My 20+ Years In America
In the West, today, the popular imagination has bent Eastern Europe into a barbarous, backwards swath of contested land forever haunted by the histories of the Soviet Bloc. But these geographies hold homes, hold loves, hold lives; no matter the pain or torments, countries like Ukraine and Siberia were and are the scenes of childhood— replete with all the joys and grief of existence itself. Tatyana Shimanova’s autobiographical novel, My 20+ Years In America, paints this dynamic picture, placing her homeland front and center and subjecting it to both leveled criticism and beautiful nostalgia, creating a melancholic and moving narrative out of her own struggles and successes.
My 20+ Years In America trembles with arresting prose, thoughtful meditations, and a universality essential to any and all autobiographies. The specificities of time and place allow for lush detail and a poetic verisimilitude, but the essence of Ms. Shimanova’s story is as primal as any bildungsroman— from Goethe to Sedaris. My 20+ Years In America, however, with its pertinence to the current global stage, functions just as well as a contemporary allegory, as a humanizing symbol of the ontology of the late 20th century, the intertwining narratives and circumstances of the marginalized that shaped our society today.
But, throughout it all, Ms. Shimanova stays true to herself, true to her own truth, if you will. Beyond the evocativeness of the writing and the nuance of the characters, the clear honesty of the hand penning these pages shines through, underpins every word, like confession, or salvation. This is the true task of the autobiographer— and Tatyana Shimanova has achieved this arduous task with flying colors.
— Charles Asher, PBK Reviews
Memoirs dealing with immigration and the prevailing belief that people can better their lives and the lives of their children are often sentimental and hold the sympathy of the reader with vivid, emotional descriptions of events. However, Tatyana Shimanova’s writing is spare, mirroring the physical coldness of her surroundings growing up in Siberia and the Ukraine as well as the cold shoulder she encounters when she finally reaches America.
My 20+ Years In America begins in present-day America with Tonya (a character based on the author) driving to work and remembering her sister and mother. The story flashes back and forth from past to present without purpose, making it difficult to follow at times. When the narrator digs into an event or a relationship, however, readers will be invested. Unfortunately, the challenge of maintaining that investment is not always met.
Tonya’s childhood and adolescence are explained quickly at the beginning of the book; by page twenty-seven, she is already leaving for college. Readers are given only a cursory view of the incredible pain and grief that have shaped Tonya’s young life. As Tonya ages and she navigates love, career, marriage, and motherhood in a climate of political and economic hardship, the book’s pace changes, and the quality of the narrative voice improves. Tonya struggles between her need for help and the pride that keeps her from asking for it. Even when her son is in the hospital, she struggles to ask a doctor for help. That pride may explain why the narrator has difficulty giving voice to so many of the emotions Tonya must be feeling. When Tonya decides to move to America with her youngest son, she risks forging a passport. In doing so, she creates a bureaucratic nightmare for herself. She travels for hours to appear in court, only to be told to return another day. She asks for asylum, but the changing laws don’t protect her. The hope that Tonya will find community, employment, and a home of her own propel the reader through a thick forest of new hardships that, frankly, don’t seem like an improvement over her life in the Ukraine. As she settles into her life as a caregiver, at the same time dodging red tape and worrying about her sons, there is one last story Tonya has to tell. This is probably the most heartfelt and well-written chapter in the book. Tonya has had a lifelong love affair with the piano, and when she becomes caregiver to the aging musician John Leiberman, the two forge a unique and beautiful friendship. Unfortunately, the sun doesn’t stay out long for Tonya. With so little power and position in her new country, it seems that she is fated to always be struggling against the wind. Shimlec clearly has a powerful story to tell, and the book’s cover makes the protagonist’s lonely struggle evident from the start. Readers would better connect emotionally with Tonya’s hardships had the author written at a more even pace and with a less disjointed chronology.
My 20+ Years In America
Based on a true story
Tatyana Shymanova’s novel My 20+ Years In America, based on a true story, includes moving, sometimes joyous, sometimes harrowing stories of her childhood and coming of age in Siberia and Ukraine. Follow her dedication to studying and teaching piano, growing up and falling in love, her marriage and children, and her journey to the United States, in which a fateful decision changed her and her younger son’s lives forever. The author’s struggle for survival on two continents alternately inspires hope, admiration, and outrage.
