She could hear the laughter in Jeff’s voice, and the love, when he said, “Baby, our kids are gone. We can go anywhere.”
Juneau was the epitome of the Alaskan spirit—a state capital built with no roads leading in or out. The only way to get there was by boat or air. Surrounded by towering, snow-clad mountains and tucked in between ice fields larger than some states, it was a rough-and-tumble city that clung tenaciously to its pioneer and Native roots.
If they hadn’t been on a quest—or it hadn’t been raining so hard—Nina felt sure they would have taken an excursion to see the Mendenhall Glacier. But as it was, the three of them were standing at the entrance to the Glacier View Nursing Home instead.
“Are you afraid, Mom?” Meredith asked.
“I wasn’t under the impression that he’d agreed to see me,” Mom said.
“Not precisely,” Nina said. “But sooner or later, everyone talks to me.”
Mom actually smiled. “God knows that is true.”
“So are you afraid?” Nina asked.
“No. I should have done this years ago. Perhaps if I had . . . No. I am not afraid of telling the story to this man who is collecting such memories.”
“Perhaps if you had, what?” Meredith asked.
Mom turned to look at them. Her face was shadowed by the black woolen hood she wore. “I want you both to know what this trip has meant to me.”
“Why do you sound like you’re saying good-bye?” Nina asked.
“Today you will hear the terrible things I did,” Mom said.
“We all do terrible things, Mom,” Meredith said. “You don’t have to worry.”
“Do we? Do we all do terrible things?” Mom made a sound of disgust. “This is the talk-show babble of your generation. Here is what I want to say now, before we go in. I love both of you.” Her voice cracked, turned harsh, but her gaze softened. “My Ninotchka . . . my Merushka.”
Before either could even respond to the sweetness of their Russian nicknames, Mom turned on her heel and walked into the nursing home.
Nina rushed to keep up with her eighty-one-year-old mother.
At the desk, she smiled at the receptionist, a round-faced, black-haired woman in a beaded red sweater.
“We are the Whitson family,” Nina said. “I wrote ahead to Dr. Adamovich and told him we’d be stopping by to see him today.”
The receptionist frowned, flipping through a calendar. “Oh. Yes. His son, Max, is going to be here at noon to meet you. Would you like to have some coffee while you wait?”
“Sure,” Nina said.
They followed the receptionist’s directions to a waiting room filled with black and white images of Juneau’s colorful past.
Nina took a place by the window in a surprisingly comfortable chair. Behind her, a large picture window looked out over a green forest threaded by falling rain.
The minutes ticked past. People came and went, some walking, others in wheelchairs, their voices floating in and out with their presence.
“I wonder what the belye nochi is like here,” Mom said quietly, gazing out the window.
“It’s better the farther north you go,” Nina said. “According to my research anyway. But if you’re lucky, sometimes you can see the northern lights from here.”
“The northern lights,” Mom said, leaning back in her orange chair. “My papa used to take me outside in the middle of the night sometimes, when everyone else was asleep. He’d whisper, ‘Verushka, my little writer,’ and take my hand and wrap me in a blanket and out we would go, into the streets of Leningrad, to stand and stare up at the sky. It was so beautiful. God’s light show, my papa said, although he said it softly. Everything he said was dangerous then. We just didn’t know it.” She sighed. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever just talked about him. Just remembered something ordinary.”
“Does it hurt?” Meredith asked.
Mom thought about that for a moment and then said, “In a good way. We were always so scared to mention him. This is what Stalin did to us. When I first came to the United States, I could not believe how free everyone was, how quick to say what was on their minds. And in the sixties and seventies . . .” She shook her head, smiling. “My father would have loved to see a sit-in or the college kids demonstrating. He was like them, like . . . Sasha and your father. Dreamers.”
“Vera was a dreamer,” Nina said gently.
Mom nodded. “For a time.”
A man dressed in a flannel shirt and faded jeans walked into the room. With a thick black beard that covered half of his angular face, it was hard to make out his age. “Mrs. Whitson?” he said.
Mom slowly stood.
The man moved forward, his hand outstretched. “I am Maksim. My father, Vasily Adamovich, is the man you have come so far to see.”
Nina and Meredith rose as one.
“It is many years since your father wrote to me,” Mom said.
Maksim nodded. “And I’m sorry to say that he has suffered a stroke in the years between. He can barely speak and can’t move his left side at all.”
“So we are wasting your time,” Mom said.
“No. Not at all. I have taken up a few of my father’s projects and the siege of Leningrad is one of them. It’s such important work, gathering these survivor stories. It’s only in the last twenty years or so that the truth is coming to light. The Soviets were good at keeping secrets.”
“Indeed,” Mom said.
