went to and the rabbi had befriended my parents. I remember all of us going to his house for Shabbat dinner.
CZ Makes sense. Opportunity to have a convert into the fold.
MVA They had a big family, six kids, I believe, 5 girls and one boy. At the services the men sat on one side, the women on another. After the Saturday morning service there would be a pot-luck lunch. I remember discovering tuna salad at one of the Shabbat functions.
CZ And you'd never had that.
CZ Did you have fish salad in Russia? In Kiev?
MVA No, not like they do it here. Although there are so many fish dishes in Russian and Ukrainian cuisine, different herrings, smoked fish and so forth. Still, there was something different to me about tuna salad.
CZ So food's a culture shock.
MVA Yes, food is a culture shock, but in a good way. Oh, in camp, we got taken to see Star Wars. It was 1978, the movie just came out.
CZ Oh wow.
MVA That was amazing. That was something.
MVA Well, my first movie in the States. I had gone to children's movies in Kiev, but this was my first American movie. And it was so different, with all the special effects. It was a big deal because I had to bring two dollars.
CZ Were your parents working? Your father had that menial job.
MVA Oh, sort of. They were getting a little bit of food stamps, Dad got a job at a kosher chicken plant. Still, they were struggling so hard. We'd go to a grocery outlet store where bread was 8 loaves for a dollar. We ate a lot of chicken leg quarters because they were cheap, in big packs. When we just got to St. Louis someone took us to a thrift shop place with a voucher for us to get clothes and I got a bunch of pairs of pants. My brother got a job as a busboy in a pizzeria.
CZ And he's how old?
MVA He's 16 at this point, got his driver's license, got a beat up old Chevy Impala. And my Grandma got a job taking care of a 94 year old Italian woman during the day.
CZ Oh, that must have been something.
MVA Her 60-something kids went to work so she was there with Grandma.
CZ Had your Grandma learned any English?
MVA No, no. And this woman didn't speak English anyway. She just spoke Italian. She would take my grandma over to a big portrait of her husband and would talk to her, tell her something about him, get all worked up, and Grandma didn't understand a word because it was all in Italian, so she just nodded and patted her shoulder.
CZ Very funny.
MVA But they were very good to her, to my Grandma. They gave me a bike as a present. They were so grateful that grandma took good care of the woman. She got her up out of bed. She had been in bed for over a year and she got her up and out of bed and walking in the garden. And they were just beside themselves. And Grandma would do some cooking and pick up a bit to feel useful. I went with her a couple of times and they gave me ice cream. There was a tragic end to it, though. The kids went on vacation for three weeks and left a granddaughter in charge.
CZ And your Grandma wasn't there?
MVA No, Grandma was not there. The granddaughter kept old granny medicated and didn't get her out of bed, and when the kids came back, she died very shortly after that. Within a week.
CZ That was very sad.
MVA Yes. My grandma was really upset.
CZ You're in a Jewish school, third grade.
MVA I'm in Jewish school, third grade. There were regular classes in the morning and in the afternoon it was Jewish classes. Again, the only thing I can do is math. The reading I don't understand.
CZ But you're catching on a little.
MVA A little bit but still, not to the point where I can keep up with the class. There were these booklets where you read a paragraph and then answer little multiple choice questions. I was still clueless about that.
CZ Did you have anything like that in Kiev?
CZ Nothing like that. Testing was mostly in essay form? Of course, you were only there for...
MVA I was in school there for one year, first grade. There was a lot of oral testing, where you have to go up in front of the teacher, in front of the class. There was a lot of writing, there was paragraph writing, there was homework, but I don't remember any multiple choice, true or false kinds of questions. And it's still just the language, probably more than the format.
CZ And the language is so different.
MVA I'm 8 years old, in the third grade, and I'm still clueless about English. And reading. It's not just speaking the language. It's also reading the language. And, at the same time, I'm supposed to be learning Hebrew too in the afternoons. So we were there until December and then December/January we moved to New York.
CZ Cold and miserable. Of course, you were used to that. No, Kiev has nice climate, doesn't it?
