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Chapter One

Nora Percival

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The Return
Samara, Russia 1995

I can't believe I'm finally here. After all the years of wishing, here I am at last. Over eighty and overweight, on a worn plush seat in a stuffy train that's carrying me steadily eastward across the Russian steppe - in search of a life I escaped so long ago, of a family that was once my world. What can I hope to find of the life we'd shared, filled with alarms and dangers that we'd faced together and survived? The lost faces rise in my memory, crowding around me. Are they the catalyst that sent me on this quixotic quest into an enormous troubled land, where one feels fear everywhere - where even the water can't be trusted?
        The monotonous clack of train wheels sings an obbligato to the unending ribbon of landscape that streams by my window as the train chugs through a tedious succession of summer plain and dusty woods. The fields yellow with barley, the weather-beaten villages, a row of fat cabbages in a garden, a flash of blue lake. How Russian it all looks to my American eyes, and yet how strangely familiar.
        In the midst of a serene life, with children settling into middle age, and grandchildren growing up into careers, why my obsession to go adventuring into this barely remembered world? Yet here I am, having finally found a tour that includes Samara, being carried east from Moscow toward the city of my birth.
        This threadbare seat might be the one in the westbound train that took Mamma and me to the Latvian border all those years ago. Into my old heart creeps the remembered panic of that grim eight-year-old who sat in such a train, rubbing her mother's quivering back and crooning, "Don't cry, Mamushka, don't be afraid! Soon we'll be in Riga, and your cousin will take care of us. And then we'll get on the ship and then we'll sail across the ocean, and then we'll see Papa. Please don't cry, Mamenka, you'll make yourself sick. Everything will be all right. You'll see."
Intent on comforting the hysterical mother who trembled at the thought of facing cruel Red border guards - guards who might at the last moment find an excuse to bar their exit from Bolshevik Russia into a freer air - that child spared hardly a thought for the miles flowing by the sooty train window, taking her away from everything familiar and dear.
        Grateful for this quiet interval between the comings and goings of my fellow travelers, I lean back and let the vista wash through my eyes, welcome the memories it calls up. These lush July fields, greens and yellows punctuated by red roof slants of izbas, wooden huts that cluster to mark a village, clumps of woods that soon give way to level plain again - these are the landscape of my childhood. I watch the curious double telephone poles flash by, their tops meeting like the skeletons of tepees - each pole propping the other against the determined winds that scour the steppe - and remember those other fields where the child who was myself sat with Mamma in the grass learning to make daisy chains. 
        I stir restlessly, weary with long sitting, lick my unbrushed teeth with an ill-tasting tongue. The grungy lavatory at the end of the car is not conducive to thorough cleanups. My breath must be foul, I think, and in an unbidden flash of lost memory feel that eight-year-old self, sharing her feelings and worries, tasting the fetid juices that rose from an ill-fed stomach as she and her mother rode westward on the journey I was now reversing.
        Ever since our tour group left Moscow, under the pleasant small talk with visitors popping in from other compartments, my mind has been singing the refrain, "I'm going to see Samara. I'm going back to Samara!" and the haunting question that dims the joy, "Will it be my Samara?"
        Behind my eyes rise so many dormant memories that may soon bloom into reality after a lifetime in the dusty attic of my heart. For these few quiet moments I savor the anticipation churning in my brain. Tomorrow I will be back in the city I left in 1922, and have never seen since.
        What will I find? How much remains of the houses, the streets, the neighborhood that cradled me? I know my river will still be there, the beautiful Volga I've loved ever since I could remember anything. But will even that be the same? How will huge dams and rampant industrialization have changed the river - and the town? In fact, it's only a few years since Samara got its traditional name back, to my delight. During the Soviet years it was called Kuibishev after a local commissar, a change I always deplored.
        I turn from the window and smile at Jean Gaskin in the doorway. Jean is a member of our tour group and has become a good companion. She shares my enthusiasm for new places, revels in the fabulous museums, cathedrals and unpeopled palaces of the old world as I do, and savors the double pleasure of sharing our sightseeing.
        "Where's Reed?" I ask. Jean is traveling with a teenage grandson. She takes the seat across the little table that hangs below the window, laughing at my question.
