Meredith frowned. “Don’t do what?”
“Make excuses for me.”
“It’s not an excuse, Mom. Just an observation. They must have known how much you loved them,” Meredith said as gently as she could.
“But you didn’t,” Mom said, looking at each of them in turn.
Meredith could have lied then, could have told her eighty-one-year-old mother that yes, she’d felt loved, and even a week ago she might have done it to keep the peace. Now she said, “No. I never thought you loved me.”
She waited for her mother’s response, imagining her saying something that would change everything, change them, though she didn’t know what words those would be.
In the end, it was Nina who spoke.
“All these years we wondered what was wrong with us. Meredith and I couldn’t figure out how a woman who loved her husband could hate her own children.”
Mom flinched at the word hate and waved a hand in dismissal. “Go now.”
“It wasn’t us, was it, Mom?” Nina said. “You didn’t hate your children. You hated yourself.”
At that, Mom crumbled. There was no other word for it. “I tried not to love you girls . . . ,” she said quietly. “Now go. Leave me before you say something you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
“What would that be?” Nina asked, but they all knew.
“Just go. Please. Don’t say anything to me until you’ve heard it all.”
Meredith heard the way Mom’s voice caught on please and shook, and she knew how close Mom was to falling apart. “Okay,” she said, “we’ll go.” She leaned down and kissed her mother’s soft, pleated cheek, smelling the rose-scented shampoo she used on her hair. It was something she hadn’t known: that her mother used scented shampoo. For the first time ever, she pulled her mother into an embrace and whispered, “Good night, Mom.”
All the way to the door, Meredith expected to be called back, to hear her mother say, Wait. But there was no last-minute revelation. Meredith and Nina went back to their own room. In a contemplative silence, they slipped past each other in the bathroom and brushed their teeth and put on their pajamas and climbed into their separate beds.
It was all connected; Meredith knew that now. Her life and her mother’s. They were joined, and not only by blood. By inclination, perhaps even by temperament. She was more and more sure that whatever loss had finally broken her mother—turned Vera into Anya—would have ruined Meredith, too. And she was afraid of hearing it.
“What do you think happened to Leo and Anya?” Nina asked.
Meredith wished it wasn’t a question. She would have preferred a statement she could ignore. Before this trip and all that she’d learned about the three of them, she would have gotten angry or changed the subject. Anything to obscure the pain she felt. Now she knew better. You carried your pain with you in life. There was no outrunning it. “I’m afraid to guess.”
“What will happen to her when she gets to the end?” Nina asked quietly.
That had begun to worry Meredith, too. “I don’t know.”
According to their guidebook, Sitka was one of the most charming—and certainly among the most historic—of all Alaskan towns. Two hundred years ago, when San Francisco was barely a dot on the map of California and Seattle was a hillside of ancient evergreens, this sleepy waterfront community had had theaters and music halls and well-dressed men in beaver hats drinking Russian vodka in the warm summer nights. Built and lost to fire and rebuilt again, the new Sitka was equal parts Russian and Tlingit and American.
Shallow water prohibited the arrival of big cruise ships, so Sitka waited, like a particularly beautiful woman, for visitors to arrive in small launches. As they entered Sitka Harbor, Nina took one picture after another. This was one of the most pristine places she’d ever seen. The natural beauty was staggering on this day of blue sky and golden sunlight, the water flat and sapphire-blue. All around were forested islands, rising up from the quiet sea like a necklace of jagged jade pieces. Behind it all were the mountains, still draped in snow.
On shore, Nina capped her lens and let the camera dangle around her neck.
Mom stood with a hand tented over her eyes, gazing at the town laid out before them. From here they could see a spire rising high into the sky, its top a three-tiered Russian cross.
Nina reached instinctively for her camera. Looking through the lens, she saw her mother’s sharp profile soften when she looked at the church spire. “What’s it like, Mom?” she said, moving closer. “Seeing that?”
“It’s been so long,” Mom said, not looking away. “It makes me think . . . of all of it, I guess.”
On her other side, Meredith moved closer as well. The three of them followed the small crowd who’d come from the ship. They walked up Harbor Drive and there were bits and pieces of Sitka’s Russian past everywhere—street names and store names and restaurant menus. There was even a totem pole downtown that had an emblem of Czarist Russia carved into it. The double-headed eagle.
Mom said almost nothing as they passed one reminder of her home-land after another, but when they pushed through the doors of St. Michael’s Church, she stumbled and would have fallen if both girls hadn’t reached out to steady her.
There were glittering, golden Russian icons everywhere. Some were ancient paintings on wooden boards; others were jewel-studded masterpieces on silver or gold. White arches separated the rooms, their surfaces decorated in elaborate gold scrollwork. On display were ornately beaded wedding gowns and religious vestments.