MVA It gets pretty cold, but it's still a moderate winter, it's not too far north. What was really terrible was the heat in St. Louis. Humid, nasty heat and my Grandma had a really hard time with it. So we got an air conditioner, I forget who it was from, it was donated either by some government agency or some Jewish agency. We had it in Grandma's and my room, because we shared a room. Sasha had his own room and my parents had one. All the furniture was donated from HIAS, everything - sheets, plates, pots and pans, a little bit of everything to get us started.
CZ Where are we now?
MVA We're still in St. Louis. So much culture shock. Sasha and I are still buddies at this point, he still takes me places with him. Every once in a while he took me to Church's Chicken and we felt like a couple of bandits spending more on a little box of chicken than it would cost to feed the whole family. But it was Sasha's money, what he earned, none of this allowance stuff for us. It was so hard to make ends meet, though. Every time something would happen. When Dad started learning how to drive, he ran into a parked car, he was turning onto our street and hit a car parked right by the corner, so there went an entire monthly paycheck. When kids came trick-or-treating on Halloween, Dad assumed they wanted money and sent them away. They had such a hard time finding work, and figured they'd go to New York where there were more Russians, more opportunity in general, they figured. In November my brother and Mom packed up the car with their stuff and went to New York and Dad said, you've got two weeks to get there and get jobs and then we're coming out. He worked at a kosher chicken factory, and he had to stand up, with his hands in cold water all day, leaning over these big bins. He was miserable, everything was hurting, his legs, his back.
CZ But your brother's still in school?
MVA No, he didn't go to school.
CZ So once he left...
MVA Yes, he finished eighth grade in Russia and that was it pretty much.
CZ You said he wasn't real energetic anyway.
MVA No, he wasn't, as far as school went. He was ready to go to work and make money. He had a part time job at a pizza place so he was making some pocket money in St. Louis. And then in New York, he and Mom were both looking for jobs. She rented this little basement apartment, pretty much a couple of cots in a basement. And they're going every day to buy newspapers and look through ads. There are funny stories, almost like a movie. They read this one ad, "We need people to give massage." And they get so excited because you don't really need English for that kind of work. My Mom, she's really small, she's about 4 foot 11, 95 pounds or so, and she says to my brother, you'll probably get the job because you've got stronger hands, I probably won't, so don't feel bad if they offer it to you and they don't offer it to me. So they get there at 6:30 in the morning to be the first people there and it turns out it wasn't that kind of massage.
CZ That's funny.
MVA They looked at Mom really weird that she brought her son to the job interview. They had all kinds of adventures. Dad told Mom, no wasting time and money going to museums. They must have gone to a different museum every day. With their last $10 Sasha had a street artist do a portrait of Mom. They were so close, such buddies. Finally, what she did was she went to the Lubavitcher rabbi, made an appointment with him and told him, this is what's going on. My husband is calling and saying, when are you going to get a job? I don't know what to do. I don't speak the language. I don't have any skills that I can bring. What are we going to do?
CZ She was smart.
MVA Yes, and he arranged for Sasha to get into a tech school.
MVA The rabbi says, don't worry, something will happen. The next day she got an interview at Blue Cross Blue Shield. There was a whole bunch of young American women interviewing and somehow Mom got the job in data entry.
CZ So he had some influence perhaps.
MVA Perhaps. There's no way to really track what happened. It could be just coincidence.
CZ Somebody's good soul feeling sorry for her.
MVA Yes, maybe. But it's an interesting coincidence. Sasha went to the tech school but part of the condition was he had to become Jewish, which mean he had to get circumcised. They didn't do that in Soviet Union! So here he is, 16 years old, and getting circumcised. He was sore for a couple of days but other than that...
CZ Was it psychologically damaging?
MVA No, I don't think so.
CZ So did he need to be Bar Mitzvah as well?
MVA No. He didn't have a Bar Mitzvah but we weren't really part of the Lubavitcher synagogue, although we had gone there a bunch of times. There was a small Orthodox synagogue a few blocks from where we lived that we went to more, and there my parents threw a party for Sasha's bris, probably the first bris for an adult those people had seen. I remember we did all the baking, the cooking, all kinds of Russian delicacies. Now that I think about it, I wonder how many laws of kashrut we violated.
CZ Now why did you go to synagogue? What drew you to the synagogue? Do you know? Do you remember?
