They came up behind Mom.
Meredith saw what had gotten her mother’s attention. There were two framed photographs on the corner table. One was a black and white picture of a young couple. In it, the woman was tall and slim, with jet-black hair and an oversized smile. The man was blond and gorgeous. There were pale white lines that quartered the picture, as if it had been folded for many years.
“Those are my parents,” Stacey said slowly. “On their wedding day. My mother was a beautiful woman. Her hair was so soft and black, and her eyes . . . I still remember her eyes. Isn’t that funny? They were so blue, with gold . . .”
Mom turned slowly.
Stacey looked into Mom’s eyes and the teacup she was holding fell to the hardwood floor, spilling liquid and breaking into pieces.
Stacey’s plump hand was shaking as she reached for something on the table, but not once did she look away.
And then she was holding something out to Mom: a small jeweled butterfly.
Mom dropped to her knees on the floor, saying, “Oh, my God . . .”
Meredith wanted to reach out and help her, but she and Nina both stood back.
It was Stacey who knelt in front of her. “I am Anastasia Aleksovna Marchenko Koontz, from Leningrad. Mama? Is it really you?”
Mom drew in a sharp breath and started to cry. “My Anya. . . .”
Meredith’s heart felt as if it were breaking apart and swelling and overflowing all at once. Tears were streaming down her face. She thought of all that these two had been through, and all the lost years, and the miracle of this reunion was almost more than she could believe. She moved over to be with Nina. They put their arms around each other and watched their mother come alive. There was no other word for it. It was as if these tears—of joy perhaps for the first time decades—watered her parched soul.
“How?” Mom asked.
“Papa and I woke up on a medical train going east. He was so hurt. . . . Anyway, by the time we got back to Vologda . . . We waited,” Stacey said, wiping her eyes. “We never stopped looking.”
Mom swallowed hard. Meredith could see how she steeled herself to say, “We?”
Stacey put a hand out.
Mom took it, clutched it, really, hanging on.
Stacey led her through the living room and out a set of French doors. Beyond lay a perfectly tended backyard. The scent of flowers was a sweetness in the air—lilacs and honeysuckle and jasmine. Stacey flipped a switch and a string of lights came on throughout the yard.
That was when Meredith saw the small, squared garden-within-a-garden tucked in the back of the yard. Even from here, with the inconsistent light, she could see an ornate bit of fencing.
She heard her mother say something in Russian, and then they were moving again, all of them, walking down a stone path to a garden that was almost exactly like the one Mom had created at home. A white ironwork fence with ornate curliques and pointed tips framed a patch of ground. Inside was a polished copper bench that faced three granite headstones. There were flowers blooming all around them. Overhead, the sky erupted in amazing, magical color. Darting strands of violet and pink and orange glowed amid all those stars. The northern lights.
Mom sat—collapsed, really—on the copper bench and Stacey sat beside her, holding her hand.
Meredith and Nina stood behind her; each put a hand on Mom’s shoulder.
VERONIKA PETROVNA MARCHENKO
Remember our lime tree in the Summer Garden. I will meet you there, my love.
LEO ALEKSOVICH MARCHENKO 1938–1942
Gone too soon
But it was the last marker that made Meredith squeeze her mother’s shoulder.
ALEKSANDR ANDREYEVICH MARCHENKO
Beloved husband and father
“Last year?” Mom said, turning to Stacey, whose eyes filled with tears.
“He waited his whole life for you,” she said. “But his heart just . . . gave out last winter.”
Mom closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Meredith couldn’t imagine the pain of that, how it must feel to know that the love of your life had been alive and looking for you all these years, only to miss him by months. And yet he was here somehow, in this garden that so matched the one her mother had created.
“He always said he’d be waiting for you in the Summer Garden.”
Mom slowly opened her eyes. “Our tree,” she said, staring at his marker for a long time. Then, slowly, she did what she always did, what she could do that so few others could: she straightened her back and lift ed her chin and managed a smile, wobbly and uncertain as it was. “Come,” she said in that magical voice, the one that had changed all their lives in the past weeks. “We will have tea. There is much to talk about. Anya, I would like to introduce you to your sisters. Meredith used to be the organized one and Nina is just a little bit crazy, but we’re changing, all of us, and you will change us even more.” Mom smiled and if there was a shadow of sadness in her eyes—a memory of the words I’ll meet you there—it was to be expected, and it was soft ened by the joy in her voice. And maybe that was how it was supposed to be, how life unfolded when you lived it long enough. Joy and sadness were part of the package; the trick, perhaps, was to let yourself feel all of it, but to hold on to the joy just a little more tightly because you never knew when a strong heart could just give out.
Meredith took her new sister’s hand and said, “I am so happy to meet you, Anya. We’ve heard so much about you. . . .”
No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.