Dedicated to my grandchildren
Jane-Alexandra and Johnathan
Many thanks to my editor Anita Gallers and all of the people without whom this book would not have been written: Ksenia and Yevgeniya Luzanov, Faye Minsky, Helena McCone and the man entrusted with the task of translating the poetry, Benjamin Phinney
The alarm was about to stop ringing when Tonya’s mind gradually returned from the fuzzy realm of her dreams back to reality. She had no idea how long the alarm had been on before she awoke, but now as she lay fully conscious, the unrelenting buzz jarred the stillness of the early morning, urging her to begin her day. She hadn’t slept well that night, tossing and turning in the sheets and blanket that now lay crumpled in a heap at the foot of the bed. Gazing out the window, she could just make out the streaks of orange and yellow that colored the sky before the sun finally broke through into morning. She slowly reached out to the clock, fumbled around for the snooze button and enjoyed a few more seconds of silence. It always took a fighting effort to get herself out of bed, but she knew that she could not trust her body to stay there a minute longer.
Arriving late to work was certainly never an option, no matter how much her body yearned for those extra minutes of rest. Tonya was used to this life by now: for the last 7 years she had worked as a private CNA in the Boston area, finding jobs by word of mouth. She had tried to fit her entire life perfectly into this unrelenting schedule for the majority of her existence. She finally pulled herself up into a seated position on the edge of the bed while her feet blindly stroked the floor, searching in the darkness for the slippers she was sure she had left there the night before. The wooden floor felt cold to her feet, and she was relieved when she found the first shoe, then the second, and felt the warmth envelop her. She stood slowly, still in the haze of sleep, and made her way to the bathroom. It was already 5:00 a.m. when Tonya turned on the shower and felt the cool drops of water fall onto her face, awakening herself in preparation for the upcoming day. She thought ahead to the fast-approaching drive to work.
While most people would balk at an hour and a half roundtrip commute, Tonya relished these hours; it was the only time when she belonged completely to herself. On most days her mind would wander back in time through her memories, settling on her hometown where she was born and raised with her parents and only sister, Ludmila. Wistfully, she imagined her sister’s beautiful face and what she might have looked like today. She would have been sixty years old this year if she had lived, but instead, this year commemorated the thirty-seventh anniversary of her death. How unfair it had been for her to die in the prime of her life at the young age of twenty-three, eight months pregnant with her first and only child, who was never given a chance to experience life!
Tonya checked the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of her face, her features so similar to those of her sister. The grief of her loss never completely went away. It came and went like the waves of the ocean tide. She thought again of her sister, and how everyone who came into contact with her admired her beauty, artistic talents and academic excellence. She had graduated high school with a silver medal, earning only a single B in physical education, then attended the Institute of Technology, where she was accepted after passing a test in mathematics with an A. (Students who graduated High School with medals had the privilege of taking a test in only one subject, and if they got an A, they were automatically accepted.)
Tonya’s mother, Frola, had passed away one year before Ludmila at the young age of 50. Tonya often struggled to recall a happy memory of her childhood and of a time when she could have possibly bonded or shared a special moment with her mother, but they always escaped her. Although she could never remember a time when her mother was affectionate toward her, showering her with hugs and kisses as the mothers of other children had done, she came to have a reserved respect for her. As the years went on and Tonya experienced the trials of womanhood for herself, she realized that her mother had been an unhappy woman. She had reluctantly married her father after tragically losing the true love of her life, as well as the only child that they had together. Did she love Tonya’s father? Her marriage was probably like the final straw that someone desperately grabs onto to survive and continue on with her life. Tonya and her mother did not part well before her death, and every time Tonya looked back in her memory, she was filled with regret.
Frola was merely a baby when her own mother brought her to Siberia to escape the tribulations of the Russian Civil War between the Bolshevik Red Army and the loosely formed anti-Bolshevik White Army. Their fighting plagued the entire country, but it was an exceptional hardship to a woman who also happened to be the wife of a White Army officer. After her husband was killed, her life and those of her children were in grave danger, and in her haste and frantic attempt to shield her children from such horrors, she fled with only the possessions that she could efficiently carry in a small baby carriage and in her hands. A few well-tailored dresses, a small icon of Saint Nicholas that could fit in the palm of your hand, and a few silver spoons, which she later traded for bread, were the only items of value that she managed to hide during her expropriation. She carried on with her two little children and left behind the only life that she had known in the hopes of garnering a better future in the unknown lands of the north.
Frola’s mother eventually found herself journeying with a group of refugees who were moving farther East to the barren lands of Siberia for various reasons; some were trying to escape to alter their identity, and others were attempting to escape famine, which had settled all over the Ukraine. Her status as the wife of a White Army officer brought with it the potential for danger wherever she traveled, so she discarded all of her documents and lived anonymously when she eventually settled down in the Krasnoyarsk region.
