The Andes Mountains are the cordillera that runs north to south down the spine of the western South American continent. The great Liberator Simon Bolivar famously said, as he crossed the snowy peaks on a white horse, “If God is against me, then I will defy God.”
In Venezuela, which extends far south and west from the tropical coast, over to the western peaks of the Andes and down into the rain forest, my father entered into partnership with a man who owned a large tract of land in Merida near the border of Colombia with many trees that he used as a lumber forest. We went to live with this wealthy Jewish man and his hefty wife, who did not have any children, didn’t want any, and didn’t like other people’s children, either (which I sensed immediately). I remember their typical big mountain home with corrals, servants quarters in back, and a large garden with pomegranate trees heavy with this new-to-me, exotic fruit that was bigger than an orange and filled with juicy red seeds. I could not resist stealing a few and eating them eagerly, the sweet and sour flavor I can still vividly recall. The lady of the house, of course, complained to my mother that I took her pomegranates, and I was punished—an important lesson after my first incident of intentional theft.
The windows in typical Andes houses did not touch the floor from the inside, but were at knee height, while the outside of the window was from the floor almost to the roof. Late in the afternoon and on into the evening after dinner you could see the young women of the town sitting in their windows watching the world go by. The young local men would go walking around the block to admire and serenade the local beauty he loved as she sat in her window gazing down at him. How wonderful this beautiful, courtly custom was to me, how romantic. The front of our house had big wooden doors like the mansion in Caracas, but the local population was a mix of Indians, whites, blacks, and those of mixed race who were then called “mulattos” and mestizos, and there were also a number of albinos. Life in the Andes was a very different world from the big city.
I had not yet been to school, so my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic school run by French nuns; it was not proper Orthodox upbringing, but after all it was Christian. Then, after a few weeks, my older sister Galina was called to the school and told I was using bad words and was being sent home. I do not recall what the bad words were and I certainly didn’t understand what they meant, perhaps curses I heard from the workers in the sawmill and the slaughterhouse, but I suspect the real reason I was expelled was that we were unable to pay for my schooling– we had no money and no home of our own yet.
Papa went into business with the landowner; My father’s dream was to start a successful meatpacking operation and slaughterhouse along with a deli (as there was no other similar business at that time in all of Venezuela). He raised the livestock, then butchered it. Although Micha had left in search of his own destiny, Anatoly was still with us for a number of months, helping to build a smokehouse to smoke and age the hanging meat–big hams and links of homemade sausages, particularly kielbasa and salami. Anatoly, Galina, and mother were put to work cutting and grinding the meat, and cutting the fat off the pigs, dicing it up, and mixing it together with the ground meat. They would mix this in big bowls, then clean out the intestines (tripe) and stuff the meat into it. All the various meat products were hung up in the smoke house and then taken to market the next day. All this tiring manual work meant the whole family was exhausted by the end of the day, but even so Mama would be up cleaning the tools, knives, etc. and of course the house until the early morning. Sometimes, at two or three in the morning I would wake up and go find her still slaving away. I would sleepily watch her until she was finished, and then we would lie down together and pray, even just the simple Our Father, happy just to be alive together in our new world. While our magical money tree hadn’t flourished yet, Father’s new business seemed promising and we all hoped we had at least planted the seeds for a successful future.