WHEN MY MOTHER MET my father in 1950, she had an eight-year-old daughter, my half-sister, Marina, and had already been married twice, two meteoric war marriages whose trajectories faded within months.
Her first husband was delivered to her by the short war of 1939 between the Soviet Union and Finland, laid out on her operating table with bits of shrapnel buried in his rear end.
“What a way to stop a bullet,” said her former classmate Vera, who had been drafted into the same hospital.
My mother sliced open the buttocks of her future spouse and extracted pieces of metal, all except one, a shard lodged near the hip bone. She tried and tried, cutting and prodding, but finally had to leave it there, a lasting memory of their first meeting stowed deeply under his skin.
His name was Sasha Gladky, a graduate medical student himself all the way from Leningrad University, and he joked and laughed about his wound, basking in the attention of the female hospital staff. My mother, looking serious during the daily rounds, evaluated the healing process and checked the sutures. Being in full control of Sasha and his treatment—the expression of his broad-boned face with a slight cleft in the chin when she checked his temperature, the gratitude she could read in his gray, deep eyes—made her want to stay with him forever.
“I bet you he’ll ask me to marry him,” said my mother to Vera, nodding her head toward the door behind which Sasha lay surrounded by nurses. It was almost two weeks since she had operated, a few days before he was scheduled to return to Leningrad.
She liked Sasha’s eyes following her around the room as she sterilized syringes in boiling water, trying to concoct a plan to keep him there longer. She was approaching twenty-five, rapidly getting too old for marriage. Her own mother had married when she was eighteen, her friend Vera when she turned twenty-two. The best child-bearing age, as everyone knew, was twenty, and she’d missed that a long time ago.
Two days after the prescribed date, she signed his discharge order. Before leaving, Sasha waited for her in the back lot overgrown with thistle, where with a bashful smile, he announced that it was fate that had brought them together. He promised to send her a letter every week and a box of chocolates. “Chocolates!” marveled Vera. “For chocolates I’d marry him, too.” A box arrived a few weeks later, embossed with Peter the Great atop a rearing horse, the famous Leningrad “Bronze Horseman” on the front. Since the beginning of the war, chocolates had completely vanished from the stores, and this huge box reminded my mother that it was her efforts and skill that had saved Sasha.
A few months later, when the Finnish War ended, Sasha came back to Ivanovo and they were married. Marriage was easy then, a fat purple stamp from the town hall on the third page of their internal passports and a name change for my mother from Kuzminova to Gladky. After four days Sasha returned to his studies in Leningrad. He sent letters to my mother once a week, then once a month. Then came a letter she did not expect: he accused her of having affairs while he was stooping over medical journals in the Leningrad library. Someone, an anonymous source, had informed him in a letter that his new wife—stroinaya kak beryozka, tall and slender as a birch tree—was, as he scribbled in a quick, slanted stroke, nothing but a tart.
My mother felt shock, then anger. She immediately grabbed a pen and wrote back to Sasha that if he could believe this, the two of them had nothing to discuss. If he could trust such toxic gossip, they were finished and their marriage dissolved.
She didn’t really mean it. She simply wanted to register her indignation and discontent, expecting an apology and another box of chocolates. But no answer came. She waited two months and sent an angry inquiry to the anatomy department of Leningrad University, where he studied. The response came months later, in the fall of 1941, when German troops were already deep into Russia. Like all doctors, Sasha had been drafted to the front. On the map of the Soviet Union, where the black stain of German troops was rapidly expanding, there were already several fronts, and no one knew where they’d sent Sasha. No one would ever know.
NOW A DOCTOR AS well as an anatomy researcher at Ivanovo medical school, my mother was drafted, too, pulled away from her petri dishes and long-dead organs floating in jars of formaldehyde to sew up live, lacerated flesh at a frontline hospital. In her newly issued uniform, a khaki shirt cinched with a hammer-and-sickle belt over a narrow skirt, she looked too pretty to be part of the war, too willowy and long-legged, despite her black army boots that were two sizes too big.
All three of her brothers had been drafted during the war with Finland. They were stationed at the opposite ends of the country, Sima and Vova in the Far East, close to Japan, and Yuva on the border between the Soviet Union and Poland. On Sunday, June 22, 1941, when German tanks first rolled onto Soviet soil, my mother thought of Yuva stationed on the Polish border. Like every person in the country, benumbed and bewildered, she listened to Molotov’s voice pouring from loudspeakers, announcing the invasion. She stood near the ambulance of the town emergency room, where she worked on weekends, its doors swung open, its engine choking. The humid smell of lilacs hung in the air, and the sun blithely beamed down through the lace of June leaves like an idiot laughing and dancing as flames gut his house. Why was it Molotov, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, speaking to the country, and not Stalin himself? Where was Stalin when the German tanks were rolling over platoons of brothers and sons and even wayward husbands?
