I HAD KNOWN FOR A LONG TIME that the letters existed, and that someday they would be mine. I had seen glimpses of them, when my mother took them off the shelf in her closet to seek an answer to one of my questions. What was my first word? When did I walk? What other names did she think about calling me? She would leaf through the letters until she found the answer, and then put them back. I knew they were my birthright--part of my story, as well as hers--but I did not know when they might become mine. I thought perhaps when my parents were very old, or even gone. I did not expect my mother to offer them to me when I was twenty-six, newly married.
"The letters are here, when ever you want them," she said to me in Russian.
"If you don't have room for them this time, you can take them next time."
"I'll take them this time," I replied, in English.
I was sitting at the table in my parents' living room. My mother stood in the doorway to the kitchen; without saying another word, she turned and walked to her bedroom.
"Here they are," she said, returning with the stack of letters, a foot high.
"Now you can write a book."
"Do you have something to put them in?" I asked. We continued to speak in different languages.
She set the letters down on the table and again left the room. Through the sliding glass door I could see the cement patio and beyond it, the rain splattering the bare patches of earth in the backyard. This was my first visit home since I had married and moved from Southern California to Virginia seven months before. Although I had not lived with my parents for six years, I had never been more than a thirty-minute drive away.
My mother returned with a duffel bag and began packing the letters. As she zipped the bag closed and handed it to me, we did not speak. We do not speak a lot, and there is a lot we do not speak about.
Back in Virginia, I unpacked the bag, handling the letters cautiously. I looked through them, reading dates, feeling the paper, studying the loops and jags of my parents' handwriting. The first letter, written by my mother, was dated June g, 1974. The correspondence ended four years later, in June Of 1978.
I noticed that the letters were written in a mixture of Russian and English. I looked at my father's orderly handwriting, covering the front and back of hundreds of sheets of lined loose-leaf paper, the kind that schoolchildren use. I looked at my mother's more uneven, impetuous scroll, written in a dozen different inks on scraps of paper of various sizes, colors, textures: graph paper, tissue paper, squares torn out of notebooks, grainy newsprint. My father tended to remain committed to one language or the other in his letters, while my mother switched back and forth erratically, sometimes in the middle of sentences. I found a Western Union telegram to my father, announcing my birth. I looked at a kidney-shaped tracing of my foot. I looked at the drawing of an elephant that I did at the age of three.
One section of a letter written by my mother, dated September 23, 1977, caught my eye. It was composed when my parents had been apart for more than three years. In Russian, she wrote:
I want to write that it is again autumn. And once again without you. The rain makes the old leaves fragrant. The apples on our balcony are getting wet, and a cold wind blows. For me this is the most vigorous time. And my thoughts, coming with astonishing speed, make the dry matter of words banal. My last autumn in Russia. And the feeling is entirely of a lived life. And tiredness. If only I could see you and your eyes for an instant, everything would pass--this dry melancholy and the enormous feeling of the loss of something native.... My love, my passion and sadness do not give me peace day or night. I don't know what is wrong with me--it seems that this is the weather of rhythmic prose. But into what can I recast myself, when life with out you is useless? You will forgive me for this madness. These words can only be written at night. The light of day is ruthless. It would not allow such words to be born. I am trying to leave behind this rhythm that is now inside of me--but it's impossible. Because you are the most important essence without which I cannot live on earth. Help me--write from time to time about love, simple as the grass, as the sun and the stars, as bread on a table, as the smile of a child. I only have to glimpse you--just for an instant--and it is for eternity.
I stopped reading, feeling suddenly like a spy, sneaking a peak through a keyhole on the private emotions of my parents. This was not the mother I knew.
I could not read the letters, not yet. I packed them into one of two large fire safes that I keep in the back of my closet. The safes contain a record of my life--about twenty-five diaries of varying shapes and sizes that I have filled compulsively since the age of eight. In the event that the house burned down, my life would be preserved.
I waited three months, until the strange lush trees of Virginia exploded in bloom, and I took the letters out again and began to read.
Leningrad, USSR: November 4, 1973
THEY MET ON A COLD, WET DAY, the temperature holding at an even freezing. A slushy mixture of snow and rain fell from the leaden gray sky; the streets looked like slicked-black ribbons and the leafless trees monochrome sticks in the dim light of a northern autumn.
Irina dressed early for the party. She wore a long dress that she had knitted herself, beige with white stripes. She slipped her feet, which she considered much too large and wide, into black shoes with square toes. The three-inch heels made her stand nearly six feet tall. As she dressed she may have thought about the books she had read in the library that day, or about her feeling that her dissertation was burning her life away. Every day she took a bus to the library where she spent ten hours, reading an average of six books, many in French. She considered sleep a waste of time and slept only four hours a night. It made her angry that she had to sleep at all; she had so much to do. Maybe as she stood combing her hair, she thought about the writer Romain Rolland, the man of her work and of her dreams, the only man who understood her, though he was a Frenchman andhad died of tuberculosis the year before she was born.
Paul did not go to the national archives because it was Sunday. Six days a week he made the hour-long walk from the island across Dvortsovii Bridge to the mainland, where Peter the Great in the guise of the Bronze Horseman marked his destination and greeted him; the czar, frozen in a posture of conquest atop his rearing stallion, kept watch over his capital. In the archives, Paul pored over ornately lettered manuscripts of the Petrine era and wrote notes on index cards, which he later filed into cardboard boxes decorated in paper made to look like green marble. Every evening he walked back in the chilly dusk, stopping for a cup of black coffee at the confectioner's. He walked everywhere he went, because he disliked the stuffiness and close contact of public transportation.