Mom looked at everything, touching what she could. Finally, she ended up at what Nina figured was the altar—a small area draped in heavy white silk adorned with Russian crosses made of gold thread. There were candles all around, and a pair of old Bibles lay open.
“Do you want us to pray with you?” Meredith asked.
“No.” Mom shook her head a little and wiped her eyes, although Nina had seen no tears. Then she walked out of the church and up a short distance. Nina could tell that her mother had studied a map of Sitka. She knew exactly where she was going. She passed a sign that advertised Russian-American history tours and turned into a cemetery. It was on a small rise, a grassy area studded with fragile-looking trees and clumps of brown bushes. A coppery dome, topped with a Russian cross, marked the hallowed ground. The grave markers were old-fashioned; many were handmade. Even the marker for Princess Matsoutoff was a simple black sign. A white picket fence delineated the princess’s final resting place. The few cement markers were overgrown with moss. It looked as if no one new had been buried here in years, and yet Mom moved over the bumpy ground, looking at every grave.
Nina took a picture of her mother, who stood in front of a mossy headstone that had been knocked askew by some long-ago storm. The late spring breeze plucked at her tightly bound white hair. She looked . . . ethereal almost, too pale and slim to be real, but the sadness in her blue eyes was as honest as any emotion Nina had ever seen. She put the camera down, let it hang, and moved in beside her mother.
“Who are you looking for?”
“No one,” Mom said, then added, “ghosts.”
They stood there a moment longer, both staring at the grave of Dmitri Petrovich Stolichnaya, who died in 1827. Then Mom straightened her shoulders and said, “I am hungry. Let us find someplace to eat.” She put her big round Jackie O–style sunglasses on and coiled a scarf around her throat.
The three of them walked back downtown, where they found a small restaurant on the water that promised SITKA’S BEST RUSSIAN FOOD.
Nina opened the door and a bell rang cheerily overhead. Inside the long, narrow room were a dozen or so tables; most were full of people. They didn’t look like tourists, either. There were big, broad-shouldered men with beards that seemed to be made of iron shavings, women in brightly colored kerchiefs and dated floral dresses, and a few men in yellow plastic fisherman’s overalls.
A woman greeted them with a bright smile. She was older than her voice sounded—maybe sixty—and pleasingly plump. Silvery curls framed an apple-cheeked face. She was the perfect portrait of a grandmother. “Hello, there. Welcome to the restaurant. I’m Stacey, and I’ll be happy to serve you today.” Reaching for three laminated menus, she led them to a little table by the window. Outside, the water was a sparkling expanse of blue. A fishing boat motored into shore, its passage marked by silvery ripples.
“What do you recommend?” Meredith asked.
“I guess I’d have to say the meatballs. And we make our noodles from scratch. Although the borscht is to die for, too.”
“How about vodka?” Mom said.
“Is that a Russian accent?” Stacey asked.
“I have not lived there for a long time,” Mom said.
“Well, you’re our special guest. Don’t you even look at the menu. I’ll bring you something.” She bustled away, whistling as she walked. Pausing briefly at a few other tables, she disappeared behind a bead-fringed curtain.
A few moments later she was back with three shot glasses, a frosted bottle of vodka, and a tray of black caviar with toast points. “Don’t you dare say it’s too expensive,” Stacey said. “We get too many tourists and too few Russians. This is my treat. Vashe zdorovie.”
Mom looked up in surprise. Nina wondered how long it had been since she had heard her native language.
“Vashe zdorovie,” Mom said, reaching for her glass.
The three of them clinked glasses, drank down their shots, and reached immediately for the caviar.
“My daughters are becoming good Russians,” Mom said. There was a softening in her voice as she said it; Nina wished she could see her mother’s eyes, but the sunglasses created the perfect camouflage.
“With one drink?” Stacey scoffed. “How can that be?”
For the next twenty minutes or so, they talked about ordinary things, but when the waitress returned with the food, no one could talk about anything else. From tiny, succulent meatballs swimming in saffron broth, to mushroom soup with a bubbly gruyère crust, to a moist salmon-stuffed veal roast with caviar sauce. By the time the apple and walnut strudel showed up, everyone said they were too full. Stacey smiled at that and walked away.
Nina was the first to cut off a piece. “Oh, my God,” she said, tasting the buttery walnut-filled pastry.
Mom took a bite of the strudel. “It is like my mama used to make.”
“Really?” Meredith said.
“She always said the secret was to slap the dough against the pastry board. When I was a girl, we often fought about this. I said it was unnecessary. I was wrong, of course.” Mom shook her head. “Later, I could never make that dough without thinking of my mother. Once, when I served it to your father, he said the strudel was too salty. This was from my tears, so I put the recipe away and tried to forget it.”
“And did you?”
Mom glanced out the window. “I forgot nothing.”
“You didn’t want to forget,” Meredith said.