“So if you’d like to come into my father’s room, I’ll record your account for his study. He may not appear to react, but I can assure you that he is happy to finally include your story. It will be the fifty-third first-person account he has collected. Later this year I am going to St. Petersburg to petition for more records. Your story will make a difference, Mrs. Whitson. I assure you.”
Mom simply nodded, and Nina couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking, now that they were coming to the time when the story would end.
“Follow me, please,” Maksim said. Turning, he led them down the brightly lit corridor, past hunched old women with walkers and tiny old men in wheelchairs, to a room at the very end of the hall.
There was a narrow hospital-style bed in the center of the room and a couple of chairs that had obviously been brought in for this meeting. In the bed lay a shrunken man with a bony face and toothpick arms. Tufts of white hair sprang from his bald, spotted head and his wrinkled pink ears. His nose was like a raptor’s beak and his lips all but invisible. At their entrance, his right hand began to tremble and the right side of his mouth tried to smile.
Maksim leaned down close to his father, whispered something into his ear.
The man in the bed said something, but Nina couldn’t understand a word.
“He says he is so glad to see you, Anya Whitson. He has waited a long time. My father is Vasily Adamovich and he welcomes you all.”
“Please, sit down,” Maksim said, indicating the chairs. On a table by the window were a copper samovar and several plates of pierogies and strudel and sliced cheese with crackers.
Vasily said something, his voice crackled like a dried leaf.
Maksim listened, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Papa. I cannot understand. He is saying something about the rain, I think. I am not sure. I am going to record your story, Mrs. Whitson. Anya—may I call you Anya? Is the recording okay?”
Mom was staring at the gleaming copper samovar and the row of silver-wrapped glass teacups. “Da,” she said softly, flicking a hand in dismissal.
Nina hadn’t realized that she was the only one still standing. She went to the chair next to Meredith’s and sat down.
For a moment, the room was utterly still. The only noise in it was the tapping of the rain on the roof.
Then Mom drew in a long, slow breath and released it. “I have told this story in a single way for so long, I hardly know how to start now. I hardly know how to start.”
Maksim hit the record button. It made a loud clicking sound and the tape started to roll.
“I am not Anya Petrovna Whitson. This is the name I took, the woman I became.” She took another deep breath. “I am Veronika Petrovna Marchenko Whitson, and Leningrad is my city. It is a part of me. Long ago, I knew those streets like I know the soles of my feet or the palms of my hands. But it is not my youth you are interested in. Not that I had much of one, when I look back on it. I started to grow up at fifteen when they took my father away, and by the end of the war, I was old. . . .
“That is the middle, though. The beginning, really, is June of 1941. I am coming home from the country, where I’d been gathering vegetables to can for the coming winter. . . .”
Nina closed her eyes and sat back, letting the words form pictures in her imagination. She heard things she’d heard before as a fairy tale; only this time they were real. There were no Black Knights or princes or goblins. There was only Vera, first as a young woman, falling in love and having her babies . . . and then as a woman afraid, digging on the Luga line and walking through bombed-out landscapes. Nina had to wipe her tears away when Olga died, and again when Vera’s mother died.
“She is gone,” Mom says with a terrible simplicity. “I hear my son say, ‘What’s wrong with Baba?’ and it takes all my strength
not to cry.
I pull the blanket up to Mama’s chest, trying not to notice how bony her face has become in the last month. Should I have forced her to eat? This is a question that will haunt me for the rest of my life. If I had, I would have been pulling the blanket up on one of my children, and how could I have done that?
“Mama,” Leo says again.
“Baba has gone to be with Olga,” I say, and as hard as I try to be strong, my voice cracks, and then my children are crying.
It is Sasha who comforts them. I have no comfort left inside of me. I am cold to the bone, afraid that if one of them touches me I will crack apart like an egg.
I sit next to my dead mother for a long time, in our shadowy, cold room, with my head bowed in a prayer that comes too late. Then I remember a thing she said to me long ago, when I was the child who needed comfort. We will not speak of him again.
At the time, I thought it was because of his danger to us, his crimes, but as I sit next to my mother, I feel her move beside me—I swear I do—she reaches over and touches my hand and I feel warm for the first time in months, and I understand what she was saying to me then.
Go on. Forget if you can. Live.
It is not so much about who my father was, this advice; it is what life is about. What death does to you. When I look down, of course she is not moving, her skin is cold, and I know she did not really speak to me. But she did. And so I do what I must. I stand up, feeling out my new role. I am a motherless daughter now, a sisterless woman. There is no one left of the family I was born into; there is only the family I have made.
My mother is in all of us, though especially in me. Anya has my mother’s solemn strength. Leo has Olga’s easy laughter. And I—I have the best of both of them in me, and the dreams of my father, too, so it is my job to be all of us now.