My mother grew up with her brother’s hand-me-downs, the phrase “show me your papers,” and mandatory Marxism-Leninism classes from kindergarten to med school. Though she recalls these memories with bitterness, I’m not always sure she’s happy that my childhood hasn’t been similar. The virtues of obedience, frugality, and orderliness thrived best behind the Iron Curtain, and Mom’s reward for survival was an American daughter who rolls her eyes and eats Nutella out of the jar. I’m the reason she bites her nails down to the ragged quick.
“I would never yell at my mother, or disrespect her, even when she was wrong.” When Mom says this, she always looks right at me.
“If she was wrong, weren’t you just being unfair to yourself?” I ask.
“It doesn’t matter.”
We cross the snowy Columbia campus, and I wonder why we ever left Morningside Heights, though I have no memory of living there. There are no great stone libraries or statues of Alexander Hamilton in Astoria.
We walk up Amsterdam Avenue and turn the corner onto 121st street. Mom leads me into an apartment building with a brick courtyard, and introduces herself to the security guard as a former resident. “This is where you lived until you were one.”
Mom and the security guard laugh and reminisce while I stare at the hexagonal tiles on the floor and the brown elevator doors, waiting for some hint of familiarity. Five minutes later, they say their goodbyes, and as soon as we’re out the door, Mom says “The roaches here were awful.”
We always moved in part to escape pests. I saw a mouse for the first time in our first Queens apartment, when I ran into the kitchen after hearing my mom scream. I saw a blur of gray darting smoothly alongside the wall, and mom scrambling to catch up—as if she had a chance of catching it with her bare hands. Within a week, I was peeling glue traps off my bare feet at least once a day.
So far, there have been no sightings of mice or roaches in the apartment I’ve lived in with my mom for the last two years. Several times a day she will kneel on the floor, picking up the microscopic crumbs that I never notice and throwing them in the garbage. “Never again the mice,” she mutters, and I do my best not to stare.
Money worries have been both a constant pain and a driving force in my mother’s life. She didn’t grow up with much of it in Czechoslovakia, and she didn’t end up with that much more in the United States. After eleven years as a doctor back home, she arrived in New York City with a useless foreign education. Until she finished nursing school in 2004, she had no career, only low-paying jobs. I remember visiting her once at the Greek cafe where she was a waitress when I was three years old. She smiled down at me, looking like a perfect fifties housewife in her brown apron with a tray balanced on her palm. Years later she would hint that her boss there had been rude and harsh, but at the time the promise of money was enough to make her beam.
I was less than a year old when my sister Hana cut her hair short, as it still is today. At the time subway fare was a dollar less, but Mom still made her walk the 60 blocks to and from the salon to save money. On the return trip, my sister carried the heavy curtain of hair that had been cut away, and growing exhausted in the July heat, threw the hair in a trash can on the street. To this day Mom mourns the loss of Hana’s hair.
Each month bills and bank statements came in the mail, and every day Mom found a way to stretch a dollar and scrape enough money together to feed me. She even enlisted my help, making her habit of picking up change on the street into a game for me as soon as I could walk.
Ten years later, we’re walking up Lexington Avenue, gliding past the glowing Bloomingdale’s window displays, just a two minute walk from the quiet paradise of Park Avenue’s austere brick towers. Mom bends over, reaching for a Sacagawea coin lying between her feet. I glance left and right, and step back several feet until my back is almost touching the wall behind me.
“It’s a dollar coin!”
I wince as she drops the coin into her coat pocket, but I don’t stop her. She’s doing the right thing. When I pass by a coin on the street, I always feel a little twinge of guilt for not swallowing my pride and picking it up.
When I’m fifteen years old, I become a guest in one of those Park Avenue apartments, the home of a recently-made friend who happens to be the son of a bank executive. The apartment takes up half the floor of the building, with its own private elevator landing. Each of the five bedrooms has its own bathroom. The sink and mirror in the powder room are speckled with what looks like gold dust. There are rooms that seem to have no purpose other than containing couches and chairs, and there’s always a new doorway leading to yet another undiscovered room. It feels like there should be maps of the apartment available at the entrance for visitors.
I wonder what it’s like to grow up never feeling a thing about the million coins on the ground, tempting worried hands to pick them up.
My earliest memory is of my mom bathing me. The linoleum tiles of the kitchen floor creak under her thick feet. The sharp sunlight from the windows makes the white walls glow. I bump my head against the kitchen faucet, and trace my stubby fingers along the circular drain. Already her hands are sapped of moisture and covered in a roadmap of bumpy blue veins. Already I’m making her job harder, slapping at soap bubbles and kicking water onto the counter. Though Czech was the original language of my early memories, in my mind they are now dubbed in English. In 1998 she says “Tak, tak,” and in 2012 I hear “There, there.”
I’m about seven years old when I spill a glass of water on the couch, and for the first but certainly not the last time in my life, I see her snap into one of her rages, as if the cold water had hit her face rather than the cushions.
“This is all my fault! You’re a spoiled American!”
She kneels on the floor, wiping up the water that has now dripped and pooled between the carpet’s twisted fibers with a gray rag. I run to her aid with a wad of paper towels in my hands, and I’m admonished for being wasteful. Tears run down her face, burning her skin red, and the more I beg her to let me help, the louder she tells me to stop, go away, I’d only make it worse.
On an August day just a few weeks before junior year, Mom frowns in confusion when I explain to her that my friend Lindsay is coming over tomorrow to bake cookies with me.
“You…baking? Are you going to burn down the kitchen?”
“We just want to bake some chocolate chip cookies. It’s a pretty basic recipe.”
“At least you’re doing something useful.”
When Lindsay arrives, Mom addresses all her baking and oven usage instructions to her, though I am just as inexperienced. She says that Lindsay seems less likely to start a fire. We mix together flour and eggs and sugar with Mom’s prized whisk, passed down from her grandfather who owned a pastry shop until the Communist Party shut it down. She tells me that baking runs in the family, but glares down at my own finished cookies with suspicion, until she takes a bite and her thin lips crack a smile.
“This is really quite good.”
Wandering through the spick-and-span maze of Ikea, Mom stops at a model kitchen that’s at least twice the size of the kitchen in any home she’s ever lived in. The square tiles on the wall are a perfect warm matte brown, the vast counter stretches along the wall, and coffee mugs (the same shade of brown as the tiles) hang on hooks above the gleaming surface of the sink and unused oven. “My only dream is to someday have a kitchen like this,” she says, and my eight year-old mind begins concocting plans to become fabulously wealthy, promising myself that I will someday buy one for her.
I can’t do much right, but I can keep a promise.
Jane Argodale, Age 16, Grade 11, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key