I think about her almost as much as I think about you. I imagine her beautiful, hair the color of Baltic amber that swizzles past her waist, a laugh that soars to the heavens. She glides through the room, feet barely touching the ground, barely stirring the air. She is the matter of royalty, royalty and myth, when you are awkward like me, when you didn’t kiss a boy until high school. She’d had boyfriends, husbands, two daughters before I even married. In my mind she is almost mythic.
In reality, she is a mother without her children.
Her name appears on their birth certificates, in the box labeled Mother, Mama, Mamuchka. They were her daughters once. But her rights were relinquished, then extinguished. Her children, two girls, were moved to an orphanage. Soon, they will become my daughters. They will move to my house, an arctic desert and eleven time zones away from her house. When they erase her name from their birth certificates and type in mine, it will be official. Though I have never given birth, their birth certificates will prove that I have. They will list my husband as the father. This will be correct. But he and I didn’t meet until five years after the youngest was born. Neither of us has ever been to Russia, though these birth certificates will say that I gave birth in Russia, twice, even though at the time I was in California and my not-yet husband was in New York. This is the new math. This is how families are made. These are the new birth certificates and they will be official.
What is official is not necessarily true.
Two girls and the mother
Maybe it happened like this: Her husband died. She struggled to keep the children clothed and fed. She washed dishes, went to work, prayed to the cross over her bed, begging Jesus to bring him back. Maybe it happened like this: Her husband was murdered. She drank vodka and pretended it was water. She didn’t pray. She let the children starve. She blamed them for missing their father, for the demands they didn’t know they placed on her.
I want to believe she loved them.
How could anyone not love them?
A child is called an orphan if both their parents are dead, if one of their parents is dead, if neither of their parents is dead. These two children are eight and ten when they are called orphans; they are nine and eleven when we are told they are orphans; they are ten and twelve when their mother finds out they are orphans.
Thousands are orphaned like this every year.
What is official is not necessarily true.
Three beds to a room. Blankets thin like crepe paper. Clothes you are given but don’t get to keep. Potatoes and bread. Kasha and milk. Helpers swarming, surrogate mothers who give you away. Again. Then people from America come. Strangers who adopt your roommate. They bring presents, not only for your roommate, but for you too. A penance paid forward for the next parent. Stickers and Barbie dolls, bubble gum and chocolate bars. There is a going-away party when these new parents arrive, celebrations with sugar-sick cakes, tea poured from silver samovars. You cry when your roommate leaves. She gives you her old clothes. You get a new roommate.
You wonder what will happen to you.
The last day with her
Every school day prepares you the way a fire drill readies you for the real thing. It doesn’t—but at least you know what you’re supposed to do. Get up, get out of the house, keep walking. Don’t be scared; no reason to. Listen to the policeman. Hold his hand. Keep moving forward, follow directions, do what he says; don’t cry, don’t speak, don’t look at your mother as you walk out the door, don’t hear her drop to her knees before the door clicks shut behind you.
You wake up in one bed, go to sleep in another. Did you know you would never live as her daughters again? Did she?
The day she came back for them
What happened: When their mother walked up the orphanage stairs, when she marched into the director’s office, when she shook her fists at the social worker, she was not allowed to see her daughters. Or she didn’t want to see them. Or they didn’t want to see her.
What really happened: A letter arrived from a couple in America. They want to become their—your—parents. That is all we can ever know.
I will become their mother soon. The mother of another woman’s children. I am thankful that some countries are not like the United States in that systematic way we fight for family reunification. I admit this to no one because this means I am selfish. This means I am deplorable. Insensitive.
And yet already I love these girls far more than I knew I was capable. I feel a fierce protectiveness that is allowed, only, to mothers who give birth. And there is a part of me that feels this impulse toward their first mother, too.
The first mother
For how long will she rush to the door imagining she hears them? Trip over rocks believing she’s found them? Murmur their names in her sleep trying to talk to them. Forever, I imagine. Addition, subtraction, disjointed union. This is all official, this is all true. She is part of the whole. We are all part of the whole.