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Creative Nonfiction Coming of Age Drama

Dear Past

Dear Past,

I write this letter to you not to complain about what happened in my life but to offer my words of gratitude. Even though you did not treat me kindly at times, you taught me valuable lessons, and for that, I am grateful.

           Thank you for letting me know that at seven, I was different, and for twenty-three years of my life inside the USSR, I would not fit in or belong. On my first day of school, inside a schoolyard in Kotovsk, Ukraine, alone and lonely, I experienced the pain of rejection and the worst case of humiliation when I watched Mama beg the soon-to-be graduates to give me a little souvenir.

It was a tradition for the first graders to bring flowers on the first day of school in exchange for a little present from an older student. Mama did not know about it, and therefore I was the only first grader inside the yard without an obligatory bouquet.

Upset and humiliated, I followed the teacher into the classroom without a gift in my hand, where her behavior devastated me even more. When she called out my first and last names, she made fun of them, and at that moment, I knew that I would have to fight an uphill battle. Past, I am grateful for that experience because you made me stronger. Thank you.

A few months later, when my parents' dreams of securing a government-subsidized apartment came through after thirty years of waiting in line, we moved into a new neighborhood. In anticipation of making new friends, I ventured out to explore it the following day.

It was a beautiful, cold winter morning. The pristine snow, which had fallen during the night, made the world around me appear magical. Even the tall, ugly structures of the Khrushchev Era apartment buildings looked like fairytale mansions dressed up in their white snowy blankets.

I gingerly walked through the deep piles, ensuring that my winter boots, known as valenki in the Soviet Union, did not slip off my feet. Made of boiled wool, they kept my feet warm and were helpful in this kind of weather because the snow underneath my feet was crisp and solid.

Content and happy, I chugged along until I saw a group of children playing in the snow. It looked like they were about the build a snowman. Excited, I ran towards them only to be stopped in my tracks when I heard a creak from an open window, and a woman's voice yelled: "Do not play with her! She is a Kike!"

At seven, I had no clue what the word Kike meant, but intuitively I knew it was not a nice word. Hearing these words, the children scattered, leaving me dumbfounded. I started to cry and, choking on my tears, ran as fast as I could back home. I did not understand what had just happened, but once again, I felt rejected.

After I calmed down, Mama explained what the ugly word meant inside our apartment. She also mentioned another word Judaism. I found out that it stood for a religious practice, which confused me because, as far as I was concerned, the USSR was an atheist country. Religion was the anathema of the Communist Party and forbidden to practice. The Soviet Union was a Godless place, a country of not enough.

How could anyone call me a Kike when I did not practice Judaism? I wondered. Nothing made sense then. But when I grew up, I realized that even though the socialist government stole my Jewish identity from me, its authoritarian regime ensured that my people's religion became my nationality. Like every other Jew born after the Great October Revolution, I became a Jew-by-Default. The stigma of anti-Semitism, like a second shadow, had followed me everywhere for twenty-three years of my life. Thank you, Past, for teaching me a lesson about hate. I am grateful.

The pivotal moment in my life happened the day the woman's voice from an open window buried my innocence in the pile of pristine snow. From then on, I had to be selective in choosing friends. Thank you, Past, for teaching me how to do it.

I made many friends throughout my school years. On my graduation day, I stood in front of the podium and gave a farewell speech as one of the top graduates. I felt proud of myself. I proved to all the ill-wishers that their derogatory remarks and continuous unacceptance of me as a person did not stop me from achieving one of my dreams. Thank you, Past, for allowing me to persevere. I am grateful.  

That day, I stepped off the podium, clutching a Red Diploma to my chest, feeling invigorated and hopeful. At long last, I thought, my fight with anti-Semitism was over, but, Past, you whispered in my ear: "Hold on, not so fast, my dear."

I applied to a university only to find out later that they denied me admission because I was Jewish. The three entrance exams I was a part of taught me that anti-Semitism was a contagious disease that they could not contain in one location. The hate towards the Jews lived outside Kotovsk, Ukraine, and it did not matter to the admitting committee that I had graduated with the highest honors. They had quotas to adhere to.

During my third exam, you taught me another lesson. I was unhappy about it but had no choice but to listen to your voice. That day, I discovered another word-bribery. I liked neither the sound of it nor its meaning. Thank you, Past, for letting me know that the world is full of crooks. I am grateful.