Before the Russian Revolution, political as well as criminal exiles had been banished there. Its barren landscape made planting particularly difficult, and its inhabitants constantly worried about the availability of sustenance.
Frola’s mother was able to obtain new documentation under a falsely assumed last name. Her birth name, Alexandra, was the only portion of her identity that she was able to carry with her from her past. In a moment of desperation, Alexandra used her survivor’s instinct and quickly discovered a way to ensure that her past identity would never be found out. During her journey from her hometown to Siberia, Alexandra and the other refugees had passed a small village that had burned completely to the ground. She kept the name of this village in her memory as they once again assumed their travels. The records and vital statistics that were stored by the authorities were completely destroyed by the fire, making verification impossible. When the authorities attempted to verify her identification upon her arrival to Siberia, the request was returned as negative, and they had no choice but to trust that she was telling the truth about her place of origin.
In Tonya’s recollection, her grandmother was a tall, slim woman who could crochet beautifully. She was well known for her work making countless items such as tablecloths, handkerchiefs, dress collars, and mangettes, the beautiful embroidery that adorned the sleeves of the finest dresses. Despite her talents, she lived the life of a peasant woman, just as those around her. She blended into the Siberian lifestyle well enough and by all accounts was considered one of the townspeople, despite her unknown origins. She was always soft spoken and kind to Tonya and her sister, Ludmila.
Tonya often fondly remembered the first gifts that her grandmother had bestowed upon her and her sister. She gave them an alphabet primer and two dolls that she made by hand from tiny pieces of fabric with cotton stuffed inside. She also gave them a loaf of homemade bread along with carrots. She then proceeded to delight them with a story about how she had met a rabbit on her way to their home and he had given the gifts to take to them. With the simple mind of a child, Tonya wondered how a rabbit could have possibly carried around all of the goods; however, if her grandmother had said it was so, then it must be.
While the time with her grandmother was remembered fondly, it was sadly short-lived, as Tonya’s grandmother died when she was only in the 6th grade. Tonya remembered how she and Ludmila cried together with their mother. Frola frequently talked about her mother even long after her death.
The relationship between Tonya’s mother and her grandmother, Alexandra, had always been a bit of a mystery to Tonya. When Tonya and Ludmila were teenagers, their mother finally explained why her relationship with their grandmother had been so contentious — she did not want her to have children, and consequently, Frola felt terribly hurt.
The last time she saw her mother alive, Frola remembered her saying, “I am going to die soon, so I have prepared everything. My clothes will be folded here on the table along with my documents and a little money that I have saved.”
Tonya’s mother couldn’t believe that she had heard her mother correctly. Why would a woman who was still in good health suddenly speak of death?
“What would make you think such thoughts?” Frola asked her carefully, as she studied her face for any type of clue to help her interpret these words.
“I think your father wants me to join him. He came for me twice already during the night. There was such a loud, demanding knock on my window. Of course, I wondered who on earth could be knocking at so late an hour and ran out the door into my yard. Each time when I arrived to the front of the yard to open the door, there was no one, but for some reason I knew it was him.”
Alexandra died one week later. She died a peaceful death, but alone, as she had been most of her life. She kept herself isolated from people and only randomly exchanged a few words with her neighbors. Thinking back on her grandmother’s life, Tonya could only guess what the true reason was for her to stay in the country when many people managed to emigrate as soon as the revolution began. She did not know if she had any relatives at all, alive or dead, besides her grandfather.
After the funeral, Tonya’s mother visited Alexandra’s now vacant home and spoke to her neighbor. She had been the one to find Alexandra, outside of her home, when she glanced over into the next yard. She had known Alexandra since the time she initially came to Siberia, and for the first time in all of those years she had seen her neighbor sitting on the lone bench in front of the house. Thinking Alexandra had simply come outside to enjoy the crisp, morning air, she called out to her, yet strangely received no response. The silence stunned her, and she felt a cool chill come over her as she watched and waited for some type of response: nothing. As she walked closer, the aged, yet still soft and beautiful features of her neighbor came into focus; however, they were lifeless, and she realized that she was dead.
Alexandra had always taken such great care to attend to the few possessions that she was afforded. Before dying, she had come outside to water her garden, the house inside was immaculately clean and the clothes she had chosen to be buried in were on the table along with the documents and a little money she had saved for a rainy day. Alexandra had left everything in order, just as she had promised her daughter only a week earlier.