        "Your guess is as good as mine. Somewhere on the train, I hope. Reed's thing is talking to people. Before we get to Samara he'll be able to tell us all about every interesting person on the train." She sighs and leans back against the doily on the back of her seat. "I feel as if I've talked to everybody on the train too. At least everybody in this car."
        I nod. "I feel almost like that even without leaving the compartment. So many heads popping in and out. This trip seems endless. Or is it just that I'm impatient to get to Samara?"
        "Of course you're impatient. Actually, to me it seems that all this visiting is making the hours go by more quickly. But you must be thinking only of Samara. Do you really think you'll remember it? You were so young."
        I shake my head. "Oh yes, I was seven when we left. So many memories live in my head. If only it hasn't all been torn down. I'm sure I'll remember the places. It's the people I'm afraid are lost." I turn back to the window, my throat tight with yearning. Sensing my mood, Jean opens her book. Worn down by our relentless sightseeing in Moscow and the constant togetherness of group travel, we each feel the other's need for silence. 
        Soon the constant flow of the passing countryside glazes my eyes, and I shut them to watch the landscape of memory unfurl inside my lids. Half asleep, half thinking, half dreaming, I see the summer fields around the dacha the family rented each year, Babushka's house in Samara on the long avenue running downhill to the Volga, and around the corner my own dear yellow house - the house where I was born.
        How it wrings my heart, even in a dream, to see the elegant front with its crisp white trim, the balcony above the front door where that long-lost child who was myself played with her constant companion, a stuffed bear named Mishka. A remembered moment of joy leaps into my mind, as Mamma comes out to smell the lilac scent from the ancient bushes in the garden across the street.
        "Mmm, it smells so sweet, doesn't it, Mamma? It'll make you feel better, won't it?" Poor Mamma had not been well all winter, and Papa and I had been trying hard to cheer her up. Was that the beginning, I now wonder sadly, of the ill health that haunted her the rest of her life?
        The dream of the yellow house fades as sorrow engulfs me. All those who filled my early childhood with love are long dead, and even my generation of cousins are most likely gone. How many people survive the rigors of Soviet life into their eighties?
        Jean looks up as she hears my deep sigh. "Poor Nora," she says. "Sometimes I think you're only storing up sorrow for yourself by this hopeless search. What's the use? Going back to where such terrible things happened."
        "I was just wondering that myself." How can I make my friend see how necessary this trip has become for me? "Actually I've wanted for a long time to visit Samara. But it was always off limits to tourists. So when it finally became possible to travel freely around Russia, I knew I had to go." I take Jean's hand in both my own. "Even if I can't find any trace of the family, I still yearn to see the place itself, where we all lived together."
        Resolutely turning from the painful past, I focus on the view again. It's becoming more varied. The approaching village seems a more substantial one than most. As the train slows down, large villas come into view, set in neat lawns or nestled in wooded grounds.
        "Look, Jean, look at those pretty dachas. They remind me of the one we used to rent every summer. See that one way back, with the tall linden tree and the little pond?" I point. "That's just like ours was, a sprawling old house with lots of bedrooms and wide shady porches. How I loved our month in the country." I turn to Jean with shining eyes.
        She smiles. "You look so happy when you talk about it. Tell me more. What is a dacha, anyway?"
        "It's what we'd call a country house. Lots of city people in old Russia owned one. Others, like us, rented them by the week or month, for summer vacations. Just like we do in the States. Ours had room for Papa's whole family."
        "Not your mother's?" Jean asks.
        I shake my head. "No, I never knew any of them except Mamma's sister Xenia. What I think of as my family were all Papa's. His parents and his two sisters, and Aunt Tanya's three children."
        It feels so good to talk about them. It brings them so to life. "Everybody looked forward to our holiday month together, living in this informal family way." I look out at the dachas fading in the distance, remembering. "It must have taken them back to the close-knit life of their childhood.
        "I loved living together as one family. It was one long funfest for me. I could play with my cousins all day long. And when Papa came up on weekends, that was the best! Papa loved to play." Nostalgia is threatening to overwhelm me.
        "All the people I loved and who loved me were there together. Especially Papa. He was the rock I anchored to. At my age, of course, I saw everyone as they related to me."