(In several weeks he would learn that he was known on the island as the crazy American, because he wore only thin trousers and a flannel shirt on his long treks across the city, while the Russians bundled themselves in scarves, raincoats, hats, and gloves.)
In the afternoon Paul walked to the cafeteria, a block away, where he ordered his favorite soup, solyanka, made of pickles, potatoes, meat, tomatoes, and sausages, served with a slab of crusty black bread. The soup tasted salty and sour from the pickles, and big blotches of orange-tinted fat floated on its claret surface. Paul found it filling and satisfying on a cold day, and the matronly woman who governed the colossal steel soup pot always ladled him a double serving. She wore a kerchief on her head and a wide apron stretched across her vast chest and stomach. Her cheeks glowed red in the steamy heat of the kitchen.
(Months later, Irina would learn that the woman, a Ukrainian, lavished the extra attention on Paul because she believed him to be a boy from her beloved Ukraine; she would be dismayed to learn that he was an American.) They lived in a white five-story dormitory on Shevchenko, a quiet side street, on Vasilievsky Island, which lies in the crook formed where the Neva River splinters into two. Peter had built his city in awet northern wilderness; from above the land appears crazed with waterways, like cracked glass. Three hundred graduate students lived in their dorm. Each room housed one or two foreigners and a Russian. Irina lived on the second floor in room #17, with a Canadian, Sarah, and Colette, who was French. Paul lived on the third floor in room #37, with a Russian, Petya. For three months they lived one floor apart and didn't meet.
Their windows both faced north, and they looked out over the same view, but his room, one floor up, and not directly over hers, offered a slightly different perspective on the scene: an empty field with two or three poplar trees, patches of dying grass, and the roof of the movie theater Baltika just visible on the horizon. (Later, after Paul left, the field would be turned into a muddy construction site and would remain that way for the rest of Irina's stay.) Perhaps Paul stood looking out of the window that afternoon, thinking about the endless days of early August, when dusk didn't begin until after ten and it was dawn by four. Then, in September, the darkness of night began to stretch longer and longer; he now saw that the days of summer and winter were like photographic negatives of one another, dark replacing light, light replacing dark. It had snowed for the first time on September 26th, and through all of October white flurries swirled in the sky, but they melted on contact with the ground; the streets, long and straight, meeting at right angles or in the knots of traffic circles, and perpetually wet, glistened like a black fisherman's net ensnaring the city. He thought of the lush green citrus groves of his California hometown, and of cash registers; hardly a sliver of green could be found in this grand, spacious city where glum store clerks impatiently cracked out sums on the hard blond and black beads of an abacus. He felt very alone, and the remaining seven months of his ten-month stay stretched out before him, a series of drab, wet, gray days and long walks back and forth over the bridge.
Riverside, California: May 1, 1983
OUR MOTHER LINES UP THE THREE OF US in the center of our cramped living room. We look at her expectantly. She is holding four identical objects that appear to be short lengths of wood with red cloth wound around them. She gives one of them a quick, dexterous snap, and the cloth is unfurled. I immediately recognize what it is--a miniature flag, the size of a postcard--and my breath hitches in my throat as I see the pale hieroglyph in the corner of a sea of continuous bright red. In Russian the word for red--krasnii--has the same root as the word for beautiful--krasivii.
I reach out and grasp the flag my mother is holding; its thin wooden handle, the size of a pencil, fits perfectly in my eight-year-old hand. Next my mother offers a flag to my sister, Natasha, and then to my brother, Sasha, who are going on four and three. They awkwardly take hold of the smooth handles in their chubby hands and gaze at the bright scraps of color, their eyes round with wonder.
"We are having a parade," my mother announces in Russian.
"Why?" I answer in English, forgetting the rule.
"I can't understand you," my mother says firmly, fixing her eyes on some faraway point above my head.
I repeat the question in Russian: "Pochemu?"
"Because it is May Day; there are always parades on May Day," my mother replies.
I have seen the glossy Soviet magazines--Ogonyok, Russkaya Zhizn--full of color photographs of parades. The Soviets are always having parades; they march proudly through their wide city streets, carrying enormous portraits of Lenin and flying red banners with Soviet slogans on them. In the Soviet Union every day is a holiday, and it is always the first day of school. Schoolgirls in brown wool dresses and ruffled, starched white aprons are always leaving flowers at the eternal flame in remembrance of those who died for the Soviet cause.
Natasha and Sasha, who do not yet recognize the flag, bring the red fabric up to their round faces and sniff. They have already learned that stuff from there has a particular smell--undeniably sweet and faintly musty, like a dry basement. I sniff my flag too; it has the scent. We know that scent from the books piled high in our living room, cliffs of precariously balanced books everywhere--the books my mother lugged with her when she came to America. These are our legacy--Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Lermontov, Turgenev, complete and unabridged in the original language. These are what my mother filled her suitcases with, not clothes or family photos. These are what would save her children from being swallowed by America.
"We will have our parade in the backyard," my mother says. "We certainly can't let ourselves be seen in the front yard."
