When I think of my childhood in Ukraine, I remember lots of trees — thick old oaks, shy birches, chestnuts with peeling skin. I remember skipping steps on my way to my apartment inside the gray Khrushchev-style, five-story building. I remember the clear, barely-there taste of birch juice. But the thing I remember most is my mama’s absence: her tangy-sweet voice missing me over the telephone, seven hundred kilometers away.
In the mid-1970s, before I was born, Mama had dreamed of being a journalist. But she held brash political opinions and was not content to write safe propaganda pieces celebrating the quality of that year’s harvest. The fact that her father had emigrated to America didn’t help her advance in that career, either. When she applied to colleges, the admissions personnel considered it a big joke. With a shaky political reputation, a father who “deserted his Motherland for the Enemy,” and in-your-face Jewish features, Mama’s chances of getting anywhere were slim. But she didn’t give up. I grew up under the care of Babushka, my grandmother, in the small picturesque Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa, while Mama struggled far away from me. She applied seven times to different Universities. She worked odd jobs. Finally, when I was seven years old, perestroika dawned and the political climate softened. Mama was admitted into the prestigious Moscow University of Theater Arts. She was going to be a theater critic.
Money was tight, and Mama’s visits infrequent, only a few times a year. When she did come, she showered me with stories and kisses. She told me secrets: that she believed in God, that I was Jewish, and that I should be proud of a thing like that. That someplace on the other side of the world there was an incredible land called America, where my grandfather lived, a place where buildings reached into the clouds, and people wore bright-color clothes and were free. She promised one day she would take me there, and that I, too, could be free. She told me another secret: she had a magic mirror, in which she could always see me, no matter how far away she was.
Oh, how I dreamed to get a glimpse of that magic mirror. But each time Mama visited, she said, “Oh, no, I can’t believe I have forgotten it again.”
I believed her. And although I absorbed all the propaganda at schools and worked hard to please my teachers, I secretly wished I would one day grow up to be irreverent, beautiful, and bold like my mother.
Then, when I turned eleven, Mama saved up enough money to take me to live with her in Moscow Region. She took me to theaters, told me about art, shared her struggles, knew all my school friends. But she was also busy with her life — jobs, friends, business ideas. The busier she got, the more I missed her again. This only intensified after we moved to New York a few years later with my Babushka and my stepfather, Bo. In New York, Mama started her own business, an international travel venture. She gave me the soul-freeing American life she had promised. But she also grew hard and distant, working all the time. She explained that her time was now money, a new concept for a freshly-minted American teenager. I felt I was still on my own, this time in an unsympathetic country, a loud city, and a bewildering American high school.
I married just before my 19th birthday. Mama threw a lavish wedding for Romain and me, but I barely even thanked her. Suddenly Mama could do what she pleased with her time and her money. Strengthened by Romain’s love, I was no longer alone.
Romain and I moved to Miami, and I majored in broadcasting journalism. Infected by the American spirit of achievement, I set out to do things. I threw my energies into everything: student government, college newspaper, starting a first on-campus literary magazine, hosting my own show on college radio, anchoring University morning news, interning for MTV, working nights (very briefly) as a news writer for a local TV station.
As for babies — I told Romain, no way, not yet. But a part of me, young as I was, craved motherhood. Out of nowhere, the thought of a baby, our baby, would bloom in my mind. What would it be like, I’d wonder, all dreamy. I had no idea what any of it would be like. When Mama enticed Romain with a job offer for her travel company in New Jersey, we were ready for a change of scenery. Romain and I took our time getting there: a four-day road trip with bed-and-breakfast stops, water parks, driving along little weedy roads. By the time we got north, I was already pregnant. Did we worry that I was just 21? That I had just transferred to a new college? That I was going to be a journalist? No. Romain and I burst with a joy that danced wild within us both.
My son was born to a 22-year-old ambitious journalism student with wings. I wasn’t ready to give up school, so my grandmother, the very Babushka who had watched me when my mama was away, now watched my baby in Central Jersey, while I commuted to NYU every day and studied magna cum laude with a minor in sociology. One semester I produced and hosted a TV talk show for a campus station; another, I bustled around the New York office of CNN, an earnest intern tripping all over myself to get lunch and coffee and tidbits of information for mean-faced producers and male anchors who wore mascara and blush. It felt good to put on boots, dress in plaid skirts, and run around New York City, my future blinking before me with a thousand headlights.
In the Port Authority bus on the way home I’d think of my son bumping his two plastic dinosaurs together. I’d look at the clock and not know whether or not he’d still be awake. And sadness would become a lump in my throat, expanding, making it hard to breathe. Had Mama ever missed me like that?
When I’d arrive home, I’d drop my school bag by the door, and let the outside world fall away as I inhaled my son. I tried to make up for my absences, to make every moment with my son precious. I staged stuffed-animal “plays” for him, which he watched with fascination. I read books in French, Russian and English. Every time I changed his diaper, I’d breathe in his poopy smell while Babushka stared at me, thinking, I’m sure, that I was either faking it or that I’d lost my mind.
I was wracked with guilt for leaving my son every day. At the same time, I was angry for Mama for doing the same to me. Being a mother seemed to both feed my soul and drain it. I sometimes tried to talk to Mama about it. Didn’t you miss me at all? At least I was still with my son, snatching every moment I could, living here, loving him close-by. How could you have left me, Mama? What were you thinking?
I did the best I could, she said. I loved you. I am not going to let you paralyze me with guilt.
