Laura Esther Wolfson | An essay from the collection For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors | University of Iowa Press | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,516 words)
When I was a very young woman, I spent many months working and traveling in the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War would soon take many people by surprise. I was far from my mother and from everyone else who mattered. In the Soviet hinterlands, I met a woman I’ll call Nadezhda. She treated me like a daughter. She had none of her own. She clearly wished she did.
Reader, I married her son.
There was more to it than that, of course. I met the son first, and, in the usual way, he brought me home to meet his parents. And the son was actually delightful. When he spoke, he grew irresistible. Small children (there were many in his extended family) were especially susceptible to his charms. They would wrap themselves around his legs when he stood up from a chair to keep him from leaving.
Those months spent in another language, an experience both freeing and confining, the tectonic historical shifts I witnessed at close range — these things changed me. That the changes might fade with time was unthinkable. I needed a way to bring it all back home.
I was too big to wrap myself around his legs the way the children did.
I hopped over to the States to take care of some personal business, then circled back to Nadezhda, her son, and the rest of the family in those hinterlands I mentioned, which were in Soviet Georgia. Nadezhda had just become a grandmother by her other son, who was the younger by four years. The household now consisted of Nadezhda and her husband, the baby and its parents, the older son (my intended) and me.
Julia, the baby’s mother, complained to me about what I could see for myself: the family did not welcome her. The pregnancy had been an accident, their second. I say their second, but both mistakes were of course seen as entirely hers.
When we have our child, your mother will not come over here to raise it. We’ll raise our own child.
This time, the second time, Julia had headed over to see the family straight from the obstetrician’s office. Nadezhda told me this part; it happened before I came to stay. Her coat still on, Julia made her announcement: the doctor had said that a second abortion would forever disable her for childbearing. If she didn’t have this child, she would never have one.
A wedding was cobbled together, with a dress, a white one, a popular model that was designed to conceal and to be let out as the big day approached.
That Julia had no father and a minimum of education only bolstered the family’s view of her as a climber. It did not aid her case when, a few years on, late one night after a glass too many, or perhaps more, her mother let slip that the story about the irrevocable damage a second abortion would cause was something the two of them had cooked up together, without input from any specialist.
By then, of course, there was no going back. Is there ever?
None of this had any direct bearing on me. I flew in, as I always did back then, with enough birth control and other stuff — dental floss, contact lens solution — for my sojourn, a suitcase full of extra everything, just in case.
We planned to settle in the States, Nadezhda’s older son and I, so late one afternoon, I repacked the suitcase (its contents now much diminished) for the trip to the West. Julia, in her uniform of bathrobe and slippers, leaned against the doorframe, watching. The baby was lodged on her hip; everyone else was out.
Her eyes locked onto a flattish, flesh-colored plastic box among the things strewn across the bed.
“Can you leave that with me?” she blurted, pointing to it. “You can get another one when you get back to America, can’t you?”
Diaphragms were a rarity in the Soviet Union. And when they were available, they were not fitted by a doctor in the privacy of a medical office. Indeed, in a bare Soviet pharmacy I had once seen a diaphragm for sale — huge, like a baby bonnet — in a locked vitrine, unpackaged, exposed.
Julia seemed oddly familiar with the little box and oddly aware of what was concealed within it.
“It might not be your size,” I said.
Her gaze did not waver from the object on the bed.
I was reduced to stating the obvious: “It’s used.”
Even as I spoke, I knew that none of this mattered; in the USSR in 1991, cast-off birth control was the best most women could hope for. To refuse her request would be mean-spirited.
“I’ll boil it in the big soup pot,” Julia said, with a nod toward the kitchen. “To sterilize it.” She placed the child on the bed and it rapidly dozed off.
I dove into the suitcase after the remaining, unopened tubes of spermicide and, what the hell, while I was down there, I also found the white plastic refill plunger that screwed onto the tip of the tube; it was for inserting extra spermicide when you felt like going at it a second time, or a third — she could toss that into the soup pot too. I explained how all the items functioned together and how to grip the diaphragm so that it slid toward and then into, rather than becoming airborne, which might lead to a stain on our mother-in-law’s fancy wallpaper.