"Why?" I ask, this time in Russian.
"Because we will be arrested."
"Why?" I gasp.
"Because this is America," she replies, leaving me to puzzle out the rest.
My green parakeet, Ptichka, "birdie" in Russian, chirps angrily in his cage on the bookcase, and Natasha and Sasha begin to whop each other on the head with their flags. My mother unfurls the final flag-her own-and curls her broad hand around the handle. It looks like a toothpick with a scrap of red paper on it--the kind of thing stuck through sandwiches at delis-in her masculine hand, marbled with blue veins.
"Let's go," she says, leading the way through the sliding-glass door onto our patio. We fall in line behind her single file, largest to smallest, like a family of ducklings waddling uncertainly behind the poised, somewhat oblivious mother duck.
My mother takes long, regular strides around our small backyard, passing by our strawberry patch, the steep hillside of ivy, the lemon tree, the turtle-shaped sandbox, the jungly rubber tree, the wire clothesline, and last we pass by the fence running along the neighbors' property, where my mother picks up her pace. The neighbors are black and breed rabbits in their yard. Their daughter, Wynette, who is a grade behind me in school, is my friend. My mother calls her "Vinetka." She Russifies all American names. If your name is Andrew she will call you Andrei, if it is Kate she will call you Katya.
After two laps around the yard, Natasha and Sasha begin to fall behind. Sasha, bringing up the rear, drops on all fours near the rubber tree and starts picking in the dirt for bugs. Natasha keeps up for another lap, then stops at the strawberry patch, where she begins to poke around in the plants for berries. Our father has covered the strawberry patch in coffee grounds, because he read somewhere that coffee grounds make an excellent fertilizer. Our strawberry plants are massive and healthy, like the glossy-green plants of the fecund jungle, but the berries they produce are small, the size of peas. The coffee has stunted their growth. It has not stunted our father's growth; he is over six feet tall. He comes home each night smelling of acrid, pasty orange rind or saccharine orange blossoms, depending on the season; he loudly slurps soup at dinner, talks quietly to our mother in Russian, and occasionally swears at us in English when we're too boisterous.
My mother promenades on, her head high and aloof, and I hustle to keep up. She walks in great, even strides, her eyes focused on some grand thing far ahead of her; like a horse wearing blinders, she has no peripheral vision. I think she may be deaf as well. She is probably hearing the Soviet anthem blaring in her head; she is imagining herself parading among the happy Soviets. She does not seem to notice that she has lost two of her children. I do not fall behind. I am the only one of her children born in Russia, although the other two are considered Soviet citizens under Soviet law, because, according to our mother, it is a commonly known fact that nationality always passes through the mother.
I am still following my mother on the seventh and eighth laps, and I am almost out of breath. We are not parading, we are marching, and I am worried. Why is this dangerous? Why are we Soviet? What if Wynette sees me and tells the kids at school? This is my biggest worry. The kids at school call me a commie. I have told my mother this, who calmly replied, no, we are not communists, we are Soviet citizens. Such distinctions are lost on me. The kids have also informed me that as a commie I do not believe in God. I asked my mother, what is God and why don't we believe in it? God is something that ignorant people believe in because they are afraid of the truth, she told me.
My mother is also worried, and maybe that is why she is striding so hard. She is worried that her children will be brainwashed. She has heard ugly, unthinkable propaganda in America; she has heard, for example, the vicious lie that Stalin murdered millions of people. She is afraid her children will grow up believing such things. When she learned that each morning at school I say the Pledge of Allegiance she was incensed. Her children are Soviet; they do not pledge allegiance to a foreign flag. She told me I did not have to say it, that I should refuse, but I never have the nerve.
My mother holds the dwarfed Soviet flag high above her head and marches onward. She never wanted to come to the U.S. She was not an ardent communist, but neither was she a dissident. The man she fell in love with just happened to be an American graduate student--what could she do? She married my father with the understanding that he would return to the Soviet Union, and they would live there, but in four years of paper chases, he still had not been granted permission to go back. And by marrying an American my mother had committed professional suicide; she was not allowed to defend her dissertation, she suffered blow after blow in her career, and so she left. She went over to the other side, but in body only. Her finished but undefended dissertation sits in a trunk in our garage.
My mother finally stops near the rubber tree and pauses, for a moment keeping her austere head perfectly poised, and then she moves her gray eyes to survey the yard, blinking rapidly, as though she has just emerged from a dark cave into the sunny California afternoon. First she spots Sasha, who is herding roly-polys; she briskly strides over to him and heaves him up under one arm, collecting his dusty flag in her other hand. Natasha is over in the corner of the yard, destroying leaves on the aloe vera plant in order to smear the sticky mucus over her bare legs. My mother, still carrying her wriggling son under one arm, slaps the aloe verabits out of Natasha's hands and heaves her up under the other arm. One of my siblings begins to howl and struggle, and the other follows suit, while my mother carries them, like two sacks of flour, each slung carelessly under a muscled arm, into the house. She sets them down in the living room, side by side, where they continue to howl, and returns outside. I am still standing under the rubber tree where our parade ended. Without speaking, she plucks the flag out of my hand, then goes to retrieve the last flag, which Natasha has discarded under the lemon tree.