        I ran the list, feeling again the childhood loves I owned. "Mamma was to cheer up, Fraülein was to learn from, grandparents were to be spoiled by - they had the best laps - and cousins were to romp with. But Papa! Papa was to belong to. When he was there, the world was all in place." I shut my eyes, trying to see it all again.
        "It sounds wonderful," Jean sighs. "But how can you remember it so well? You were hardly more than a baby."
        "I don't really know how much I remember and how much was imprinted on my brain by others. By Mamma in those lonely days in Moscow, when talking about the happy past was one of our greatest pleasures. And later by Papa in America. He used to talk about it when we'd take our walks after dinner or sit outdoors on summer evenings."
        I smiled at Jean, a bit sheepish, but anxious to make her understand.
        "In fact, some of it may just be stories I imagined, when I would think about Russia in bed at night. I only know that the scene has grown in my memory and my imagination.
        "You know how it is, Jean," I confide. "After you grow up you get so involved in work and family that you live totally in the present. But later, when you're older and less absorbed, the past begins to come back more and more.
        "After I started trying to understand my Russian life I read a lot about that chaotic time, and I began to create a picture in my head, almost like stories I might have read, of the way it might have been. So I really can't tell you how much is memory, how much may be acquired fact, and how much is probably imagination."
        My eyes grow misty as I remember. "But the pictures are so vivid. Was it real? I don't know. But it could have been real. It lives in my memory now, valid and complete."
        I think about the troubled era I had lived through, wonder how I can make Jean feel it. Her gray eyes are intent, her mouth eager. She is trying to see with me.
        "It was a hopeful time. The tsar had abdicated, and the Duma, our parliament, was trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered economy. But that summer no one yet had any idea of the catastrophes to come."
        "Guess what I found." Reed's voice jolts me back to the world in which I am eighty, not three. Reed Gaskin is the youngest member of our tour group. At twelve, he's already a seasoned world traveler. No language barrier stops him for long.
        "Something good to eat?" Jean asks hopefully.
        "No, something for you, Nana," Reed says. With eleven grandchildren, I have long been "Nana" to nearly everybody. "I met a lady from Samara in the next car. She's a journalist, and she wants to meet you. I was telling her that you were born there." 
        "How exciting, my dear." Like everyone on our tour, Jean has gotten involved in my homecoming project. "She might be able to help you."
        A journalist from Samara. I'm already on my feet. "Of course I want to meet her! Journalists are the best route to reach people who might know about my family."
        Xenia Vassilievna is a stylish young woman with fairly fluent English. Her dark Tatar eyes sparkle at the publicity prospect that has fallen into her lap.
        "Please sit down, Madame Percival," she gushes. "I'm so glad you came to see me. Reed told me your wonderful story."
        She listens with interest to my hopes of finding traces or at least news of my family.
        "Of course I'll be glad to do what I can." She beams. "You know, you look just like my grandmother."
        "Really?" This might be a real break. "I don't know yet who my hosts will be, but perhaps - "
        "Oh, don't worry. I'll find you. Let me give you my card, in case there's a problem."
        The little square announces "International Public Relations" below her name. The lady clearly knows how to take advantage of opportunities. "We need to arrange an interview for TV and radio, so people who might have known your relatives can hear about you." She details plans and ideas, chatting on and on.
        I return to my compartment in a flutter. Maybe it will really happen, I think. Maybe the dream will come to life, and my lost world bloom into being.
        "Wouldn't it be wonderful?" Jean says.
        I ring for the car attendant, Mrs. Markova, to order tea, and Reed says, "The car lady's from Samara too. Maybe she'll know about your street."
        Mrs. Markova knows about Komsomolskaya ulitza, where my grandmother's house stood. "Oh, yes, it's in the old section, near where the two rivers meet. I know it well. We used to picnic at a park nearby. The old houses are still there, it hasn't been rebuilt." Now I am in a fever of impatience to reach Samara, and as Reed spreads news of the developments, my fellow tourists keep popping in to join in the anticipation.
        Their chatter about new possibilities helps the slow hours to pass. The interest of my new friends pleases me. It reinforces my sometimes shaky belief that my search makes sense. I'm especially grateful to the "Business for Russia" project. This tour includes Samara only because a number of the interns came from there.
