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The Once and Present Me

Garri Rivkin's story posted on August 31, 2012 at 11:26 pm. Garri emigrated from Vilnius, Lithuania to New York, United States in 1996

Sometimes as I stand in front of the class delivering my lesson, my mind projects another me. My words—directed to help students become better writers—are made strange when I consider the child that utters them, his hand clutching a mother’s, his body thin and frail and mentally unprepared for the challenges that await. He is more interested in a good sleep after the twelve hour flight from Vilnius, and is afraid that as they keep standing in the airport with no one to greet them, the sleep will come on the cold floor of the JFK terminal.


I see this same head which turns pleadingly up to his mother’s, now turn to the call of “Professor” and respond in a tongue his younger self would hear as an incomprehensible stream. The two figures stand at opposite ends of seventeen years, but the past feels just as vivid as the now. It is as though I am in a Kurt Vonnegut story, staring at panels in time, my present and past overlaid. With each action now, the child always reminds of the arrival and the difficulties that came with being at the bottom rung of society, where food came in the form of the marked down store fruits on the bottom shelf, easy for my reach and soft to my touch from the enzymatic browning.


I had been used to sweets that opened up to beautifully crafted toys inside, clothes that where imported from overseas, video game consoles with an assortment of games, and books that I could cherish for their lovely artwork. This I could not have in a reality where our budget hovered on zero. Nevertheless, I was told by many—and with great sincerity—that America was the best place to be. Given the facts it sounded absurdly Pangalossian. I did not realize how much of my earliest reality was my mother’s construct. Her body shielded me from the true Lithuania, where mainstream newspapers would tolerate language in their editorials that pointed at the zhids as the root of societal problems and where even in the institutes for scientific advancement the anti-Semite roamed and could threaten to burn my mother’s face for being a zhid.   


Institutional prejudices only cemented the difficulties of bettering our lot after the devastation of the Holocaust. Yet upon coming to the new world, we swapped one kind of anguish for another. In America, we were at the margins without language, and without information to empower us to move up. This ignorance forced a reliance on others, which in turn created  a false sense of relief that failed to consider that the help received was limited by the experience of the individual, and so, often ill-suited for our specific needs. I was to be guided in someone’s direction, and because I did not know better I would follow. If not a slave I would be a sheep. Nothing would have changed if it wasn’t for my mother.


She would continue to act as my protective armor. Now it was not to shield me from the hateful vitriol of the outside world, but to reinforce and allow for me to gain a freedom that I could not understand as a child. Out of necessity I was treated with a hands-off attitude which forced me to answer the difficult questions that I was presented with, and grow from failure as much as from successes. I was able to own the failure.


And from this emerged a fiercely independent thinker whose decision to enter education ran counter to the many tracks that were given by people who felt they knew better. That child that stands before the class is a reminder of why I stand here now, and with that it is signifier of why America is in fact the place to be.


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