On her way back to the house my mother abruptly veers off course and walks to the fence that separates our property from the neighbors'. She peers suspiciously over the fence, her eyes narrowed, but seeing only the dopey rabbits nibbling on dandelions, she is satisfied and strides back to the house. I am left alone in the yard, with a nervy, fluttery feeling in my chest; we are surrounded by the enemy.
Kuybyshev, USSR: High summer, 1984
WE ARE AT THE DACHA, prowling in the lush tangled growth of summer fruit. Within reach are raspberries, gooseberries, currants, strawberries, plums, cherries, and apples. I am nine, and I am gorging myself on sweetness. Trailing me are Natasha, five, and Sasha, four. This is the first time my mother and I have been back since we left in 1978. Natasha and Sasha have never been here before. My father has stayed in America to work.
I hold a gooseberry up to the sky: a perfect miniature watermelon. We don't have these in Southern California. We don't have currants either, or white plums. Our grandmother, Babushka, comes marching by, hauling a metal pail full of potatoes. She spent the morning worrying over the strawberry patch. She now chastises Natasha for wiping her juice-stained fingers on her clothes. She chastises Sasha for cramming his mouth too full. She chastises me, the eldest, for not watching over my sister and brother. Then she sighs deeply, resigned to her fate, and sets off on another chore. Our grandparents speak only Russian, and deep into our Russian summer, we too now speak only Russian.
I have learned that Babushka operates in two modes: she is either chastising, or she is lamenting. "Oh, my heart hurts!" she cries out, several times a days. "My heart hurts at the thought that you will be leaving. First I counted in months the time that you had left, and now in weeks, and soon it will be days, and then hours! I can't bear it!" I don't understand these sudden outbursts of emotion. My parents are cool, undemonstrative. But Babushka is like a pipe so full of pressure that she must periodically burst open, the emotions gushing. "Moi rodniye," she calls us, again and again. She tells me that the Soviet Union is my rodina. It is a word without a precise English translation. Perhaps "native" is the closest: my native people, my native land. But these people, this land do not feel rodniye to me. Most of the time, I am choked with homesickness. I want my American house, my American grandparents. The dacha is the only place where the homesickness dislodges from my throat. We spend most of our days cooped up in my grandparents' downtown apartment, four adults, three children, and a cat congesting the two rooms. The space is choked with cots and toys and laundry hanging to dry.
Natasha is tugging on my arm. "Dr. Pepper," she pleads. "I want Dr. Pepper."
"There is no Dr. Pepper here," I inform her.
"Dr. Pepper!" she shouts, suddenly on the verge of a tantrum. She is tired; there is much that she has had to get used to. Our brother, crouched down in the strawberry patch, watches us.
"There is no Dr. Pepper," I say firmly. "This is Russia."
"I want to drink Dr. Pepper!" she wails. Our grandfather, Dyedushka, who has been picking apples nearby, approaches.
"What is it she wants to drink?" he asks me.
"Dr. Pepper," I reply.
"Dok-tor Peh-prrr," he echoes. "Aha, dok-tor peh-prrr." He sets off decisively in the direction of the house, as though he knows precisely what he is going after. Like Babushka, he is a mystery to me. A taciturn man, he occasionally throws out awry comment, then falls back into silence. Short and solid, he is of peasant stock, a descendant of serfs. I know several pertinent facts about him: he was one of five children, but he left his village, went to school, became an engineer. He has the same name as my brother: Sasha, Aleksandr, Alexander. He was born before the Revolution of 1917. And most intriguing of all: he doesn't know when his birthday is. His mother, working in a field, simply paused from her chores long enough to have a baby, then went back to work. It was the middle of summer, she told him, and so he celebrates his birthday on July 15. This makes him mythic in my eyes, a survivor from another age.
Dyedushka returns, holding a glass full of a ruby liquid, which he is stirring with a spoon. He offers the glass to my sister.
"Dok-tor Peh-prrr," he announces. Natasha takes the glass and sniffs the beverage with suspicion. She hesitantly takes a sip. "Mmmm," she says, then begins to chug the drink.
"Dr. Pepper," Sasha whines from the strawberries.
"Alright, come with me," Dyedushka says.
We all follow him back to the house, which isn't a house at all but a train caboose that was planted here among the raspberry bushes many decades ago. It's been partitioned into two rooms, a lumpy bed in each. Besides these, there are just a scarred wooden table, several stools, a couple of naked light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, and a single-burner electric stove. We stand around Dyedushka at the table as he begins to make more of the mysterious beverage.
Our mother is in the shadowy corner of the room, sitting on the bed with her back against the wall, a book propped in her lap. She hardly glances up. She is not interested in the outdoors. She is not interested in cooking or cleaning. She always performs these chores angrily, defiantly. Our mother reads and writes and thinks. She is an intellectual. She is usually doing two or three things at one time: reading while watching TV, knitting while listening to music, writing while supervising her children. She hardly sleeps at all.
My mother has become more of a mystery to me. I had believed that upon returning to the Soviet Union--home--she would finally be happy. Much of the time, she does have a new levity, especially when she makes the rounds, visiting all her old friends, but there are melancholy moods as well, when she retreats from the world: when she reads, when she writes letters to our father. She does not talk to her parents a great deal.
