Anya didn’t remember much about her parents, and with each passing year, even those early memories began to fade into gossamer threads and dissolve. Occasionally she got flashes—a sturdy black umbrella, acrid hair dye in the sink, conversations hushed when Anya came into the room. Her mother’s sturdy heels clip-clopping ahead of her when she walked Anya to school. Warnings to be quiet in public, and never to interrupt her father when he was talking. He was a big important man in the government. This was about all she’d known about him.
Then one day he didn’t come home. Mama hid the newspapers. Scolded her when she found one and looked for news of her father.
“Where is Papa?” she asked one day, screwing up her courage. The explanations wavered, but always had the same conclusion: he was an important man selected by the president to do important work far away, and it would be unpatriotic to question why. That Anya was a lucky girl to have such a father; that as a girl she herself was not so lucky. She didn’t have a father at all.
Eventually Anya stopped asking after Papa. Mainly because it would make her mother cry. But she still had questions. Where did he go? What was he doing? If it was so important and patriotic, why couldn’t we know?
Later Anya would piece the clues together—but not until both of her parents were gone. Until there was nothing left of them but a medal in a red velvet box and a cold letter from the Russian government about “service” and “patriotism” and “honor.”
“It is all bullshit,” Bubbe said. One thunderstormy summer day while they shared tea at Anya’s kitchen table, not too long after they’d found each other. “Do you want to know what really happened?”
Anya wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Part of her wanted the fairy-tale history she’d crafted for herself to be smashed underfoot. Part of her wanted to cling to it like the lost child she sometimes felt herself to be. She thought of Gloria Steinam, whom she’d studied in her History of American Feminism class. Ms. Steinam had said, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
Maybe she was ready for the anger. Ready for that arrow of truth to find a target other than the tender heart she’d been protecting. She turned to her grandmother. Bubbe pressed a cool, bony hand over hers and met her gaze. Bubbe’s dark brown eyes, surrounded by crinkles, were often tough to read. But not now. Now there was pain. Anya withdrew her hand, busied herself with cutting the banana bread. “You don’t have to tell me.” Before she knew it, Anya had sliced up the entire loaf.
“It is your parents, it is your choice,” Bubbe finally said, with a little mouth-shrug at the end. She took up a slice of banana bread and nibbled. “Is good,” she said. “Whoever first decided to put walnut and banana together was a genius.”
“Most of those good things started out as a mistake,” Anya said, thinking of something she’d learned in a different class. But then the deeper meaning of what she’d said sliced through her—Mama saying, “I was not so lucky.”
“Bubbe…I didn’t mean—”
“Meh. What’s done is done and we make do. We are lucky to be here. Putin khuylo.”
The first time Anya had heard those words, she’d been horrified. From her brief time in Russia, she remembered the pictures of the president everywhere. And the people who worshipped him—or at least pretended that they did. A long-forgotten overheard argument came back to her. Papa’s scolding words, Mama crying. Saying through her tears that he could be arrested for what he was doing.
But what was he doing?
“Tell me,” Anya said.
“You are sure?”
“No,” she whispered. “Yes. Please.”
Bubbe sat back in her chair. “Well. Your mother”—she almost spat the word—“was a good and obedient Russian girl.”
Anya knew that. Very often Bubbe would talk about “your Russian mother” as if “Russian” was a curse. But to Bubbe, it must have felt that way, after what Russia did to Ukraine. “And my father?”
“Obedient—at first. In fact, he was one of the most loyal dogs at that bastard’s table.”
Anya’s brows rose. “At first?”
“Until he wasn’t.”
Anya gulped, said in a small voice, “And then they killed him.”
Bubbe let out a long breath. “You lie down with dogs such as those, when you get up you should stay away from open windows.”