“He wants me to move to Atlanta and settle down.”
“You don’t sound very happy about that.”
“Settle down. Me? I don’t just love my career, I live for it. And really, marriage isn’t my thing. Why can’t we just say we’ll keep loving each other and travel until we need wheelchairs?”
Even a month ago, Meredith would have given Nina platitudes, told her that love was the only thing that mattered in life and that Nina was getting to an age where she should start a family, but she had learned a thing or two in the months since Dad’s death. Every choice changed the road you were on and it was too easy to end up going in the wrong direction. Sometimes, settling down was just plain settling. “I admire that about you, Neens. You have a passion and you follow it. You don’t bend for other people.”
“Is love enough? What if I love him but I can’t settle down? What if I never want the white picket fence and a bunch of children running around?”
“It’s all about choices, Neens. No one can tell you what’s right for you.”
“If you had it to do over again, would you still choose Jeff, even with all that’s happened?”
Meredith had never considered that question, but the answer came eff ortlessly. Somehow it was easier to admit out here, with nothing but strangers and water around them. “I’d marry him again.”
Nina put an arm around her. “Yeah,” she said, “but you still think you don’t know what you want.”
“I hate you,” Meredith said.
Nina squeezed her shoulder. “No, you don’t. You love me.” Meredith smiled. “I guess I do.”
The hostess led them to a table by a massive window. Through the glass was miles of empty ocean, the waves tipped in light from a fading sun. As they took their seats, Mom smiled at the hostess and thanked her.
Meredith was so surprised by the warmth in Mom’s smile that she actually paused. For years she’d taken care of her mother, fitting that chore into all the others on her busy schedule. Because of that, she’d rarely really looked at Mom; she’d moved past and around her on the way to Dad. Even in the past months, when so often it had been just the two of them, there were few moments of honest connection. She’d known her mother as distant and icy, and that was how she’d seen her.
But the woman who’d just smiled was someone else entirely. Secrets within secrets. Was that what they’d discover on this trip? That their mother was like one of her precious Russian nesting dolls, and if that were true, would they ever really see the one hidden deep inside?
Handing them menus, the hostess said, “Enjoy your meal,” and left.
When their waiter showed up a few minutes later, none of them had spoken.
“We all need drinks,” Nina said. “Vodka. Russian. Your very best.”
“No way,” Meredith said. “I am not drinking vodka straight shots on my vacation.” She smiled at the waiter. “I’ll have a strawberry daiquiri, please.”
Nina smiled. “Okay. I’ll have a straight shot of vodka and a margarita on the rocks. Lots of salt.”
“The vodka and a glass of wine,” Mom said.
“And the A.A. meeting has come to order,” Meredith said.
Amazingly, Mom smiled.
“To us,” Nina said when the drinks arrived. “To Meredith, Nina, and Anya Whitson. Together for maybe the first time.”
Mom flinched, and Meredith noticed that she didn’t look at them, not even when they touched their glasses together.
Meredith found herself watching Mom closely; she noticed a tiny frown gather at the edges of her mouth when she looked out at the vast blue sea. Only when night fell did she seem to lose that tension in her face. She followed the conversation, added her three new answers to the pot. She drank a second glass of wine but seemed to grow more agitated than relaxed from the alcohol, and when she finished dessert, she stood up almost immediately.
“I am going back to my room,” she said. “Will you join me?”
Nina was on her feet in an instant, but Meredith was slower to respond. “Are you sure, Mom? Maybe you should rest tonight. Tomorrow is okay for the story.”
“Thank you,” her mother said. “But no. Come.” She turned crisply on her heel and walked away.
Meredith and Nina had to rush along behind her through the busy passageways.
They went into their own room and changed into sweats. Meredith had just finished brushing her teeth when Nina came up alongside her, touching her shoulder. “I’m going to show her the picture and ask who the children are.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“That’s because you’re a nice girl who follows the rules and tries to be polite.” She grinned. “I’m the other sister. You can say you knew nothing about it. Will you trust me on this?”
“Sure,” Meredith finally said.
They left their stateroom and went next door.
Mom opened the door and led them into her spacious suite. As expected, the cabin was as neat as a pin; no clothes lay about, no personal items were anywhere. The only unexpected find was a pot of of tea and three cups on the coffee table.
Mom poured herself a cup of tea and then went to a club chair positioned in the corner of the room. She sat down and put a blanket over her lap.
Meredith sat in the love seat opposite her.
“Before you turn out the lights,” Nina said, “I have something to show you, Mom.”
Mom looked up. “Yes?”
Nina moved closer. In what felt to Meredith like slow motion, Nina pulled the photograph out of her pocket and handed it to Mom.
