I haven’t been this concerned about my Russian heritage since my elementary school teacher, “Mrs. M,” after meeting my mother at PTA night, asked me, “Is your mother from Russia?” It was as if Sen. Joseph McCarthy just asked me if I had ever been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.
Mrs. M had become obsessed with patriotism. If you said or wrote “USA” she yelled at you and said, “It’s not USA; it’s the United States of America.”
Mrs. M was a devotee of Sen. McCarthy, and she was on her own hunt for communists. And that day, the new kid with the Russian mother was on her radar. “Hmmm,” she responded, when I said that my mother was born outside of Minsk. And then she added, “I have my eye on you.”
One day, she asked everyone to raise their hand if they knew who Sen. Joseph McCarthy was. The smart kids knew what was coming and kept their hands down. She then interrogated each kid to make sure they understood what a great patriot he was and how evil and threatening communism was.
I feared that she would discover that as a six-year-old, I had collected clothing for the Russian Relief, which was located in the same building where we lived. Oh, what McCarthy would have done with that! Worse, my mother, despite her shtetl upbringing, spoke flawless Russian, and we had copies of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in our home, written in Russian, the language of demons and communists.