It took a long time for Frola to understand why her mother did not want her to have children. Alexandra herself had raised two children; why would she not want the same gifts for her own? She finally connected it with what her mother had once mentioned was the biggest mistake of her life: given the opportunity to leave Russia once and for all, she had stayed in the country. One can only guess why she did not leave, although she never fully offered an explanation. Perhaps she did not want to leave her homeland, or maybe deep down she believed that the war would work out in favor of her social class. She took her secrets to her grave, and now no one can know for sure. She was not a proud woman; however, she did her best to save her children and brought them through shameful poverty and famine.
Frola rarely spoke openly of their poverty. Tonya could only recall one occasion when she had not wanted to eat something that her mother had cooked.
Frola burst out, “You do not like it? If you had ever tried to dig through frozen winter soil to find some mistakenly left grain, potato or some vegetables, you would like everything that is edible.”
Whenever Tonya did not like a food, she recalled her mother’s words: “It’s edible.” In general Tonya developed a good appetite and enjoyed most foods. She grew up a very healthy child compared to Ludmila, who was always in poor health and easily became sick.
Tonya was in the 7th grade when she overheard the story about her grandmother from a conversation between her mother and her closest girlfriend. She was shocked to find out about her heritage and that she had a grandfather who was affiliated with the enemy, the White Army. It was a heavy load on her shoulders, and it seemed impossible to carry on normally. She had to keep it a secret for the rest of her life. Would she be able to do that?
The secret was out just before she was to become a member of the Komsomol Party. To pass the test necessary to join, she needed to be a good and honest student, have respect for teachers and elders, be helpful to people who were less fortunate and defend those who were younger. Each student was called upon to do everything that was asked of them by the elder members of the Komsomol Party and its central community. In short, they only wanted the best of the best.
Tonya fit all of these qualities, but she could never be truly honest because she could never expose her deepest secret. She was afraid. She had to pretend she didn’t know about her heritage, at least so her mother would be satisfied in thinking that she didn’t know. She became a member of the Komsomol Party like most of her classmates, but she always felt the contradiction between her conscience and her secret. It was too much for her and began to eat away at her inside.
However, during the summer after Tonya finished the 7th grade, she had an experience that changed her feelings about her family secret. The children from her neighborhood would often go to the river to swim together. Her mother only allowed her to go if she took a safety flotation device, which just happened to be the inner tube from a car tire. A group of children from her neighborhood walked together for more than an hour to reach the river. The portion of the river in which the children swam was not dangerous; it was a slow-flowing, calm river which then entered the much more dangerous mountain river, with its hazardous frigid temperatures, fast flow, and dangerous undercurrents beneath the surface.
Every summer there were always a few tragic accidents where someone drowned. The idea came spontaneously to Tonya that she should attempt to cross the mountain river as a test. She knew an approximate place that was slightly safer, where a few adults had managed to swim across. If she survived, she would forget about her secret. If not, she would take it to her grave, but either way she would not suffer anymore.
She began boasting to her girlfriends about how she would try to cross the mountain river.
She asked, “Who will go with me?”
The girls starting yelling at her, “Are you crazy? Do you want us to bury you?”
She became worried they would never let her try, so she replied; “Don’t worry, if I lose my strength, I will turn back.”
She walked confidently to the fork where the calm river rushed into the mountain river. It was Sunday, one of the hottest days in the middle of July. Tonya looked at the groups of people along the river and felt a little bit jealous of all of them. They lived their lives without secrets; how good that must feel for them. Everywhere people were joking and laughing; some were singing or playing cards or chess, and some were playing with balls. There were groups of drunken people. Most important, she told herself, was not to hesitate, but to be confident.
The cold water crippled Tonya for a few seconds. She had to move fast and not let the cold water paralyze her muscles. In one or two minutes she felt better, and she worked fast with her hands, peacefully breathing in and out to prevent herself from tiring and to keep her breathing in balance. Tonya got a few feet from the riverbank when she heard, “Where is that stupid girl going?”
She was still far away from the middle of the river. Tonya worked hard with her hands to fight the flow of the water. She tried her best to keep herself on a safe path through the current. When she glanced back at the riverbank, she realized that the current had swept her farther down the river, away from the calm area where she would have been able to safely cross. She wanted to survive, but obviously it was not possible: she was losing her strength very quickly. She dove in and out of the water in order to get a few quick breaths of air.
In her mind she continued to hear the words, “stupid girl, stupid girl.” She immediately regretted this idea. She wanted to live, but it was now too late. Tonya struggled to keep her head out of the water for air. It was her last breath.
She had no strength to fight anymore when she felt a strong hand grab onto her and pull her out of the water. She could not hear what the man was screaming. She was choking heavily and coughing up water. The man was behind her, and he kept her head above the water by grabbing onto her hair. When Tonya was finally pulled out of the water, the man screamed and swore at her worse than she had ever heard before.