MVA I don't know exactly. Partly coming out of Russia, knowing that you're Jewish and knowing that you can't practice, you get to a place where you can, of course you're going to want to check it out. It feels like it's forbidden fruit and now all of a sudden here you can have it.
CZ Some people find that the value decreases, not increases as a result of that. So it's just your, it's something in your family...
MVA And the Jewish community reached out to us, helped us, worked hard to draw us in. Still, it was short lived in my family, our Jewish involvement. It wasn't regular. We tried to fit into the Jewish community. Mom even got a wig. She didn't shave her hair but she got a wig to wear. We tried. Some women came to our apartment and told my parents to get rid of their double bed and get twin beds so they don't sleep in the same bed. We couldn't afford anything in the kosher meat stores.
CZ An orthodox Jewish community, not just any Jewish community.
MVA Right. That's because we lived right there.
CZ Were you still in that basement apartment?
CZ Where were you in New York?
MVA In Brooklyn, a 15 minute walk from the Lubavitcher synagogue.
CZ But you were in kind of a ghetto. No?
MVA Maybe a little bit. But not too much. It was a mixed neighborhood. There were a lot of black kids in the house we lived in that I played with. There was an Italian pizza place right across the street.
CZ So your Mom is now working...
MVA Yes, she's working in data entry at Blue Cross Blue Shield.
CZ And it's on a computer?
MVA Yes. And screwing up, and still learning everything.
Everything's new to her but somehow she's rising to the occasion and doing it. And my dad got a job at a jewelry factory, doing some cleaning and some bookkeeping. He's got all that economics training, so he's doing some bookkeeping. I remember him bringing some paperwork home to do the bookkeeping. He got me a Jewish "Hai" necklace there. But still, it's really hard living.
CZ Because you're not making much money.
MVA Not making much money. Sasha is making some money but that's his own. Grandma also got another job taking care of an old who was mostly blind.
CZ And how old is Grandma at this point?
CZ Is she strong?
MVA She's pretty good. She's doing pretty well. We were in a real ratty apartment, literally ratty, infested with huge cockroaches, mice, rats. Mom and Sasha rented this apartment by the time that we all drove in. My dad hired these guys to drive us from St. Louis, Russian guys, to New York, with a U-Haul with all our furniture. One guy drove the truck and Dad rode with him, and the other guy drove a car with Grandma and me. We got to New York in December, right around New Year. Then on my birthday we were all sitting around the table and there was this rat...
CZ You're having your birthday party on January 17th, your 9th birthday.
MVA Yes, 1979. I was talking about the rat. There was a rat going back and forth between behind the stove and behind the cabinets. Just kept running back and forth, every couple of minutes, back and forth. Grandma picked up a frying pan off the stove and said, next time that little bitch comes out, I'm going to get her with the frying pan. But it didn't happen, she didn't have the chance.
CZ Shows the toughness and maybe some of the, the fact you're steeling yourself to all of that. You're getting really hardened to it a little. You have to.
MVA Actually I am, to this day, terrified, absolutely terrified of rodents. That's my biggest phobia. Absolute phobia. I can barely look at cartoon mice. It was absolutely awful.
CZ What about roaches? Do you have the same reaction to roaches?
MVA Not so much. They don't really bother me as much. I remember one time I walked into the bathroom and a mouse ran right over my foot. I screamed and my brother came running because he thought something happened with Grandma. In New York I went to a very orthodox, all girls Jewish school.
CZ You're in fourth grade or third grade?
MVA Third grade. Second half of third grade. Called Beth Rifka. The way it was set up was that in the morning you do reading, writing and arithmetic and in the afternoon Jewish stuff, Hebrew, Torah. Or vice versa, depending on the class. I started out with having my Jewish class with other Russian kids. Then the principal, the only male in the school, by the way, decided that I knew enough, or was doing well enough to be moved into a Jewish class with American kids, kids from Orthodox families who have been learning Hebrew and Torah in a sense all their lives. Then my schedule flip-flopped so I did my Jewish stuff in the morning and my other classes in the afternoon. In the morning we would do all the morning prayers and do some Torah reading. My dad had a Torah that had one page in Hebrew and one page in Russian; that way I could follow along. There's no way I could follow along in the Hebrew, even though I was getting a hang of the letters, but I didn't understand any of it.
