A Secret Gift


“Why do you hate Russians?” my husband asked me over drinks, half-joking. I’d been annoyed by a Russian family who kept invading my space at the art exhibit we attended earlier.

“I don’t hate Russians.” I laughed.

“It’s all those Cold War movies you loved growing up.” my husband laughed taking the olive out of his martini.

“Well, Red Dawn is still my favorite movie.” I teased back.

“Wolverines!” he hollered as he plopped the olive in his mouth.

“I am not prejudice against Russians. It’s just that particular family was annoying.” They’d been talking to each other on the other side of the gallery, while I was in the middle. The fact that they were speaking Russian was just a description, not a factor.

I knew what he was referring to though. I’d grown up with a racist father. In business for himself, it was no surprise why he couldn’t pay our bills, despite bordering on artistry in his tile installation. He’d often go through the list of people he would not work for and why.

“My father didn’t hate Russians.” Despite trying to over-compensate by filling my life with the most diverse crowd possible, I found as the years wore on, some of my father’s racist views had seeped into my psyche. I had worked hard at re-wiring the way I viewed people I didn’t even know.

“The neighborhood he grew up in had a large Russian population. He’d often tell stories of his father making big batches of borsht with their neighbor. Heck, they were still doing that when I was a kid.”

“Your father just hated everyone. He was an equal opportunity bigot.” my husband clarified.

My father was an emotionally and psychologically abusive man. It is rare that I’ll remember a sweet memory associated with him. Most of my memories of him are intertwined with fear and anxiety. And yet.

“There was a Russian family my dad knew. Well, I don’t know if he did know them or had just heard about them. How would he have? I don’t know. They weren’t our friends.” I remembered.

“Well, your dad really didn’t have friends” my husband added.

“True.” I conceded. My dad’s only friend was his cousin who he worked with, who didn’t know that it was my father who continually harassed him with late night calls and pranks. No one was immune to his abuse.

 “It was Christmas time.” I continued. “This family had escaped the Soviet Union and had just arrived in the States. They didn’t speak English and had a million kids.” I later asked around, they had 11 kids. “He asked my mother to bake a large plate of cookies. We took the cookies to this family’s house. They lived on that busy street right by school, remember it?” He did.

“We never had anything extra of our own, but my father had put aside some cash and hid it under those cookies. We took it to their house and parked across the busy street. It was night and my father turned off the car headlights and ran across the street. He put the cookies on the doormat, rang the doorbell and raced back across the street to our car.

We sat in the dark car and could see one of the older children open the door.  He found the plate of cookies, he brought it inside.  There were no curtains on the windows, I don’t think they could afford them and the lights were on inside, so we could easily see inside.

All the kids began to gather around the older brother delighted. They didn’t ask their mom for a cookie, they looked too hungry to ask as they all grabbed one to eat. Then they noticed the money. It probably wasn’t much, maybe $20, I can’t imagine my father having much more to spare. The children said something to their mother, holding out the plate towards her. She picked up the cash, her mouth opened in shock, she held it to her heart, like an actor in a silent film would do.  I remember thinking this was such a foreign gesture.

Her husband stood up from the dining room table, where he was sitting, he was in dirty clothes, like he had just got home from work. She held the cash out to him. He took it from her. He didn’t get angry. He didn’t yell at her as I expected him to-- he brought her to him and held her in his arms. I felt embarrassed to see this. It was such an intimate moment. Nothing like what I saw in my house. I was embarrassed but I was jealous too.

One of the younger children pressed their face to the window to look out, presumably for the one who left the plate. We slumped down in our seats, even though we knew they would not be able to see us in the dark, through the two lanes of traffic. My dad waited till they rejoined the family, started the car and drove away.

We never talked about it.” I blinked coming back to the present.

 “That was a nice memory.” my husband said putting his hand on mine, knowing these memories were few.

Later in the week I called my younger sister and recounted the story. She didn’t remember it.

“Doesn’t that sound weird for dad?” I asked.

“Not really.” she said taking a drag off her cigarette. She was supposed to have quit and didn’t think I’d hear it. “He was always doing nice things for people, just not us.”

I hadn’t remembered Dad doing anything nice.

Those Russian kids went to a school near mine. I’d see that older boy walk home from school with his younger sisters while I played on the playground. I remember thinking he looked so much older than me, although he couldn’t have been more than two years older. He looked like he had seen a lot. He caught me looking at him and gave me a sign of recognition. Did he know we had left the treats? Or was he just saying hello? Or did he see something else? Another child who had to carry more than a child should? For the next two school years, without ever meeting, we’d give each other a knowing head nod each time he’d walk by.