Essay 4: My Grandfather is Santa Claus [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

It was my last New Year’s Eve in Russia when I realized that Santa Claus was not real.

I remember it clearly: The snow was coming down, and coming down hard. In Russia at the time (I don’t know about now), we didn’t celebrate Christmas because the U.S.S.R., as a communist state, was officially atheist. And while the state had dissolved by December 1993, the traditions remained.

We celebrated the holidays by celebrating New Year’s, but with all of the decorations of Christmas. There was a tree, there were twinkling lights, there was lots of food and family, and there was, for us little ones, Santa Claus bringing presents at midnight.

I remember December 31, 1993 so clearly because of one reason: My grandfather coming in from the cold, covered in snow.

A lifetime smoker, he had made the usual excuse to go outside, despite the fact that the snow was not stopping anytime soon. Mom wouldn’t let me outside.

But then, just as dedushka came in after his nightly smoke, the snow started to let up just a little bit and he let out one simple phrase: “I think I saw something outside.”

Immediately intrigued – and with the clear indication that this “something” may indeed have been Ded Moroz (an old slavic term for “Grandfather Frost”, aka our version of Father Christmas or der Weihnachtsmann) – me and my little brother rushed to the narrow but tall window in my grandparent’s house entry hallway. It was the only place where we could look and clearly see the entire path from two-story house to the green fence and gate that stood at the end of the walkway.

“There’s something there!” I shouted.

And indeed, there was. After mom insisted on dressing her two impatient children in our full winter outfits, the whole family rushed to see what Santa Claus had brought us.

I honestly don’t remember what I got that year. All I remember is that, at the end of that walkway, there was a big plastic toy train for my little brother, and it was filled with other toys for the both of us. Excited, we kneeled down to play right away – but mom wasn’t having it.

Because of the cold and snow, we were dragged kicking and screaming back to the warming comfort of the house. The toys came with us, of course.

I don’t remember how much time went by in between dedushka coming back into the house to tell us Santa Claus had come or us being back after collecting our presents, but I do remember the yowling coming out of my baby brother’s mouth for the next hour.

It was clear what he wanted: He wanted to go back outside and play with his train.

As I undressed in the kitchen and got ready to play with my own toys, all Noly wanted was to go outside. Over and over again, he tried to put his hat back on after mom took it off, indicating that it was now time to be indoors. But my stubborn little 2-year-old brother just kept trying.

Of course, being a child, he couldn’t quite master how to put his hat back on, and so he cried and begged for help so that he could go play with his train outside.

Meanwhile, I watched. I watched as my baby brother tried to go back to the snow to enjoy his new toy, and I watched suspiciously as everyone gathered around us kids and our presents.

The truth is, for the past hour or so, I’ve been thinking about something other than my new toys: I’ve been thinking about Santa Claus.

Being a curious and perhaps a precocious child, I found it incredibly suspicious that my grandfather happened to be outside just before Santa came to drop off our presents. Why hadn’t he stood under the roof of the patio to smoke, but instead his coat was wet from the snow?

That’s when, for the first time, I realized that Santa wasn’t real. That Ded Moroz was actually my grandfather, who had snuck out of the house and placed all of our gifts under the glowing lantern at the end of the walkway. There was simply no other explanation for it.

In my head, I questioned the situation and simply didn’t know what else could have been possible. It was clear.

Somehow, at the same time that I knew my grandfather had really been the one to deliver our New Year’s presents that year, I knew that it must have been this way every other year too. I knew that this must happen in every family, really… That there was no magical being that brought us something from the sky, but rather our families.

And yet, as I looked at my own family happily celebrating the start of the new year – the year that would soon take my parents, brother and I to America – I was happy.

Although I didn’t yet know what the next year’s changes would bring, being with my family and seeing the love that surrounded us – including my poor dedushka suffering in the cold and snow to surprise his grandkids – made me smile.

As my baby brother tried (and failed) again to put on his hat, I settled happily back in the living room near the glistening tree. It might be one of the last times that I saw snow for many, many years but, thankfully, it was not the last time that I saw love and wonder… And maybe even a little “Christmas” magic, too.

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(Image via Gustav Klim/flickr)

Essay 3: McDonald’s in Moscow [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

On January 31st, 1990, the first-ever McDonald’s opened in Moscow.

At the time, life in the U.S.S.R. was difficult. I was almost four years old and my family had recently moved back from Cuba – a country which somehow was doing even worse.

My parents, both holding a master’s in engineering, couldn’t find jobs in their fields. But we survived and tried to make the best of it. At least for me, as a child, I never knew how badly we were really doing.

