Zina was Anya’s mother. When I came down with a cold, she fed me spoonfuls of honey at the small round table by the kitchen windows, morning light streaming in through the thin glass. It was early spring, but still cold in those northern parts, and when we went walking you could see the steam hovering over Lake Onega. The snow melted in April, and by the time I was feeling better, tiny crocuses were pushing their way through the cold ground and children were skipping in the courtyard.
Zina’s hair was a shock of that red-orange dye distinct to Russian women of a certain age. I didn’t understand why she loved me like a second daughter; maybe because I was inquisitive whereas Anya was sullen.
My questions ran the gamut; I wanted to hear about her childhood, the dacha where her grandmother taught her to grow carrots and berries, the goat she nearly lost during a particularly bad spring flood when she twelve, how she’d met her husband (their families knew each other), and whether she ever dreamed of traveling beyond the city where she’d lived her whole life.
Zhanna, she’d say, I am content. Why should I want to go anywhere else when I have everything I need right here? She’d gesture around the small room, as if her teapot and slippers belonged to royalty. It made it hard to argue, even though as a young woman lusting for life experience, I knew my love of that provincial place hinged on the train that would take me away from it before long.
The forests nearby — miles and miles of birch trees straddling the Finnish border, dense with memory and darkness — and the low-hanging sky that seemed like an inverted bowl holding in the world below, all of this created a kind of vortex effect. At night, I’d lie in my small bed covered with so many blankets, the cold air seeping in from the crack Zina insisted was healthy for sleeping, and imagine I could hear the whispers of those who’d lived in that high-ceilinged room before Anya’s family moved in. My dreams were a mish-mash of Russian and English and lines of poetry I couldn’t remember come morning, and I felt at once old and young and ageless as the weeks passed.
I also felt Jewish in ways that were beginning to grow more pronounced. The few times I brought this up, an unmistakably displeased expression crept over Zina’s face, and Anya’s lips turned downward even more than usual. Mother and daughter alike would glance in the direction of Anya’s father, who wouldn’t look up from his newspaper. Case closed; religion was not to be discussed.
But I couldn’t help myself. My love of Russia began to bang up against something else: The undeniable truth that Jews had left this place in droves, in search of the religious and cultural freedom of expression. Sure, some small communities had cropped up, particularly in the bigger cities, but here in the north, Jews were an anomaly — suspicious, strange, other.
More and more, I realized I was like those Russian Jews. My grandmother with her Yiddishisms and stories paired with my own lack of knowledge seemed too great of a parallel to ignore. I knew I was Jewish, but had not idea in practice what that meant. I didn’t know where to begin, but knew that begin I must. Zina and Anya indulged me, but the line was clear that this was not a welcome subject. Better to pour another cup of tea and talk about school or the weather. History, identity — why would you open those troublesome topics?
The next time I was there was four years later. Late July, the outer edge of the White Nights that held twilight suspended in a liminal state of waiting until dawn. We pulled the heavy shades at night to induce darkness, then woke to the sound of the kettle screaming in the kitchen. I was very sick; I spent days on or bending over the toilet, and Zina was as attentive as ever even as Anya receded further from sight. The moment had come and gone, the one where I belonged.
When I left, they waved at the train. I could see that Anya was tearful. Was it because she’d miss me, or because I was leaving and she wasn’t? From there, I’d travel to Prague, where the Jewish quarter and Terezín brought me ever closer to the inescapable truth of my heritage. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know of my family’s history; as my grandfather had said while he lay dying, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.”