Ksymcia died on the 14th of August. I was sitting on my bed yesterday afternoon, recovering from a nap. And that thought just popped into my head. She died on August 14th, and it was in 1978. I had only just turned five. You wouldn’t think I would know the date but, of course, I did. When the person you loved most in the world has died, you remember the date. If you don’t know what day it is, you go and look at a calendar, or you find someone big to ask. And you remember that day forever. No wonder the last few weeks have been so hard.
It’s comforting in a way. No wonder teaching has been so difficult for me. No wonder my classes have been acting up. I’m not a terrible teacher, but the trauma isn’t just being gently explored. It has been dragged up forcibly by the date. And there is so much of it. So much of it was completely new. It’s a wonder I can function at all.
So I feel relieved. I lived through the anniversary of it. I lived through a year of anniversaries I didn’t even know about. I lived through the anniversary of Nata’s death, a spring full of losses—the anniversary of my relationship with Nata, her proposal, Veroushka’s birth and her removal from us—and then Ksymcia’s death, and a million other traumas those events connected to, plus trauma memories triggered by daily life events and not any specific date. I’ll have to keep living through them, I imagine. The triggers don’t just disappear after one go-round, but they do get easier to deal with.
I did it. I was strong enough to do it for one year. I am strong enough to keep doing it.
A part of the relief about it is that, although it is hard, it didn’t wreck my life to remember everything. My life became difficult to manage at some points, but it never became entirely unmanageable.
Sometimes I get the idea that we are a bit delusional about this kind of thing. We think if we just try to deal with trauma, we can do it, but it is not automatic. It’s not that the feelings seem worse than they are. They are every bit as bad as we think they are going to be. In some cases, they were substantially worse. But, over time, you can build skills for managing them, and it starts to get a bit easier. If you were raised by what I think of as empathically-impaired people, you start out having fewer skills, and what you need to do requires more skills. These skills can be learned.
It’s not like you have a wound that needs to heal. It’s more like you have a stallion to learn to ride. Well, people learn to ride horses. Some people work up to learning how to ride spirited, difficult ones. It feels like that to me, anyway, like a matter of learning a kind of coordination between what starts out as almost two creatures: my mind and the trauma. The trauma is a bit tamer now, but I am also a better rider. I don’t get unseated so easily, and I know better how to calm things down.
The unexpected part of this is that I now feel I have roots and an identity. I don’t have my identity sorted out, but it feels as though something is there. And it also feels as though a lot of mysteries have been solved that have to do with me and who I am.
My parents really did not raise me. I am not who I am because of them. They were people whose house I lived in, but the bond I had with them is really not like the bond people have with their parents. It is not even like the bond people have with terrible parents. It is different.
I was raised by children and by teenaged girls. The most important figures in my life were Ksymcia and Natashka. It affects who I am in more ways than it would because there is this difference of culture and language. They ate different foods, their speech had different sounds in it, they expressed affection and disapproval differently, their body language was different.
And, in the case of Natashka, there was an entirely different expectation about assertiveness. I went home to my parents and was expected to behave as a doormat. The 2x2s are very arrogant doormats. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but there it is. We are better than everyone else, because we behave as though we have no rights. That was the ethos at home.
But the Russian girls were very confident. They were assertive. I can remember that feeling in my body. It is there not just in words, but in the posture I remember having there. And then I had to go to my parents’ house, and adopt an entirely different posture, a “meek” one, a “quiet” one.
This explains some things to me about myself that really aren’t exactly about trauma, but because of the relationships that formed due to the specific circumstances of the trauma. One of them has to do with a sense of being foreign. I feel an intense kind of loneliness and even a kind of culture shock because of the trauma: that’s a part of the memory of both Ksymcia’s and Nata’s deaths. I had to leave my whole world behind, and not just that one person. But I also feel like an outsider in my own country all the time. It’s a strange feeling, and one I could never adequately explain before. People I don’t know ask me where I am from, or they guess where I am from and it is some other country. I have been asked on the bus, prior to being asked for directions, if I speak English. It is an odd experience. But there is clearly something about me that feels to other people—and not just me—vaguely “other” in some way that cannot be pinned down.
Accent-wise, I am something of a chameleon. It’s not strong. It’s subtle. I think this happens to other people too, but it happens to me because I have no sense that an American accent is “my” accent. It’s just something I did as a child to be like other people, like adopting a submissive posture around the 2x2s. It didn’t become “me” just because I did it all the time, and so as an English-speaker, I never really know who to be. There is kind of no “there there.” There is no way of speaking that feels “mine,” and the result of that feeling is an accent promiscuity, because that’s what I was always doing: imitating the accents of people I did not feel a part of. I speak English like it is a second language and not my mother tongue, and I am just trying to use correct pronunciation—correct being however the people around me are speaking.
This is, of course, weird, because I no longer speak anything else fluently. I barely remember Polish. I just have this emotional response to the sound of it. I remember a bit more Russian—I think if I were surrounded by Russian, quite a lot would come back to me. But I really only speak English. I have lost all the languages of my childhood that give me a sense of comfort and home and familiarity. But they remain a part of who I am.
The weirder part of this is that, although we grew up in the same house, I had an entirely different childhood from my sister. We share some of the same traumas. She is probably more in parts than me: she has suppressed nearly all of the memories of trauma. But my dad’s bizarre sexual fetishes and his pseudo-religious rituals, she experienced too. That’s all she experienced though. No one made milk soup for her, or prepared tea from a samovar. She doesn’t have all the other stuff. She had only my parents, and not a 12-year-old mamusia, not a puppy pile, not any of the other stuff that I had—the good and bad of that other life she played no part in.