Nina looked at Meredith, who looked as ruined as Nina felt.
“My God,” Maksim finally said, turning off the tape recorder. The click sounded harsh in the quiet room, reminded Nina that the story they’d just heard was important not only to their family.
Mom remained where she was, her splayed hand pressed to her chest, as if maybe she thought her heart would stop beating, or tumble right out of her body.
What was she seeing right then? Her once-sparkling Leningrad turned into a frozen, bombed-out wasteland where people died in the street and birds fell from the sky?
Or maybe it was Sasha’s face? Or Anya’s giggle? Or Leo’s last heartbreaking smile?
Nina stared at the woman who had raised her and saw the truth at last.
Her mother was a lioness. A warrior. A woman who’d chosen a life of hell for herself because she wanted to give up and didn’t know how.
And with that small understanding came another, bigger one. Nina suddenly saw her own life in focus. All these years, she’d been traveling the world over, looking for her own truth in other women’s lives.
But it was here all along, at home, with the one woman she’d never even tried to understand. No wonder Nina had never felt finished, never wanted to publish her photographs of the women. Her quest had always been leading up to this moment, this understanding. She’d been hiding behind the camera, looking through glass, trying to find herself. But how could she? How could any woman know her own story until she knew her mother’s?
“They take me prisoner instead,” Mom said, still staring out the window.
Nina almost frowned. To her, it felt as if half an hour had passed since Mom’s last sentence and this one, but really it had been only minutes. Minutes in which Nina had glimpsed the truth of her own life.
“Prisoner,” Mom muttered, shaking her head. “I try to die. Try . . . Always I am too weak to kill myself. . . .” She turned away from the window at last, looked at them. “Your father was one of the American soldiers who liberated the work camp. We were in Germany by then. It was the end of the war. Years later. The first time he spoke to me, I was not even paying attention; I was thinking that if I’d been stronger, my children would have been with me on this day when the camp gates opened, and so when Evan asked me my name, I whispered, Anya. I could have taken it back later, but I liked hearing her name every time someone spoke to me. It hurt me, and I welcomed the pain. It was the least of what I deserved. I went with your father—married him—because I wanted to be gone, and he was the only way I had to leave. I never really expected to start over—I was so sick. I expected, hoped, to die. But I did not. And, well . . . how can you not love Evan? There. That is it. Now you know.” She reached down for her purse and picked it up, swaying slightly, as if balance were something she had lost in the telling of her story, and started for the door.
Nina was on her feet in an instant. She and Meredith moved in tandem without a word or a look. They bookended Mom, each taking hold of one arm.
At their touch, Mom seemed to stumble harder, almost fall. “You shouldn’t—”
“No more telling us what to feel, Mom,” Nina said soft ly.
“No more pushing us away,” Meredith said, touching Mom’s face, caressing her cheek. “You’ve lost so much.”
Mom made a sound, a little gulp.
“Not us, though,” Nina said, feeling tears sting her eyes. “You’ll never lose us.”
Mom’s legs gave out on her. She started to fold like a broken tent, but Nina and Meredith were there, holding her upright. They got Mom back to her chair.
Then they knelt on the floor in front of her, looking up, just as they’d done so often in their lives. But now the story was over, or mostly told, and from here on, it would be a different story anyway. From now on, it would be their story.
For all of her life, when Nina had looked at her mother’s beautiful face, she’d seen sharp bones and hard eyes and a mouth that never smiled.
Now Nina saw past that. The hard lines were fought for, imposed; a mask over the soft ness that lay beneath.
“You should hate me,” Mom said, shaking her head.
Meredith lift ed up just enough to put her hands on Mom’s. “We love you.”
Mom shuddered, as if an icy wind had just blown past. Tears filled her eyes, and at the sight of them—the first tears Nina had ever seen in her mother’s eyes—Nina felt her own tears welling.
“I miss them so much,” Mom said, and then she was crying. How long had she held back that simple sentence by force of will, and how must it feel to finally say it?
I miss them.
A few little words.
Nina and Meredith rose again, folding Mom into their arms, letting her cry.
Nina learned the feel of her mother then, and realized how much she’d missed by never being held by this remarkable woman.
When Mom finally drew back, her face was ravaged by tears, her hair was askew, and strands were falling across her red-rimmed watery eyes, but she had never looked more beautiful. She was smiling. She put a hand on each of their faces. “Moya dusha,” she said quietly to each of them.
At Vasily’s bedside, Maksim rose and cleared his throat, reminding them that they weren’t alone.
“That is one of the most amazing accounts of the siege of Leningrad I’ve ever heard,” he said, taking the tape from the machine. “Stalin kept the lid on it for so long that stories like yours are only lately beginning to surface. This will make a real difference to people, Mrs. Whitson.”
“It was for my daughters,” Mom said, straightening again.