This is my grandfather's recipe for Dr. Pepper: crushed raspberries, currants, gooseberries, cherries, and strawberries with a generous spoonful of sugar topped off with fresh well water and briskly stirred. We drink one glass, two, and demand more. It is the best Dr. Pepper we have ever tasted. Natasha never mentions that Dyedushka's Dr. Pepper bears little resemblance to the carbonated saccharine beverage that we have back home. Perhaps she has forgotten how Dr. Pepper tastes. Perhaps the word is just an echo from home, a reaching out for the language she is losing. Perhaps, in asking for something for which she has no name, she seized the first word that floated to the surface of her mind: Dr. Pepper. Perhaps she means: home, affection, attention, love.
Perhaps, like me, she means: lam homesick. I do not understand this place. Please give me something familiar that I can hold and taste.
Riverside, California: 1987
I DON'T KNOW THE DATE Of that particular argument. I don't even know what the argument was about. I was twelve, and my mother and I argued frequently. I noted many--but not all--of the arguments in my diary. On January 26, I wrote: "She said she never wanted to see me again, and she meant it. I hate her, and I mean it." On February 9, I wrote: "She says that I don't exist. She never talks to me, never pays any attention to me ... I'm a failure in my mother's eyes. I'm not learning Russian, I don't talk Russian at home. If she could she'd send me to an orphanage." On May 14, I wrote what she said to me that day: "You'll probably drop out of school after ninth grade, get married, and have thirteen kids."
I am surly and disrespectful; I suspect my parents are idiots, and I tell them so. I believe I know so much more about everything than they do. I declare my hatred for classical music and everything Russian, especially the language. I speak only English--a slangy, mumbling English--and I don't readbooks in any language. Night after night, my mother and I yell at each other, my father standing by nervously, helpless. If I were asked the reasons for my anger, I would be utterly inarticulate. My rage is beyond the reach of language.
Arguments inevitably end with me crying in my room. I don't even consider what my mother might be doing or feeling. I pound my pillow and mash my face into it. I listen for my mother, but she never comes. I wish that I had the sort of mother who would come back when we were both calm; we would apologize and embrace. I do not have that sort of mother.
That night, we are arguing--again. I am sitting on my bed, shouting something nasty to my mother. Perhaps I am saying that she is stupid and I hate her. Perhaps I call her a bitch. I know that word in Russian, and I use it more than once. It's about the only word I say to her in Russian anymore. Whatever I say, my mother's anger suddenly reaches a new pitch.
"I almost got an abortion when I was pregnant with you!" she screams at me. "I wish I did!"
She is so enraged she is in tears. She could kill me, I think. She leaves the room, and for the first time, I do not wish her to return. This time, I take the awful thing she has tossed at me and gulp it down, keeping it inside like a terrible secret. It is something barbed and sweet at the same time. It is like a weapon that is graceful but deadly. She will be sorry, I vow. Perhaps she thinks
I should be grateful merely for being given life. But I demand so much more. And I will show her.
Riverside, California: June 1, 1990
BEFORE I PICKED UP A CHAIR from the patio and threw it through the sliding door, shattering the glass in a blast of shards;
before I stepped through the jagged hole into the living room to defiantly face my parents with their gawking faces;
before I said smugly, "You didn't think I'd do it, huh?";
before my mother ran to the phone to call the police;
these are the things that happened that day:
I had three nightmares: in the first, I was being eaten alive by piranhas; in the second, I was being tickled to death aboard a Greyhound bus; in the third, I witnessed a deadly, fiery bus crash. I refused to go to school. I spent most of the day sitting in my room, smoking and writing in my diary. My mother took away my last pair of shoes to prevent me from leaving the house. When I did leave the house, I put on a pair of her shoes. I met up with some friends and we split a bottle of Strawberry Hill. I returned home at 11:00 p.m. to find myself locked out. A note on the door indicated that I was to sleep outside. Three blankets and a pillow had been left on a table in the backyard. I rang the doorbell. I knocked on the sliding glass door. I knew my parents were just inside, watching television.
"I suggest you open the door. It's against the law to leave me out here!" I yelled through the door.
"No, at Tough Love they said we could do this," my father called back. We shouted in English.
"I suggest you open the door."
"No, I'm not going to let you get your way."
"If you don't let me in, I'm going to break this door down. You don't think I will?" I pounded on the glass with my fists.
"No, I don't think you're that crazy."
So I showed him that I was.
Before the police officer came and told my parents that they could not lock their fifteen-year-old out of the house at night;
before he came to my room in order to find out whether I was sober;
before my mother came tearing through the house in a rage, screaming at me while I sat placidly writing in my diary about the day's events; these are the things that happened the previous month:
I ran away from home on a Greyhound bus. My father came to the Picayune, Mississippi jail to take me home. My parents took my door off its hinges and disconnected my cable TV. They nailed my windows shut. I rarely went to school. I was flunking out of the ninth grade. I smashed dishes on the kitchen floor while screaming at my parents. I drank and did drugs. I sliced gashes into both arms from my wrist to the bend of my elbow with a razor blade. I was evaluated by psychiatrists.