The hospital where she was drafted was no more than a railroad car pulled onto an auxiliary track a kilometer and a half from the town of Kalinin, occupied by the Germans. It was there that my mother first saw the indomitable infestations of lice. The wounded came in trucks from the front, a kilometer away, and although she scooped the lice out of the wounds with a teacup and rinsed the flaps of torn tissue as diligently as she could, lice festered in layers of dirty bandages, keeping the wounded awake and screaming through the night. They were younger than she was, those wounded boys—her brothers’ age—and she peered into their dusty faces, clinging to a shred of hope that in some miraculous way her brother would be brought into her hospital for her to heal all the way from the Polish border seven hundred kilometers away.
Every week, in her squared-off handwriting, she wrote a letter home to her parents. My dear Mamochka and Papochka, I hope everyone is well. I hope my sister Muza is a serious student and helping you with the house and garden in my absence. I hope our dear Yuva is fighting against the enemy as fiercely as our boys are fighting here. There were always a lot of hopes in her letters. What she really wanted to say was that she hoped her brother Yuva was not among the thousands of bodies she knew had been plowed into the warm summer earth of western Russia, but of course she couldn’t write that to her parents. As she watched the front line ebb eastward on the map above the Hospital Commissar’s bunk, she had to be careful that her letters did not sound as anxious and gloomy as she felt. Military mail is very slow, she wrote, making up an excuse for why they hadn’t heard from Yuva in six months.
By the beginning of December, when the enemy was pushed out of Kalinin, an order came for the hospital to be transferred into a town school. The school stood at the end of the street, or what used to be a street. Its windows had all been blown away and were now hammered shut with plywood. In the courtyard, two soldiers were digging up the ground, unearthing German corpses buried there before the front line moved south. They piled the bodies by the entrance and then tossed them into a truck to be hauled away from the town center, privates in their underwear and barefoot, officers in uniform and full regalia. She had seen live Germans, too, but only from a distance, when the planes flew low to bomb and the pilots grinned from their glass bubbles and sometimes waved.
My mother’s second husband swept in straight from the front lines. In his captain’s uniform and a wave of blond hair, he was impossible to resist. From the minute she saw his sharp shoulder leaning against the stove in the Commissar’s office, she wanted to touch him, to press herself into his tobacco-permeated military shirt and ask him to protect her. He was called Sasha, like her first husband, and she saw an irony in this coincidence, but also a consistency, a certain kind of order. One night, late, after she finished sewing up the last piece of torn flesh for the day, he accompanied her home to an empty, wind-swept apartment two blocks away and stayed over on the leather gymnasium mat she and a nurse had earlier carried in from the school to serve as a bed.
“Well, here we are,” said my mother in the morning, although she didn’t quite know what this “here” was or where it was exactly that they were. What she did know was that things had to be done in a proper way. A woman, once she went to bed with a man, had to marry him. Or rather, he had to marry her. Either way, they had to preserve poryadok because otherwise who knew what terrible anarchy would be unleashed by such unmarried permissiveness. Bitterly, she thought of her first Sasha, who had had the nerve to doubt her character.
Although the new Sasha resisted a little—rubbing his hairless chin, dragging out reasons why they didn’t need to rush to the marriage bureau at the crack of dawn—my mother was unyielding. She needed order, she told herself, but she knew this was bigger than order. She was drawn to this blond captain like a fly to spilled honey.
This would be a real marriage, she thought, to a man who seemed gentle and kind. He was also a Communist Party member, an ideology leader of his division, undoubtedly a person of high morals and a definitive sense of purpose aimed at the future of the country as well as their own.
The marriage bureau was a desk in a small room where they registered deaths, births, and those missing-in-action. First, on a lined page ripped out of a school composition book, my mother wrote that she was declaring herself divorced from the first Sasha for the reason of “military cataclysm.” She didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and with the country occupied and ravaged, she couldn’t—and didn’t want to—find out. Then, on another page, she declared herself married to the Sasha standing next to her.
“Congratulations,” said the puffy woman behind the desk, who was wearing a coat and an ushanka hat with the earflaps tied under her chin. After inspecting the purple stamps in their passports, Sasha and my mother went to her cold apartment, where the captain drank two tea glasses of vodka and passed out.
