An oral history from Heather (Hankins) Ivanov

I was born on September 21, 1968 in Gainesville, Florida. My father was a student in the UF College of Medicine in psychiatry. Not long after I was born, we moved to New York where my father completed his residency at the University of Rochester. I lived there until I was four years old.

Even though I was very young, I have vivid memories about things that happened to me then.

I remember that mom’s friend, Ann Shertz had a son, Tym, who was my age. We went to the same babysitter. When she married his name became Tym Finger. I thought that was so unusual those two names and they just stuck with me. He was the first boy I had a crush on. I think I was four at the time.

We had a dachshund and we used to feed her dog biscuits that were shaped like little mailmen! The house we lived in had more than one floor, and I had to go up a dark stairway and into a dark closet to get those dog biscuits.

My mom’s sister got married and lived on the first floor. I remember her husband, Uncle Naysim, used to set me up on the counter and threaten to put mustard on my toes and eat them. I was very scared because I thought he really meant it. He was handsome, of Lebanese descent, with curly black hair. All his siblings had names beginning with Nanette, Nada, Neal, and Norman. I lived a lot in this world of very early memories until I was 15.

We moved back to Gainesville when I was four. I went to an alternative school called Loblolly from first through fifth grade. Iris Greenfield was my favorite teacher. I remember her rainbow toe socks. The school prepared me very well, but it was different, not like other schools. Then, I went to Westwood Middle School and graduated from Gainesville High School.

I started playing the French horn when I was 12 or 13. I played in middle school, high school, and for 3 or 4 years in college. I chose the French horn for a couple of reasons. First, my mom forbade the clarinet and saxophone. She thought they would be too irritating to listen to when I practiced! Also, she and I liked the sound of the French horn, so I decided to give it a try. It has a very small mouthpiece, so it’s much more of a challenge to play than other brass instruments with larger mouthpieces. The French horn’s tone comes from how you shape your lips on the mouthpiece. This is called embrasure. They say that different musicians have different assets. French horn players are said to be the best kissers, because they have such muscular lips and jaws from that embrasure!

Martha Stark was my band director at GHS. She worked us really hard. But, then, when it came time to go out to our competitions, she’d say, “OK, go out there and have fun. Don’t worry about winning, just have fun.” That taught me a lot, not just about music, but also about life.

After high school, I attended Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I chose it for a lot of reasons. I was attracted to it because it was a really good liberal arts school, and I just wanted to learn as much as I could about everything. Also, one of the school colors is purple, my favorite color. The final deciding factor was a flier I saw. There was a picture of a pretty woman and handsome guy throwing snowballs and I remember thinking, “That’s where I want to go.”!

Furman was partially funded by the Convention of Southern Baptists. During the time I attended, there was a push for the Bible to replace all textbooks in every class. The university said, “No” and fortunately, they had other funding. Furman had an open, liberal arts outlook. In general, the professors were liberal minded. However, I learned something important there. The Baptist students would pray for the salvation of Catholics and believers in other faiths like me. My eyes became opened by this kind of thinking and I learned early on not to argue about religion!

I ended up going to Furman for five years. My first major was English, then Spanish… then biology. I wanted biology because I wanted to be a part of a special studies opportunity in the Galapagos Islands. I realized that wouldn’t have worked out for me in my wheelchair, so in my fourth year I switched to chemistry. I was a dreamer, very idealistic. I remember being attracted to chemistry because that department didn’t have issues like some of the other departments had. The chemistry teachers, on the whole, got along really well.

One of my professors told me I would be a great teacher, but I felt that I didn’t know enough, so I went to graduate school at the University of Georgia. I knew I was in the right place when I looked into the chemistry lab. I saw a white guy smiling and getting along with a black-skinned man from Africa, who was smiling at a man from China, who was smiling at a blond-haired, American-looking guy, who was smiling at a redhead. I loved the unity of the people working in the lab.

My dad said, “Of course you picked chemistry because as a child you were so interested in the origin of life, the primordial soup sort of stuff.” For my research project, I chose to work with a certain bacteria that grew at the bottom of the oceans near volcanic spouts. This is very much like that primordial soup.

I am a sixth generation Baha’i. This faith was founded by Baha’u’llah. I believe he was a manifestation of God. I believe that God has sent down divine teachers throughout history—Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Christ, Mohammed, The Báb and Baha’u’llah. This faith fits today’s needs because it’s all about world unity. I was raised to want people to get along, to be united. I think part of my attraction to the chemistry lab was its unity as a group. The Baha’i faith originated in Persia, now called Iran. Currently, there are many Baha’is in Iran, but they have zero rights. The official Iranian government does not like them and they have no rights under their constitution.

My ancestors were, among other things, German, Swedish, Irish and English. In 1893, they were living in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. At this time in America, people were very open to new ideas. One of the presenters was a man from Syria. He was a Baha’i. My relatives heard him speak, and they chose to follow the Baha’i ideas and beliefs.

In the Baha’i faith, there is no clergy. Each Baha’i individual prays and reads the holy writings. There is a group center. We used to meet in people’s homes, but the community has become too large. Our Baha’i Center is over on NW 19th St. The Baha’is are also very involved in our community; for example, our local Neighborhood Watch meets in our center. We are not proselytizers, but we will introduce ourselves and invite people to visit.

