Soon, amazingly, my mother will turn 85. She’s been in such frail health, for the past few years I wasn’t sure she’d make it to the next birthday. This is the age her parents lived to. Such a long journey they all made – from a Russian refugee colony in Harbin, China, to her family’s return home and her emigration to Brazil, then California. She was separated for so long from those she loved most, one of my greatest hopes for her was a reunion. Her fragile mental state prevented her from traveling, but last year came great joy: a visit from her sister’s son and his wife, from Russia.
Her paranoid delusions set in when I told her my cousin and his wife would soon be visiting; she worried they’d be “imposters.” When I pointed out she could speak Russian with them – something she rarely does anymore – she even said, “I forgot how.” This stunned me. Her generation of immigrants did strive for assimilation, but I never thought it possible to lose so much of one’s heritage, even one’s first language! How would she be able to talk with our relatives? They didn’t speak much English. How would we communicate?
A lifelong introvert, I’ve long been awkward at relating to others – in that way, just like my mother. But in order to for us to communicate, I would have to muster a common language. My aunt was now too old to travel great distances, so her son and daughter-in-law would be her proxies.
Knowing my family’s love for nature, I brought them to San Rafael‘s Gerstle Park, near my mother’s home. A beautiful haven imbued with quiet, it seemed like the perfect place to reunite, undisturbed. We sat under ancient trees spreading their branches over us, and my mother, shy, didn’t say much. She and my cousin’s wife Sveta helped set the picnic table. My cousin Slavik photographed everything, the paths circling the park and leading up to a redwood grove, the smoke bush overgrown and encroaching, and at last, lingering, loving looks at my mother’s face, to take back to the sister she hadn’t seen in decades.
We had some starts and stops at conversation. Mom asked what they did for work, how was their daughter. They asked about her long career as a civil engineer, and what she might recall from our last and only visit to Russia together. When I was 3, she took me there for an all-too-quick trip, becoming ill and never returning. Now, before my eyes, she slowly began speaking Russian to them! In that lovely park, my cousins and I silently watched and listened as she reminisced about how I played with Slavik in the central square fountain in their city of Kaluga, 30 years ago.