CZ English letters?
MVA Hebrew letters. I remember a couple of the girls were saying, that's not fair because we have to read it in the Hebrew and the teacher said, give her a break. She's new at this. So that was one half of the day, and then lunch in the big cafeteria, and then the reading, writing, all that stuff. Again, I did really well in the math.
CZ Well, you're so well grounded.
MVA Yes. If you do multiplication tables, you get stars. I got all my stars multiplying up to 12 in like a week. So I did really well in math.
CZ They probably hated you.
MVA Who knows. I remember the way they made a plus sign was without the bottom, so it doesn't look like a cross, it's just a horizontal bar and a little stick on top.
CZ Like a perpendicular marker. Like when you mark a perpendicular.
MVA Yes, so it doesn't look like a cross.
CZ And you're adjusting, though, are you?
MVA I'm adjusting slowly. I remember my first assignment was to describe your house or apartment when you walk in, just kind of navigate through. And what I did was I described what was in each room, the furniture and things that were in each room, and the teacher read it out loud as an example of what not to do. And I'm sitting there in the corner crying. My desk was added on in the corner since I joined the class mid-year and I'm sitting there crying. So that hurt. She read it anonymously but I'm sure everyone knew whose it was because of the poor English.
CZ Boy, that is really unkind, given that you're just learning how to...
MVA Well, she didn't say who did it. She said, this is an example of what this assignment was not to do. And then she read a correct one. But still, I felt hurt. Then, summer started and I went to an Orthodox Jewish camp for about a month and a half. It was an all girls' camp. A couple of hours in the morning were spent on Judaica study and I was in a group with other Russian girls, taught by a Russian woman. She talked about the importance of keeping kosher, how much more sanitary kosher factories were, how in a regular cookie factory, if a worker had to spit, he wouldn't hesitate to spit in the big dough bucket, but that would never happen in a Jewish factory. Gee, I wonder why I remember that story most.
CZ Were you on scholarship at that point?
MVA Oh, definitely.
CZ So that's one reason to go to the Jewish school.
MVA Yes, I think we had to pay $15 a month, which was just peanuts compared to the cost of the school, but in all honesty, that was pretty much what we could afford. But they fed us lunch at the school, good hot lunches. Also for the camp I had a scholarship.
CZ Your father is still working in the jewelry factory?
MVA Yes, but he wasn't making much money. Mom's making most of the money. She's got health insurance working for Blue Cross Blue Shield and my brother is going to school. He's doing that technical school.
CZ And what's he doing in the technical school?
MVA He's learning electronics. And toward the end he got a job at an Emerson factory in New Jersey, so he's commuting. And he's starting his social life. He's hooking up with other Russian teens, young adults, going to parties, probably doing some drinking, meeting girls.
CZ And he's what at this age?
MVA He was 16 when he got to New York and turned 17 in February. And he met his future wife then.
CZ Oh, at that young age.
MVA Yes, when he was 17. They all hung out in groups. She's three years older than him. My mom made a good friend at work, an Orthodox man named Ruby. He would come over and try to help me learn Hebrew, but I wasn't getting it, maybe it was too much trying to learn Hebrew and English at the same time, but he would get frustrated with me. My mom had a friend she had met when we were in Austria named Irma. We were all immigrants in one apartment. Just as we were sent to St. Louis, Irma was sent to San Jose, and from San Jose she got a job at DLI, Defense Language Institute, in Monterey. She sent Mom an application. This was June 1979. Mom applied, they called her out there for an interview at the end of June, and so she went out to Monterey and came back to New York to quit her job, pack up some stuff, and flew back and started her job at DLI, by herself.
CZ Now what month is this again please?
MVA July 1979. Then my grandma and I followed, flew out from New York to San Francisco in early August.
CZ Found an apartment?
MVA Mom had a tiny little hole in the wall apartment that she was renting for 50 bucks a month. It had two rooms. So we came there. But by that time she was seeing someone.
CZ Yeah, where's your father?
MVA My father and my brother are still in New York.