Before my mother screamed at me (in Russian) that she wished she had aborted me;
before I calmly retorted (in English) that she might as well not waste her breath because I didn't give a fuck;
before my mother ran crying into the living room;
before I heard her say to my father that she was going to commit suicide if
I lived under the same roof with her; before I reveled in her cruelty and pain, thinking, You see, she is horrible to
me, you see the horror I must live with, you see how my life is all busted to hell because of her, you see why I will never, never, never be like her;
this is what happened:
I learned to write the words I Love You in English when I was five years old. I painstakingly wrote these words on a piece of paper and delivered the message to my mother. She was washing dishes. She read the note and handed it back to me. "It's not in Russian," she told me, turning back to the sink. I did not know how to write the words in Russian. I went to my father for help. I handed him a sheet of paper and a pen. I commanded him to write the words in Russian. I took the new message to my mother. She glanced at my father's familiar cursive, and responded, "You didn't write that yourself." I did not go back a third time.
Leningrad, USSR: November 4, 1973
LIFE IN ROOM #17 orbited a sturdy, round wooden table: six feet in diameter, draped in a burgundy tablecloth and covered in cup rings, crumbs, books, pens, a stray soup pot, sugar granules, teaspoons, cards from a scattered deck. Every night, half a dozen to a dozen students of different nationalities--Russian, English, French, German, American, Finnish--gathered at the table to drink tea and talk from ten until two or three in the morning. Irina always said that you could seat any number of people at a round table, and it proved true, night after night. On her twenty-eighth birthday in October, fifteen French students gathered in the room for the celebration. When the five or six mismatched chairs filled, people piled onto the beds. A haze of cigarette smoke cloaked the room, curling in a delicate white filigree, collecting in a dense blanket on the ceiling. Irina did not smoke and often opened the small, hinged window to diffuse the thick clouds.
Room #37, the same size as #17, had two beds instead of three. Paul's bed stood to the left of the window. Paul and Petya studied quietly at the square table in the center of the room. Petya was studying political economy. Occasionally he asked Paul how much something cost in America. Otherwise, he tended to be quiet. Coming from the warm, southern republic of Kazakhstan, he sometimes complained of the cold and kept a thermometer in the room that he monitored regularly. Paul, despite his California roots, seemed impervious to the cold.
(Later, when the temperature in room #37 would fall to if degrees Celsius, Petya would buy a space heater to supplement the feeble heat put out by the radiator under the window.)
Irina and her friend Galya served as the cultural directors in the dormitory. Galya, from Tomsk, had ivory hair that she wore in a thick, twisted rope falling down her back nearly to her knees. She and her husband, Valera, lived across the hall and a few doors down from room #17. As cultural directors, Irina and Galya organized the series of evening parties hosted in turn by every nation represented in the dorm. The inaugural party, the Russian samovar, always fell on the Sunday closest to November 7th, the day of the October Revolution.
(In February, the French would decide to celebrate their cultural evening by preparing French onion soup, and Irina would lead them around Leningrad, collecting six enormous soup pots from the cafeteria, 100 bottles of white wine, sixty pounds of cheese, and two mountains of onions.)
Irina and Galya walked down the stairs together to the spacious room on the first floor. The study tables, pushed together to form one large U-shaped table, were draped in satin tablecloths, the bright red of the flag. Irina and Galya arranged trays and plates of pastries, pryaniki, and candy, and they placed cups and teapots at regular intervals along the table. The teapots, gathered from all the rooms, formed a motley collection. The two teapots from room #17 had made their way down here: a green enamel one and a porcelain one decorated in a spray of blossoms on a milky background. A record player in the corner piped out Russian folk ballads and revolutionary songs. Irina set out the last teapots with great haste, maybe splattering the tablecloths with hot water droplets, clinking the porcelain cups together; her manner, brusque and impatient, suggested that there wasn't enough time in her one life to get everything done. She was forever racing time, especially since the doctors had taken an entire year from her. Five months previous they released her from the sanatorium with good news: she was cured of tuberculosis. But she had lost so much time, and she did not know if the cure would last. While Irina and Galya were making a final check of the tables, in room #37 Petya broke the long evening silence by announcing, "It's time to drink tea." Paul put on the only suit he'd ever owned (purchased for his high school graduation thirteen years before) and followed Petya down the two flights of stairs. They found two seats together. Paul poured his tea, first splashing bitter black zavarka in the bottom of his cup, then filling it to the brim with hot water.
About 120 people were at the party. Paul and Petya, two of the quietest people there, sat side by side drinking tea and not speaking. Maybe Paul looked at the bank of wide windows along the wall and studied the reflection of yellow light and red tablecloth, the shimmering opaque blackness of the world beyond. Maybe he sampled a pryanik and found it too hard and sweet. Maybe he picked up a piece of candy and studied the ornate label, reading the name of the factory and city in Russian: Fabrika Rossiya, Kuybyshev.
Riverside, California: September, 1998
MY MOTHER AND I ARE SITTING at the table in my parents' house, studying Russian. We are struggling with cases. Russian has six; English has none. I have trouble memorizing rules and exceptions to rules. I can often hear whether something is correct in Russian without having the slightest idea why. My mother calls my knowledge "instinctive," but instinct will get me only so far. I need to know the rules and how to apply them.
I have gone back to school to finish my BA; I am majoring in comparative literature with an emphasis in Russian literature. (I flunked out of the last university I attended, but my mother doesn't know this. She thinks I merely dropped out to work full time.) I have not lived at home for over three years. I come two or three times a week for my lessons. My mother and I are polite to one another. My sister and brother still live at home, but they have their own lives. My brother, the youngest, has just graduated from high school. Neither of them speaks Russian anymore.
