1992 | Kiev, Ukraine | Age: 9
My mother and grandmother were teachers, and during their summers off, we would go wherever they could get putevki (travel permits)—mostly the Crimea and the Baltic states. There was this one picture of me on the beach in the Crimea—where I wouldn’t even be allowed to go today since it’s now part of Russia. In the picture, I’m on a donkey holding a monkey. I still have the little kosinka that I’m wearing because my mom had saved it. I was very finicky about my hair, and I would make my mom either tie my hair back because I hated flyaways, or she would just put the kosinka on me to avoid a tantrum. It was a dichotomy—I hated the hair ties with the little plastic balls that would rip out my hair, but at the same time I insisted that my hair be tied back meticulously. So I’d wear this kosinka at the beach because heaven forbid that a Soviet child goes with her head uncovered in the sun. Yet no one believed in or had access to sunscreen. And baseball caps weren’t easy to come by, so this was the only option. What did boys do?
Maybe this is me shucking off the constraints of my past. Or maybe I’m a chameleon, trying on the identity that fits at the moment.
Ukraine doesn’t factor into my perception of my background much. Until it does. For example, I have my mom’s vyshivanka, which is very Ukrainian, and it’s something I’m very proud to wear. It was given to her in the ‘70s or ‘80s by her best friend’s mom. So she held on to it all these years and brought it here, and she passed it on to me a few years ago. I actually ordered a matching one for my 6 year old daughter, and we wore ours together recently to the international festival at her elementary school. It made me proud to wear it, because I am from Ukraine, and it’s not a conversation I usually have. Someone told me that my daughter “looks so Ukrainian!” I thought that was funny, because she’s what, ⅜ Ashkenazi and only ⅛ ethnic Ukrainian.
I love the embroidery, the patterns on it. I like that it’s very subtle compared to all the ones I’ve seen online. First, they’re all very expensive. This is vintage. And the new ones are covered in these gaudy patterns. I really like that this one has a subtle design. So it’s something that I really enjoy wearing. I wonder if the pattern means anything, because there’s a language to it. It reminds me of Indian designs, and Latin American - Mexican or Colombian. Maybe Frida Kahlo would have worn it. And these festival peasant blouses are popular now. So I would not be wearing this ironically.
My mom saved my notebooks from first and second grades. She taught Russian language and literature to middle school and high school aged kids in Kiev. When I started school, it was very important to her that I learn to write properly. So I don’t have fond memories of doing school work under her supervision. She would stand over me and make me rewrite my homework over and over until she was satisfied that it was correct and neat enough. Neatness and penmanship were part of the grade, and we were not allowed to write in pencil, so rather than have me cross out things, she would rip out pages. The notebook is saddle-stitched, so if you ripped out one, the corresponding back page would come out too. We’d go through half the notebook in one sitting this way. Then she figured out another way. She gave me a thin razor blade, and she taught me how to very carefully scrape off the top fibers on the sheet of paper where I had made the mistake. It was a useful skill. My handwriting is still neat - in both Russian and English.
But now my 6 year old is in kindergarten, and she has homework, and I find myself doing the things I used to hate that my mom did. I try to take it easier on her. Luckily she has a pencil with an eraser. No need for a razor blade.
My mom is not a DIY kind of person. She’s not into sentimentality or scrapbooking. But this is the one thing that she put together meticulously and very well. When I go to my parents’ house and look at their photographs, it drives me crazy that they are completely disorganized. They have newer color photos mixed in with stacks of old black and white prints. They have a vast collection of photographs in complete disarray. But this is my baby album, and it’s in very good condition and in perfect order. My mom not only filled it with my baby pictures, but she also wrote in all my details over the first year of my life. She included hospital bracelets, my first lock of hair, milestones. My dad had actually swiped the hand-written roster of all the births in that hospital on that day because they had wanted that keepsake. I don’t know my parents as very sentimental people, but this was a very internationally sentimental thing to do - to take that list of births.
I don’t remember consciously taking anything for myself. Maybe some toys and dolls that I no longer have. My parents must have taken these books for me. I don’t remember reading them in Kiev, but I do remember reading them here in the first year or two. They are the last Russian books I remember reading as a kid just for fun. I would read them in bed on the days I stayed home alone sick from school. What most people don’t realize is that there are quite a few books in the Oz series. I always thought the American movie paled in comparison with the Russian book, and that was just the first of six! The others are full of adventure. They were my Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Narnia. I even loved how they looked on the bookshelf - their spines so colorful. And on the inside of each of the covers is a map that illustrates where the events take place. You see here the Emerald City and the Field of Poppies. And there’s Ellie. That’s right! She wasn’t Dorothy; she was Ellie in the Russian books. Oh, like my Ellie! We named my younger daughter Ellen after her father’s grandmother. But Ellie is what we call her exclusively.
The photos on this page were taken by Natasha Tverdynin Racic.