My mom’s father was a turner, or a machinist, who spent most of his life working at the Luch Footwear Factory in Minsk. According to family lore, he started working at ten, to help support his family, and had to stand on top of a box to reach the machinery. I have no idea if this is actually true; this would have been sometime around 1929.
Sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, the factory was given a parcel of land out in the countryside and set up a community of small plots; employees were given a chance to purchase a plot for their family for a small fee (no idea how much, but my grandparents didn’t have a whole lot of cash) and to build a house and garden. I also have no idea how many people took advantage, but the subdevelopment was quickly filled. My grandfather built a little two-bedroom house with a dug-out cellar, an attic, a small kitchen serviced by a giant propane gas tank, and an outhouse with a makeshift shower and a tool shed. There was no sewer system, but there was access to clean water—the tap was outdoors, neither in the shower nor in the kitchen, but it was way more convenient than schlepping water from the water tower. There was electricity, too, and a wood stove for heating. There were a few other similar subdevelopments nearby, but also the woods and a village. A dirt road connected to the faster one-lane “highway” and the commuter train line into Minsk.
My great-grandparents, still alive and relatively healthy up until the 1980s, spent the entire summer out at the “dacha.” The working people came on weekends, and during their month of vacation. There was a lot of gardening to be done, and the family grew to depend on the canned and preserved fruits and vegetables during the winter months. By the time I was around, the dacha was being shared by two great-grandparents, two grandparents, three daughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren. My family had the smaller of the bedrooms to ourselves. Everyone else shared the bigger bedroom that also doubled as the living room, with a decrepit TV and a whole variety of beds.
Things that we harvested on our plot: apples, plums, pears, raspberries, gooseberries, black and red currants, strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, carrots, onions, garlic, dill, cauliflower, sorrel, and a variety of flowers.
Favorite summertime activities: picking mushrooms and berries, swimming at the small pond within the subdevelopment property, playing endless rounds of dominos or cards. Bicycling around the subdevelopment and making friends with the other kids. Spending entire days away from home, completely unattended, returning home for dinner. The only thing we were not allowed to do was swim without an adult present, and we thought it was a reasonable request and never broke the rule.
To get to the dacha, we took the trolley to the main train station and got on the commuter train. From the train station in Kryzhovka it was a 1.8 mile walk to the dacha, with my parents carrying all the food and other items we might need. (Eventually, my uncle bought a car, but he never gave us rides.) When we got to the house, the first thing we did was change out of “city clothes” to “dacha clothes” (read: old clothes we didn’t want) and removed our shoes. Then my sister and I went off to see who else was around. We never had any contact with our dacha friends outside the dacha, though all of us lived in Minsk.
My two boy cousins were 4 and 6 years older than me, and thus immutably cooler. They listened to cool music on bootleg tapes, cussed like sailors (“Not in front of the children!!!” was my mom’s constant request), had their own bicycles, and were allowed to watch unlimited TV. They had friends who intrigued and intimidated us, who could be magnanimous or mean, at will. They hogged the one and only ping pong table outside the community “center” (a one-room hut).
When we left Minsk, dacha was what I missed most of all, the place I wanted to return to. Then communism collapsed and my grandparents sold the house and plot to one of the nouveau riches, who tore down the structure and built a gray brick monstrosity in its place. What hurt most was that to make room, he cut down the old fir tree that served as a landmark for many of our neighbors. I had spent countless days sitting under that tree with a book, oblivious to the occasional foot traffic, bicyclists, and cars.
There was something about that place that was unapologetically idyllic. My parents and aunts and uncle complained about all the gardening, but they too loved it. It brought our extended family closer together. In the city, we only saw them for big holiday dinners. At the dacha, we let our guard down. The house was a crazy collection of discarded furniture and appliances, things too old or broken to keep in the city, but perfectly acceptable at the dacha. Everything was there to serve a purpose, no China cabinets or sofa covers, no frills. In the evenings, we’d wash our dirty feet in a basin of water, turn out the light, and listen to the silence, punctuated by a distant train signal, buzzing of mosquitos, or someone walking past our windows via a narrow path between two plots, rustling the currant bushes and maybe whistling.