Russian sentences begin backward.
When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction. As does the Old Testament, the one we don’t call the good book. The one that became the bad, forbidden book, and is read back to front. The period blood came right after I began practicing my American accent in eighth grade: all smudged red clots to brown waste.
I have been teaching my daughter to wipe herself front to back to avoid the chronic infections her body is prone to. She squats and
glares at me, then follows her instinct for revolt no matter the aftermath.
The daughters who live in flashbacks will suspend their tongues between the origin and the destination—the past more immediate, more urgent than any new day. “Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden.” Even Audre Lorde needs her mother’s permission to grease the gears on the train to the beginning, to knock on coffins.
I worship the flaneurs and flaneuses, those who stroll about the city—especially the women who dare to walk alone at night and then write about it. But those who slink around with too little purpose or not enough clothing to cover their bodies are marked as streetwalkers, or shlyuchas. This was one of your labels in my home. There may be no records, beyond arrests or death certificates, of a shlyucha’s gallivanting.
I don’t worship my real mother, but I can’t get her buttermilk smell off my mouth.
Almost all of the paper that contains your name was flushed down the toilet, lost, thrown away, or hidden like a lover who buries her face in the pillow when coming. All the letters I secretly wrote you were in English, and if I knew where to send them you would have needed an auxiliary, a translator to convert my scribbles into our mother tongue. I didn’t bother practicing my Russian on you. That river was dammed with teenage hormones and hopes of fitting in,
a changeling in America. There was no address in Russia to mail anything to, and then I knew only your maiden name, Danilova, as well as the married-and-divorced-from name we shared at one time, Shalmiyeva.
I heard rumors that you had remarried and divorced twice since my father took you to court and the judge ruled you an unfit mother in the early 1980s. My uncle visited you in 1995 before he joined us on a visa in Brooklyn, but I only found out about these cordial gatherings a few years ago. At the time you sat in your St. Petersburg apartment looking frail and famished, close to our old place on Bronnitskaya, in what used to be Leningrad, I was a junior deciding between Reed and Evergreen colleges, editing a high school feminist newspaper, listening to riot grrrl bands, writing poems for you, and auditioning surrogate mothers for myself: feminists, writers, activists, painters, ballbusters, killjoys, sex workers, gay men.
And so, I assembled a fantasy caretaker army of mostly loose and tragic women mixed with audacious and assertive ones—a hologram of what I imagined you would be like if I hadn’t been stolen from you. If you hadn’t left me for the bottle long before my father took me away to America eleven-years-your-daughter.
Elena. Mother. Mama. You.
I choose You.