My mother, a “mirror image of my Motherland,” died on March 24. She was in bed, watching her favorite figure skating program, and she simply fell asleep, simply glided off to another world. A seemingly painless end to a long life. Three lives, to be exact. First was Ivanovo, where she sewed up the wounded in a military hospital one mile from the front line; where she buried her younger brother maimed during the war, gave birth to my older sister, and married my father, in that order. Then it was Leningrad, where she gave birth to me at 41 before burying my father and her parents, all while teaching anatomy at a medical institute, both to maintain her professional skills and to make ends meet. Her last life was in my house in New Jersey, where she realized – straight from her arrival – that every Russian official had lied to her, that there was no bright future shining on the Soviet horizon; where she raised my daughter and, at my request, wrote down the story of her life. As Frank McCourt would say, she had a good run.
And maybe she did, but knowing that does not make it any easier.
All I can think of is how I resented all the small things I had to do in the last few years – take her to never ending doctors’ appointments, cut her hair, cook buckwheat with onions, a taste from the kitchens of her two earlier lives, and watch her deteriorate before my eyes. Her legs refused to walk, she would lament, her ears refused to hear. How I resented that my husband and I couldn’t jump in the car and spend a weekend with friends in Shelter Island, that every trip had to be planned and thought through. Things that seem so small and ludicrously unimportant now seemed so monumental then.
She stoically endured my inattention, my total immersion into my own life, filling her days with reading mysteries, chopping vegetables for salad, and watching figure skating on a television channel from Moscow. Orderly and determined to survive, she plodded on, just as she did in Ivanovo, just as she did in Leningrad. She was always a survivor and she kept on living, as she used to say, for her two brothers killed in the war – the one who died in their Ivanovo house in 1942, the other whose body had been plowed into the warm earth of western Russia when German tanks crossed the Soviet border with Poland in June of 1941. She survived 98 years – thanks to her tenacity, my grandparents’ genes and good American medicine. She was fortunate to have lived three lives, the last of which turned out to be my responsibility and my privilege. I only hope she was happy.