My mother is patient. I make mistakes; she explains things more than once. We review the cases again: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, prepositional. I do not like to think of language in these terms. I want it to be natural and beautiful.
Halfway through the lesson, my mother makes a comment: "Your father is the only person I've ever known who has a natural gift for languages."
I know this is true. Languages have never come easy to me. I failed French in high school. But I also know that she is making the comment about herself as well as me. Her English will never be as good as mine; my Russian will never be as good as hers. We do the best we can. We try. My mother teaches at a university now; she lectures in English. I am studying Russian, however belatedly. I am not bad, but I am not eloquent. My Russian professor at the university has a computer program that has determined my pronunciation of Russian sounds to be "fluent." I feel far from it, though my pronunciation is better than anyone else's in the class, including the professor's. Russian is the only language I knew until I was three and a half. It is my native tongue, but it is foreign. English is my fluent language, but it is not my first. I wrestle with them both, trying to bridge the gap that can never be closed.
We turn back to the lesson. The declension of numbers is nearly unendurable to me. We try again.
St. Petersburg, Russia: July, 1999
I HAVE RETURNED TO RUSSIA for the first time in nine years, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and for the first time alone. I am in St. Petersburg with a group of Americans. They are here to talk about reading and writing, to see the sights. Ostensibly, I am here for those reasons, too. But I have a hidden motive. I walk the streets for hours--looking for something, I can't say what. I don't sleep. The days and nights bleed together in a perpetually gray-white sky. I scrutinize the city for signs at all times. I watch the bridges on the Neva raise their arms to let the ships pass because others have done this before me and have found meaning in it.
Thanks to my mother, my Russian is still with me. As long as I don't have to make sustained conversation, people don't even notice an accent. I can get around undetected, an imposter, pretending to be a Russian. I find myself looking at Peter the Great atop his horse. I always knew I would return here, to this place I had never been, my mother fleeing it, flying home to Kuybyshev in a snowstorm a month before my birth. I was almost here before. I am what my parents conceived in Leningrad, the product of their love, its independent agent, going forth into the world. But I am not in Leningrad. I was conceived in a place that no longer exists and born in a place that no longer exists. Like St. Petersburg, Kuybyshev, my birth city, has remade itself, taking on its former name: Samara. I have never been to Samara. In a week, I will be traveling there, to see my remaining relatives: my mother's sister, and a five-year-old cousin I've never met.
I am looking at the Bronze Horseman, but he hardly seems there at all. It is as though I am seeing the statue in a dream. It is as though I am looking at a picture in a book--and that other one, the one in my memory, is the real one. I cannot wipe from my eyes the cobwebs of the years, the long life of not being here--not being here so acutely, so passionately, so intensely, that the actual being here is dulled to a dream. I have seen this all before, in a book, in a film, in the words of my parents. I have seen it all, and I have lived it more intensely. I have no vision left for the real thing. The myth of this city--this city that I sprung from but had never been to--is so vivid that I cannot see past it. I am in a state of torpor, viewing the shimmering surfaces of beautiful things, but they are only toy castles, toy monuments, a toy city on a toy river.
I search and search the city for something I cannot find.
Herndon, Virginia: July 3, 2004
OUTSIDE, HEAT CURLS OFF THE SIDEWALKS and streets, the humidity thick and muffling. Inside, the air conditioner thrums, pumping cool air through our house. I have been transcribing and translating the letters all day. I am typing them, rendering them in English. This is a beginning. I am far from writing my book. There remains much to be done. I am dissatisfied with my progress.
The word, translation, it seems, does not belong only to me, a literary person, a person of words. It means many things to many people:
Translation: Transference; removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another. The action or process of turning from one language into another; also, the product of this; a version in a different language. The expression or rendering of something in another medium or form (of a painting by an engraving or etching). Transformation, alteration, change; changing or adapting to another use; renovation. A transfer of property; alteration of a bequest by transferring the legacy to another person.
I have just learned today that a tiny new life is unfurling within me: the translation of my own and my husband's genetic code. I cannot yet say how I feel about this fact.
To translate: To carry or convey to heaven without death. To move (a body) from one point or place to another without rotation. To express in other words, to paraphrase. To use (genetic information in messenger RNA) to determine the amino-acid sequence of a protein during its synthesis. To interpret, explain; to expound the significance of to express (one thing) in terms of another. To change inform, appearance, or substance; to transmute; to transform, alter; of a tailor, to renovate, turn, or cut down (a garment). To transport with the strength of some feeling; to enrapture, entrance.
And all of this is true. I am doing all of this, and more, and it is no small feat. I read back through the letters on my computer. I am losing something in translation. Their meaning is in their bilingualism, their duality, their two voices, interweaving; their meaning is inextricable from this twining of languages, this twining of selves, one wrapping around the other, like the double helix of DNA. I am that infant cradled in my parents' words Of 1975- Cradled within me, a new life blooms, translating forth into flesh another generation.
In these words scattered on a page are the things I have lost in translation, the things I have found in translation.
Lincoln, Nebraska: January 1, 2007
THE METEOROLOGISTS PREDICT Only a dusting of snow, but we get nearly eight inches. On this first day of a new year, the world outside is blanketed in white. We look at the yard through the windows, then warm ourselves by the fire. My parents, who have been visiting since Christmas Eve, are scheduled to leave later today.