CZ Did they have a marriage that wasn't successful?
MVA Well, not from my dad's perspective but my Mom wasn't happy and pretty much the move killed it.
CZ The move to New York?
MVA The whole move to America. There were so many issues. Dad was a pretty successful person in Kiev; he was the chief economist at a gas plant. And although he wasn't making money - because nobody was making money - he still carried himself in a way. And then he came to the States and since Mom knew some English and he didn't, he was in a more dependent position, she had to be more in charge. Plus Dad and my grandma fought all the time, over money, over stupid things.
CZ That's got to be difficult for you, to be torn. Your grandma's very close to you and the daughter-father thing is always...
MVA It was really, really hard as a kid to see that.
CZ Yes, I'm sure. It's terribly difficult.
MVA Things just kept eroding and eroding. Mom always says she was put in the middle and she couldn't divorce her mother but she could divorce her husband. She says all the fights killed her feelings for my dad. She'd plead with him constantly to stop fighting with her mother, and she'd beg Grandma to stop complaining to her about her husband. It's hard to psychoanalyze this in three sentences. In the meantime, Dad and my brother were selling off the furniture and getting ready to come out to California. Sasha didn't want to leave his girlfriend, but he wasn't ready to be on his own either, so he grumbled and packed up. When they came out to California, Mom found a separate apartment for my grandma and me and my brother. She stayed with my dad I think a couple of months. He got an evening job at a restaurant as a dishwasher.
CZ She's working during the day.
MVA Yes, teaching Russian at DLI, Defense Language Institute. Then after a couple of months she left him. And Dad's devastated. Completely devastated. He's thinking, we just came to this country, we're just starting to try to make a go of it. That's what bothers me most too, still - the idea that we as a family never really had a chance. It seems that we were on the verge of making it, but because everyone was split up and dividing up the money three ways, supporting three apartments, we just remained in poverty for so long. There's a lot of "what if" feeling, if only we could get settled and start to feel less insecure in a new land, less frightened, maybe other things could have worked out. I still feel that way, after 20 years, when I'm an adult and should know better. But Dad was completely devastated, lost, for a long time.
CZ What's he gonna do? He's really behind the...good job in terms of America...
MVA Right. He doesn't have the language skills to get a job in his field, some kind of a desk job. He stays in this $50 a month apartment.
CZ And he's working?
MVA Yes, he's working evenings at a restaurant as a dishwasher.
CZ But not a bookkeeper.
MVA No, no. But what's nice is they gave him food, whatever is leftover at the end of the day, so he would bring home these gallon containers full of rice, potatoes, pasta. That was nice. He wasn't making much, he was doing OK as far as paying his bills and such.
CZ Did he come back and live with you, with your Grandma and your brother?
MVA We're a 10 minute walk apart. Grandma, Sasha and I lived together for one year and Dad has his own place and then he got a roommate, a man who worked at DLI and his family lives in San Francisco so he would stay in Monterey during the week and commute home on weekends. They were roommates for 15 years, on and off. Anyway, Mom's working at DLI and Sasha got a job as a busboy at a funny little spot in Monterey called Calisa's. It was a quirky little bar that served food, it's right on Cannery Row; my husband Wayne and I would hang out there years later when we were dating. So he had a job there for a while and he started dating, going to night clubs, nothing serious. He was 17, 18 years old but he looked a lot older because he had a beard. Then, the girl he was dating in New York wrote that she was coming to Monterey, it was a year after he left New York, and so he quickly got an apartment for them, she flew out, and then the following day or a few days after they got married. He's 18 years old now. They get married in secret. The only person who was at the wedding was my mother and the rest of us found out after the fact. They got a little apartment and about that time he got a job working for NCR, National Cash Register, and he's still there. He's moved up and up in the ranks. With minimal formal education he's now doing pretty well.
CZ Great. Is he smart?
MVA Very technically smart, yes, very smart. He can take anything apart and put it back together.
CZ OK, so you're with your Grandma.
MVA I'm with my Grandma and Mom's got her own apartment.
CZ She's doing pretty well?
