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Mothers and sons

The Third Component: Part III, Chapter 35

Alison Christy 21 June 2009

What would make Laima her grandmother if not heredity? She’s not looking for some kind of grandmother stand-in

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 35

Altered Maternal Environment Due to Cross-Fostering Affects Phenotype Through Epigenetic Modifications

“I came back to see you,” Anna says to the woman named Laima Lapegale, just like her grandmother. She hands her the presents she brought from Latvia: an embroidered linen tablecloth, a bottle of black Latvian liqueur, a bar of Laima chocolate.

The presents seem silly, now; Anna should have brought stainless steel pots, vitamin supplements, maybe a down comforter. But Laima coos over the tablecloth, stroking it with her brown fingertips, and sets her gifts down on the table, shuffling to the stove to make tea.

“I don’t think she is my grandmother,” she had said to Mariya, earlier that day.

“But she could be your grandmother,” Mariya said. She was holding a cookie, turning it in her fingers and looking at it closely in the light of the window.

Anna was confused, and she thought it was a problem with her Latvian. “She is not my grandmother,” she said again.

“But she could be,” Mariya repeated, setting the cookie back down. “What do you want from your grandmother? She is just like your grandmother. Only without the blood.”

Anna shook her head, still confused. “No,” she said again. “She is not my grandmother.”

She still doesn’t understand what Mariya means. What would make Laima her grandmother if not heredity? She’s not looking for some kind of grandmother stand-in, some cheesy grandmotherly words of advice: she’s looking for her grandmother; her mother’s mother; her great aunt’s sister.

Now Anna sips her tea and smiles at the woman who is not her grandmother. It would be pointless to explain her confusion to Laima; she probably doesn’t understand any of this at all.


“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he tells her, that night in their bed. “Dima’s taking the boat back to Kolpashevo in the morning.”

She wishes he would be less gentle; when he touches her tenderly it is confusing. It is supposed to be a simple, pleasurable biological activity; uncomplicated. She tries not to breathe in his musky smell because that, too, is confusing. Of course, her body doesn’t know about barrier protection and birth control pills: as far as her body knows, she might be pregnant already, which is why it keeps releasing hormones and making decisions against her will.

Earlier, Frank played his guitar by the bonfire. He played the chords she taught him and the entire village sang Latvian folksongs. Dziedot dzimu, dziedot augu, dziedot mūžu nodzīvoju. Alexei sat on her lap, a heavy, warm weight, and he laughed delightedly when she took his hands in hers and made him clap along to the song.

Then Frank sang a song in English, and she thought, for an instant, that it would be about her, but it wasn’t, and she was relieved and maybe a little disappointed.

I grew up on Lenin Hills
Smoking in alleys with government shills,
With the skyline of spires like glass on a fence
And the smoke from the towers like purple incense.

I met a girl outside Lenin's tomb,
Who took off her panties in her grandmother's room.
She smelled of dill pickles and fresh cake yeast,
And I hopped a boxcar and headed out east.

Now all I got left is this old guitar
Slava beats time on an old samovar
Perepelochka's blind from the sauce
And he makes a two-fingered sign of the cross.

The wind blows harsh like ice from hell
And I think I can hear the old Moscow church bells.
My life hangs limp on the three-bar cross,
But the morning will bring me diamonds of frost.

She shouldn’t have been surprised, though: all of Frank’s songs were about Russia; none of them were about Frank. In fact, she never knew what he was thinking. Funny that you could be so close to someone physically, but never know what he thought, what he wanted, what he wanted with you, or who he really was.

People clapped when he finished the song. She was sure that every young woman on the island must have fallen desperately in love with Frank by then; they would remember him for years, she thought, dreaming of the exotic American with the guitar, looking at their own husbands and wishing they were more like the stranger they remembered.

Mariya was sitting beside her, watching her play with Alexei. “Do you have children?” she asked Anna.

“Oh, no,” Anna said. It was a strange question, she thought; she would have mentioned it earlier, if she’d had a family.

“But you want children,” Mariya said.

“I don’t know,” Anna said. At that moment, Alexei threw his head back, hitting her chin painfully.

Mariya laughed and rubbed Alexei’s head where it had hit Anna's chin. “Of course you do,” she said. She continued to stroke her son’s hair, his forehead, and his arms. “Michael’s mother wanted to adopt him,” she said. “She said he would have a better life in America. Here he can only fish, grow old, drink. But I hated her.” She looked at Anna. “I like you,” she said. “And Alyosha likes you.”

Anna looked at her, and then down at the crown of Alexei’s head, confused.

“Sometimes Americans adopt Russian babies,” Mariya said, still stroking her son’s arms.

Anna almost laughed. I can’t take care of a child, she wanted to say, but something stopped her. She was thirty, after all, and she had a graduate degree. If she couldn't take care of a child, who could? There was really no reason she couldn’t take him with her.

If both her grandmother and Michael Perch are dead, then the entire trip was pointless, a silly quest to find something that didn’t even exist. But maybe this was the reason she came to Krolosk: to find Alexei, to become a mother, to let his dependence on her make all of her choices for her, to give structure and definition to her life.

Back in America she could get a job in some laboratory and find a place to live. She could look into school systems and Boy Scout troops, she could read books on child-rearing, she could buy little boy clothing and a baseball mitt for his birthday.

And then, maybe, if he was still alive, Michael Perch would someday come find them. He would come find her, the mother of his son.

{Continued next week}