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From Irina to Irene
ANY PASSERBY CAN tell you that Irina has dark hair and dark eyes, but if you look carefully at her, you’ll see that Irina’s thick hair is a deep auburn and that her eyes are a blend of brown and green—like gardens of kelp beds and seagrass meadows.
Irina was ten years old. She was excited about the coming New Year, her favorite holiday.
Underneath the bed she shared with her older sister, Edith, there were four bananas ripening. Each year, Papa received them as a bonus from the trucking company he worked for as a mechanical engineer. They were the only bananas the family got all year. The coming of the bananas was an occasion of pride and joy for the whole family. It was always with great ceremony that Papa unveiled the bananas from his work bag. They were green and hard. Mama would grab a small basket from the kitchen, line it with a white towel, and then carefully place the bananas side by side. Papa placed the basket underneath the girls’ bed and told them they were in charge of the ripening process.
Edith was less keen on observing the bananas, but Irina took the job seriously. She knew from prior years that the ripening process for bananas is very specific: a green banana will first turn yellow with green tips before it turns completely yellow. If you don’t eat it immediately, its smell will grow sugary and strong, small brown spots will form on the banana’s skin. From the point Papa placed the bananas underneath the bed, Irina knew the family had four or five days until they were perfectly ripe for eating.
Every night, the sweet scent of the bananas kept Irina up imagining the big day when the whole family would gather around the dining table to celebrate the new year and savor the delicious fruit. The thought of the bananas made her mouth wet with saliva. To distract herself, she thought about her birthday in March. Mama did not like to make a big deal of birthdays, but she allowed the girls to make just a little deal. Irina knew that Mama would get her a white dress to wear on her birthday. Irina fell asleep dreaming about the white dress and the sweetness of bananas.
It was Mama who woke the girls up each morning, opening their door, poking her head in, dark hair pulled back into a clean bun. “Girls, it is time to get up!”
The first thing Irina did each morning was check on the bananas underneath the bed. The sight of the yellow fruits brought on the morning cheer, wiping the sleep from her eyes. Irina’s smile revealed small white teeth, spaced slightly apart, dimples on either side of her face. She reached out her hand and gently brushed the bananas before attending to her morning routine.
When it was finally time for 1989 to begin, Irina was jittery with excitement. On New Year’s Eve, the whole of their family gathered around the dining table in their crowded kitchen: Mama, Papa, Edith, and Irina, their grandma and grandpa, their beloved aunt and uncle, and their cousins. Mama and the rest of the women put a colorful feast on the table. In a glass bowl there was beet salad—a mix of sauerkraut, boiled beets in deep, dark magenta, diced with white beans in a tangy vinaigrette. There was a platter of small pieces of buttered white bread with gray caviar, a symbol of hope for the new year. There were saucers of pickled cucumbers and mushrooms. Irina’s aunt had made meat pies, beautifully browned in her oven at home. In the middle of the table, on a big platter, there was kholodets, meat jelly, and a side of grated horseradish. The bananas were always saved for dessert.
Papa cut them up into chunks. The children got first pick. Irina held the peeled banana up to her mouth. She could eat the whole thing in one big bite or take tiny nibbles and spend her time savoring the long-awaited treat like she knew Edith would. Irina smiled her naughty smile and opened her mouth wide. She chewed with full cheeks and then slowly swallowed it down. She took a careful sip of sparkling lemonade. The adults drank champagne. Every year, Edith and Irina led their little cousins over to their grandma and grandpa, and all four stuck out their tongues. Grandma and Grandpa took turns pouring bits of champagne for the children to taste. The taste was more bitter than sweet. The girls made faces, and everyone laughed.
The apartment was filled with photographs of old relatives, of Mama and Papa when they were younger, of Edith and Irina as little children in stiff-looking dresses with big collars, the good times the family had shared. That night the apartment was ringing with the noise from the television show Novogodniy Goluboy Ogonek, New Year’s Little Blue Light. The children loved the festive lights and the sparkling trees on the television screen. Irina was especially moved by the music the orchestra played. When the adults on the television held hands and danced in a circle, the four cousins followed suit. When the pretty lady with red lipstick held a microphone and started singing, it was only Irina who held her hand in front of her mouth and sang along.
Irina had no idea that this would be her last New Year’s celebration in Minsk.
The Jewish students had been disappearing from school for years. They never said much about where they were going or why, so their fellow students gave little thought to their departures. There were students whom Irina and Edith didn’t even know were Jewish until they vanished; when they were gone, all the children would laugh and say it like a joke. “Oh, they’re Jewish, too.”
Shortly after the new year, on another cold evening, Irina’s parents, aunt, uncle, and grandparents gathered around the dining table and talked about how there were so few opportunities for Jewish people in Belarus.
Mama said, “I want Edith and Irina to go to college and get jobs.”
Grandma said, “I worry about their basic rights.”
Papa said nothing.
Papa’s whole family had been killed in the Holocaust. He did not talk about them often, let alone mention how they were killed. When Irina had wanted to ask in the past, Mama had said in a hushed whisper, “It’s too painful for Papa. Leave the questions be. It is enough to know that everyone was killed.”
Uncle said, “The family beside our apartment are leaving soon.”
Copyright © 2020 by Kao Kalia Yang