Both my mother and I were born in the former Soviet Union, but I came to America when I was three. She had just turned 31. How did she spend her thirtieth birthday? She applied for documents to leave a communist country and everything she ever knew. My thirtieth birthday I will spend partying at a Russian restaurant with my friends. At 30 she was leaving Russia behind, and I’ve finally come to terms with that part of myself and will be celebrating it.
My life has been shaped by the same things my mother fled: communist Russia, anti-Semitic taunts. Ever since I can remember, I was told that in America I have the freedom to be myself without worrying what the government or others think. Yet there were restraints here as well—imposed by my parents. Because there was so much opportunity, why settle for being a writer? Be a doctor, a lawyer, anything else that can make money and ensure that I would not live in poverty, as my family did when we arrived in 1979. I became an English teacher because this was the only subject I excelled in, and teaching was practical and secure. I lasted six years. Now, I’m a writer. I found out recently that my mother always wanted to be a writer too, but my grandfather told her it wasn’t practical. She’s a chemist—a great one—and feeds her creative mind by giving speeches at her friends’ parties, weddings, and anniversaries.
So, when everyone makes toasts on my birthday, I’ll make one for my mom, and thank her for spending her thirtieth birthday filling out papers so that I can spend mine dancing.
Margaret Gelbwasser is a freelance writer. Her essay “Blending the Red with the White and the Blue” about growing up Russian, Jewish and American, was recently published in Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally