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From “Four Tales,” which was published in the Fall 2023 issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Everyone knows that to be a self-respecting Eastern European émigré writer, you must learn to long for the birch. Before you can even attempt to tackle the whole second-language issue, alienation, lost loves—you gotta take your first wobbly steps around the poeticized-to-death, they-bend-but-don’t-break, “oh, under her window” birch tree. It’s the shibboleth, the rite of passage, an affirmation of having lived and lived again, elsewhere, and taking up the feather to write your big, nostalgic immigrant novel.

Can I tell you something? I feel no nostalgia, nothing at all, and I never did. Nostalgia is for rich people in safety, or rather those who were very rich once and are now moderately well off. All over his memoir, Nabokov pines over birches and firs and his family’s fancy-ass estates, populated with barefoot peasant girls named Polina or Tamara, who lingered mysteriously in some doorway as he was inhaling this or that scent while riding on his fancy-ass bicycle with a butterfly net.

No one I grew up with ever owned a butterfly net. In the provincial Ukraine I come from, nobody planted birches in their gardens. What the hell for, when you can plant an apricot? Now there was a tree that mattered, the apricot. Its bark is gnarly and bumpy, and there are always ants swarming it, and the leaves look like someone’s old, menacing toes. But when the apricots are in season, who cares about all of that?

I will admit freely and with a measure of shame that as a young kid, I pedaled around on my beat-up bicycle, and unlike Vladimir Vladimirovich, who was looking for Polina and Tamara and butterflies, I was on the lookout for neighbors’ ripening fruit. I even brought along torbas, cloth bags, for the ride, and on particularly eventful summer days when the torbas were full I’d tuck in my T-shirt and pile the fruits there, against my body. I would purposefully arrange my loot on trays my grandmother would put out for the occasion. My grandfather called these filled-up trays of mine naturmortiki, “little still lives,” though of course they did not stay still for long.

I don’t give a damn about the birch, but I do miss the fruit trees. I don’t pine for some lost childhood, but I do miss my grandparents. Impossibly much. Both of my mother’s parents, who oversaw my apricot journeys, got through the war (he as a soldier, she as a nurse), and each lost a parent in it. To them, my life and my apricots were probably miraculous; I only get that now, when I look at my American-born children and tell them about what I know of the old war, and of the war that’s raging in Ukraine now, and I see a kind seriousness on their faces that fades and quickly turns into a shine of thoughtful and sensitive cluelessness, coupled with a hunch that this is somehow important, or at least important to me. Even if it cannot translate into experience, they—who, thank goodness, perceive it all as pure abstraction—shine their light through everything, with enough warmth for them and for me, and for my grandparents too, wherever they are.

A writer I admire once asked me: Why is it that you Eastern Europeans always cry at classical music concerts? The music reaches crescendo, and you can pretty much count on it. Sitting there, with your noble tears running down your cheeks. Some folks even bring kerchiefs knowing it will happen. Like they come expecting it. You want to cry? Stay home and cry—why does it need to be in public like that?

I didn’t tell him, but I will tell you: the types who cry at those concerts sit and think about birches. Me, I rub my eyes trying to stay awake and look cultured. One time, an old Soviet-style army choir came to Lincoln Center and sang all the little folk songs my grandmother used to sing along with the television, and that really got to me. I sat there, bawling all through the concert over aging, red-faced army dudes singing about the rowan bush and the little raspberries.

Sometimes I turn off the news and memories of Ukraine flood me and out of nowhere I am in tears, wrecked and sobbing into my dark glasses. But just because I miss something or fear it may be erased by rocket fire doesn’t mean I’m nostalgic. To be completely honest, I don’t even remember things enough to miss them: it’s just that there’s a spot somewhere in there that hurts because there once was a memory with tentacles of feeling and now there’s a void in its place. And when you’re walking through your immigrant mind, especially during the war, you’re bound to hit one of these voids, multiple times a day, and you never know when, and you can’t predict what kind of a void it is either. There are bottomless voids but also little puddle-like voideles, gamy and almost-fun voidies, hellish voidoids, whistling voidichkes, every which kind, filling the memory of my childhood.

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December 2023

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