mickey mouse, or, the night we left everything behind

{me, Germany ca. 1992. Don’t judge the outfit, I was still recovering from an 80s childhood.}

The other day I was at our local thrift store and I came across a black, vintage looking onesie that gave me a jolt the moment I saw it. On its front, a happy, carefree Mickey Mouse looked out, just daring me to resist the memories, to put the garment back on its rack and to walk away. But I could not, so home with me the onesie came, ready to be worn by my unsuspecting six-month-old, who will never know of night-time immigrations, of family left behind, of forbidden fruit, or of five Mark coins pressed into sweaty first-grader palms.

You might ask yourself what Mickey Mouse and immigration have in common, or, more likely, why I am writing about it here. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the purpose of this blog and of my writings and I’ve decided that I’d like to share a little more than just bike-related posts. So every now and then, if you’ll allow me, I’d like foray into other topics, such as today’s excursion back to 1989.

1989 was the last year my family lived in Romania. I had no idea that we would soon be leaving, I was seven years old and no one told me these things. If you’re familiar with your Eastern European history, then you know that Romania was ruled by a Communist dictator named Ceausescu back then and that he and his wife were shot on Christmas Day. Their murder was televised; I know, because I remember it. I remember their corpses, the blood, and the confusion.

Fast forward six months and it’s the middle of summer and I have little knowledge of my parents’ plan to leave for Germany in the middle of the night. The country is in a state of flux, some are hopeful for change, others are jaded and unimpressed. The next leader will be just like the last, nothing is going to get better, they grumble and look for a way out. My parents belong to the latter and so decisions are made and bags are packed and lies are told and we are leaving on vacation. Only it’s no vacation, in every sense of the saying. The years to come are hard and the path to finding a new home is arduous and long and full of winding subplots that I may or may not write about some day.

That night we left, my mother and I, the same grinning Mickey Mouse graced the front of my new tracksuit. The same grey and black colors, the same old-school image, the same Disney caricature that would grab my attention some twenty years later at a thrift store in the Midwest was emblazoned unto the sweatshirt that the seven-year-old me wore on that night we left for good.

I remember that night in vignettes; getting woken up to get dressed, having to choose only one toy, the long car ride, Mickey, and arriving somewhere entirely foreign to me. And as cliché as this may read to anyone familiar with immigration stories of the Germany/Romania variety, I also remember the five Mark coin pressed into my hand by my father with the prompting to buy anything my first grader self might desire. What’s that? Yes, you guessed it, I asked for bananas. Those rare and exotic fruit unavailable to many communist countries of that time, token of a better life, symbolic of long yearned for riches. I gorged myself on those bananas and never could stomach the taste of another one until my freshman year of high school.

This story continues and has many more stops before bringing the current me to a small town in the Midwest; married, with a baby, and a penchant for thrift store shopping. I’d like to pause and grab more memories, write more of it down before it all disappears into a history only shared by those who lived it, those who knew me then. For now, however, I am happy to simply pause and think of this one night, this one memory of my past, perhaps the most deciding night of all. And as I hold my beautiful American daughter, as I watch her belly heave with laughter as Mickey’s face moves up and down, I know that after fear and pain comes hope and renewal, that home is an elusive concept at best, and that no struggle is ever in vain.


A version of this story was published at Gender Across Borders as part of a series on women and migration. (04/18/12)

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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
This entry was posted in Immigration Stories, Tales from a Childhood in Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to mickey mouse, or, the night we left everything behind

  1. Aibrean says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I’ve always been curious about immigration stories, maybe because I don’t know my own family’s stories.

  2. Susanne says:

    What a beautiful post. Thank you.

  3. Vanessa says:

    Thank you for sharing. You’re my age and growing up in northern Germany, I remember lots of friends coming to Germany those years. My mom was leaving the DDR when she was 3 yrs old, pretending to go on vacation with her mother and siblings. Every time she’s telling me about what she still remembers about the tough time afterwards, I feel blessed that I never had to leave my home all of a sudden.

  4. CM says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  5. Dee says:

    Beautiful story – Thank you for sharing.

  6. Ola says:

    I love about your blog that it’s not only about biking, but about your life as well! And actually I enjoy this life part of it even more.
    I know life in a communist country myself, especially the martial law in Poland in early 80s. It was a tough time for Poles, and as a child I remember I was afraid to leave home after dark still a few years later, and asked my parents constantly whether it’s safe and hoped they won’t shoot us.
    I hope our children (I myself have a 7-month-old one at home) will never have to leave their homes or be afraid of the world outside.
    Thank you very much for that!

  7. AJ says:

    isn’t it interesting the details we remember, like exactly what mickey mouse tracksuit you were wearing that night, and how seeing/hearing/smelling something similar can take us back to that time & place in an instant? thanks for sharing your story!

  8. Evie says:

    Thanks for telling your family’s story.

  9. Rita says:

    Thank you for this S.

    I love History, although not an historian myself. I believe that knowing History gives us a great understanding about where we are and where we might go as a society. But no history book is ever complete because it lacks personal reports (unless you’re a great historical figure that is). But I believe we are all historical figures, to a greater or lesser extent and the internet has given us, in this moment in time, the unique opportunity to share our own experiences with each other.

    I am sure you will share your history with your daughter but am happy you have decided to share a little bit with us too.

    I grew up in a country just out of a dictatorship, where the fear of the times that were made people less inclined to share. I haven’t done a study on this, so am just thinking here. I am under the impression that, for this lack of direct knowledge of what our parents, siblings in some cases, and grandparents went through, made many of us who were born after 1980 take everything for granted. And that has just put us on a very difficult position.