The man spit out the water that had filled his mouth and told her, “If you had gotten even a few feet farther, I would not have bothered to go after you. You have to thank God that you are lucky. God caught you by the palm of His hand.”
Tonya was still coughing heavily, trying to rid her system of the water. Her girlfriend and another woman ran to her asking, “Are you all right?”
With no strength left, she fell on the ground and started to cry hysterically. Someone tried to comfort her, but she did not know what she was crying about. Whether it was her happiness or relief over still being alive she couldn’t be sure, but she knew that she would never suffer from her secret anymore. Yes, she was reborn and she was a different Tonya now. Her girlfriend continued to scold her for such a stupid act, but Tonya was relieved that never again would she have to walk down that painful road. She shook her shoulders and left behind the heavy weight that she had carried for months. She would no longer return in her thoughts to the fact that her family had kept from her the secret of their history.
* * *
Tonya’s father, Stepan, worked all the time and saw little of his precious girls, but it was always the happiest time when he was home. He was a soft, quiet man who worked hard to provide for his family but never hid his love toward his daughters. He always stood up for them, no matter what the circumstances. Tonya thought that there was no one in the whole world kinder than her father. He not only showed kindness to his own family, but everyone around Stepan at one point or another experienced his kind and giving heart. Any neighbors who needed help were immediately assisted without hesitation and without thought of reimbursement.
Very often after a hard day’s work Stepan would take his daughters and bring them with him to drop off his pick-up truck at work, after which they would take the bus home. One of these times when they were driving, a man flagged down her father and asked which way he was headed. Stepan avoided the man’s question, instead asking him, “Where do you need to go?” After the man answered, Stepan laughed and said, “Well that’s in the same direction I’m going!” and proceeded to drive the man to his destination. After dropping him off, he turned the truck around to go drop off the truck at work. Tonya asked her father, “Papa, why did you lie to that man? We were going the opposite way,” and Stepan replied, “When you lie for something good, it is not a sin. I did not want that man to feel obligated to repay me or feel badly that I went out of my way.”
Years later, when Tonya was married and living in a house with her own family, she learned that her neighbor was a coworker of her father’s. In one of their conversations, he told Tonya, “Your father was a fool. Everyone who worked with him was able to buy their own car, but he never was able to collect enough money even for a motorcycle.” She did not answer, but came to the conclusion that if the world were filled with “fools” like her father, the world would be a much better place to live in.
Sometimes Tonya wondered how her father could still be so kind, particularly after experiencing the horrors of World War II. Every day during the war, he had been sure that he would lose his life, either today or tomorrow. He had always imagined that each day might be his last. In short breaks between the fighting, he never dreamed or made plans for the future when the war would be over. He witnessed several comrades who would speak of their dreams during one moment and then be killed the very same day. He did not focus on the future, but rather lived his days in the present, fully expecting to be killed. The only wish that he would allow himself before entertaining thoughts of death was to sleep on his own bed, on clean sheets and in clean pajamas.
At night during relocation, he and his comrades devised a method to sleep while walking, with two people in the middle and two others on the sides, linked arm in arm at the elbows. The two people on the sides acted as guides so the two in the middle could continue their march with closed eyes. They could change places every thirty to forty minutes. It was not a perfect method, but it was the only way that they could get any rest.
Tonya’s father lost five brothers during World War II. Three of them were killed, and two were declared MIA. Their neighbor, who had been serving in the same battalion as one of his brothers, was captured, sent to a concentration camp and later escaped. He witnessed how Stepan’s brother, Nicholas, was killed. When he returned home, Stepan’s mother relentlessly pursued this information until he gave in and told her how it had occurred.
Her son had been badly wounded and lay on the ground motionless when the German soldiers came around to check the bodies for signs of life. When they reached Nicholas, they saw that he was still breathing and moaning from pain, so they stuck the ends of their bayonets into each of his eyes. Then they pierced his heart with the sharp end to ensure that he was indeed dead.
This information proved to be much more than Stepan’s mother could handle, and she collapsed after hearing of how her son had suffered. After the loss of her children, she lost pieces of her life along with them, paralyzed by grief. It was not long after that she died.
Since childhood, Tonya remembered her father often talking of his brothers, recalling the things they liked to do and his favorite memory of each of them.
Every family in Russia had experienced the loss of loved ones during the war, and people everywhere worked hard to overcome their grief and rebuild what remained of their lives. They looked forward to happier times in their lives and regained their dreams of building families and their hopes of a better future for their children.
* * *