MVA She's working at DLI and she's pretty much supporting Grandma and me because Grandma is not 65 yet so she doesn't qualify for Social Security. She's getting $70 a month in food stamps and I think some assistance with the rent, but it wasn't very much. Dad paid $100 a month for me and then Mom covered the rest. We were so poor.
CZ And you're at the time of your life when it's really important. When you wanted to look like an American girl, probably. Am I right?
MVA Oh, yes. It was very embarrassing. All my clothes were from thrift shops. I had the wrong shoes and I had the wrong clothes. My brother got me my first pair of jeans. He got them in the boys' department because he didn't know the difference. I didn't care, I liked my jeans, but all the girls at school had jeans with the little embroidered stuff on the back pocket and I had these boys' jeans. I had thrift shop clothes. The kinds of things that extras, luxuries, we all take for granted. Like getting ice cream at the store. Like buying school lunches for 50 cents instead of eating the same slice of chicken bologna on wheat soft bread, the kind that was 4 loaves for a dollar, day after day, month after month. In sixth grade I helped with the lunch program at school so I got free lunches. I loved the variety, the new foods, like pizza, burritos, peanut butter. Grandma never got peanut butter because at first she thought it tasted horrid, and then she discovered fat grams and calories, so peanut butter was out. But I was trying so hard to blend in with all the other kids and it took so long before I finally felt a part of the group. I was teased a lot in school.
CZ Now where are we about?
MVA 1979. When we came to Monterey, Dad decides that since I had a year of Hebrew schools, the Jewish schools, that they are more rigorous than public schools, that I'm at a higher academic level, that I don't need 4th grade, so he skipped 4th grade for me and put me in 5th grade. I'm still not proficient enough in English and I was put into a class that's 5th/6th split.
CZ Aye yai yai.
MVA And it's the first day and we're doing this map exercise and I can't find the stupid country, whatever I was supposed to find with the latitude and the longitude. So I started crying in class, which made it all the more awful. There was one other Russian girl in the class, so I clung to her with every grain of hope for companionship. She had been in the States for a number of years so she was just the perfect candidate.
CZ She was kind?
MVA At first yes, and then she didn't want to hang out with me. Maybe I was too clingy, so she broke away from me. Later I made a new friend who lived down the block and we'd play together after school sometimes. I was one of those kids who was teased mercilessly by the cool, popular kids. Fifth grade was a rough year but by sixth grade I would say I was pretty well integrated. By sixth grade I was pretty much fluent in English. Again though, PE was the bane of my existence, stupid sports.
CZ And it's so important in this country and I appreciate what you're saying.
MVA Yes, sports at recess, tetherball, I would get the ball smacked in my face. I was little and weak. Because of all that kidney stuff I wasn't supposed to go out and exercise, so I had no experience with sports at all.
CZ You weren't coordinated.
MVA Not at all.
CZ I'm not either so I can appreciate what you're saying. You can hike. You can have enough coordination for walking but forget the rest of it.
MVA Yes, that was rough. I was the last to get picked for teams, I prayed the ball would never come in my direction when I was in the outfield. Once a ball bounced off a boy's head and I caught it and got someone out and all the kids were cheering for me, but that was a fluke.
CZ Tell me about the school you were in. Did you have other Russian people around you at all?
MVA Just that one girl. It was a regular public school, a small school, K-6. Very close to Defense Language Institute and it was literally a five minute walk from our apartment. I was there for fifth and sixth grade, seventh grade I went to a public middle school, and eighth grade, from 8 to 12, went to a private college prep school called The York School.
CZ What school?
CZ And how did that happen?
MVA Actually, because of one of my best friends, really my best friend even today, Jennifer, we met in sixth grade. Her family had just moved from New Jersey halfway through the year. We were best friends in sixth grade and seventh grade and her mother had her apply to York and when she got in, she told me about it. Then my mom got really excited about the idea. But even before that, my sixth grade teacher recommended that my mother try to get me into Santa Catalina, which is an all girl's private school, a Catholic school.
CZ Why did your sixth grade teacher recommend it? Because you were good in math?
MVA Because he thought I was smart, I guess. So the idea of me going to a private school was floating out there. Then one of Mom's coworkers whose sons went to York was telling her about it. He took us in his car - Mom didn't have a car at this point - out there, she met people, I took the entrance test. I was the last one to apply, it was May already, we had applied so late in the year, I was the last one accepted for the eighth grade.
