Lilia Rusu


I did not miss my country, and my country missed me even less.

Nevertheless, I had to return one more time. To Moldova. My grandmother had already postponed her last day of life several times, and I knew that I had to see her before it was too late.

Going back would not be pretty. After all, I was still a “mixed-blood” and viewed as a “mongrel” by Moldovans, a threat to nationalist society with my Russian sympathies. I knew that the government would be interested in talking to me after my having written numbers of ardent letters undermining its leadership. And I knew that those interviews would not be friendly ones.

I also knew that my status as a protected asylee finally living safely in the United States was in grave danger if I returned. When granted the status, I was reminded that the US government would only protect me on U.S. soil. If I were to go to Moldova for any stupid reason, I would lose the privilege of protection. See, only carefully selected people are granted asylum in the US, and I was lucky to be one of them. After years of background checks, meticulously investigated evidence reviewed by an expert of Moldovan conditions, and psychological evaluations which confirmed my PTSD, I— along with the hard work of my immigration attorney—won my case. I had been told very clearly what was expected of me and that I should, under any circumstances, not go back. “ The US government is not able to protect you if you return to…” These words rang like fire alarms in my head. I knew they couldn’t protect me; no one could.

My life would soon be in great danger again, I knew. But I had to see her. Had to see my grandmother—one last time. As I clicked to buy my round trip ticket to Moldova with a layover in Russia, I prayed to every god I’d ever heard of that I would actually be able to use the return portion. If I was seized and detained while in Moldova, a very real possibility, I might never, ever again return to the US, I knew. For any chance of exit, I would have to take very special precautions. For example, I had to avoid going directly through the Moldovan airport because I was certain that my name would sit squarely on the infamous red flag list, the one on which the word Nedorita or Unwelcome is boldly stamped. Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, allowed entrance via two other options: I could travel through Romania, for which I did not have a visa, or through Ukraine, which was—itself—currently volatile and war-torn. My only option was Ukraine. It was better, I knew, to travel through war, than it was through my home country’s own airport.

* * *

I am at the airport waiting for my flight now. I am numb and sick, but I am thinking of my grandma, of her soft and gentle touch and her kind and loving heart—the way she used to cook my favorite meals for me. She made the best rabbit stew with traditional mamaliga—a corn mush, similar to Italian polenta. My thoughts of her food are interrupted by the news I scroll through on my phone, absently: “Today, July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airways flight MH17, a Boeing 777 loaded with almost 300 passengers and crew, was on a routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine. Everyone aboard was killed.”

I am a zombie boarding this plane, one which is headed straight for where 300 innocent civilians were just struck from the air. I already feel dead, unfeeling. I have opted to fly and travel through this war zone—where civilians were just shot from the sky—simply because my own country views me as a traitor; this war-zone is the safer choice. If I fall into the hands of the Moldovan authorities, I risk getting detained; if I travel through Ukraine, I risk my life. I weigh options once more…I still choose Ukraine.

I try to read, but my book seems more focused on me than I am on it.

* * *

It seemed that my mother could not find a better time or place to bring me into this world.

I remember my third or fourth winter in the former Soviet Union. I was dressed in a little blue faux fur coat with a fluffy hood that I inherited from an older cousin. With my warm red scarf bundled up around my neck and matching hat perched atop my head, I must have looked like a little smurf. The grey mittens my grandmother had knitted for me, jutted out from my coat sleeves, looking like tiny mice. They jumped up and down as I walked. My grandmother, always ten steps ahead, had sewn the mittens onto rubber strings inside my coat. She had to be sure my little mice accompanied me everywhere I went; there was no way I could misplace them, or even try to make excuses if they were lost.

My grandmother knew me well—knew I might lose what we couldn’t afford to lose. She’d knitted those mittens for me, but the unprocessed wool pinched and scratched my skin, and they smelled like sheepskin—like faint blood and dairy, a scent I despised.