Nina watched her mother strengthen and she wondered suddenly if all of the Leningrad survivors knew how to harden themselves like that. She supposed so.
“Numbers are difficult, of course, coming out of the government, but conservatively, over one million people died in the siege. More than seven hundred thousand starved to death. You tell their story, too. Thank you.” Maksim started to say something else, but Vasily made a croaking, chirping sound in the bed.
Maksim leaned closer to his father, frowning. “What?” He leaned even closer. “I don’t understand. . . .”
“Thank you,” Nina said quietly to her mother.
Mom leaned forward, kissed her cheek. “My Ninotchka,” she whispered. “Thank you. You were the one who wouldn’t let go.”
Nina should have felt pride at that, especially when she saw Meredith nodding in agreement, but it hurt instead. “I was only thinking about me. As usual. I wanted your story, so I made you talk. I never once worried about how much it could hurt you.”
Mom’s smile lit up her still-damp eyes. “This is why you matter to the world, Ninotchka. I should have told you this long ago, but I let your father be both our voices. It is yet another of my wrong choices. You shine a light on hard times. This is what your pictures do. You do not let people look away from that which hurts. I am so, so proud of what you do. You saved us.”
“You did,” Meredith agreed. “I would have stopped her story. You got us here.”
Nina didn’t know until then how a word like proud could rock your world, but it rocked hers, and she understood love in a way she hadn’t before, the all-consuming way of it.
She knew it would change her life, this understanding of love; she couldn’t imagine living without it—without them—again. And she knew, too, that there was more love out there for her, waiting in Atlanta, if only she knew how to reach for it. Maybe tomorrow she would send a telegram, say, What if I said I didn’t want to go to Atlanta? What if I said I wanted a different life than that, a different life than everyone else’s, but I wanted it with you? Would you follow me? Would you stay? What if I said I loved you?
But that would be tomorrow.
“How will I go again?” she said, looking at Meredith and her mom. “How can I leave you both?”
“We don’t need to be together to be together,” Meredith said.
“Your work is who you are,” Mom said. “Love makes room for that. You will just come home more, I hope.”
While Nina was trying to figure out what to say to that, Maksim said, “I’m sorry to be rude, but my father is not feeling well.”
Mom pulled away from Meredith and Nina and went to the bed.
Mom stared down at Vasily, his face left lopsided by the stroke; there were tears on his temples and water stained the pillow where they’d fallen. She reached down and touched his face, saying something in Russian.
Nina saw him try to smile and before she knew it, she was thinking of her father. She closed her eyes in prayer for perhaps the first time in her life. Or maybe it wasn’t a prayer. Actually, she just thought, Thanks, Daddy, and let it go at that. The rest of it, he knew. He’d been listening.
“Here,” Maksim said, his frown deepening as he offered Mom a stack of black cassette tapes. “I’m pretty sure he wants you to deliver these to his former student. Phillip Kiselev hasn’t worked on this project in years, but he has a lot of the original material. And he’s not far from here. Just across the water in Sitka.”
“Sitka?” Mom said. “We’ve already been there. The boat won’t be going back.”
“Actually,” Meredith said, looking at her watch. “The boat left Juneau forty minutes ago. It will be at sea all day tomorrow.”
Vasily made a sound. Nina could tell that he was agitated and frustrated by his inability to make himself understood.
“Can he not mail the tapes?” Mom said, and Nina wondered if her mother was afraid to touch them.
“Phillip was his right hand for years in this research. His mother and my father knew each other in Minsk.”
Nina looked down at Vasily and thought again of her father and how a little thing could mean so much. “Of course we’ll deliver the tapes,” she said. “We’ll go right now. And we’ll have plenty of time to catch up with the boat in Skagway.”
Meredith took the stack of tapes and the piece of paper with the address on it. “Thank you, Dr. Adamovich. And Maksim.”
“No,” Maksim said solemnly. “Thank you. I am honored to have met you, Veronika Petrovna Marchenko Whitson.”
Mom nodded. She glanced briefly at the stack of black tapes in Meredith’s hands and then leaned down to whisper something in Vasily’s ear. When she drew back, the old man’s eyes were wet. He was trying to smile.
Nina took Mom’s arm and led her to the door. By the time they reached the front door, Meredith was at Mom’s other side. They emerged three abreast, linked together, into the pale blue light of a late spring day. The rain had stopped, leaving in its wake a world of sparkling, glittering possibility.
They arrived in Sitka at seven-thirty.
“I could be in Los Angeles by now,” Nina said as she followed Meredith out of the plane.
“For a world traveler, you complain a lot,” Meredith said, leading the way up the dock.
“Remember when she was little?” Mom said to Meredith. “If her socks were wrinkled inside her shoes, she’d just sit down and scream. And if I put too much ketchup on her eggs—or not enough—out would come the lip.”