        Our small group is an interesting mix, a few tourists like Jean and me, two state directors of "Business for Russia" and several business people who had hosted Russians under that program, and are now visiting their interns in return.
        As the long evening darkens into night, and we finish up the picnics we had all brought along - there is no food service on Russian trains - the talk dwindles and the intervals of silence grow longer. The accumulated fatigue of four hectic days in Moscow is catching up with us. Mrs. Markova makes up our berths early, and we're all glad to stretch out in them, to read or drowse.
        Tired as I am, I cannot make sleep come. Tomorrow I will actually be walking the streets I walked with my parents, strolling along the river as I once did with Nyanya and Fraülein. The thought fills my mind with crowding childhood memories, welling up from the depths where they've been buried all those years ago, when remembering was an agony of longing. This train will pull into the station from which Papa left us and his country, where Mamma and I last saw the dear faces that were my world.
        When at last I fall asleep, I dream again, of Babushka's house around the corner from ours, where all the family had crowded together. I see us all sitting around the big round table in the dining room, filling our glasses with tea from the big brass samovar in the middle. "Is there enough hot water for Zeyde?" my grandmother is saying. "He'll be coming home from shul soon."
        The warm fragrance permeates the room where many voices rise and fall. In sleep my body warms with joy at the sight.
        Babushka as usual is gently chiding her complaining daughters. "My dears, there's no sense grumbling. We just have to make the best of it. We're living through a bad time now, but it won't last forever. It never does." Babushka is always trying to keep the family's spirits up. "Zeyde and I've lived through many hard times. We just have to see that the family survives." She turns to me with her sweet smile and says, "Niurochka, where . . . ?"
        The sound of her voice is still in my ears as the dream fades away. As my mind struggles back to reality I realize that it's not Babushka's voice but Jean's that I'm hearing. It's morning, and time to get ready for Samara. I rush through my sketchy toilet, only to have to sit waiting for hours, grumbling to Jean in an agony of impatience through the repeated stops and slowdowns. We arrive five hours late, cross and hungry, with no breakfast and late for lunch. 
        At last the train pulls into a large crowded station. On the roof of an office building nearby, are huge letters spelling out SAMARA. I'm pleased to see how proudly the city displays its restored name. Only days later do I discover that it's not advertising the city but a chain of department stores.
        As we leave the train we are overwhelmed to find the station filled with people apparently waiting for us. With them are reporters and TV cameras; we seem to be celebrities. Jean turns to me with a big grin as the media surge toward us.
        "I think it's you especially they're waiting for, Nora. How do you suppose they found out about you?"
        "Oh, it can't be," I say. "How could they know? I'm sure it's their hosts that they want to interview."
        "Maybe it was from Xenia Vas-vas . . . Oh, you know . . . that they learned about the old lady who's returning to her birthplace after so many years?"
        "Vassilievna." I supply. "Well, however they heard, it makes a good story, and I guess the media is hot on the trail."
        For once I'm glad of the publicity. It may well be the help I need to find news of my lost family. Surely there might still be someone who had known them, or had information about what happened to them. In a flurry of introductions I latch on to Anatoly Semionoff, introduced as head of the state-run TV company. He is as eager to talk as I am.
        "We must get your story on the evening news," he says, and proceeds to interview me on the spot. With hope riding high, I supply all the scanty details I have about people I last saw over half a century ago.
        Our group is getting a royal welcome, especially those who had hosted to interns coming to learn American business methods. Now these Samarans are eager to return the hospitality they enjoyed. "Now we are going to be the hosts, and you will each meet the one who will be yours," the leader says. "We have made many plans for your entertainment."
        In a flurry of excited chatter and laughter the gathering breaks up into small groups. The American hosts quickly find their former guests, but the rest of us don't know anyone yet, and must be paired up one by one with the friendly people who will house and feed us for five days. With only bits of common language for most of us, and much translating by the few hosts who have good English, it is nearly an hour before my hostess, Ludmilla, manages to extricate me from the press and take me home for a belated lunch. The pretty blonde radiates warmth but has no English words to express it. However, her 13-year-old daughter Valeria goes to an English school and carries us over the hurdles.