I did not know then what a privilege it was to have mittens. I did not know then that a few years later my grandmother would unknit my mittens and re-use the wool to knit a new pair, one a few sizes bigger, and later, an even bigger pair after that. It seemed that she always had a plan. She was wise; she was always ten steps ahead. I suppose she had to be.

That winter’s day in the USSR, my mother and I stood in a never-ending line at the grocery store, waiting for our turn to buy a toy. It was a day I had been anticipating; I could not wait to finally have a Red Riding Hood doll. I had dreamed of the ways I would brush her soft blonde hair, and share my little secrets and dreams with her. My mother had taken me with her so I could hold a place in one line while she stood in another. This would increase our chances of getting bread, salt, soap, and maybe even this toy. There were no other children waiting to get toys, and that meant that I was the luckiest child, I thought. I was overjoyed, certain that stores did not sell toys to adults who did not bring children with them.

The people in that long and tormenting line were grey, as unfriendly and harsh as my little mittens. The sky was painted in that same shade of grey. It seemed that my washed out blue coat was the most colorful thing around.

That day, my grandmother had stuck two hot potatoes in my pockets, and I held them tightly in my little hands. She knew it was too cold for me to be out, but she also knew I couldn’t be stopped from tagging along. I would withstand any kind of weather to get my new Red Riding Hood doll. So, when people told me I would turn into an icicle if I did not go home, I brushed them off. I had my grandma’s mittens, her warm potatoes, and I was getting my doll.

When my mother returned from her line—matches, salt, and soap in hand—I looked at her with the hope that she would wave to me with my doll, but instead, her olive green eyes looked sad. “There were no dolls left, so I could not buy you one,” she told me.

There were no dolls at the end of my line either, I soon found out. I heard from behind the counter: “All dolls are sold out,” words that have remained like an indelible footprint in my memory. When our turn came, my mother bought two loaves of bread, and then boldly asked for a third. “It’s for two separate households,” she explained, trying to convince the woman to give her more bread than the allowed amount. The cashier, overweight and angry, yelled that two was the limit. My mother did not insist.

I looked at every netted bag that came out of the store. Not one person emerged with a doll. Who had bought them all?

Outside the shop, my mother tore chunks of bread from the fresh loaf and gave me a generous piece. I held it with two hands, greedily devouring it as fat, salty tears rolled down my cheeks and soaked into the crust. It was the best bread I had ever tasted.

My mother always told me that if I ate bread, I would grow up faster; she said the same thing about afternoon naps. There was a whole set of things I had to do in order to grow, I guess. I listened because I guess I was looking forward to adulthood. If this was what my childhood was going to be, then maybe I did not want to be a child.

I continued going with my mother to the store every Sunday, hoping that one day it would be my lucky day, but it never was. A doll was never inside any of the bags filled with bread, soap, salt, and cooking oil that we carried home with us. I learned not to ask anymore. And I certainly did not cry.

Later on, on my fifth birthday, the great day finally arrived. My mother came home excited and placed in my hands a doll that looked exactly like the one I saw in my dreams every night and a stuffed brown bear—both of which every child in my neighborhood had acquired a long time before me.

I never played with that doll or the bear. I kept them like treasures behind glass in the china cabinet, like trophies awarded for my patience and endurance. But I was happy to finally get them, even just to look at them, and to be no worse off than any of the other children on my block.

Later, I would come to understand that I really was worse off than them. My father was not Moldovan and that closed many doors for me. Because he was Russian, and—in turn—I was not pure Moldovan, we were deemed mongrels, Russian occupants; we were enemies. I didn’t understand why. Moldova was my home. I knew no other loyalties. I couldn’t help that the blood that surged through my veins half belonged to an ethnicity from a country less than two thousand miles away.  

Over the years, I worked extra hard to be accepted, but I never was. When I was denied admittance to a state university because of my ethnic background, my father took me to a private university. He tried his best to make up for the traitor blood he had cursed me with.  