My daughter--Katherine, Kate, Katya--is busy cooking in her new play kitchen. She has appropriated all her other gifts--rubber toys for the tub, a stuffed blackbird, a basket of fluffy toy kittens--for use in her culinary efforts. She is currently cooking up a blue rubber crocodile in a frying pan. My parents, my husband, and I are sitting around the living room, watching her. My mother is also knitting.
I am in a Ph.D. program. I am still writing my book. This year, I will turn thirty-two, my daughter will turn two, my mother will turn sixty-two.
"Crocodile ready!" Katherine cries, running over to my mother--her babushka--to offer her a taste.
"That's very good," my mother says, in English.
Kate takes the crocodile over to my father, her dyedushka, who is filming her with his camcorder.
"Deba," she says. "Try." She has not mastered the words, baba and dyeda. She has conflated them into one word: deba. She seems to apply it indiscriminately to both grandparents.
Momentarily losing interest in cooking, Kate runs behind the sofa and crouches down, hiding. She waits.
"Gde Katya?" my mother calls. "Gde Katya?" Where is Katya?
"Gde Katya?" Kate echoes her, giggling. Then she runs out into the middle of the living room. "Here's Katya!" she cries.
"Vot Katya!" my mother exclaims. Here is Katya.
My father, camcorder in hand, goes to the window to peer nervously out at the snow again. The cold white stuff still seems a bit foreign to me as well, but I am getting used to it.
Kate is cooking once more, cramming a stuffed animal into her oven. She knows only a smattering of Russian words: gusenitsa (caterpillar), krasnii (red). My husband does not speak Russian, and I am sloppy, inconsistent, throwing out Russian phrases here and there, then forgetting for weeks to say even a word.
"Baked cat," Kate announces, offering me her creation.
"That is delicious," I tell my daughter. "That is the most delicious cat I have ever tasted." My tone is not as effusive as I intend it to be.
Before heading for the airport, we are going to see my brother, Alex, who lives two blocks away. It is time to get bundled up for the short walk.
My parents are growing old. My mother is calm now, kind. Her children are grown; she has a career. She did in fact become a professor--two decades later, in America. She is successful. She seems fond of us, her grown children. We can make her laugh. Maybe she misses us, now that we're not constantly underfoot, now that we don't stand in her way. I feel protective toward her. I want to apologize for something--I can't say what precisely--but we still leave the most important things unsaid. I can write it down. As always, I can write it all down.
We are dressed. I am holding Katya, bundled in a snowsuit. My father is already out on the porch, filming the street. My mother is adjusting her boots.
"Mama," I say. "It's time."
Leningrad, USSR: November 4, 1973
IRINA NOTICED HIM FIRST. She became aware that there was a very quiet man sitting beside her who had no one to talk to. She waited five minutes, and then out of politeness, she spoke to him. She asked him questions about his work: what was he studying? what was his dissertation on? And he told her, in correct but slightly accented Russian, that he was studying Stefan Yavorskii, the Acting Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Petrine era. Yavorskii had gone to Jesuit College in Poland and knew Latin, Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, Church Slavonic, and Old Russian, but he wrote primarily in a combination of the Polish alphabet and the Church Slavonic language. Irina was impressed that he knew so much about Old Russian. They spoke politely to one another and used the formal you form: vi.
At first, Irina thought that he looked Russian. After she heard him speak, she decided that his accent sounded Ukrainian. He certainly looked Ukrainian: bright blue eyes, round cheeks, dark brown hair, balding. She noticed that he wore a very outdated black suit with narrow trouser legs. She was surprised when she asked him where he was from and he told her America. Sometime during the conversation they told one another their first names: Irina, Paul.
He looked into the face of the woman talking to him--at her widely spaced, intelligent gray eyes, her long, straight nose, her broad face with a cleft in the chin, her strong, square jaw--and he saw that she was very beautiful. He felt bashful and inarticulate.
At the end of the conversation, she said to him: "If you ever want to have tea, come to room 17. Remember: room 17." And he remembered. But that night he was not among those at the round table, nor was he there the following night, and Irina thought that he would never come, because in her experience people came on the first or second night or not at all.
(Four days later, on November 8th, he would knock on the door of room #17 for the first time. A week later, on November 11th, the snow would accumulate, the city would turn a soft luminous white, and she would take him shopping for a winter hat made of black rabbit with flaps that came over the ears. Irina would cut the eight-foot-long blue scarf given her by an old student exactly in half; she would give half to Paul and keep half herself, and they would wear matching scarves all winter. Four months later, on March 20th, they would marry. On June 5th, he would return to America, alone.)
During that first meeting, they talked for no more than three minutes. He thought she was very beautiful. She thought he seemed very lonely. The party continued. Neither of them had any sense that something remarkable had happened. At nine or ten they all went back to their rooms. Outside the icy rain churned out of the sky and fell steadily in the darkness.
Portions of the "Riverside, California: May 1, 1983" section of this essay previously appeared under the title "On Parade" in So To SPEAK (Summer/Fall 2003).
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|Title Annotation:||a daughter's translation of her parent's letters to each other|
|Author:||Renfro, Yelizaveta P.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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