I was never wanting for anything or going hungry. And, in fact, I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders as we stood in the hours-long line when that first McDonald’s opened in Moscow. It was cold, but the crowd was excited.

I remember feeling exhilarated as we waited for our burgers and fries, even though I didn’t then understand the meaning of it all.

The line was so long, but we finally made it in. The McDonald’s signs were so bright. I remember not understanding what anything meant, but my dad ordered me a cheeseburger anyway. I can only imagine, now, that it’s because what he had always heard about in his native Cuba – the American “burger” as it were.

There were no Big Macs in our future. We were a cheeseburger family from that very first visit.

Like my family, everyone in line was enthusiastic. I don’t know if the Russian people yet knew that this symbol of capitalism would, less than two years later, mean the end of the Soviet Union. But we all knew that changes was on its way. You could feel it in the air the same way you felt the cold frost on your face.

Hope was coming.

As a child, I didn’t have much of a context as to what that meant. I knew things for my family weren’t easy. I knew that my parents struggled. But I also knew that I was happy.

That first cheeseburger in my hands was exciting. I didn’t know what it meant or what it would taste like, but I wasn’t disappointed. Who would be?

As the Russian people tasted capitalism for the very first time, I tasted the American Dream.

Four years later, I got my dream.

Just a few days after landing in the U.S., I was playing in a McDonald’s in Miami. Although our circumstances at the time were difficult (we lived in a hotel while our political asylum paperwork went through), I remember feeling utter joy as my younger brother and I crawled, jumped and slid all around that playhouse.

It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

The bright colors that I remembered from that first visit to the McDonald’s in Moscow were all there: Yellows, oranges, reds, greens, blues and purples. The burgers, once more, tasted like freedom.

This time, I was eight years old and I understood a little more: We had come to America.

My parents had brought me to America in search of a better life. As I lay on top of that pit full of color balls while my little brother dove in and out of the mess, I knew they were right to move us here.

The best part? That first bite of cheeseburger on American soil tasted just as good as that first bite on top of my father’s shoulders back in Moscow.

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(Image via Daniel Kruczynski/flickr)

Essay 2: The Double Commie [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

I had this “friend” in middle and high school who used to love to make fun of my heritage.

Year after year, the words “double commie” came out of his mouth whenever he talked to me, whenever he described me, whenever he talked about who I am.

I’m sure it started out innocently enough, but I honestly don’t remember. It was his own little joke about me and constantly said with humor in his voice. I’m sure he didn’t intend to be mean, but I realize now that his words were hurtful.

Growing up, I was always a little confused about my heritage.

I was born in Moscow to a Russian mother and a Cuban father. We lived there for most of my life, had a brief stint in Havana when I was 2-3 years old, and finally settled in the U.S. shortly after my 8th birthday.

I was closer to my mom, so I always considered myself a little more Russian than Cuban (but that’s a whole other story). And then you add in the American, and my brain has always been a jumbled mess of identity.

Being called a “double communist” throughout my youth was extra confusing, to be honest.

I understood what he meant: My parents met because of communism.

There is no other period in the history of the world where a Russian woman and a Cuban man, being born 5,953 miles away from each other, would have so easily come into contact. But when people hear about my background and ask how my parents met, the story is simple: They met in college.

Sure, their college was in the U.S.S.R. in the 80s and my dad was only there because Cuba was (and continues to be, sort of?) communist too. But neither of my parents were part of the Communist Party. In fact, they embraced the ideals of capitalism the minute we came to America.

So when that guy friend teased me about being a “double commie”, I didn’t really know how to respond. How, exactly, did being born under my circumstances transform me into a communist?

The simple impossible math aside (how exactly did half and half make two?), it took years before I realized how much the comment stung. I didn’t want to be seen as a communist and I didn’t want to be seen as an “other” anymore.

But that’s exactly what the comment meant. It was meant to draw a clear and distinct line between myself and everyone else at school.

I was the different one. Forget the fact that I spoke English as well as anyone else (hello, I’m a writer now, see?!) or that I had an American passport. It didn’t seem to matter that I asked for the comments to stop (they never did) nor that I got good grades and was basically a pretty tame teenager.

The label stuck, even if it was just the one “friend” that said it.

Over and over and over again.

I’ve never been able to forget being called a “double commie” for the better part of my middle and high school years. Maybe nobody else said it, but I always had a sneaking suspicion that they thought it. It’s like that invisible “L” for loser that we all used to make fun of, but this time I was the one wearing a big ole “C” for commie.

The teenage years are gone now, and I’m actually a confident person now. As an adult, I’ve been able to tell friends about the old days of being teased for being a “double commie” and they’ve mostly laughed it off. Today it’s actually funny that this guy was so ignorant that he couldn’t see beyond our differences.