When my baby was three years old, I graduated and became a newspaper journalist. I loved my job, but it wasn’t the kind of job I could leave when my eight hours were over. Journalism needed more of me. Meanwhile, my son grew sick. My boy needed me. Plus, my journalism salary barely covered daycare. I quit my job and announced to my mother that I was going to be there for my son full-time now, then threw myself into a stay-at-home motherhood with the fierce doggedness of a former reporter.
But what about who you are? Mama asked me. What are you going to do?
When you become a mother, that’s who you are, I told her smugly.
And I loved it: the trips to gymnastics, impersonating the evil Zira from Lion King II so convincingly that my son begged me to stop, half-laughing, half-terrified; hosting elaborate Valentine’s Day parties; teaching my son to read at a first-grade level when he was four. If ever I started missing my job, just one glance in the rearview mirror at my son’s cheerful brown curls would cure the fleeting feeling. I was giving him the kind of childhood I had missed.
One year turned into another, and before I knew it, my son was finishing preschool, and my daughter had come along. But as hard as I fell for my wide-eyed youngest, somehow I became the weary, always busy, dazed mother of two. I looked at my children, their deep brown eyes filled with surprise at the world. They looked back at me, eager for me to share my secrets, to tell them why some days the sky was so darn blue. But often, my thoughts traveled far from both of them, far across the ocean of time, back into my own childhood.
I wondered how I got here: one kid on my breast all day, the other playing with friends in the playroom. Mama’s words — But what about who you are? — rang in my ears.
Maybe this is why I started writing.
I found myself at the computer at nights, letting the memories of a small Ukrainian city seep through my fingers. I wrote short stories for children, for teenagers, as though trying to re-live my childhood. I went to writing conferences, started a critique group, and bought craft books on writing. Deeper and deeper I went, tired, sometimes despairing, sometimes euphoric. I had loved journalism, and then stay-at-home motherhood, at least in the beginning. Now I felt alive in a brand new way. Other writers I met said I was good: maybe I could make a living at it, and always work from home, kids by my side forever. Take that, Mama, I thought.
You keep pounding me with guilt, and I can’t take it, she once told me. I don’t have a daughter, she told Romain after an ugly telephone fight.
Fine, I told Romain, I don’t care. Great, even, I told myself. I am doing okay without her. But why then, was I crying like a five year old? After these words, a hole opened within me — that childhood hole, which I had long ago considered patched, neatly covered with the dirt of life and seeds of new love. I called her back and, choking on tears, said no-o-o-o-o-o-o. I wanted my mama. I still wanted my mama.
Right around then, I started working on a young-adult novel about a shy Soviet Jewish teen who falls in love with an anti-Semitic boy. It was to be a coming-of-age story of teenage longing and a search for self. It began with these words: “My mama, my dear mamochk.” As I wrote, memories poured forth. There was a seven-year-old me waiting for my mama at a trolley-bus stop, my chest aching with longing for her, on a day she didn’t make it. There was also a nine-year-old me on the bed with Mama, sharing jokes, talking, while she brushed lice nits out of my hair with a dense comb. There were days of gray absence, dull as a throbbing headache, and days when she brought me to her university in Moscow for a visit. She made cranberry-lemon Napoleon cake, which made me hungry every time I thought of it. She told me a million stories. Through her imagination, she showed me a magic mirror, though I never held that elusive thing in my hand. Despite all those absences, she managed to teach me to strive, to reach, to breathe in life until my lungs could burst. Somehow, despite studying, working, searching, and missing me, she taught me how to be true and bold.
Before I knew it, my novel breathed at me as though it were alive. My protagonist said, excuse me, but I am me, not you. I didn’t have to dig deep to see the difficult destiny Mama had chosen in that impossible country of broken families, drunkenness, and poverty.
I revised draft after draft, sometimes deep into the night, sometimes early in the morning. Characters whispered things into my ear as I drove my kids from one class to another. One year, another, and another, and another. . . . The story I was writing moved farther and farther away from my own life, and followed a course of its own. My characters were growing up, and claiming their own identities, even while my poor two children probably wondered where their bleary-eyed mama was. I didn’t keep personal friendships (outside of writing); I barely washed my hair some weeks. Incredibly, the deeper into the novel I dug, the less I fought with Mama, the more we hugged, and the nicer words I was able to find for her when we did speak. The writing didn’t always come. Still, I threw out what I could, spilled the words all over the keyboard, even when I felt like howling at it in frustration. I couldn’t stop. Was this the way my mama felt when she studied and wrote and attended theater performances and scribbled her thoughts all over the little drama programs? Almost as if it wasn’t a choice? As if she just had to do this?
I told my mama I was writing. I told her there was a character in my novel who might have similarities to her. I refuse to feel guilty anymore, she said. I told her, “No, no, Mama. I am not trying to get you anymore. I am just writing, because I must.” We argued again. But this time, she called me back and said, do what you must do, dochka. Write what you must.
So I did, feeling lighter with each word I unloaded.
It’s been five years since I started working on my novel. My son is eleven years old now, my daughter is finishing kindergarten. I don’t know if writing feeds me so much as it frees me. When I write, I can taste the bitter black sweetness of the chocolate mousse I prepare for a family dinner. When I write, I can laugh at my kids’ jokes from a place where they know I mean it. I can even be a daughter to a mother who loved me the way she loved life, in the deepest, most honest, most real way she knew how.
Somewhere between draft fifty-nine and draft one hundred-and-nine, I did it, Mama. I have built myself a magic mirror, through which I can see my history and my own reflection, and finally find the person I thought I had lost: you.