There was a time – those first few years of my life that don’t leave an imprint on your memory – when mama and I were one. When I was still attached to her by so many invisible strings, when we shared one soul. When she woke up in the middle of the night to check if I was breathing in my crib, when I somehow knew that she was bending over me, smelling of sleep. We were one: she was in me and I was in her, and she knew what I wanted at any given moment, and I knew what she was ready to give: everything. I can glean this from old photographs, those snapshots taken home where I used to melt into her arms, burrowing into her chest, curling up in her lap, unrestricted by the boundaries between us.
Then we separated. We still lived together, having our usual evening tea with strawberry jam from the dacha, watching figure skating on television, but we had ceased being one. After walking together on the same path, we parted and went in different directions. Or was it I who turned away from her because I had found my own road?
When did this happen, this separation? Was it in first grade, when no one picked me up on the first day of school because of a miscommunication between mama and the teacher, when I walked home alone, surrounded by dangerous streetcars and speeding trucks, basking in my power to be able to cross streets by myself? Was it when the three of us stood in a phone booth, rain streaking down the glass, my wooden fingers dialing my father’s hospital number, the indifferent voice on the other end of the line saying that he had died?
Or maybe it happened earlier, when at five or six I would roll into mama’s bed because my feet were freezing cold. I would press into her with my entire body, squeezing my feet under her soft thighs, stealing her warmth. Was I already separate from her then, knowing that my feet were freezing and hers were not? “They’re cold like frogs, your little nozhki,” she used to murmur and smile, warming me with her embrace.
When did my daughter separate from me? I remember looking at her standing in our living room holding on to the side of the coffee table. She had just learned how to walk, making little steps, wobbly and tentative, yet resolute, because she ambled forward on her own, refusing help. She was determined to stand straight up and walk without falling, and I had an intense, almost physical sensation at that moment that our paths had begun to part. A visceral perception that we were estranged now, the umbilical cord severed, that she has started to walk away from me in those small, faltering steps.
The power went off at about 7 pm. I heard a burst and saw a flash at the end of the block; then everything went dark. That was before Sandy even landed. For a short while, we could get NPR on our Ipad, until we couldn’t. Verizon network must have collapsed along with the Atlantic City boardwalk. We lit up candles and opened a bottle of wine. There wasn’t much else to do.
The following morning, when I turned on my Blackberry, there was an email from BBC Russian Service. They’d already called me on my home phone, not knowing it was dead, looking for a first hand account from a Russian hurricane survivor. I emailed back and got an immediate call on my cell. The producer wanted to know what hardships we’d been experiencing and how flood insurance worked in the U.S. We agreed that her show host would call me back an hour later, after I could listen to the media and drive around to assess the damage in my neighborhood.
It turned out the damage wasn’t so easy to assess. Our two cars were parked in the garage, behind the door that worked on electricity (a small fact we overlooked the night before). As my husband walked around the block, where a tree sliced through a neighbor’s house, I called my niece in Texas, who provided me with the most detailed update on Sandy’s damage. When the BBC call came, it promptly failed. I moved around the house, in search of a spot with the signal, from the second floor to the first, all in vain. The only place that gave me two bars was outside the house, by the side door to the garage. I wedged myself inside, between the garbage can and my locked-in car, relaying the post-hurricane experience to the Russian BBC host stationed in London, who was going to play it an hour later to the audience of listeners all over my former Motherland.
The host wanted to know about our hurricane preparations, the U.S. flood insurance, and the food that was going to spoil in my refrigerator. “Some anti-American voices here say it’s God’s revenge for the American imperialistic war-mongering,” he opted, which made me think of 1980 when the Leningrad University Dean scolded me for marrying a capitalist and thus betraying my Motherland. I glanced down at my notes spread down on the lid of the garbage can, although I knew there was nothing there about American imperialism or God’s revenge. “It’s climate change,” I said wearily, looking outside the garage where it began to rain again. “It’s global warming,” I said, adding something about fossil fuels and people vs. nature, before I realized there was silence on the other end of the line. The reception was lost.
The next day, crouching by an electric outlet at Starbucks, I listened to the podcast of my interview on the BBC website. It ended with my words about climate change and global warming aimed at my former country’s God-fearing citizens, and that – despite a long-term prospect of no heat or power or Internet at home – made me smile.
“Are you excited?” Alan asks, and from his face I can see that he is. I nod, but it is a tentative response. There is a dark fear lodged inside me like a rock, the old dread of facing Soviet militia and customs agents, the old panic at being powerless and guilty before the stone-faced guards of my country’s borders. I don’t want to admit to Alan that I am scared, but he can see it from my stooped shoulders and my bitten lips. I stare at my boarding pass, questioning my sanity when I suggested to him a few months earlier that we could spend July in Leningrad. It sounded so exciting then, when the trip was hypothetical and airy as a cotton cloud. We were thrilled to find inexpensive tickets: People Express to London, Aeroflot to Leningrad, and the thought of seeing everyone, of walking on the streets of my city again almost made me breathless. But now, looking at the Aeroflot plane parked behind glass, I feel as I did in the waiting room of the Leningrad dental clinic when our first grade teacher took the whole class for an annual visit of drilling and patching.
