My brother Alex and I fought bitterly as children.
He doesn't remember it well, but I do. What I remember of my childhood is tempered heavily by a massive rage. A rage at the injustice of the world. A rage at being smaller than my brother, and him being able to beat me up. A rage at being smaller than my parents and having to listen to them unless I wanted to get hit. An all encompassing rage deepened by it not having an outlet. Because I was small, there was not much use in expressing that rage physically. So I tried to use words; and that was not terribly effectively.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!" I hated the apparent truth of that silly rhyme, learned in the Inner City school I went to, for words were all I had to fight back with. In the end, it was the hard manners of those street smart kids that I learned so effectively. I shoved that rage somewhere deep inside, stored and tempered for the day I would somehow learn to keep people from walking all over me.
I do remember love as a child. Love for my adopted grandfather, Dyadya Zhenya, who I met in the refugee camp where we lived in Trieste. Love for a new Zhenya who took in our family when we came to America. Love for another wonderful man, named Wise Owl by the Hopi Indians he spent so much time with. Zhenya Ishevsky. Zhenya Kvasnikoff. Tolya Wise Owl Zoukovsky. There were many others. Olga Turskaya. My Aunt Galya. My kindergarten teacher Miss Laskey, who became Mrs. Lane halfway through the year. Their love filled my childhood, their names roll off my mind as easily as if they were still here in the room with me.
It's as if I veered between love and anger, and not much in between.
My parents I mostly remember as taskmasters and rule setters. My mother believed saying good things about us would swell our heads. She thought love was expressed through actions, not words. It never occurred to her that a child might not understand the deep love behind her instructions on how to live.
So instead of praise I stored up rage. Rage at my tone-deaf efforts at singing with my boring alto voice in a social circle where singing Russian songs and being part of the church choir weremandatory activities. Rage at the term of endearment "my little elephant" turning to insult when transferred from my father to Prima Ballerina Jana — Wise Owl's willowy but fierce wife who turned me down for ballet lessons. Rage at our family friend, Olga, who would sing loudly in my ear, sitting next to me as I banged away at the correct piano keys, finally telling my mother it was hopeless, I was a robot when it came to music, I didn't have that oh-so-Russian trait of a musical soul. Rage at my lifeless fine hair; at my height that refused me the last inch I wanted; at my weight that insisted on pounds I didn't need. Rage at being too smart and too white at a school where being tough and black was prized and normal. Rage at Betty, my one possible American best friend, whose mother didn't want her little girl hanging out with "one of those Russians." Rage at the brown stubs that were my early teeth — probably due to some lack of nutrients — and at the dentist who saved us money by pulling them at night without novocaine when they refused to drop out, to make room for the new crooked set we couldn't afford to straighten. Rage at being foreign when I wanted to be like everyone else.
Alex remembers a “normal” childhood and I am amazed every time I consider that. I remember my father sitting for hours with him every night, banging the table at his son's incomprehension of anything mathematical. Alex occasionally cried, but I always raged. My father believed his son had to be an engineer, in case we were evicted from yet another country against our will, for engineering was supposed to be the international language. Never mind that my father couldn't find work as an engineer because he couldn't learn English. His son had to be an engineer. Never mind that his daughter was a mathematical genius. His son had to be an engineer. Never mind that for Alex 2+2 could as easily be three or five as four. His son had to be an engineer to protect him from the random injustices of the world.
Alex and I visited Istria in Croatia together a few years ago and at the end of that trip we traveled to Italy, where we walked through San Marco Square in Venice without a fight. During our previous effort to travel together in Italy, as I was ending my teen years in 1968, we argued bitterly in that famous spot and parted ways for the rest of the summer. This time, we drank champagne on the Grand Canal as the sun set and day tripping crowds departed. I knew deep inside that there was no better place my life could have led me.
I call that progress.