Who knows? Maybe me and him could have been better friends if he’d for a second thought about what his bullying was doing to me or how hurtful his words, even said jokingly, could be.

But that’s not my loss.

In a weird way, his confusion over my identify ultimately helped me to realize who I am. And maybe I am a little bit of a double commie… and I’m a bisexual Latina immigrant too and any other label that I decide to come up with to describe myself.

Ultimately, despite the hurtful things that we hear when we’re younger, only we can truly determine our identify. For today at least, I’m a Moscow Chica – a woman who grew up Cuban, Russian and all American too.

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(Image via midiman/flickr)

Essay 1: The Day I Became an
American [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

My grandfather shook me awake suddenly.

My eyes slowly opened, feeling groggy and tired from our overnight flight. It was five in the afternoon there, in the suburbs of Moscow, as I woke up from a much-needed nap.

“Something is happening in America,” he said.

I didn’t understand what he meant. My brain was foggy and I was in no mood to be woken up. I know that I hadn’t seen my grandparents in years and that this next week was meant to be spent with them, but the jet lag had gotten to me pretty hard this time around. I stretched and tried to figure out a way to stay in bed.

“Something is happening in America,” he said again. Finally, I got out of bed and walked lazily from the bedroom in which I was staying, through the living room and kitchen, to the enclosed patio where my Russian family often spent their evenings.

The little TV out there was turned on. This wasn’t really an unusual occurrence. In fact, despite having a perfectly decent (and much bigger) television in the living room, we almost always sat on the patio to eat and relax.

But this time our family reunion wasn’t relaxing.

As I joined my mother and little brother, both of whom had come on this family vacation too while my father remained in the states to take care of my parent’s real estate business, I could not have prepared for what was on that television screen.

It was September 11th, 2001, just after 9 a.m. in New York City.

Images of the plane that had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center were all over the tiny TV. Instantly, my body froze. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t understand.

As my grandfather had said, something was happening in America… but what?

The rest of this day is a hazy blur. The only thing I remember feeling is confusion. What was happening? What were we watching? What were were going to do now?

Before long, we started to understand what was happening: America was being attacked. And my family was stuck in Russia.

Yesterday had been a perfectly normal day. A Monday like any other, I was excited to have the week off from school. We had flown from our home in Florida to New York City for our transfer flight before continuing on to Moscow.

I had seen the iconic skyline with the Twin Towers standing proudly at the southern edge of Manhattan when our plane departed at 8 p.m. That time is now forever burned in my memory.

This morning, as I greeted my grandparents at the airport gates, I took my first steps on international soil as an American citizen.

My parents had become naturalized the year before and my brother and I joined their ranks just a month earlier. Thrilled about our new journey as a family, my parents expedited our U.S. passports and booked these tickets. We would be missing a week of school, sure, but the trip was sure to be worth it.

Never in a million years could any of us have imagined what would happen.

Nobody in the world did, of course.

The entire world watched that day as the Twin Towers were hit, as they crumbled, as what seemed like the greatest and strongest country was attacked by what later was revealed to be terrorists.

I can’t imagine what my dad felt, hearing the news this morning. All I remember is my hysterical mother on the phone with him, anxious and crying. By that point, we knew that all airports in the U.S. had been shut down indefinitely. So what now?

My mother, my brother and myself were stuck in Russia… Almost 6,000 miles from home… indefinitely.

With the tragedy that we had just seen unfold in America, my only thought was that I wanted to be reunited with my dad, that I just wanted to go home.

I no longer cared about having a week off of school and even the visit with my grandparents had been soured. My mom spent hours on the phone with my dad, trying to figure out what we were going to do if it came time for us to fly back and there was, well, no airports to fly back to. The winning plan was to fly to Canada and drive down.

I didn’t care. All I wanted was to be home.

Before this tragic day that shook the world, I still very much felt like an immigrant. I had spent the first eight years of my life in Russia (mostly) and only the last seven had been spent living in America.

Although I didn’t have an accent, I looked different than my peers and classmates. Whenever someone asked, I always told them: I’m Russian and Cuban.

But after this day, I realized that I wasn’t just Russian and Cuban anymore. I was an American now.

My desire to just go home after this tragedy showed me what my true home had become. It was no longer about the things that made me different and it was no longer about where I came from before. It was about what made me the same as my countrymen and women. It was about the place that I, and my family, proudly chose to call ours.

As they say, home is where the heart is. And this is the day that my heart, now and forever, was America.

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(Image via Patrick Nouhailler/flickr)

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