You hear all kinds of horror stories about the Soviet Union and most of them are true, but the last years of the regime were less dire. Yes, five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment, the lines to the store were still unbelievably long and there was a chronic deficit of any product you could think of. Nevertheless, we were completely satisfied with our lives. I would never trade my childhood for an American childhood and these are just a few reasons why:
1. We took recycling to a whole new level. We never threw away old T-shirts, socks and even underwear. In case you didn’t know — they make excellent rags to clean floors and to dust. But only very old rags became rags-rags. More decent rags were cut up in stripes, wound into a ball and then used to knit runners and throws. My Grandma had them and actually they looked kinda cool.
2. We took energy-saving to a whole new level as well. In summers, when I lived with my grandparents in the village, we filled a big basin with water from the well. During the day, the water would warm up in the sun and become almost hot. Before sunset, I bathed right in the yard and my grandparents carried me inside not to get my feet dirty again. Those were good times. I miss my grandparents.
3. Some superstitions were taken very seriously. We were not allowed to whistle in the house. The old saying has it ‘whistling takes money away.’ Don’t ask me to explain — I don’t think anyone ever knew why, but this wisdom has passed through generations to catch up with me in America. I still don’t allow anyone to whistle in my house.
4. Pneumonia was always lurking just over our shoulder. I’m sure many of you have noticed that people from the former Soviet republics often ask for water with no ice at the restaurants. I will tell you why. As children and according to our mothers, we were under constant threat of getting pneumonia and dying. We were not allowed to drink or eat anything cold. When I ate ice-cream, my mother ordered me to take small bites and warm it up in my mouth before swallowing. If she spotted me not wearing slippers in the house, I was yelled at. Sitting on the concrete steps carried a strong possibility not only of getting pneumonia, but also becoming infertile.
5. Change of clothes. Coming from school, the first word coming from my mother’s mouth was “Change!” Yes, it was a general rule to change your clothes into home clothes, something old that was on the way of becoming rags. It was also absolutely imperative to immediately remove your shoes and put on slippers because (see point 3).
6. You say child abuse, I say discipline. American parents, brace yourself for the coming point. I was slapped and spanked every time I messed up. When I messed up less — I was told to stand in the corner on my knees for X amount of time. Now, while you’re judging my mother’s parenting skills, I will take a moment to send her my daily ‘thank you for raising me a decent human being’ message and apologize for all the crap she had to put up with while I was growing up.
7. A thing for a carpet. We definitely had a thing for carpets. Firstly, we hung them on the walls to demonstrate our prosperity. Secondly, every summer we took our carpets to the river to wash them. The dry cleaning services didn’t exist back then and I don’t think my mother would trust cleaning of our precious carpets into hands of some strangers.
8. Growing up to Indian movies. Before I turned 11, the movie theaters showed only Soviet or Indian movies. Every month, our local movie theater was crammed with viewers of all ages. People literary sat on top of each other because the place was so small and everyone wanted to watch. We loved Indian movies! They were so colorful and innocent, filled with singing and dancing. Every time the actors kissed (which was more like a peck), my mother covered my eyes. All women were secretly in love with Dharmendra, Indian George Clooney, and all men secretly wanted for their women to be able to bellydance. After such movies, my older sister drew a red dot on our foreheads, wrapped us in some shawls and we played Seeta and Geeta, twin sisters separated at birth to meet again one day.
9. The last thing our pediatrician prescribed was medication. I was never given medications for a regular flu or cold. The best medication was eating lots of raspberry preserves and standing over a steaming pot of water with a towel thrown over your head. For cough, Mom gave me hot milk with honey and butter. For fever, she rubbed my body with a mixture of vodka and white vinegar and applied compresses of the same mixture to my forehead. While you’re judging my mother’s parenting skills again, let me tell you that these natural ways always worked better then any pills or shots. When I have children, they will never know what a flue shot is.
10. Fur coats. Sorry my animal-loving friends but where I grew up, a fur coat was not a luxury, but a necessity. With no school buses, I had to walk to school for 30-40 minute in -25 to -30F — a down jacket would not save a child from freezing to death. We all had fur coats and hats. It was either that or hypothermia.
11. An old maid dilemma. If you weren’t married by 25, you were considered an old maid. Your mother would probably go to a psychic to see if you were cursed by the hater-neighbor because her ugly daughter got married years ago and her beautiful child was still single. Or maybe, you sat at the corner of a dinner table, which meant you were destined to never get married (yet another seriously taken superstition). If you didn’t have children by 30, you would start noticing pitiful stares around you because you were infertile. Your mother would nag you about that time you sat on the concrete steps (see point 3).
12. Make room for pantyhose in your freezer. This one is from my mother because I was too young for pantyhose (I wore woolen tights only because — see point 3). After buying a pair of hose, which were in great deficit, women put them in a freezer overnight. It would strengthen the pantyhose and make them last longer.
13. If anything bit you, it was because you were tasty. My grandpa had an apiary. As a result, I was stung by bees quite often. When I came running to him in tears to complain about the stupid bee, he said, “They bite you because you’re sweet.” It always made me feel better. Once, I was bit by a stray dog by my Mom’s workplace, she said it was because the dog found me tasty. It didn’t make me feel any better since I had to receive 40 anti rabies shots in my belly button.
14. Bush legs. When America (back then under the presidency of George H. W. Bush) started to export chicken thighs into the Soviet Union, it was a delicacy. They tasted nothing like the thighs of our happy, home grown, hormone and cage free chickens. They were so deliciously addicting and fat! ‘Bush legs’ was our special occasion meal. On the regular days we ate organic vegetables, grains and soups, impatiently waiting for something to celebrate and have ‘Bush legs.’ Now, living in America, I am vegan mostly because of ‘Bush legs.’
15. Leaving food unfinished was a serious offense. I could never finish my meal, maybe it had something to do with the amount of food my Mom loaded on my plate, but leaving it unfinished was never an option. I would struggle literary for hours to finish it and then my Mom would play her trump card. “If you love Mama, take a spoonful.” I did love my mother, so I took a spoonful. Then it started. “If you love Papa, take a spoonful.” I did. By the time she was done listing all the family members and close friends, I was done eating, but dinner time was nearing.