Mom drew in a sharp breath. What little color her face held drained away. “You went through my things?”
“We know the fairy tale takes place in Leningrad and that some of it is real. Who is Vera, Mom?” Nina asked. “And who are these children?”
Mom shook her head. “Do not ask me.”
“We’re your daughters,” Meredith said gently, trying to soften the questions her sister had asked. “We just want to know you.”
“It was what Dad wanted, too,” Nina said.
Mom stared down at the photograph, which vibrated in her shaking hand. The room went so still they could hear the waves hitting the boat far below. “You are right. This is no fairy tale. But if you want to hear the rest of it, you will allow me to tell the story in the only way I can.”
“No questions, Nina. Just listen.” Mom might have looked pale and tired, but her voice was pure steel.
Nina sat down by Meredith, holding her hand. “Okay.”
“Okay, then.” Mom leaned back in the seat. Her finger moved over the photo, feeling its slick surface. For once, the lights were on as she started to speak. “Vera fell in love with Sasha on that day in the Summer Garden, and for her, this is a decision that will never change. Even though her mother disagrees, is afraid of Sasha’s love of poetry, Vera is young and passionately in love with her husband, and when their first child is born, it seems like a miracle. Anastasia, they name her, and she is the light of Vera’s life. When Leo is born the next year, Vera cannot imagine that it is possible to be happier, even though it is a bad time in the Soviet Union. The world knows this, they know of Stalin’s evil. People are disappearing and dying. No one knows this better than Vera and Olga, who still cannot safely say their father’s name. But in June of 1941, it is impossible to worry, or so it seems to Vera as she kneels in the
rich black earth and tends her garden. Here, on the outskirts of the city, she and Sasha have a small plat of land where they grow vegetables to carry them through the long white Leningrad winter. Vera still works in the library, while Sasha studies at university, learning only what Stalin allows. They become good Soviets, or at least quiet ones, for the black vans are everywhere these days. Sasha is only a year away from finishing his degree and he hopes to find a teaching position at one of the universities.
“Mama, look!” Leo calls out to her, holding up a tiny orange carrot, more root still than vegetable. Vera knows she should chastise him, but his smile is so infectious that she is lost. At four he has his father’s golden curls and easy laugh. “Put the carrot back, Leo, it still needs time to grow.”
“I told him not to pull it up,” says five-year-old Anya, who is as serious as her brother is joyous.
“And you were right,” Vera says, struggling not to smile. Though she is only twenty-two years old, the children have turned her into an adult; it is only when she and Sasha are alone that they are really still young.
When Vera finishes with her garden, she gathers up her children, takes one in each hand, and begins the long walk back to their apartment.
It is late afternoon by the time they return to Leningrad, and the streets are crowded with people running and shouting. At first Vera thinks it is just the belye nochi that has energized everyone, but as she reaches the Fontanka Bridge, she begins to hear snippets of conversation, the start of a dozen arguments, a buzz of anxiety.
She hears a squawking sound coming through a speaker and the word—Attention —thrown like a knife into wood. Clutching her children’s hands, she wades into the crowd just as the announcement begins. “Citizens of the Soviet Union . . . at four A.M. without declaration of war . . . German troops have attacked our country. . . .”
The announcement goes on and on, telling them to be good Soviets, to enlist in the Red Army, to resist the enemy, but Vera cannot listen to anymore. All she can think is that she must get home.
The children are crying long before Vera gets back to the apartment near the Moika embankment. She hardly hears them. Though she is a mother, holding her own babies’ hands, she is a daughter, too, and a wife, and it is her mother and husband whom she wants to see now. She takes her children up the dirty staircase, down hallways that are frighteningly quiet. In their own apartment, no lights are on, so it takes her eyes a moment to adjust.
Mama and Olga, still dressed in their work clothes, are at one of the windows, taping newsprint over the glass. At Vera’s return, her mother stumbles back from the window she’s been covering, saying, “Thank God,” and takes Vera in her arms.
“We have things to do quickly,” Mama says, and Olga finishes the window and comes over. Vera can see that Olga has been crying, her freckled cheeks are tracked in tears and her strawberry-blond hair is a mess. Olga has a nervous habit of pulling at her own hair when she is afraid.
“Vera,” Mama says briskly. “You take Olga and go to the store. Buy whatever you can that will last. Buckwheat, honey, sugar, lard. Anything. I will run to the bank and get out all our money.” Then she kneels in front of Leo and Anya. “You will stay here alone and wait for us to return.”
Anya immediately whines. “I want to go with you, Baba.”
Mama touches Anya’s cheek. “Things are different now, even for children.” She gets to her feet and grabs her purse from the other room, checking to make sure that her blue passbook is there.