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Rena's Memories

Part 5 (Health)


At our apartment we had a toilet but no bathtub and no hot water. Most of the year we went to a public bath once a week. In the summer we used a large tin basin to wash and we also used the river.

Click on images to enlarge.

The Russians preoccupy themselves with their health. There were more illnesses prevalent at that time. I had everything that is now avoided by vaccination. The only vaccinations I had were smallpox and BCG. BCG was invented in France and protected one from tuberculosis. My mother contracted TB at the age of sixteen. That’s when she met my father (he was approximately thirty-two years old).


Leningrad (at that time St Petersburg) was a poor place for TB sufferers. When my mother was ill, he took her to live with his mother in Chernigov. I don’t know much about my mother’s health from that time. When I was growing up she seemed all right most of the time. She went for frequent check ups in both Kiev and Prague where the doctor examined her with a fluoroscope (a type of x-ray machine). I was checked once in a while too.

We had a clinic in the neighborhood. Most doctors were women. My father always preferred women doctors. My pediatrician, Dr Sinyova, made house calls. Mother was often sick at the same time. I enjoyed being home with her during the recovery periods.

I got sick every winter. I remember being in bed for a month at a time. A practical nurse used to come and administer banki (cupping therapy). Jars were heated and then put on the back to create suction.

When I had whooping cough I was sick for several months. That's when my mother’s mother came and took care of me. I had a real crush on her. I can still visualize her sewing clothes for the doll she brought me. I also remember her taking me on walks.

Another illness: When 1 was six and a half I had scarlet fever. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. The apartment was disinfected by clinical workers using carbolic acid. I was in the hospital for two months. I developed an ear infection there and had to have surgery. I had such a fright from anesthesia that I’m afraid of it still.

When I was feeling better I came down with chickenpox and was moved to a different ward. This was a hospital for contagious diseases and almost everyone with scarlet fever caught chickenpox. Visitors were not allowed in my room. When my parents came I could see them through a window. I think my parents may have got some special permission after my surgery because they were able to visit me wearing hospital gowns and face masks.

After the surgery my mother went to Sochi and  when she came back I was still in the hospital. I remember her bringing me exotic things like tangerines and roses. That illness occurred during the winter. I think I came home at the end of January.



When I was five my mother had a serious relapse of tuberculosis and was scheduled for an operation. The doctors planned to remove a rib in order to collapse part of her infected lung. I remember that it was springtime and the weather was beautiful. This type of operation was dangerous and not always helpful and my mother chose to ignore the doctors recommendations. Fortunately she recovered on her own. I remember being very worried. Another time she had to go to the hospital for an appendectomy and this was also very upsetting for me.


The health care in he Soviet Union was better than in this country. Period. You had access to doctors. They might not have had as much, but there were a lot of intelligent people in the profession. She had her own TB specialist and I used to be examined by her because I had a mother with TB. 


The way they could see what was going on was with a fluoroscope. And I’ve been under it. They just look at your lungs like that. You can keep looking at the same thing and so forth. They did not have modern x-rays, but it’s the same type of imaging. They were not as careful about x-ray exposure. 


Usually they didn’t let you into this country with TB and I don’t know how she got in. Maybe because she didn’t have active TB when she got here.



Bobbi didn’t like your freckles.


She always had some remedy to try and get rid of them. She was disappointed because I was not the beautiful girl she expected. And your sister Ann didn’t play with dolls and Bobbi would get upset about that. I played with dolls and enjoyed clothes but I wasn’t a girl who played a lot with dolls.


I liked to be outside and do outdoor things. And from the early childhood I was interested in plants. I used to know how to pick mushrooms. I used to know how to pick greens for green borscht. I would collect them and we used them. You’re sort of born into doing certain things. 




There’s a story of Bobbi coming home and there was a cat in your doll’s bed.


Oh. The story was there was a stray kitten – it was small. I found in the street and I brought it in. It was so exhausted and I gave it milk. Then it just collapsed to sleep and I put it in the dolls bed and covered it up. When Bobbi came home, instead of seeing a doll she was startled to see something stirring.


My father was very strict. He didn’t feel animals would be healthy for a child in the house but I had a fit and the kitten lived with us for a number of years until she died of distemper or whatever the cats used to get at the time. We didn’t have vets taking care of pets. 


Did Bobbi like cats or dislike cats?


She loved cats. She always loved cats. And Dedushka liked all the animals. He just didn’t want them in the house. But he got adjusted to it.

You also had a bird in the apartment.


Oh yes! A sparrow flew in and I gave him some kind of crazy name. His tail was partly chewed off. Probably a cat had him. And I screamed so my parents gave in and he spent the winter with us. We had windows which had a little pane that you opened to air your apartment - Europeans had them too. In the fall there was this ritual. You took newspapers and you made glue from flour or whatever, and you sealed up the window frame so you couldn’t open it except for this fortochka. I think the name came from German – it’s not a Russian word. One day we opened it up for air and the bird flew in. He stayed with us till March. By then the fortochka was open every day and he was happy to fly off.


How old were you?


You know, I don’t remember – seven or eight. When I think back, my parents were very lenient about things like that. But you know what? My father was a softy about animals.


I think about Dedushka as being intellectual and being remote - always in his study. I don’t have any idea of his personality.


Well, you know… when we were in this country and began to have a more comfortable living, there were all kinds of requests in [the Russian language newspaper] Novoye Russkoye Slovo about orphans in the refugee camps and my father always sent money – always. We didn’t have that much to do that. He really was a very charitable person. 

Image 015 fortochka.jpg

Fortochka of Rena's apartment in Lavra. Photo by Luke Ocone, 1974.

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