While my mother was abroad in Europe making money to pay for my education, my grandmother and father became my whole support. My grandmother, knitting on her veranda surrounded by a forest of continually and shamelessly blooming red geraniums, would peer at me through her glasses and give me only one piece of advice. “Lilia, fii inteleapta,” She would say. “Lilia, be wise.” I would look at her wrinkles and grey hair, and I would think to myself  “A-si dori eu sa stiu cum sa fiu inteleapta”…“I wish I was wise.”

When I finally did enroll in the private school, I was vivid; I was blunt. I was no longer a crying girl. I was—like my grandmother had instructed me—finally becoming wise. I wanted more than stuffed bears or dolls now. I wanted equality, and I would not wait in line anymore—only to never get it.

In the very first months of my student years, I joined the Liberal-Democratic Party. When I was arrested for the third time by Moldovan police and everything that followed from there, I realized that my life was in danger. I had to flee.  

On the day I left the land of my birth, my heart was heavy, and I felt deeply hurt. I said goodbye to my friends, my parents, and my grandmother. I promised to return when things changed a little, but I was lying; I was almost certain I would not return. I was exhausted from fighting for my place in this rotten society. I was tired of proving I was not a Russian occupant, a Russian pig. I was overfilled with hate, and I deeply, wholeheartedly, despised the Communists who were responsible for my suffering, those who were responsible for separating me from my country, my grandmother. They had deprived me of my rights, my freedom, my peace, and now my family, too. That day was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It was also the last time I saw him alive.

* * *

I land safely in Russia and go immediately to the train station to begin the twelve-hour train ride to Moldova through the war-torn Ukraine. The train seems more ancient than my ninety-two-year-old grandmother; it certainly seems to move slower. Several times, I jump before faking a relaxed smile when asked to present my documents at the borders.

When I finally make it home, I feel like a stranger.  Everyone asks me questions about New York, my life as a student in the US, my personal life—over and over and over. After only twenty times, I just want to hide away somewhere where no one would find me, something I’ve become used to now as an asylee.

I head to visit my grandmother right away. She can not see me; neither can she believe that I have really come. Nothing in her face shows any sign of happiness, but she still looks kind. And wise. She always looked wise, my grandmother, and I wonder then if she is proud of me. Proud of me for leaving, for standing up for myself, for fighting. I wonder if she is happy that she taught me to be strong, to always be ten steps ahead—like her—to be wise.

She touches my head and winds her bony fingers through my hair until she reaches the ends. She smiles a little. She always liked that I kept my hair long. I turn my face away from her while she continues touching me. I do not want her to touch my face, which is washed in a stream of tears. I do not want her to know how guilty I feel. How guilty I feel…for hating it here.

I am home for a week, but it feels like an eternity. The nights are stinking; they are hot, humid—no need for wool these days. Our house is invaded by flies and, like the thoughts that invade my head, they keep me awake.

I find myself remembering that rumors spread quickly in this place. My heart beats fast and I startle at any knock on the door, any sound outside—fearful that authorities might have gotten wind that I am here. That they will call for me. And then…

On the day before my departure, a call comes. I am issued a summons from the police, dropped directly into my hand. Someone has told, I know. But, suddenly, I am not scared anymore. I feel nothing. That the police have been informed of my presence leaves me somehow feeling…greatly honored. I am wise now, I know.

My grandmother’s red geranium still sits comfortably planted in its pot on the same windowsill where I left it. It shows off its huge, fluffy, bloody flowers. The color of communism, I think, as I stare at it, knowing that I will never be back at this house again, will never see my grandmother again, will never get a summons again. I am happy that I came, but I know that it was not the wise choice, and I will never be able to choose it again. I know my grandmother will understand.

I say goodbye to her that day. I thank her in my heart for all she has given me, all that she has taught me—to be wise, always ten steps ahead. It is time now, I know, time for me to get ahead again. I have to leave before my summons, and so I do, quickly and quietly.

My grandmother will die on Thanksgiving Day that following fall. And shortly after Christmas, her red geraniums go on to die, too.

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