Back in those days, we would rise early — to get the fields on time.
It would always happen in the fall:
“Time of harvest,” they would tell us.
We didn’t know any different: We weren’t supposed to. We were children, still. Besides, to us — it would be just another adventure.
Most of us (if not all) had seen our parents working on land for their entire lives, tending to the whims of nature just so they could have a little extra to live on during the winter. It didn’t matter if you were a villager or one of those city people who thought they were better than the rest: Everyone worked, in those days.
The villagers had it a little harder, especially in terms of prejudice. They were the simpler people, with more obvious needs and uncomplicated vices. Most of their children would never finish their education either due to their parents’ alcoholism or because of being bullied, brutally, in school. Those kids wore poorer clothes than us and carried lice in their overgrown hair. They smelled of manure, tobacco and liquor: They smelled — of hard life.
For as long as they could tolerate their young lives’ injustices, they would become outcasts; our plebeian jokers. Soon enough, though, they would give way to their shame, drop out of school — and grow up way too early. And the hard life continued to loom, above our unknowing heads. But the ones that lived by land knew it earlier than the rest.
In any city apartment, one could find a tiny garden on a balcony. Radishes and tomatoes were planted in flower beds, upfront. And in the spring, after the soil would thaw out just enough, our grownups would begin to leave the city, for the weekends. They would take the trains into the suburbs — and they would return to their land.
Of course, somebody always had to be paid off along the way: Such was the Russian tradition. And we didn’t see any malice in that, or any particular injustice. So, we bribed the city officials to get the better patches of land. With the owners of live stock, we bartered in exchange for cow dung. The drivers of tractors were paid off in vodka. To each — his own.
Summers seemed a bit easier: Even if the money was tight, there was always at least some food in the home. The early months were spent on gathering; and for the entire length of August and September, each woman busied herself with making preserves for the winter. So, they would work — our mothers — rising early, tending to land; then, spending the rest of their days on mere survival.
But we, the young ones, would always turn it into a game. In groups, we walked each other home; and as we climbed the stairs of our apartment buildings, we sniffed the doors on every flight:
“Ooh. Strawberry jam! Most certainly, strawberry!” we’d smell the lusty sweetness of slowly simmering fruit, then say goodbye to the comrade heading in, into that doorway.
“This one — is pickling cabbage.”
“She is always pickling cabbage!” the disappointed child would grumble and knock on the door of his forever disappointing mother.
We were all just trying to survive. Although, for a while there, we didn’t know how difficult it was, for our mothers: We didn’t have to — we were children. And to us, everything — was an adventure, just for a little while longer.
My doorway always gave off aromas much more complex than our young palettes could’ve known: Green tomato jam, prune compote with red currants, garlic-stuffed cucumbers. Motha — was always a bit of a witch, at the stove; and I couldn’t hide my thrill at her being so different. And I couldn’t wait to find her in the kitchen: What could she’ve possibly come up with, that time?
She would rise early, back in those days. And by mid-day, several cauldrons would be boiling, simmering, stewing on the stove.
“Here! Try this!” the woman with curlers in her hair and sweat on her upper lip would order me while shoving a tiny saucer with pink or purple jam foam into my dirty hands. She wouldn’t even say hello.
Despite the occasional sand on my teeth, “MMMM,” I’d mutter.
“Good! Watch the pots! I’m going out!”
Motha would depart into the bathroom and emerge in five minutes doused in perfume and sparkles. I didn’t mind her departure.
In the fall, after the first month back in school, there would be field trips — to the fields. Normally, they would happen on a Saturday; and we would have to rise early, showing up to the already busy school yard in our best peasant attire.
Most of the time, the children of the villagers wouldn’t show: They had their own land to tend to. Still, we would judge them a little, while shuffling ourselves in between the seats of a school bus, waiting to depart at sunrise. We would be taken to the fields: to gather freshly dug-out potatoes or to gather sugar beats, for live stock.
The labor would be hard, and we would overhear the upper class men complain about such an injustice. But we still didn’t know any different: We didn’t have to — we were children. It would become much harder, soon enough. But for just a little longer, we could be children — and life could be much simpler.