When The Trees Were Big

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This story is in celebration of my mom:

” They say “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but that’s not true for childhood. What happens in childhood doesn’t stay there — it follows us. My childhood has followed me through the years, sometimes unrecognized as it silently rules or asks for attention. From time to time, it reveals itself intensely with a deep feeling of familiarity, sweetness, or pain. Childhood wants to be healed or remembered or to simply be.
The long-awaited rain arrived in Santa Cruz today, mightily streaming down my window, cleaning the mirror of my past. In the twinkling of an eye, I saw my reflection in the life-mirror. I saw a five-year-old girl with two long, very thin braids, wearing a blue dress with small pink flowers on it. She looked ready to go to kindergarten.
Like many kids in Russia, from the age of two I went to kindergarten every weekday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. I called it “my second home,” and I loved this place. First, because my mom worked there, and we could see each other any time. Second, because great kindergarten teachers made us feel good, so we didn’t miss our parents too much. Third, because we performed the best holiday shows dressed as fairy-tale characters along with our teachers. The teachers borrowed from the original very popular folk-tales and then added to it stitching the story together from their own imaginations. Thus, we created new folk-tales and eagerly anticipated the shows.
Nevertheless, some “kindergarten rules” easily spoiled this idyllic kids’ life. For example, you couldn’t run in the puddles shoeless during the rain. In fact, we usually didn’t go for walks on rainy days. That was understandable in autumn, but made no sense in a child’s mind in the summer time. I. I spent my childhood in Russia, in the big industrial city of Omsk, where the weather is hot in the summer, freezing during the winter, blooming and fragrant in spring, and opulently golden and sunny in the fall.
Kindergartens used to be very popular in Russia. While parents were building “the bright future of socialism,” the upcoming generation socialized there. Every kindergarten had a number. Ours was #306. Later, on top of the door, appeared a sign reading Sunny Day, and we understood that now our kindergarten had a name instead of a number. The building seemed very big, not because we were small, but because it really was huge. It took up three blocks: one for infants up to one year, another for kids from two to five, and the last one for older kids from five to seven. Each block was divided into four sections, and each section contained an oversized bedroom, a bathroom, a hall with small closets for our clothes, an entertainment room, and the most important ingredient, about twenty kids. So, we had fun. In our building, the pink walls outside, children’s pictures inside, and beautiful lushes plants around aquariums with small orange and red fish created a friendly, homey feeling. But even the “Barbie” look didn’t draw me as much as the smell of baking rolls and buns. A huge kitchen with professional cooks yielded the most fascinating fragrance that roused our appetites, and prepared us to enjoy every meal — all four of them.
That day began like one of the typical “second home” days for me. My mom woke me up and we walked together, holding hands, to the kindergarten located only couple of blocks away. As my mom hurried to work, her movements were precise and quick. I on the other hand, reflected the walk of many kindergarten kids: sleepy and slow. I kind of threw out my legs making a flapping sound on the asphalt, and I walked listening and flapping, listening and flapping.
Several important questions swirled in my mind, such as “Why do people wake up so early? Why do my steps make such a hollow echo? Why trees are so high but still can’t reach the clouds? And, of course, what did our cooks prepare for breakfast today?” As we entered the building the last question found the answer while the rest of them settled down till the next morning. Evidently, the mind’s hunger calms down with a fresh baked roll successfully at the age of five; adults usually need heavier drugs for that.
Three lessons followed breakfast: math, painting, and language. Finally, we were released outside until lunchtime. That was when this usual day began to change. While most of the kids played actively and climbed up and down on the play structures, three “scientists” formed a group around the table.
“It looks like big smog from New York,” Misha said, pompously looking up at the big, black, fat cloud.
“No! It is my uncle smoking his cigar.. My aunt always says that you can’t see the sky when he smokes,” parried Max.
“It’s going to rain,” I almost whispered, enchanted. It meant that we were about to experience the extreme and rare summer event: a thunderstorm.
Many children’s voices took up the idea: “It’s going to rain!” Instantly, we all started jumping, waving hands running, and squealing, highly excited.
Five minutes later the wind strengthened, clouds partially covered the sun and the delighted kids enjoyed the scene. Blasts of wind tousled the green leaves and brought the smell of freshness and freedom. I spread my arms, breathing in the fresh rainy smell, then closed my eyes and imagined myself peacefully flying as a big white bird. The teacher interrupted my daydream by touching my shoulder to gather all of us inside the terrace. What a disappointment! Ten minutes later the teacher gently but surely pushed us inside for lunch and an afternoon nap.
After waking up refreshed we listened to stories, snacked away, played, drew, had dinner and entertained ourselves guessing whose parent would come first to pick up their kid. We stared through the huge windows outside and when we saw someone’s parents, we waved our hands to them and laughed. My mom always came from inside the building, so I never got to wave to her through the window, but I always played the game.
That unusual day the downpour dimmed the windows so we couldn’t see our parents arriving. My mom had come without an umbrella, so we decided to wait for the rain to stop or at least soften a little. We opened a door to the outside and watched the rain making big puddles. Big bubbles in the puddles looked exactly like bubbles in a pot of boiling water. It was mushroom rain because the sun was shining. In Russia, we believe that when this happens mushrooms grow very fast. I love mushroom rain. We waited for the playful rain to stop, but it wasn’t cooperating. Every time we tried to go, it started to rain harder and louder even with the sun shining.
Suddenly Mom said, “Come on, let’s run home!” I saw her remove her shoes and I couldn’t believe it.
Mom’s “Come on, let’s run home!” sounded like “Spread your wings, let’s fly!” I took my sandals off, and we ran in the rain. I felt so wonderfully excited and happy. I felt alive!
We ran in the puddles shoeless!
Mom was holding my hand and I could jump high, splatter the water, and scream. I felt warm water splashing all over me and sparkling in the sun. Clean, big, wet trees enjoyed the sunny shower and smelled like freshly cut grass. We laughed and ran. An overwhelming feeling of absolute happiness filled my little body completely.
This short run home happened to be long enough for me to realize that I didn’t know my mom very well. I thought,” How nice that Mom didn’t bring an umbrella.” Of course, by the time we got home the rain had almost stopped.  We stood outside, soaking wet and couldn’t stop laughing. I felt the little girl inside my mom and we understood each other without words. That day made my mom my best and dearest friend forever.
Years later, when I was in high school, I asked, “Mom, do you remember how we ran in the rain?”
“When?” she said.
“When the trees were big…” I answered.
My mom looked straight in my eyes with a warm smile on her face. Of course, she remembered. Some memories you never want to forget.”

Posted by Yelena Joy, MD at 5:09 PM

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