Julia never had another child. Perhaps she actually used the diaphragm, and perhaps it actually worked. On the other hand, she could have had a dozen abortions, and I would never have known. (Nadezhda’s best friend, a schoolteacher like her, married to a man who didn’t like condoms — isn’t that redundant? — had had thirty. That was enough unborn children, she noted sadly, to fill every seat in her classroom.)
I say that I would never have known because although Julia and I married into the same family, we would eventually lose touch. Sometimes I get updates from Nadezhda, who hears about Julia from the grandchild, now grown. That’s how I know she stopped at one.
During my stay, I watched Nadezhda steadily amassing maternal rights as Julia’s dwindled proportionately. Nadezhda was very skilled at childcare and loving. She warmed bottles. She changed the diapers and washed them out by hand. She rocked the baby and sang lullabies. The child couldn’t have asked for a better mother than her grandmother.
Julia withdrew. She stopped caring for her own child. No way could she compete. She was the wet nurse, nothing more, and that petered out soon enough.
A few years later, Julia and her husband moved into their own apartment. Nadezhda reported on the phone that the little girl categorically refused to go with her parents. She’s staying here with us, she added, sounding pleased.
After we got off the phone, I said, “When we have our child, your mother will not come over here to raise it. We’ll raise our own child.”
My words were met with silence.
Good Lord, if I’d been that child, I’d have chosen Nadezhda, too. And Nadezhda still needed to sate her daughter-hunger, so it was an ideal match. Kind of. When the child got older, Nadezhda took her to school and picked her up each day and made friends with the other mothers. The child visited her parents a few weekends a month until they split.
The person who was supposed to be in charge had not been seen for some time. A group of aged functionaries announced that he would be replaced, owing to concerns about his health. Swan Lake was aired, over and over. The people understood what this meant.
A few months later, fifteen big-bellied men sat around a table, signing papers. At one minute to midnight on the last night of the year, the hammer-and-sickle flag came down. Pundits declared the breakup bloodless and deemed that a miracle. There was, they said, no historical precedent.
Women flooded across the border: Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian, and so on, heading to jobs in Cyprus, Germany, Israel, Dubai. They would send money home. Opportunities included babysitting, waitressing, and modeling, according to the agencies that placed them. Agencies that were run, for the most part, by burly men with Albanian passports.
We housesat, the husband and I; we sublet; we rented. We were students; we were employed; we were unemployed; we were underemployed; we were self-employed. With the passage of years, we stayed in larger and larger places.
We had good jobs and a large apartment. Exactly what did we still need to do? Buy a crib? Diapers? Just what was missing?
Dignitaries met. Friendship was declared. Memoranda of understanding were signed. Commitments were made. Nuclear missiles would be dismantled, their components stored somewhere safe.
My knowledge of Russian was in demand. I traveled a lot, mostly within the United States, accompanying visiting dignitaries; sometimes to Russia, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan. Interpreters and translators of Russian had full employment, for a time.
A few people grew extremely rich. Most slid into poverty. A middle class emerged. Those who could now afford nice things were very pleased. Some people vacationed on islands in the Indian Ocean.
There was war in Ossetia. There was war in Abkhazia. There were wars in Chechnya. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was put on hold. The war in Transdniester was put on hold. The war in Tajikistan came to an end. There were probably other wars that didn’t make the news.
Children? I kept on asking.
We were past thirty. Six years we’d been married. We had good jobs and a large apartment. Exactly what did we still need to do? Buy a crib? Diapers? Just what was missing?
The last time I asked, he said, “We would need to put it in twenty-four-hour day care.”
This was puzzling on several counts. Why have a child if we weren’t going to raise it ourselves? Why place it in an institution? And what on earth was twenty-four-hour day care?
I asked the last question first.