—ANNA AKHMATOVA, FROM POEMS OF AKHMATOVA,
TRANSLATED BY STANLEY KUNITZ, WITH MAX HAYWARD
Her name is Vera, and she is a poor girl. A nobody.
No one in America can really understand this girl or the place in which she lives. Her beloved Leningrad—Peter’s famous Window to the West—is like a dying flower, still beautiful to behold but rotting from within.
Not that Vera knows this yet. She is just a girl, full of big dreams.
Often in the summer, she wakes in the middle of the night, called by some sound she can never recall. At her window, she leans out, seeing all the way to the bridge. In June, when the air smells of limes and new flowers, and the night is as brief as the brush of a butterfly’s wing, she can hardly sleep for excitement.
It is belye nochi. The time of white summer nights when darkness never falls and the streets are never quiet. . . .
I cannot help smiling as I close this book—my book. After all these years, I have finished my journal. Not a fairy tale, not a pretense; my story, as true as I can tell it. My father would be proud of me. I am a writer at last.
It is my gift to my daughters, although they have given so much more to me, and without them, of course, these words would still be trapped inside, poisoning me from within.
Meredith is at home with Jeff ; they are preparing for Jillian’s wedding and the plans are all-consuming. Maddy is still at work, managing the four gift shops her mother runs. I have never seen Meredith so happy. These days her schedule is full of things she loves to do, and she and Jeff are often traveling. They say it is to research his novels, which are so successful, but I think they simply love to be together.
Nina is upstairs with her Daniel, whom she has never married but loves more than she realizes. They have followed each other around the world on one amazing adventure after another. Supposedly they are packing now to leave again, but I suspect that they are making love. Good for them.
And Anya—I don’t care that she Americanized her name; she will always be Anya to me—is at church with her family. They come down often throughout the year and fill this house with laughter. My eldest daughter and I spend hours together in the kitchen, talking to each other in Russian, remembering the ghosts in the room. In words and looks and smiles, we honor them at last.
I open the journal one last time and write, for my children, in as bold a hand as I can manage at my age. Then I close it and put it aside.
I cannot help closing my eyes. Falling asleep comes easily to me these days, and the room is so warm on this late December day. . . .
I think I hear the sound of a child laughing.
Or maybe that is a left over sound, the remainder of our Christmas dinner. We are together again this year, all of us, this new version of my family.
I am a lucky woman. I did not always know that, but I do now. With all the mistakes I have made, all the bad and terrible choices, still I am loved in my old age, and, more important perhaps, I love.
I open my eyes, startled by something. Some noise. For a moment I am confused, uncertain of my surroundings. Then I see the familiar fireplace, the Christmas tree still up in the corner, and the picture of me that hangs above the mantel.
It hangs where once I had a painting of a troika. At first I didn’t like Nina’s photograph. I look so terribly, terribly sad.
But it has grown on me. It was the beginning of this new life, the time when I finally learned that with love comes forgiveness. It is a famous photograph now; people all over the world have seen it and call me a hero. Ridiculous. It is simply the image of a woman who threw too much of her life away and was lucky enough to get some of it back.
In the corner of the room, my Holy Corner still stands. The candles burn from morning tonight; both of my wedding pictures stand upright, reminding me every day that I have been fortunate. Beside the photograph of Anya and Leo, a dirty gray stuffed rabbit sits slumped on his side. Comrade Floppy. His fake fur is matted and he is missing one eye, and sometimes I carry him around with me for comfort.
I stand up. My knees hurt and my feet are swollen, but I do not care. I have never cared about such things. I am a Leningrader. I walk through the quiet kitchen and into the dining room. From here I can see my winter garden, where everything is covered with snow. The sky is the color of burnished copper. Ice and frost dangle like diamond earrings from the eaves above the porch. And I think of my sweet Evan, who saved me when I needed saving and gave me so much. He is the one who so often told me that forgiveness could be mine if I would reach out. I would give anything to have listened to him earlier, but I know he hears me now.
I am barefooted and wearing only a flannel nightgown. If I go outside, Meredith and Nina will worry that I am going crazy again, that I am slipping. Only Anya will understand.
Still, I open the door. The knob turns easily in my hand and cold air hits me so hard that for a beautiful, tragic second, I am back in my beloved city on the Neva.
I walk across the new-fallen snow, feeling it burn and freeze the bottoms of my feet.
I am almost to the garden when he appears. A man, dressed all in black, with golden hair set aglow by the sunlight.
It cannot be him. I know this.
I go to the bench, hold on to its cold black frame.
He moves toward me, gliding almost, moving with an elegance that is new, or that I don’t remember. When he draws near, I look up, and stare into the green eyes of the man I’ve loved for more than seventy years.
The color takes my breath away and makes me feel young again.
He is real. And here. I can feel his warm presence, and when he touches me, I shiver and sit down.