A few days later, my mother learned that in the northern town of Atkarsk, her new husband had a common-law wife and a ten-year-old daughter he hadn’t seen since the beginning of the Finnish war. She also learned he had TB, in an open, most contagious form, which was the reason he had been sent from the front to the nearest hospital. Had she waited a little, she would have received a military transfer order with his chart.
It took her another month to figure out he was an alcoholic.
All too late, she thought of my grandmother’s saying, Pospeshish—lyudei nasmeshish. If you do things in haste, you’ll make people laugh.
SPRING BROUGHT WOUNDED CIVILIANS. When the ice on the Volga turned porous and frail, mines frozen into the river began to explode, touched off by the slightest shift, sending flocks of birds into the air and schools of fish to the water surface, belly up. Locals with buckets waded into the river to collect the unexpected harvest floating among chunks of ice, setting off more mines.
It was prohibited to treat civilians in a military hospital. But when a woman brought in an unconscious nine-year-old boy one April morning, my mother didn’t hesitate. She unbuttoned his quilted jacket and muddy pants and carefully pulled them away from his perforated flesh, revealing blind belly wounds: entrances of shells with no exits. Together with the woman, whose son had been killed by the same mine, she carried the boy into the operating room, taking small, slow steps, the two synchronizing their walk. There she lifted a scalpel out of the boiling water, made an incision, and pulled apart flaps of skin, exposing multiple intestinal wounds, big and tiny holes in the coils of the boy’s belly. She rinsed the boy’s intestines with antiseptic and sewed up the holes, one by one.
As soon as she finished, the hospital Commissar stormed in, shouted that she was breaking a military order, and commanded her to report to the director’s office immediately.
“Rules are rules,” muttered Dr. Kremer, hunched over papers on his director’s desk. “You had no right to operate.”
“The patient is nine years old,” my mother said. “He needs to stay here for three more days. After three days I can send him to the town hospital.” She thought of how thickheaded and unperceptive he was, a typical man. In her mind, she returned to the child in the operating room, then tried to conjure up a ten-year-old girl somewhere on the other side of the Urals, the daughter of her new husband, coughing on their gymnasium mat. Or was it she who was thickheaded and unperceptive?
Dr. Kremer rubbed his forehead and looked around the room. My mother followed his gaze: a little metal stove empty of wood, boot prints across the plywood hammered against the window frame, a map of the pre-war Soviet Union on the wall left by the school principal, green and brown in the middle, blue in the north, with a big red star for Moscow, where Dr. Kremer grew up.
“Three days,” he said. “That’s all you have.” He walked to the desk and leafed through several papers that looked like military orders, with ominous stamps and resolute illegible signatures. “And Dr. Gladky …” he turned to my mother.
“Maltseva,” she said, surprised at how strange this new name sounded in her mouth as her own. “I just got married.”
Staring at the director’s grayish face across from hers, she thought that this might be the moment when he announced that she would be court-martialed for breaking military rules. My mother wasn’t naïve about the swift hand of punishment. Uncle Volya, arrested five years earlier, had been shot attempting to escape from a camp in Vorkuta. That was what the NKVD letter said: “shot attempting to escape.” As much as she tried, my mother couldn’t imagine soft and asthmatic Uncle Volya climbing over walls or running. Was he guilty, after all? Was his punishment the price of maintaining order?
Ready to suffer the consequences of her insubordination, she watched Dr. Kremer get up and move the papers to the side. She watched the corners of his eyes crinkle slightly.
“Congratulations on your marriage,” he said.
SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT IN, September 1942, my mother was demobilized from the military hospital. She packed up the uniform that no longer fit and, with her sick husband, returned to her parents’ Ivanovo apartment, now big enough for all since two of her brothers were gone. Vova was in the Far East, from where they recently received his letter. Yuva was still silent, and my mother’s fear that he was dead had turned to conviction. The third brother, Sima, transferred to the Belorussian front, had been wounded and was now back home with complications from a piece of metal that had created an abscess and was beginning to cause an infection in his brain.
It made my mother furious to think that a doctor at a front hospital had failed to operate properly, leaving a shard of a grenade lodged in her brother’s lung. She remembered herself at the beginning of her career, leaving a sliver of shrapnel in her first husband’s butt, but a butt wasn’t a vital organ, and although her first Sasha—she wanted to believe—may have felt an ache now and then, it wasn’t her surgical failure that would eventually kill him.
