Ask any immigrant “do you remember the day you came to America?” and chances are they’ll not only tell you the exact date, and maybe even the exact time, but also the “story” of their immigration. This is a part of my story.
The day before we left Ukraine, my grandparents held a sort of a “yard sale”. Except, of course, without the "sale" part. Plus, we lived on the 4th floor of a nine-story building, with no yard. The invitation was given to the neighbors to come over and take whatever they saw. All the things that we couldn’t physically carry on our backs were at their disposal. And there were a lot of valuable things, at least from the perspective of a typical girl from the former Soviet Union (me) who saved every gum wrapper she could get her hands on. Back then in the USSR, there was nothing to buy at the stores and very little money to buy things on the black market. So, most people were desperate for anything reusable. You can only image the type of hype our "yard sale" created. Suddenly, hoards of people were storming our apartment knowing that there will be STUFF they can take FOR FREE.
This is one of the clearest memories of the days preceding our departure to the U.S.A., the “days of awe”, as I named them. I remember standing in the corner of our living room, a.k.a. my grandparents’ bedroom (those poor souls never had any kind of privacy), watching our neighbors and strangers rummaging through our last belongings – choosing, picking, and throwing stuff into their bags and boxes. It was like watching a homemade video, except everything in it was both eerily familiar and yet already beyond your reach… there goes my little blue cup that I’ve been drinking from all my childhood; there goes the wooden coo-coo clock that my grandma used to teach me to read the time; there goes the big Czech crystal vase that I my grandpa would let me play with just to stop my whining for a minute; there goes my old doll Fatma, the veil from her wedding dress missing in the turmoil… I was raised in that apartment. This was my home, the place where I always lived, all the years of my life up until that time. To see it all “naked” was one of the strangest feelings.
Looking around then, I somehow sensed that I’ll remember this moment forever…I knew then that this is going to become part of my story. This was the moment my proverbial train of immigration was leaving the station and taking me into the new life.
My family came to the United States of America on March 20th, 1991. It’s the first day of Spring. Is that a cool coincidence or what? We moved into an empty apartment on the 5th floor of a five-story building in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. Depression (not the economic kind) set in pretty quickly. Like a cat, I remember sitting on a window sill and starring into the distance. The view was stunning, but Manhattan (or as I knew it back then “the real America”) was too far in the distance and the unattractive little houses with weird-looking fences (at least that’s how they seemed at that time) were all around. From our living room window, doubled as my bedroom, I could catch a glimpse of the Verrazano Bridge, but even that sight didn’t cheer me up. I remember waking up in the morning after we arrived and cringing at how bright the sun was. “Even the sun here is different. Things will never be the same again”, I thought.
While we were all thrilled to be reunited with rest of our family, including my cousins, aunts and an uncle, we all felt a little (or maybe not a little) let down. American just DID NOT look or feel anything like what we imagined it to be. My grandfather in particular, as the head of the family, was seriously disappointed. We didn’t come to America without proper preparation and research. In fact, my grandfather has NEVER done anything without proper amount of sleepless nights and stress-induced ulcers. So, naturally, seeing that America was sorely misrepresented (please keep in mind that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies or "Tom and Jerry" cartoons were our key points of reference), he was worried about how we’ll adjust. Well, by “we” he really meant me, since I was “THE hope” of the family.
We also “researched” and got the latest scoop on the new digs through our relatives who’ve lived in New York for several years by that time, writing to them, asking things. They told us that life is hard but not to worry, at least the furniture can be found right on the street. “How?” I was just stunned. “What do you mean right on the street?” “Very simply,” my aunt would say on the phone, “you just pick it up from the garbage.” “Garbage? Is that some kind of a thrift store?” “Yes. Something like that”.
So, in the weeks following our arrival my parents, my grandparents and I went “shopping” at our new favorite store – the garbage areas and bins in front of the buildings and houses of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. And what do you know? It was all there – old but still usable tables, chairs, mattresses, paintings, plates, cups….It was just right there waiting to be reused by the new immigrant family. We just couldn’t believe our luck. I suspect this might have been the moment the seeds of profound gratitude to this country have been planted in my soul.
For some, the day of their arrival to America is the day when their long struggle began and the sense of mourning for the life they “had” before and a longing for the “way things were” set in. For others, it’s a day when a new, perhaps even more difficult, but better life or at least a hope for a better life has begun. And then, there is a third camp to which I happily belong. It’s those who celebrate the date of their immigration to the United States of America with pride, joy and unequivocal gratitude. March 20th is that kind of a day for me; my own special holiday. Every year on this anniversary, I celebrate in my own way: I take off my hat for all the amazing gifts this country allowed me to have (yes, including the furniture from the garbage!); I give my grandfather a special hug and thank him for almost single-handily organizing an enormously difficult process of changing countries; and then I look ahead with optimism for the future, in the most natural American way!
…and then, even though I can’t really sing, I begin to hum America the Beautiful:
"O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!"