A letter to my American Mom, who died today
I never called you ‘mama’, the Russian word for mother. I couldn’t call you by your name, either – or any other way, for that matter. To me, you are my Mom – you have always been, and always will be. From the very first day.
From the day I stepped into your house, thrilled, excited, nervous, but also wincing in pain – for an entire week, I’d had a bad case of an ingrown toenail; you gave it a look, poured some hot water into a basin, and proceeded to wash my feet – the feet of a stranger you saw for the first time in your life, and yet you were immediately convinced that those were the feet of your daughter.
From the day, a week later, when you were holding my hand as they cut out the toenail, while I gritted my teeth, my CD player blasting Viktor Tsoi in my ears at full volume; and in the evening, back home, you asked me to put the CD on and explain what exactly he sang about, this Russian rock star I seemed to worship.
From the day you so meticulously studied the contents of my half-empty suitcase: two dresses – one for summer and one for winter – my father’s stretched-out sweater and his shirt (grunge was all the rage, and, being a loyal fan of Kurt Cobain, I would wear my father’s hand-me-downs), and a wool skirt my grandmother made for me. You noted the absence of even a single pair of jeans and announced that the next day we were going shopping; you didn’t want me to become an outcast at school – in America, it’s embarrassing to wear the same clothes for two days straight, and with a wardrobe like mine, changing outfits was hardly an option.
From the day you taught me how to use the washing machine and explained that you shouldn’t put a wet towel on the back of a black lacquer dining chair, as it would damage the wood.
From the day I told you how my chest hurt whenever I walked down the stairs from the kitchen (I could never get enough of the bananas and the smoked turkey) to the basement, and you reassured me there was nothing wrong with me, that I was fifteen and my body was just changing.
From the day you used a clothes iron to straighten my curly hair, carefully ironing it through a cloth, so that I could go to a hippie-themed party as Jenny Curran from ‘Forrest Gump’.
From the day you followed me with a perplexed look as I took a can of beer from the fridge, and you asked your husband:
“Andy, are we letting her drink beer?”
“I dunno, let’s call her parents, maybe she’s allowed to drink – she’s Russian, after all.”
My parents didn’t mind – you shrugged your shoulders, but didn’t object.
From the day I went to the forest with David – an exchange student from Germany, as clueless about ‘real life’ as myself – and brought back two baskets full of mushrooms, which you buried in the backyard of our house, tucked away in the woods full of hundreds-year-old Canadian hemlock trees. Because ‘normal’ people don’t eat that stuff.
From the day you rushed to call 911 after I cooked and ate a turkey heart and liver. Because ‘normal’ people don’t eat that stuff.
From the day I made a salad for you and Dad – a regular Kuban salad (insofar as it’s possible to make a Kuban salad from New Hampshire tomatoes that don’t smell like anything) – after which you asked me to make it every time we had family over for dinner, and explained to your actual daughter that the “green stuff” in the salad is not “some kind of wood,” but an herb called parsley, and that parsley, which they add to meals in Russia, makes everything more delicious – so much so that, perhaps, ‘normal’ people should start eating that stuff, too.
From the day when you, the good neighborhood Samaritan, asked me to play the house organ for a 102-year-old lady, because her husband used to play it (“There he is, on the shelf, see? In the urn. She had him cremated.”), and I was so nervous, because I never played the organ, just the piano; and even that was a long time ago, but you reassured me:
“She can’t hear a thing anyway. Go ahead, it would make her happy.”
From the day you brought me to a nursing home where you worked – and not because you needed money, as Andy had a very successful business, and his green trucks with the three-leaved shamrock (you’re the O’Haras, after all!) cruised around the area day and night, repairing the pipes that burst during the cold winters of this northern state – but because you should always keep yourself busy, always keep helping others. A tall, fair-skinned, rosy-cheeked woman with short blond hair, you were beaming with pride when you introduced me, a small, thin, dark-haired girl, to the patients in your care:
“This is Maggie, my Russian daughter!”
From the day you taught me to write thank-you notes (I still write them) whenever I am invited somewhere or if someone does me a favor, because those who cannot find the time to write a thank-you note are not normal people.
From the day I found my Christmas gift under the tree, and it was ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare’, with commentary by Yale University professors – a very pricey edition. You must have seen me drooling over it in the shop.
From the day you clapped and cheered for me at my high school graduation, how happy and proud you looked as I was getting my straight-A’s diploma – you clapped so fiercely that your hands ached for a week.
From the day when you – horrified at the thought that I would have to return from your blessed America to the poor and desolate Russia, a country still at war – called my mother and offered to adopt me. And my mother said yes. My father did, too.
I was the one who said no.
Last summer, when you got out of the car in front of my house in Adler, you did it just as gracefully as twenty-three years ago – as if not a day had passed. Just as radiant, as glowing, with the same open arms and the same passionate smile – only this time using a walker. It was difficult for you to move without one. I was pregnant, my due date approaching. You stroked my belly, met my older children, marveled at the palm trees (palm trees? In Russia of all places?!), tried the figs from our garden (you’ve never had figs before), drank coffee with my mother, and she ‘read your fortune’, as you do in Armenian households in Adler. She made you laugh with all the fortune-telling, and then you danced to rock and roll music together on the boardwalk in Imeretinka.
I wonder if you noticed that ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ – albeit now rather worn – are still there, on my shelf.
This was the first time you visited me in my Russian home. The first time – and the last.
This week they told us that you have two months to live. Acute leukemia. And, of course, they told you about that as well. As they always do in America, with its Protestant ethic that prescribes humble acceptance of the Lord’s will, quiet perseverance, and unwavering, uncompromising honesty. The ethic that often scared me. Nobody even tried to tell you that you would certainly get better and that everything would be all right, as people do in Russia, because if things will obviously not get better, what’s the point of lying?
You would’ve liked for me to fly over. You would’ve liked to see me, your Russian daughter, one last time. I also would’ve liked that very much. But you are afraid that I might be arrested in America. I am afraid too.
I will just be calling you every day until the Lord gives you his final order.
We will be talking like we talked today. You were so brave, when you told me about your diagnosis without shedding a tear. You said that there was no hope; it has been confirmed by three different doctors, and two months is the most optimistic scenario. You get daily blood transfusions, you refused to stay at the hospital and chose to die at home instead. The pain is not that bad yet, and you will go on without serious painkillers for now, so you can be a normal person for as long as you can.
Your voice sounded young and steady, it didn’t crack once. There was no self-pity or resentment towards the universe – you even laughed a couple of times, as we were reminiscing about the days when I was your Russian daughter.
But then you asked with a glimmer of hope, “Tell me, do you remember what your mama said when she did that coffee reading for me? What did she see?”
Of course I remember, Mom.
She saw that you would certainly get better, and that everything would be all right.