But this, the fragment in Sima’s lung, was killing him. Her parents, especially her mamochka, spoke of his recovery, but my mother knew he wouldn’t survive. As Sima, now blind and delirious, lay in the room where all the three brothers grew up, she sat by his bed taking his temperature and peering into his throat, pretending that whatever small medical procedures she performed could make a difference.
Day after day, she sat by Sima’s bed thinking about her brother and her husband, both dying. She couldn’t cure them, so she concentrated on doing what she could do. She sold her ration of four hundred grams of bread and with that money bought fifty grams of butter, which, she hoped, might boost her brother’s and her husband’s chance for health. She watched Sima burn with fever and move his cracked lips as if wanting to say something; she heard Sasha’s wet cough roll in his chest like the cannonade they heard at least once a day. Whom was she trying to fool? What she did was futile, she knew, but it required sacrifice, and that was the least she could do for her brother and her husband.
When Sasha began spitting up blood, he was admitted to the Ivanovo hospital, my mother’s alma mater. She consulted the head of the TB clinic and her former professor, who concurred that after his release from the hospital, Sasha must leave home since he could not stay in the house with a newborn. But before he left, he took both the butter and the bread, added a few bars of soap from my grandmother’s closet, and sold them to buy himself a jar of moonshine.
Sima died at home on November 1, 1942. My mother washed him and shaved him and dressed him for the funeral. Since she was eight months pregnant, her parents decided that it would be too traumatic for her to go to the cemetery, an invitation to premature labor. She stood on the porch, watching my grandfather crack a whip in a swift strike, watching the horse snort and jerk forward as the cart with my grandmother, slumped against Sima’s coffin, slowly bumped onto the road, rutted by recent rain.
Sasha left on November 7, three weeks before my sister would be born, on the Day of the Great Socialist Revolution, which is in peaceful times an occasion for a citizens’ parade, for people marching in rows, and banners flapping happily in the wind. In gray air pocked with drizzle, they walked through the ruins of her town and stood waiting for the train, my big-bellied mother and her second husband, who would die of TB in his hometown five years later, never having seen his daughter. When a plume of smoke billowed out of the stack and a spasm lurched through the cars, from the engine all the way to the mail wagon, she took a step toward the clattering wheels and raised her arm in a last good-bye. She waited until the train shrank to toy size, until the only smoke she could see was a streak of soot rising from an apartment building bombed the day before.
MY FATHER, FINALLY, PROMISED stability. He was fourteen years older than my mother, a widower with an eighteen-year-old daughter. During one of her Ivanovo hospital rounds in 1950, my mother’s girlfriend Vera, who had tried to fix her up with men before, noticed a stomach-ulcer patient, undoubtedly a man of distinction because instead of an auditorium-size ward he’d been placed in a room with only three other beds.
“Ilya Antonovich seems like a very serious man,” Vera whispered to my mother, respectfully using a patronymic after his first name. “He is a Communist Party member and has just been assigned to head a technical school in Leningrad. He needs a woman to take care of him,” she added. “Kozha da kosti—skin and bones.”
Perhaps it was the promise of Leningrad that did it. Her native Ivanovo had lost its luster—ravaged by the war, marred by the memory of one brother dead and the other missing, by the image of the train carrying away the husband she would never see again.
My father was reticent about his past. It was unremarkable and dull, he said. He’d participated in the collectivization from 1929 to 1933, when Stalin purged all of the wealthy peasants and turned the country’s agriculture into collective farms, sad villages of desperate, perpetually inebriated country folk presided over by Red Army officers whose only experience with farming was riding the horses the army had supplied. Due to his political propaganda work, my father was exempt from fighting in the Great Patriotic War, but not from the scurvy he contracted in the mid-1940s. He was sent to Ivanovo to lift the people’s spirit, damaged by the war. He came from a tiny village in the most eastern part of European Russia, but he never spoke of his parents and no one in my family even knew if he had any siblings.
For a man of fifty-one he was good-looking—gaunt, sharp-featured, hazel-eyed. He walked with a light gait and spoke in unhurried sentences that made one forget the war was barely over. He sounded positive and solid. A two-room apartment on the top floor of a newly constructed building in Leningrad was already waiting for them, entirely their own, unlike other apartments where three families huddled in three rooms and regularly collided in a single communal kitchen and bath. With her recent PhD, my mother could easily find a job teaching anatomy in one of Leningrad’s medical schools. Besides, my eight-year-old sister Marina, her second Sasha’s daughter, needed a father.