There is nothing to be afraid of, I tell myself. My Soviet passport says “resides abroad” stamped in official purple ink, and our marriage license is safely packed in my handbag. I may still be a Soviet citizen, but I am married to an American who is right here, next to me, monitoring my every step. No border guard would dare keep me on – or off – Soviet soil, I tell myself. Why then are my palms so clammy? Why can’t I be as nonchalant as all these Western tourists?
In London it is still morning, and we join a group of British passengers waiting for our flight to Russia. They leaf through their guidebooks with maps of Leningrad, all except a woman in her fifties, whose face, beneath a layer of Western creams and cosmetics, carries faint marks of her Slavic heritage. She is talking to a man who may be her English husband as she glances in my direction because from my tensed mouth and slumped back she knows I am Russian. She probably feels sorry for me, or maybe she recognizes herself in this same airport thirty years earlier, terrified before her first visit back home.
On the plane, we are told to sit where we like since there are no assigned seats on the boarding passes. A stewardess in a fur hat waves her arm magnanimously as if presenting us with the interior of her plane as a gift – “sit any place you want,” she says. When we stuff the overhead compartments and claim all window seats, more passengers are allowed on the plane. It turns out that after stopping in Leningrad, our flight continues on to Sri Lanka. Where were these people before boarding? I ask Alan. Did they keep them in a separate room? They are all dark-skinned and apologetic, and by now it is clear that they have been doomed to middle seats, trying to find space for their carry-ons. The magnanimous stewardess has vanished, and the passengers bound for their non-European destination are left to figure out by themselves the lack of basic service my national airline has to offer.
“Wow,” Alan says with astonishment and disbelief, watching a man next to us trying to stuff his bag under the front seat.
The engines start without warning, and with the speed of a military jet, the plane roars down the runway and rivets into the low sky. The sudden thrust of the engine presses my back into the chair; my ears pop. The stewardess, wearing an orange life vest to demonstrate the emergency procedures, falls into a chair, the fur hat rolling down the aisle.
Alan takes my hand and squeezes his fingers around it.
“Welcome to Russia,” I say, although I don’t know if he can hear me behind the thunder of the engines.
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.
Alan shows me how to write a job resume, and we recreate my Russian life – my university English classes and my desk duty at the House of Friendship and Peace – using such words as “educational background” and “work experience.” Committed to paper and arranged in columns under headings, my Russian past looks unfamiliar and impressive, having acquired unexpected solidity and heft. It looks as if it were the past of someone else, some other Elena Gorokhova, self-confident and successful, who welcomed foreign delegations visiting the city, then at night dove into the philological depths of research at the University. I didn’t know I had a Master’s Degree in English and Linguistics; I didn’t know what a Master’s Degree was until Alan told me. It feels satisfying to be called a master, even though I have trouble picturing myself among these mystifying masters’ ranks.
“You can go to graduate school and get a Doctorate,” says Alan, and I think of the Russian Doctoral Degree, which I would never even dream of, which marked the top spot on the Olympus of Russian academia accessible only to the heads of major university departments, those professors whose office doors were never opened to reveal a live human being inside.
“With the amount of credits you took,” Alan adds, “you may already have a Doctorate.” The other day he pored over the translated copy of my university diploma, five typed pages of the courses I took for six years after work, four times a week, two classes a night. “I can’t believe the amount of hours you studied English,” he says. “No wonder you can speak it.” I’m not always sure I can speak or write it, but Alan’s voice is so tender and sincere, so loving that I decide to believe him.
I tell Alan of walking along the Neva embankment with my university friend Nina when classes ended at ten, of the gold cupola of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the dark facades of the Admiralty and the Hermitage on the other side, grim and unglamorous at that hour of the night. We walked over the Palace Bridge – the river strapped under the armor of ice for five months – leaning into the wind, talking about banned books, Tarkovsky’s films, and those who’d left the country. “Anywhere out of here,” Nina said. “I’d go anywhere. Even to Patagonia.” In our tight friendship, she was the one with the Jewish husband and hopes for immigrating to the West. I had no such far-reaching plans: my biggest wish was to reunite with Boris from Kiev whom I met in the Crimea. Four times a week, Nina and I walked and talked, trying to glimpse into the future – not the bright future that glared from the front page of Pravda but the real life lurking ahead of us, as impenetrable as a winter night in Leningrad. So isn’t it ironic, I ask Alan, that she is still in Leningrad, huddling in one room with her husband and her son, and I’m the one molding my past into a job resume on the other side of the Atlantic?