    Every time I hear someone say they don’t vote or are not actively exercising their democratic duties (I call them duties because democracy is not a given; we all have to work for it if we want to keep it), I tell them about my own grandmother (whose story is possibly like their grandmothers) who was not allowed to go to school, to learn to read or to vote because she was a woman. To be fair, the voting part was not in place for anyone until 1974. Most of my mum’s sisters were also not allowed to go to school. Incredibly intelligent women whose potential was never fully achieved. They too will be forgotten. History books in Portugal hardly tell the story of the dictatorship much less the story of the people who lived through it.

    So do share whenever you feel like it. I know I will be listening!

  10. Laura says:

    This is beautiful, S. Remarkably written, and so poignant. Thank you for starting my day with such nuance, grace, and honesty.

  11. Darci says:

    Wow. I am so excited to read more of these kinds of posts! Thank you.

  12. Deidra says:

    What a beautiful story and a great memory. I love that you are able to pass on a little bit of your history to your daughter through something as simple as a onesie. I hope you take lots of pictures of her in it so she will remember her mother’s (and grandparent’s) strength as she sees those pictures.

  13. Heather says:

    What a fascinating story, beautifully written. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Dave says:

    Two of our dear friends from Lithuania who are sisters were telling us that, when they were little, their mom (who is a wonderful woman as well, and raised them on her own) took the bus to another town to stand in line at a market where they had some bananas. She waited there all day to bring them back for her daughters, and when they tasted them, they hated them, but of course they had to eat them all, as their mom had just gone to such trouble to get them :) Now they like them, but then, they were just so different from anything they’d eaten, they didn’t know what to think of them.

    Knowing people who grew up in Eastern Europe and Russia during that time period, I have conflicting thoughts that run through my head – in some sense, I feel fortunate for not having to grow up in such hardship. In another sense, I feel spoiled to have grown up a (for the most part) well-off, entitled white person in the U.S., and I wonder how my views of the world might be different had I grown up in a different culture (even within the U.S.). Of course, there’s not much I can do about any of that, so I suppose the lesson is to learn from everything and try to find the best path based on what you know.

    Thanks for sharing – I think every person’s experience in the world is important, and matters in ways they probably will never know.

  15. Wow, what an amazing journey and so beautifully written. Have you ever been back? Thanks for sharing this. xx

  16. Thank you for sharing, S. I’m glad that you have decided to bring more of yourself into your blog; I eagerly look forward to reading more.

    Glad you made it safely and that life is working so well for you.

  17. Daria says:

    That’s a beautiful story!

    I was 13 when the change of regime happened in Romania, and we stayed there. Years later, I left for for Canada for my PhD. Even though I’d never planned to leave Romania for good, I find it harder and harder to imagine my life there. It’s really sad that after more than 20 years, even though many things have changed, many are still the same and people still leave Romania in search of a better life.

  18. Katrina says:

    Loved this post S. – thank you.

  19. Kara says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post. It was beautiful and poignant.

  20. Heidi says:

    You write beautifully. Thank you for sharing this. I do hope you’ll share more.

  21. Liz says:

    Really enjoyed this, can’t wait to read more.
    My father left Hungary in 1956 at a similar age to what you were under similar circumstances. He also has a similar banana story that I can’t quite remember but, to this day, he refuses to eat bananas.

  22. Diana says:

    S, your writings about biking and life are always wonderful, but I love the new direction that this post takes for you. These personal stories are a richness for those of us that didn’t experience what you did. A real pleasure and depth to read about. Thank you

  23. Diana says:

    Oops, I hit return too soon. I love reading personals stories where a surprising encounter with an object/thing/experiences brings back memories in a rush of emotion. Very evocative.

  24. Julia says:

    I rarely comment, but just wanted to say thanks for writing this…moving and fascinating. More please!

  25. Pingback: Simply Bike » travel on my mind

  26. Maria says:

    thank you for sharing this story. i’m the child of hungarian immigrants and i feel that your beautifully written memories offered me a little window into their experiences.

  27. Pingback: Simply Bike » on language

  28. cb says:

    i love learning more and more about you and glad you are opening up more here. you are such a wonderful, beautiful & interesting person and this is a breath of fresh air. i am very happy that you made it here and that you can now call this place home even though your journey seemed like a difficult and mystery one <3

  29. Ellie says:

    Thanks for sharing your story! My husband has fewer memories of leaving Romania before the revolution, so you’ve made it up to me! I hope to harvest more from him this summer when we visit- places, objects, smells, and sounds have a magical way of stirring memories up from the deep parts of our unconscious, huh?

  30. marci says:

    what a wonderful story. isn’t it strange where memories are tucked away? good for you for taking the time to write it down now.

  31. I am catching up on your blog, and I wanted to chime in and thank you for sharing this beautiful and important story. “I know that after fear and pain comes hope and renewal, that home is an elusive concept at best, and that no struggle is ever in vain.” Just gorgeous.

    I am looking forward to more bits and pieces of your stories, along with your bikes. :)

  32. Anastasia says:

    Hey S! What a beautifully written story. Just wanted to add to the “bananas” discussion here. I guess, there was a special meaning attached to them if you grew up in the Eastern Block or in Russia. In 1990 (actually 1989/1990 because we celebrated that New Year on a plane from Moscow to Delhi) when we first arrived to Delhi, the first thing I remember thinking about was bananas. I remember how shocked and happy I was when I found out they were less that 1 ruble for a bunch. I don’t really eat bananas that much any more, but I will never forget that excitement about them when I first learned I could eat them endlessly everyday.

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