My grandmother saw Ilya Antonovich’s proposal as an upward move. He had a well-paid, respectable position, and a stomach ulcer was not TB. It was a manageable illness, a small cloud with a silver lining: it prohibited alcohol.
My mother agreed, despite a prickle of guilt somewhere in the area of her heart, a sensation reminding her she didn’t feel the same fire as when she married her sick, alcoholic Sasha. But she was no longer daring or young: two defunct marriages and two wars and two brothers gone had dulled the edge of her enthusiasm and made her practical and prudent.
Leningrad was a true capital, Peter the Great’s “window on Europe.” It was the first big city she’d seen, with the baroque curves of the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre only two blocks from her new apartment. She liked walking from the streetcar stop to the medical school where she’d been hired to teach, past the eighteenth-century façades, past newspaper kiosks where Stalin’s face still had two more years to glare from the front page of every paper. She liked the pearly-gray domes of Smolny Cathedral, so much like the Leningrad sky; she liked the broad avenues of the city’s center and the mazes of its courtyards. She liked its grocery stores with their sawdust-covered floors and sweet smells of cheese, bologna, and sometimes even beef.
After the four hundred grams of war-rationed bread in Ivanovo, Leningrad seemed a gastronomic heaven. There were bread stores and milk stores and meat stores. Flour hung in the warm, fragrant air of bakeries; bricks of sour black bread shared counter space with loaves of white. On her dairy trip she brought a three-liter aluminum cistern to be filled with milk by an aproned woman behind the counter, and out of the three kinds of cheese, with the geopolitical names of Russian, Soviet, and Swiss, she would buy a kilo of Russian, the least expensive but the tastiest. There were stores brimming with sweets: cookies with patterns of spires resembling the new Moscow skyline, three kinds of sucking candy, glass counters full of su-shki, dry tiny bagels so hard they could break one’s tooth. There were even chocolate bars called “Soviet Builder” wrapped in silver foil that emerged invitingly from a paper sleeve with a picture of a muscular man brandishing a hammer.
My father provided what she’d craved, stability. But there was something else she wanted from this marriage, something that was as important as getting out of her hometown, something visceral and non-negotiable. Something my father dismissed as an impossibility. She was thirty-nine, too old to have another child, he said. And he was fourteen years older. If anyone saw him with an infant, they’d take him for a grandfather. Dedushka, they’d call to him, what a precious lovely grandchild you have.
My mother trotted out arguments, all in vain; then she simply stopped using contraceptives. She didn’t tell my father until she was four months pregnant. He flew into a rage and told her to have an abortion.
“It’s too late,” she said. “At this point it’s dangerous.”
“Have an abortion anyway,” he demanded in a high-pitched, unfamiliar voice, as if he hadn’t heard what she told him, as if she’d qualified someone else’s condition, not her own, as potentially life-threatening.
“I will not endanger my life,” she said sternly, enunciating every sound.
My father stopped speaking to her. She stopped speaking to him, too. She silently chopped beets for borsch, left a plate on the kitchen table and a pot under a warmer on the stove, and he silently ate and smoked his filterless cigarettes, immersing everything in the kitchen in sheets of smoke.
When she felt contractions and checked herself into a maternity ward, my father rang his driver, Volodya, and told him to drive to the hospital. Volodya, in his wrinkled brown suit, shiny in the back, had been waiting for this call, preceded by days of whispering among relatives and friends. Outside, the wet Baltic wind scoured the city, mopping cigarette stubs and used bus tickets into courtyards, rinsing linden branches in lukewarm air. On their way, they stopped by a metro station where a woman was selling flowers from a bucket—probably peonies, since it was the end of July—and with that bouquet, held like a whisk broom, my father marched into the hospital lobby, where a receptionist informed him that he was the father of a baby girl.
The announcement left him stunned, then livid. How could they, he thought. A girl! Turning on his heel, under the bewildered gaze of the whole reception area, he stormed out of the hospital with the peonies now clutched like a weapon in his fist. Not only did he have a baby—at his age—he had a baby girl! He got into the car and ordered Volodya to drive him out of the city, away from this double disgrace.
For six days he stayed at a friend’s dacha with his chauffeur, who drove him to Leningrad in the morning and back out of the city at night. Finally, yielding to pressure from his own daughter Galya, my mother’s surviving brother, and the friend whose dacha he used as a retreat, my father made an appearance at the hospital with a note for my mother. The receptionist folded the note and handed it to the nurse, who immediately delivered it to the third floor.
Don’t be upset, my father wrote. Girls are all right, too.