Haze hung over the city that Saturday afternoon. Those venturing out looked as if the humidity weighed on their bodies like a yoke. Even the traffic moved slower. Still, Anya waited on the stoop for Bubbe’s arrival—it was a promise she’d made to herself when they’d found each other again. That day, Anya had brought down a tall glass of lemonade, with extra ice. Moments later she spied Bubbe, her step quick and head high despite the heat, as if daring it to stop her.
Soon they were upstairs and settled, with a frosty pitcher and jam-sandwich cookies and one beautiful, perfect sunflower. “The market had already cut it down,” Bubbe Yulia said in apology, for she hated the idea of anyone decapitating the blossom. “I consider myself to have liberated it.”
Anya now studied the yellow face of the sunflower, which she had honored by setting up in her prettiest vase. She thought about her adoptive country’s national flower, and the symbolism behind it. How Russia had tried to destroy them. But Ukraine had survived. The sunflower had survived.
Bubbe Yulia had survived.
“Why don’t I remember more about you?” Anya said.
Bubbe seemed unfazed by the non-sequitur. “You were so small, then. Maybe, what, four or five? And don’t forget, the circumstances.”
Anya nodded, tightening her hands around her glass. The circumstances were a muzzy combination of memory and what little Mama had told her. Papa had disappeared. Mama snatched up whatever she could carry and hustled Anya out the door and into the night. She’d woken up in a strange house, to the sound of arguments in language she didn’t know. There were charcoal drawings on the walls, some that made her blush because the people were naked. In that part of her childhood, nudity was a shameful thing.
“We didn’t stay that long,” Anya said. “Maybe that’s why.”
Bubbe touched ice-cold fingers to hers. “You stayed by me for a month, tateleh. Maybe it was the shock.”
Anya gazed toward the window, where the leaves of a nearby maple drooped from the heat. “Maybe.”
“She was stubborn, your mother.”
“She had her reasons.” Anya pressed a hand over her mouth. It had come out harsher than she’d intended.
But Bubbe responded with a sad smile. “Yes, I know. I am hardly a paragon of virtue. We make our choices, we live with the results.”
“You chose to abandon her.” Again, Anya shocked herself at her boldness. But she’d been so polite for so long, with all her questions simmering beneath her skin. She deserved answers, and her mother could no longer supply them.
Bubbe sighed, gazed at the crumbs on her plate, the smear of jam. “I left her in good hands.”
“While you risked your life—”
“To fight for my country!”
“Should I thank you for your service?” Anya thought of the photo. Her mother had presented it to her shortly before she died, as a kind of bitter trophy. A thirtyish version of Bubbe, pretty, brown-haired, stood between two burly men. All in uniform, all with their arms around each other’s shoulders. She’d woven a daisy through her braid. This is what your grandmother was doing while I was raised by strangers on a Polish dairy farm. Playing dress-up with the men. Doing god knows what with the men.
For the moment, Bubbe Yulia sat silent. Anya scraped back her chair, went to her bedroom, withdrew a scrapbook. Opened it to the page where she’d mounted the photo, set it before Bubbe Yulia, and reclaimed her seat.
Bubbe drew in a quick gasp. Touched a finger to the protective plastic over their faces, wistfulness and pain clear on her face. She tightened her jaw, fought to toughen herself over, and finally, she spoke, the words soft but measured. “I had my reasons.”
Anya, feeling guilty, schooled her tone. “You were safe on that farm. You were safe in Poland. You could have raised her there, and both been safe, instead of leaving her—”
“We were the reason Russia did not win this war, we are the reason Ukraine still exists, it is because her people fought like hell! I fought”—her voice broke—“I fought for her.” Bubbe snatched a napkin from the holder and pressed it to her eyes. “I did not want her to…to go through what I did. I would fight those Russian bastards with every last molecule of my strength.”
Silence fell over the table. Condensation dripped down the side of the glass pitcher. The sunflower was reflected in its surface, distorted by the beads of water. Some pieces began coming together in Anya’s mind. Questions she didn’t know if she want answers to. Not now. Not yet. She cleared her throat. “Did…did those soldiers there with you…did they survive?”
Still looking at the photo, Bubbe shook her head. She touched the one to her left. “Land mine.” Then the one to her right. “Shrapnel from a cluster bomb. They were good men. Those fucking bastards. Putin khulyo.”
Anya repeated the familiar curse under her breath, hesitated only seconds before speaking again. “Did you kill any Russians?”
Bubbe raised a determined gaze to her granddaughter. “As many as I could.” She looked back to the photo, pressed her hand to it, and closed the book with a kind of finality. “And I’d do it all over again.”