After graduating from the University of Georgia, I returned to Gainesville. I worked at ABC Research, which is a food and soil testing laboratory. The lab tests food substances for safety and has a food safety consulting service. We even tested tainted salsa.

Then, I worked for UF in the Environmental Health and Safety Department. This took me to places like the Veterinary School and Shands Hospital. I tested autoclaves and sterilizers for tools such as syringes. Autoclaves are sort of like pressure cookers and I would go to the labs on campus and make sure they got hot enough to kill things like the AIDS virus. I also gave lectures on autoclave use and safety.

In 1996, I got married and moved to Chicago. I worked for the Baha’i National Center. The administrative office was just north of Chicago in Evanston, and the House of Worship was nearby in Wilmette. I was an administrative assistant. My office helped create materials for the Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA’s), and train presenters. The Baha’i Faith has no clergy, however, there is an administrative structure. There are nine individuals who head up the LSA’s. They have to be twenty-one or older. These individuals are elected by secret ballot, and they serve as administrators, meeting the needs of the Baha’i community. They exist all over the country, like here in Gainesville and Alachua County.

I chose this job over lab work because I thought it would be less tiring. It really wasn’t though, but I had to save my energy for home. I was expected to do all the cooking and cleaning. The man I married was a Bulgarian. If one were to describe Bulgaria, it is a country about fifty years behind in their views on women. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this til I married him, but I’m not married any more. I was married for nine and a half years. Been there, done that!

I’ve been back in Gainesville for about a year and a half. I am living with my mom and dad. It was too cold in Chicago. It was so cold, sometimes you couldn’t feel how cold it was. But I do miss seeing the first snow. I remember I could see the shapes of individual snowflakes as they fell down to my car windshield. Of course, then there was shoveling out of four feet of snow. Not easy.

I am still trying to build a strong foundation here. It has been a valuable experience living with my parents, but also a little frustrating. I don’t want to fall back into being my parents’ little girl. My parents are very protective, but I am used to making it on my own. At the same time, I am also very thankful for their help.

I have a beautiful daughter, Danielle. She is ten and a half. She is in the gifted program at Littlewood Elementary School. Danielle is so very important to me. I want her to know that no man should treat her or me the way her father was treating us. I mostly got the psychological abuse, but Danielle was getting physical abuse. I don’t talk directly to her about it, but she has had therapy to help her deal with it and learning to be a strong and empowered person. I give her these kinds of strong, empowering messages, too. I support her studies and try to involve her in activities that are good for her creativity. Right now, she is taking ballet. I am always there to listen to her.

At home we have family meetings; anyone can call one. If someone is angry, they can call a meeting to talk about whatever is bothering them. We consult together about whatever the issue is. Instead of attacking each other or ganging up against one family member, we try as a family to deal with the issues.

We take turns making dinner. My parents want meat protein, and I feel better eating vegetarian, so we have a bit of both. I often make this “One Pot Wonder.” You put chicken breasts, cream of mushroom soup, green beans, and those canned crunchy fried onions in a pan, and you bake it all. Good. I like Thai food and Indian curries, not too hot, but really flavorful. I remember this spice store in Evanston. It smelled like heaven.

Another important part of my life is the arts. My mother’s parents were artists by trade. My grandma could draw anyone’s portrait. She worked on paper doll books. She did the fancy part of the artwork, like the scenes on the covers of the paper doll books. My grandfather was a sculptor. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago. When I was young, I drew all the time. In graduate school, I took a figure drawing course. I took ballet until I was twelve or thirteen. That’s when I took up the French horn.

I love music. Gustav Mahler has kick-ass French horn parts. I also love the “Carnival of Animals” by Saint-Saens. He took pieces of his earlier music and re-wrote them to represent different animals at the zoo. For example, he took a can-can and slowed it way down, and this became a piece about how tortoises walk.

My grandma thought I would be a writer. Other relatives thought I should write about my experiences about having multiple sclerosis.

I like poetry. One poem I enjoyed was a re-write of another poem. The original poem was about sailors on a ship. The poet used the same imagery, but used different happenings to represent the original imagery.

I am taking Madeline’s art class for fun. I look forward to being with adults, too. I am getting back to some of what I used to draw, but not completely back to that space because I now have a tremor in my right hand. One project I liked was a mixed media project. I went through magazines and picked out photographs that appealed to me. I chose one photograph and drew part of it. Then, I glued on other things, like tissue paper to create images that represented parts of the photograph. My dad and Danielle also create art. Danielle uses art to express her emotions.

I don’t know why, but ever since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in high school, I’ve never felt sorry for myself. Well, sometimes I have, but for the most part I’ve kept on living and doing, instead of crying. I’ve been able to take action, like going away to college and living on my own. I’ve known people who were paralyzed by their diagnoses, but I have been very independent. In Chicago I drove, even in all that snow, and worked. I know there are support groups in town; maybe I should get involved. I do miss dancing. I have never been interested in being a soloist in dance or music, but I miss being part of a group.

Multiple sclerosis is not fun. There are dark times, but I don’t dwell on them. I have used a wheel chair when I needed to, but when I could walk, I walked to prevent as much muscle atrophy as possible. The new medicines give me hope. They treat my symptoms and also act as a preventative. I plan to keep on living and doing and being a good role model for my daughter. It’s important.

Told to Barbara Esrig (Writer-in-Residence)
Corinne Conlon Keller (volunteer)
Shands Arts in Medicine
Shands at South Tower
October 13, 2010