When I met my future husband, you taught me another unforgettable lesson. I learned that when two people want to spend their lives together, not everyone welcomes it. On my married day, the absence of my husband's parents lay heavily on my heart. That day I understood no matter how much I wished for a healthy relationship with my mother-in-law, it would not happen. I learned not everyone could love me. Thank you, Past. I am grateful.

Years later, I also figured out that forgiveness is liberating. Forgiveness is the thing that allows us to leave our pasts behind. Pun intended. I forgave and moved on. I came out of the cocoon, and, like a beautiful butterfly, I spread my wings and embraced forward. That day, by forgiving my enemies, I became enough. Thank you, Past. I am grateful.

Our relationship had many trials and tribulations. I did not forgive you yet for taking away Papa when I was only fifteen. It was the most challenging moment of my life to live through. He was too young to die at forty-eight and leave his three children and a wife alone. He was my knight in shining armor. I thought I would not survive without his love, but I did. Thank you, Past, for teaching me how to tend to myself. I am grateful.

You stood by my side during the two most unforgettable events. In 1975, at twenty-one, I became a mother. My daughter was born. In 1984, at ‌thirty, I gave birth to a son. I was blessed. You were my witness. Thank you for guiding me through motherhood, Past. I am grateful.

Two years after my daughter was born, on Thanksgiving Day, I stood on the holy grounds of the American Embassy in Moscow in anticipation of receiving entry visas to the United States of America. I had no idea of what Thanksgiving Day meant. I quickly learned about its significance, and it became my favorite holiday to celebrate when I arrived in the land of the brave and the home of the free. Many personal happy and not-so-happy events that made me humble took place around this time of year.

I went through the open door of the American Embassy in Moscow in 1977 on Thanksgiving Day and signed my divorce papers from anti-Semitism. Upon leaving the embassy, I walked the streets of Moscow without looking over my shoulder, not being afraid of someone watching me. For the first time in my young adult life, I stopped living in fear. Thank you, Past, for allowing me to feel the sweet scent of freedom. I am grateful.

Thirty years later, in 2007, two days after Thanksgiving, I underwent a craniotomy. The doctors gave me a less than thirty chance of pulling through it alive. Undergoing surgery made me humble. I realized that my life was fragile and could end at any moment. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. After my near-death experience, I learned to live each day with a purpose and dedication to life. Thank you, Past, for letting me tell my story and teaching me how to survive. I am grateful.

On June 25, 2022, you and I will celebrate our sixty-eight years-long love-hate relationship. We lived through a lot together, but I do not hold any grudges against you. You and I are like two partners in a marriage. We took our vows seriously and remained with each other through better or worse. Thank you, Past, for letting me build a life with a span that is lasting over six decades, so I have something to compare to you today. I am grateful.

Dear, Past, you dealt me a lifetime of valuable lessons, but the most significant ones are the two where you showed me how to not become a victim and that I can win them all with love. And, for that, I am sincerely grateful. Thank you.

Your constant companion.

Etya

May 19, 2022 21:04

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5 comments

John K Adams
14:01 May 27, 2022

Your revelation of the past through these moments of pain and survival are vivid and moving. Yes, the past teaches us through exposing us to what can make us stronger, if we embrace it. This is a powerful story! I salute your strength and tenacity in the face of all you struggled through. Yes we may suffer, but we are not victims. Beautiful!

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Etya Krichmar
18:03 May 27, 2022

Thank you, John for your feedback. I appreciate it very much.

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John K Adams
18:22 May 27, 2022

And I thank you for a very moving story. What children must suffer and adapt to with little understanding is incomprehensible. Everyone has gone through such things. It breaks some of us. Obviously not you.

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Felice Noelle
12:53 May 26, 2022

Etya: Your story may not win the Reedsy contest this week, but I award you my own personal award for courage, for perseverance, for patriotism. What an inspirational, heart wrenching story. In this day and the present political atmosphere, I apologize to you for the disappointment you might feel right now in America's less than stellar politics. Every American should read your story and take it to heart. Thanks for such an uplifting, deeply touching story. Here is a like, a follow, and my sincere comments. Keep writing; it's powerful...

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Etya Krichmar
15:44 May 26, 2022

Maureen, thank you so much for your kind words. I am grateful for them and also for having this chance to let my voice be heard. It is the main reason behind my writing. Where I grew up, I had no voice.

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