        Through Valeria, Ludmilla apologizes because her husband was not there to greet me, because he is on his way home from a business trip to Holland. "Vladimir has to go out of the country quite often," she says. "He is the principal of a business college, but everybody has to have some business on the side nowadays. Nobody can live on their salary, because of the terrible inflation. He goes to the countries in western Europe to trade. But he promised to be home in time for the opera."
        I'm glad to get in a short rest before the evening's festivities. We gather for the performance, an elaborate production of 'The Masked Ball." As I compliment our hosts on the opulent opera house in the main plaza of the old city, Inna, a small dark bundle of energy who runs the English school, interrupts.
        "I know it's a show place, but most of us are not happy about it," she says. "An ancient cathedral used to stand in this spot. It was a favorite city landmark, and everybody was furious when Stalin ordered it torn down to make way for the new opera house. The older residents resent it to this day."
        However unloved, the opera house is a lucky place for me. During the intermission, Inna announces that her husband has a map of the city. "He was able to find your grandmother's street. It's not very far from here. Would you like us to take you there after the opera, or are you too tired? We could go tomorrow evening instead."
        "Oh, please!" I don't want to wait one unnecessary moment. "Couldn't we go tonight?" Russian performances usually start at seven so it was still rather early.
        "Of course." Inna laughs at my impatience. "It would be our pleasure. It won't be getting dark until at least ten. My husband will drive us."
        After the opera, Jean and Reed Gaskin crowd into the small Avtovaz with us. "I've got to be there when you find your old home," Jean insists. "I couldn't miss that!"
        It's not far to Babushka's street in the old quarter, and soon we find #19 Komsomolskaya ulitza. The house is still there. We park across the street and I stare at the faded tan front of the two-story building, nearly obscured by a tall old weeping birch.
        Is this shabby stucco remnant in a ramshackle block really the house I called home for nearly four years? Yes, there's the old stoop where Babushka would take the air after hours in her stuffy kitchen. There's the window of what had been Mamma's and my bedroom. There at the bottom of the hill two blocks down is the Volga, beside which I had walked nearly every day. I always loved to watch the wide river, the dark green hills on the other side, the busy ships and barges moving up and downstream. The longer I look, the more familiar the place feels, no matter how changed. My heart swells as all the memories come flooding in.
        "Should we try to get inside?" enterprising Inna suggests. As we leave the car, the old lady sitting on the raised edge of the stoop looks up in surprise.
        "She must live there," I whisper to Inna.
        "Do you think she might know . . . " Jean says.
        "We'll soon see. I'll ask her." Inna goes over and tells my story, while I hang back, uncertain of a welcome. But the old lady looks up and smiles, waving a welcoming hand at me. I hurry over, choked with excitement.
        "She never heard of your family," Inna reports. "But when I told her you used to live here as a child, she asked if you'd like to come in and see the inside. I was sure you would."
        "Oh, yes," I say, barely able to breathe. "Please." But as I step inside, my heart sinks. There's nothing left of the warm tidy home I'm longing to see again. The five-room flat that took up the whole first floor has been cut up into three or four tiny efficiencies. The one we're in consists of just the hall, with stairs leading to the upstairs flats, one bedroom in front and, at the back, what had been our dining room and is now also a kitchen. None of it has seen paint for decades. None of it holds anything familiar. 
        Drowning in disappointment, I manage to stammer out my thanks for the old lady's hospitality. But as I turn to leave, suddenly it's as if a sun had broken through the dark. There beside the front door is a window - my window! As long as I lived here this deep window niche was my "castle," my special place where I spent endless hours with Mishka, my books and my kitten, where I had taken refuge from the hubbub of a crowded household. Incredibly, it's just the same. Even its faded paint is still blue.
        "My window seat!" I cry, and on an impulse get in and crowd my clumsy old body into the child-size space that had been mine so long ago.
        All at once, I understand why I made this journey, though knowing that I would not find those loved faces I longed to see once more. Here in this shabby hallway, scrunched up in a scanty space, I've come to the end of my search. On the other side of the planet and of a century, incredibly I've come home and found - myself.
        Around me the dear lost faces shine with smiles, the remembered voices ring in my ears, the child I have not been for an endless time is with me, and at least for this one euphoric moment all the lost has been found. This life lived so long ago is the story I know I have to tell, to speak for so many others who have silently endured the loss of all they valued.