My mother’s childhood was full of plants made into toys. The last time I was in Moscow—11 years ago now, the memories are growing rusty—she shared them with me, introducing me to the many plants that could become playthings, even in a big city. There were the “touch-me-not” plants, “nedotroga,” which had thin, caterpillar-like seed pods that exploded into ribboning swirls when touched, spraying seeds everywhere. I would search everywhere for a ripe one to tap with my finger, squealing as I watched its exuberant release. Apparently, they’re native to the Himalayas and considered an invasive species in the EU. I’m not entirely sure how they made it into the Soviet Union during my mother’s childhood all those years ago or if Russia considers them invasive. I surely did my fair share to spread their unwanted seedlings in every city park and square, as did every other child pleased by the pop of a seed spitting itself to pieces.
Then there were the seed pods of the acacia, which my mother showed me how to de-seed and turn into whistles by twisting the green flesh. Those, too, I looked for everywhere, although I never really mastered that art to the extent that she did. For her, they’d make a sharp, shrill sound, while for me, they barely whispered. And then, of course, the woodland adventures. We’d take the elektrichka commuter rail 40 kilometers or so out of the city, and spend the day weaving through the woods, gathering raspberries and mushrooms. California is full of beautiful national parks, and we’d go hiking often when I was a kid, up and down the hills on carefully marked and delineated trails. The trails in the Russian woods, though, are different, not outlined with painted signposts but laid out by years and years of adventuring feet.
Once in a while, while running through the woods pretending to be a fairy or in search of the perfect raspberry bush, I’d invariably stumble into a patch of nettles and emerge with my skin burning and red. Children in Russia—cruel little things, like children everywhere—even have a trick named after the nettles. They grab your arm, twisting the skin on it hard in either direction until it stings, yelling “krapivka!” Kind of like “Mercy,” putting the other in pain until they beg you to stop, inspired by summers spent playing in the woods.
Nettles were a different beast, and when I stumbled into them, it was a rite of passage. Like how I would come back to my grandmother’s one-bedroom in the city—the one my mother grew up in, rooms stuffed with moth-eaten clothing and trinkets collected from a lifetime of scarcity, knowing to never throw anything away, just in case—with ankles covered with mosquito bites. I’d wake up in the morning and spend a blissful, damning 10 minutes scratching at the red welts until they bled. This was the cost of collecting edible treats from the forest floor: mushrooms my mother would sauté with sour cream and onions, berries I’d cram into my mouth, wood sorrels that tasted sour and delicious. In California, we never ate anything from the woods because it’s hard to tell what’s poisonous and what’s not. But this was my mother’s home turf. She knew what mushrooms we could eat, the names of all the plants. The streets, the metro stops, how to get around. Lots of things had changed in twenty years, but she could still find her way more easily then than she could back in California.
I’ve never had a good sense of direction, and I don’t think there’s any place I could find my way around without looking at a map. Plus, I’m a very cautious person: When we go hiking in California, I take care to stay on the trails, to avoid any unidentified plants. Going to summer camp as a kid, when my parents would drop me off at a farm in the woods for two weeks, served as my yearly foray into nature. I was scared of the farm animals, the poison oak, and the sounds that came from the middle of the night.
When I think of home, I think of the rolling hills with their dry grass, and the way the sun tints the sky purple at 5 p.m. in late November. I think about the palm trees growing incongruously over the strip mall parking lot outside the Peet’s Coffee where I studied for every high school exam. I think of the winding paths down from the Foothills, and the dried-out canals, and the sky—blue and stretching itself sparse. Nature, too, I suppose. Nature, not playful and approachable, but vast and sunny and California-esque.
I’ve never been to Moscow in the winter, so for me Russia exists only as an oppressively hot, muggy place—a metropolis from which you can only escape into the comfort of an air-conditioned museum, or else into someone’s summer house in the shady woods. I know the rest of it only from stories: the ones where my parents, as children, would buy ice cream on their way home from school in December. They ate at lightning speed to avoid getting caught by their parents, who would be furious at their kids for eating ice cream in the freezing cold. The ice skating lessons my mother hated so much she simply refused to put on her skates. Woolen winter school uniforms, and frozen red noses, and all the other things that come with growing up in a place where it snows.
Moscow is home for my mother. Despite the fact that it’s been over 20 years since she’s actually lived in my grandmother’s one-bedroom, with its tiny blue kitchen and violets growing on the balcony. Despite the fact that the brief hope for a better political environment after the ’90s faded away like a mirage of colorful smoke. Despite the fact that reading the news hurts and she’s not even sure, anymore, that she could set foot in the country and get back out again. She doesn’t know how, or if, she’ll ever see her mother again. I think, sometimes, about the way this home country has been wrenched away from her grasp, made into a place she can no longer visit. Invariably, when she talks about this home now, I feel a twist of guilt in my chest.
I don’t know that I can feel this level of love, of home, of commitment to California. I don’t know what to do with our native plants—besides the fact that you’re not allowed to pick California poppies—and I rarely feel a yearning for our sky in my chest when I’m away. I certainly feel no connection to America—or, for that matter, to Russia. Is it something I should feel, this dreaming of home? Has my parents’ uprooting made me, also, rootless?
Maybe it’s enough to just twist my fingers into the grass, wherever I am, and breathe in the scent of whatever floats in the air.