A Medal for My Mother

I thought that A Mountain of Crumbs was my memoir.  I didn’t know that it was my mother who would become the core of the story, the “rock-solid mother,” as theDaily Beastcalled her in celebration of Mother’s Day.

Almost seventy years ago, in the spring of 1942, a woman carried an unconscious nine-year-old boy into the make-shift hospital where my mother was a surgeon, one kilometer away from the front.  It was April, and when the ice on the Volga turned porous and frail, mines frozen into the river began to explode, touched off by the slightest shift, sending flocks of birds into the air and schools of fish to the water surface, belly up.  Locals with buckets, driven by wartime hunger, waded into the river to collect the unexpected harvest floating among chunks of ice, setting off more mines.

It was prohibited to treat civilians in a military hospital, but my mother unbuttoned the boy’s quilted jacket and muddy pants and carefully pulled them away from his perforated flesh, revealing blind belly wounds: entrances of shells with no exists.  She lifted a scalpel out of the boiling water, made an incision, and pulled apart flaps of skin, exposing multiple intestinal wounds, big and tiny holes in the coils of the boy’s belly.  Then she removed each piece of shrapnel, rinsed the boy’s intestines with antiseptic, and sewed up the holes, one by one.

Every day the soldiers came in trucks from the front and although she scooped the lice out of the wounds with a teacup and cleaned the flaps of torn tissue as diligently as she could, lice festered in layers of dirty bandages, keeping the wounded awake and screaming through the night.  They were younger than she was, those wounded boys – her brother’s age – and she peered into their dusty faces, clinging to a shred of hope that in some miraculous way her brother, stationed on the border with Poland when German tanks crossed into Russia on June 22, 1941, would be brought into her hospital for her to heal from seven hundred kilometers away.  She hoped her brother was not among the thousands of bodies she knew had been plowed into the warm summer earth of western Russia.  She hoped for a quick victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is still known in her old country.

Her brother never came home, and the Victory took five long, excruciating years.

May 9, 2010, was the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, a holiday that is visceral to every Russian.  A Fedex package from the Russian Consulate in New York addressed to my mother arrived at my house in New Jersey, where she has been living with me for 22 years.  In it was a letter from the Consul to all living veterans of the Great Patriotic War, a certificate issued in my mother’s name, and a medal.  It was her third medal; she received her first one during the war and her second – for the 50th anniversary of the Victory.  My mother put on her best dress, pinned the medal to her chest, and offered to help me make pirozhki for our celebration.  We rolled the dough and chopped eggs and scallions side by side in our kitchen.  Here in America, it was also Mother’s Day.