“Twenty-four-hour day care?” I repeated, trying to keep my voice steady. “Would that be seven days a week?”
“We could take it out on weekends, if we felt like it,” he answered.
“They probably don’t accept newborns,” I said hopefully.
“We’d have to look into it,” he said. “When the time comes.”
Many years later, deep into another marriage, I’m visiting my friend Katya in Philadelphia, where I lived at one time. Had she ever heard of twenty-four-hour day care, I ask, back when she was growing up in the USSR?
“Yes, I think so,” she says, furrowing her brow in an effort to recall. “I believe it was for single mothers working as train conductors. So they would have a place to leave their children when they had to make long trips for work. You know, if there were no relatives nearby to help.”
For single mothers working as train conductors. Leave it to the Soviets to make sure that particular corner of the social safety net did not get frayed. But I wasn’t a train conductor; nor was I single; nor did we live in the Soviet Union.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Nadezhda keeps on writing.
When her son and I separated, she lived in Russia still. She and I talked on the phone twice a year: on her birthday, which falls in January, and on mine, in August. Then, about a decade after the divorce, she broke the pattern, contacting me in the month of March to tell me, in the first email I’d ever received from her, that her son was bringing her and my ex-father-in-law over to the US to live. I had trouble imagining them here permanently — in fact, I could not fathom it. They had seemed so rooted where they were. But I toggled over from the Latin alphabet to Cyrillic and wrote, “I’m happy that the two of you will be close by.”
“The decision to leave cannot have been easy,” I continued, struggling over and over to hit the right key. “I’ll help you adjust to life here in any way I can.” I included all of my phone numbers: home, office, cell. I said other things too, but this is what I remember now.
We read what you wrote us and we wept, she replied.
For months, I heard nothing more. I concluded that they weren’t coming.
On the night of my birthday, just before sleep rolled in, I noted that Nadezhda had missed the day: for the first time in many years, she hadn’t called.
In the morning, a birthday email was waiting, sent off at 11:59 p.m.
“We’ve been in Philadelphia for three months,” she wrote. They were living with her son, his new wife, and their baby.
The time stamp told me that she’d struggled with her conscience all day before finally resolving to write. That they’d been here for three months before I received word of their presence told me that something had prevented her from writing sooner. Whatever it was, she vanquished it, because soon we were corresponding regularly. But there were no phone calls.
Before she came here, when we spoke those two times a year, Nadezhda used to pass the receiver to any family members who happened to be around — her husband, nieces, various cousins, all of whom I’d known well, back in the day — so they could say hello. Now I understood that her son was simply unaware that she’d been speaking with me all those years, for, having stayed on in America after we parted, he was never in the room with her during those calls or even, for that matter, on the same continent. His ignorance of our contact required no great deception on her part; it was just a matter of not mentioning it to him, ever. Everyone else — the cousins, nieces, et cetera — must have known not to mention it to him, ever, either.
In a recent email sent from her new home in Philadelphia, Nadezhda wrote offhandedly, “I’m very busy with my new grandson. I’m responsible for him seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.”
These words, buried amid other news, nearly slid past me unremarked. But I did wonder why a grandmother would be responsible twenty-four hours out of the day. Even in a culture where grandmothers are actively recruited for childcare, that’s a lot of hours. The words echoed, they echoed something from some fifteen years back.
I recalled the old, sad questions: Why have a child if you’re not going to raise it yourself? And what is needed in order to have a child?
The realization boomeranged back with a tremendous delay: he had not been referring to an institution for single mothers working as train conductors.
Of course, by the time I grasped this, the matter no longer pressed. It was a missing jigsaw piece, nothing more — one that fit very neatly into a puzzle long since stored on a high shelf.
* * *
Laura Esther Wolfson’s debut essay collection, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, was awarded the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with the 2017 Notting Hill Essay Prize, published in leading literary venues on both sides of the Atlantic, and cited in The Best American Essays. She holds an MFA from the New School and lives in New York City.
Editor: Dana Snitzky