all in the family

My Mother Once Sold Horoscopes to Survive

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy the author.

All in the Family is a series on kith and kin during a year like no other.

My mother has never cared about structure or maintaining a rigid schedule. She doesn’t follow recipes or make grocery lists and is not bothered when plans fall through. When I told her I wanted to move out, she insisted I never sign a lease. “Pay month to month,” she said, “in case a disaster strikes.”

I like to joke that my mother is a doomsday prepper. But one who doesn’t have a basement full of canned goods or a parachute in her closet. Instead, she’s someone who anticipates that life may not go to plan. She survived an apocalypse once before and never stopped considering that someday there could be another.

I’ve never particularly subscribed to her logic. When I was a kid, I’d ask her things like “Can we go to Six Flags this summer?,” and she’d reply, “If I live until then.” Frustrated, I’d ask her over and over again, but never got a definitive answer. What seemed to me like a simple question, to her, held no relevance. Why would I live with the expectation that my life is not secure? Why should I think that an apocalypse is on the way? She, however, has a firm belief that everything can change and, seemingly, overnight.

My mother was raised in a coal-mining village four kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border. I’ve never been. I’ve only walked the streets through Google Earth, confused and disturbed that someone could be from such a dreadful place.

At 16, she moved to Leningrad to start university, where she studied shipbuilding and torpedo navigation, a topic that seems laughably Soviet today. And it wasn’t all that bad. She’d buy Diesel jeans and Doc Martens that were smuggled in from Europe. As part of her studies, she’d get in submarines and delve into the Black Sea. She’d drink on rooftops and in alleys, and her friends would strum their guitars and sing songs till sunrise over the Neva River. She’d get caught on one side of the city, after the drawbridges had been raised, and would sleep on the pavement until they were lowered and she could get back home.

But she grew up at the end of her country. She was raised and conditioned to operate in a state that would cease to exist by the time she was old enough to enter the workforce; the system that trained her had failed her.

She graduated from college in June 1991. Two months later, tanks arrived in Red Square to try to dispose of then-Soviet leader Gorbachev. And, by December, the Soviet Union had dissolved entirely. The state that issued her degree several months earlier was no more.

Most people lost their jobs. Others would continue to go to work and wouldn’t get paid for months, sometimes years. The planned economy had failed. Pensions and savings disappeared. Food shortages were rampant. The only thing in abundance was toilet paper.

Millions drank themselves to death. According to researchers, some children growing up in this era experienced stunting and malnutrition as a result of the crisis.

To survive, some dove into religion, others into hypnotherapy. In the late ’80s, there was a surge in psychic television programming. The programs were so popular that the streets would empty before their broadcast, everyone returning home to be hypnotized out of their reality.

My mother, too, became a local mystic of sorts. With no jobs available, she sold flowers on the street for cash, but soon took notice of this search for meaning and got entrepreneurial. She started to write horoscopes and would station herself in the Metro selling weekly zodiac predictions she wrote herself. People would wait in long lines for her analysis of their future, until the authorities caught wind and shut her down.

Though life changed quickly, time moved slowly. Each year felt like five; but days were still days. The sun rose and the sun set, even if the hours in between were fractured and unrecognizable. Whatever plans she had made for herself had been derailed. And there was not much left to plan for.

Eventually, she found a job as a waitress in a hotel and saved up enough to either rent a room in a communal apartment or buy a ticket to New York. She chose the ticket.

She improvised her next steps, working whatever odd jobs she came across and spending her time discovering every discount department store, gallery opening, and sidewalk crack of the city. She’d observe kids on the playground and watch television hosts for hours, hoping to understand the national personality of this country.

What was meant to be a two-month trip lasted 25 years. She met my father and bore a child in a place where she knew nothing. When I asked her if anything changed when I was born, she shook her head. “There were two of us, and then, all of a sudden, there were three,” she answered, sounding almost confused by the event of my birth. She fumbled school-registration deadlines and sent me to preschool without knowing a word of English, confident I would grasp it on my own.

She never became a torpedo-navigation specialist or engaged in some long-term pursuit toward another career. She never developed a fixed idea of the future either, stubbornly believing that few things were under her control.

In the months since the pandemic began, I’ve sighed and groaned that my life is ruined and my youth is gone. My mother has not complained once. She tells me she has little inspiration for painting (her favorite hobby) and less use for most of her outfits. Her work has died down and she’s bummed the opera is closed, but she hasn’t panicked.

“Nothing surprises me,” she’ll claim in a stoically Russian way, unshaken by the feeling of uncertainty, the fear that everything could be falling apart. Rather, she’s oddly optimistic.

“You never seemed satisfied with the way things were before,” she’ll say, suggesting the chaos could be good for me — a chance to let go of old ways of thinking and develop new ones.

When we have dinner together, she likes to propose a toast. These days, she’ll raise a glass to “dispelling the black clouds that have descended upon us.” At first, I rolled my eyes at her request, scoffing at her mystic approach.

But lately, I clink my glass against hers and repeat her words back. I watch the wine swirl around and take a big gulp.

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My Mother Once Sold Horoscopes to Survive