In honor of Father’s Day, here’s one mother’s ode to her dad–a fond memory from her own childhood:
For my oldest son it was a yellow blankie and a stuffed Baby Elmo doll. For my middle son, it’s a Winnie-the-Pooh puppet that my mother sewed onto a blanket and that he carried everywhere until, today, Pooh only has a few loose strings hanging off him. For my youngest daughter, it’s a lamb’s head attached to a fuzzy body that she not only sleeps with, but puts on her boo-boos to make them feel better.
For me, it was a black bear whose limbs kind of moved, with glass eyes, a yarn mouth, and a nose where the fuzz was already staring to come off.
His name was ‘Misha,’ the Russian word for bear (I know, not very creative. It’s genetic. My daughter’s lamb is named Lambie), and I carried him with me everywhere. Including, in the fall of 1976, onto the train that carried me, my parents, my aunt and uncle, my 13-year-old cousin, and his grandmother from Odessa, USSR, first to a series of Soviet border-towns, then to Vienna, Austria, where we spent a few days before using illegal tourist visas to get on a bus and be smuggled into Rome, Italy, where we hunkered down to wait for permission to immigrate to the United States.
After four months in Italy (where we all ate our weight in fresh tangerines–seriously, that’s my dominant memory. That and the horrible paintings of babies being knifed in the stomach at the Vatican. And falling in some doggie-do at the Coliseum), we were finally allowed to leave for America.
Our final destination was San Francisco, CA, but that required a stopover in New York City. We spent the night in a hotel (where my other dominant memory is of seeing color television for the first time. “Here’s Lucy,” I think), and then, bright and early the next morning, we were all, as a group, hustled off to the airport.
Our immigration status at this point was very tentative. We had a right to be in the U.S., but we were technically just passing through NYC, which meant we couldn’t wander off anywhere. On our clothes were affixed blue and white stickers reading HIAS (Hebrew International Aid Society). The stickers were also on our bags. I think, legally speaking, we may have been cargo.
Money-wise, we’d been allowed to leave the Soviet Union with only a few rubles per person. After almost half a year of travel (though HIAS and many Jewish organizations did contribute to our upkeep), there was not a great deal of it left–especially in US dollar form.
Presumably, even if we were to disobey instructions and wander off, we wouldn’t get very far.
It was at the airport, while waiting to board surrounded by our luggage, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing in order to both keep warm and save packing space, that I looked around and asked the question that now, as a mom, I realize strikes terror in the heart of every parent: “Where’s Misha?”
Misha, it seems, despite my parents’ and other family members’ frantic digging through suitcases, wasn’t there.
At this point, my memory goes blank. I honestly don’t remember what happened next. I think I was in that much shock. My mother tells me that she thought I’d cry, but that all I did was go stand in a corner, with my face to the wall.
I stood there for quite a while.
Here, apparently, is what happened behind my back.
My father who, at this point, is 36 years old, has just picked up and moved his pregnant wife and 7-year-old child from the sole home any of them have ever known to a place he’s only heard about from furtively listening to Voice of America and assorted stories–which may or not be true. Yes, he speaks passable English (which is more than most; though it is of the British variety), but where they are going he has no job, no place to live, and very little money (reading “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck while in transit didn’t help). He is, to put it mildly, under a lot of stress.
Furthermore, he has never been a man prone to coddling children–or anybody, for that matter. He is practical and responsible and, most importantly, he is always rational. He weighs the pros and cons of a situation, and he takes reasonable action–without falling prey to the sort of sentiment that might cloud the issue. When a difficult decision needs to be made, he’s the man you go to. He’ll not only make it, he’ll see that it’s carried out. With a minimum of fuss.
He also has a plane to San Francisco to catch.
Really, as far as tough calls go, this is a pretty easy one to make.
Except that, 35 years ago, my father got into a taxi (a taxi! He doesn’t even take taxis now! He’d rather ride the bus. Or walk and save the fare). He took the taxi to the hotel. He found the chambermaid who’d already made up our room, and he tracked down Misha, all tangled up and buried in the sheets.
He got into another taxi. And he brought my black bear back to me. (Which is where my memory kicks in again.) We even made the plane to San Francisco.
Though the story gets referenced often at family gatherings (and whenever one of my own kids’ special toys gets lost; Pooh, in particular, is prone to escaping), my father has never articulated why exactly he did what he did that day.
It was my mother who actually said, “Do you really think that, after everything you’d been through by that point, your father didn’t realize that the bear was more than just a bear?”
All father/daughter relationships, I gather, are complicated. Ours went through a particularly bad patch during my teen years, when matters went more or less like this: He’d say something, I’d take offense, he’d take offense at my taking offense. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.
But, even then (and still sometimes now), when I really think I’ve hit the end of my rope with him, I look at the black bear that sits above my TV set (the glass eyes are paper now; the nose fur completely worn down), and I remember.