CZ And you got a scholarship.
MVA Of course I got a scholarship, otherwise Mom couldn't have afforded it. I had a scholarship every year, but not a full one, so Mom still had to pay some. And then Dad helped when he could and Grandma helped at one point and when I was working I contributed too. We managed. That was the best thing they ever gave me. That absolutely was the best thing.
CZ So now you're integrated.
MVA Now I'm integrated. I've got friends.
CZ You speak English without an accent. Did you speak the same as you're speaking now? You have absolutely no identifiable accent.
MVA Pretty much, yes.
CZ Do you hear an accent in yourself?
MVA I don't know. It depends. Sometimes I do. But then I'm hyper aware.
CZ Yes, that's why I asked you. I mean, I don't hear an accent at all. I know when I listen to my answering machine I can hear my Chicago accent really clearly.
MVA I can't.
CZ Well, you don't know my Chicago accent maybe. Anyway. I'm wondering if you hear anything like that, that's what the purpose of my question was.
MVA So that pretty much was it. Mom had an easier time of getting used to America. Dad had a really hard time because he was on his own and he had to deal with a lot. I would say he isn't fully acculturated even now.
CZ How's his English?
MVA His English is not that great, although his auditory skills are really good. He listens to the radio, talk radio. He'll watch TV and understand a lot. But he doesn't have many American friends.
CZ The man, this roommate that he's good friends with.
MVA He was Russian. Unfortunately he died 5 months after retiring from DLI.
CZ OK, then your Mom met this man. Because I know when she came for Annika's...
MVA Yes, she met Richard, my stepfather, about a year after the divorce.
CZ Do you like him?
MVA Yes, I do; I've known him since I was 10. The way they met was some friend of hers took her and me on a hike and she met Richard on the hike. He, smart man that he is, knew that if you want to get to a woman, you have to go through the kid. So he wooed me with pizza, which is very good thinking. The three of us went out for pizza. And then the next time the three of us went for banana splits.
CZ That's fun.
CZ So now, Richard's Russian?
MVA No. He's just a regular American guy.
CZ And where does he work?
MVA Now he's retired but he was a director of about two-fifths of California State Parks. He had a huge territory of state parks. California is divided into five regions and he had two of those regions.
CZ I see, very cool.
MVA He had a lot of people working for him.
CZ Your mom, does she seem happy?
MVA Now? Oh, yes. They've been together for almost 20 years.
CZ And your Grandma? She's getting old, your Grandma.
MVA My Grandma is 83.
CZ And she's strong.
MVA Yes. She was just fine until four years ago when she broke her hip. She bounced back very quickly, too quickly. Within 8 months she broke the other one because she got a little cocky. And that was a little harder. And then what happened was she needed another surgery on the first hip because there was something wrong with the cartilage. She was in a lot of pain. The third surgery really set her back. She's still getting over that. That was almost two years ago.
CZ And she's no spring chicken. In her 80s that's tough.
MVA Right. She still works on her English, she reads in English pretty well, reads Danielle Steele novels, the newspaper, but has a hard time with oral comprehension. The words don't sound like they look on the page. She can put together in her mind what she wants to say, but then has a hard time understanding the reply. This struggle with English is the bane of her existence. So she's dependent on my mom for a lot of things, like going to the doctor, dealing with paperwork and such. But she works hard to be independent; she does most of her grocery shopping herself, either loading up a backpack or using a cart. Mom brings her potatoes and gallon jugs of water, but she gets everything else. She's constantly creating some healthy low-calorie recipe that starts with, "first, you boil celery..." She's always on me to lose weight. Has tons of child-raising advice, what I should do with my daughter. I miss her terribly. We go to Monterey about 3 times a year so they can see Annika.
CZ And your brother, how many children does he have?
MVA They don't have any children. They've been married 20 years. Irene does something at home on the computer having to do with the stock market. Sasha works around the house all the time, building things, remodeling. He's very good at anything he puts his hands to.
CZ Well this is wonderful. Thank you. This is fun. Fun learning more about you and it's a good interview, I think.
End of Interview