I envy my friends on holidays. They would have cousins and assorted aunts and uncles over for the festivities or they would go visit their relatives. The story that was told to me when I asked why we didn’t have any relatives come over was that we didn’t have any. I thought that was strange and I remembered pestering my parents for the reason why. Eventually, they told me that they met at an orphanage during the war and spent most of their childhood and teens at the institution. It seems no one wanted them. They finally left and went into the work world, stayed in touch and married. It sounded weird to me but parents don’t lie… do they?
My friend Grace stopped over a few months ago with her latest kick, DNA testing to confirm her ethnic heritage. With her bright red hair and maiden name of Brady, it wasn’t too far a stretch to tell that she was Irish. Her Mom was a mix of European ancestry.
We sat on the back porch sipping on lemonades as she filled me in on her ancestry quest.
“This looks so exciting, Jen. Everybody seems to want to know where they came from, you know like what country or background. I bet there are surprises in store for some families.” She chuckled at the thought of dark secrets. “You always told me your parents had a strange upbringing, meeting in an orphanage and such. Wouldn’t it be cool to find out where your family came from? Don’t you want to pass the information on to your kids?”
I pondered this.
“I was never interested, Grace. Being an only child and no relatives, genealogy never seemed important. David has done some research on his side but the kids don’t care.”
“Someday they might,” said Grace.
That night I told David about Grace’s new hobby.
“It might answer some questions,” he said.
“Maybe you can find some lost long relatives. Hey, you never know.”
That thought intrigued me. Maybe, just maybe, I could have next Christmas with some of them and reunite my mom with the family she thought she lost or gave her up.
I called grace a few days later.
“Ok, I am going to do it.”
“Do what? Have an affair,” she laughed into the phone.
“I don’t want that drama at 62. No, I am going to do the DNA test. It will be a surprise for my mom.”
“I meant to ask you, Jen, has she settled into the nursing home?”
“She has good days and bad. Her body is failing but her mind is sharp as a tack. If dad was still alive she would probably have stayed at the house longer.”
“Well, she is getting the care she needs. When you get the DNA results call me first.”
“Don’t worry, Grace I will let you know just to shut you up.”
I got the test kit, spit into the small vial, mailed it and waited…for weeks.
Finally, an email came to say my results were ready. I signed onto my account and viewed the results.
I sat at the computer and had to look over the results twice and then again. This can’t be right I thought. My dad’s name was Richard Jones. Mom’s was Agatha Hastings, typical Anglo/Saxon family names, yet my DNA said I was 100% Russian. I thought this can’t be right. Both parents Russian?
I decided not to call Grace. Something was wrong here.
“Could the testing company have mixed up the result?” said David.
“I called them right away. They said their process has won best practice awards and they stand by their determination of my DNA.”
“Your mom must have some idea.”
“I think I will go visit her tomorrow. This has got me hooked and I can’t figure it out without her.”
Mountaintop Retreat, just outside of the city in a nice picturesque part of the county is part nursing home, part assisted living, the residents sectioned off according to their health needs.
I went through the automatic doors to Mom’s wing in assisted living. The smell from the kitchen assaulted my senses. Mom didn’t mind the food but it made me gag.
I walked down the long carpeted corridor toward the resident’s rooms saying hello to the same people I see sitting in small circles by the windows every time I came here. Some were bright and cheerful, others lost in their own world.
Mom’s door was open just a crack.
I called in. “Mom, its Jen. You Awake?”
She was half asleep in her chair, tilted uncomfortably against its arm.
“Oh, hi hon. Come on in.” She sat up as I walked in and sat on her bed.
“How are you feeling today?”
“I’m ok. I was dreaming about your dad.” A smile crossed her lips.
“Mom, I have something to ask you.”
“Sure, Jen, go ahead, I’m not going anywhere.”
“You always told me how you and dad met at an orphanage during the war.”
I could have sworn her voice quivered.
“And that you never knew who either of your families were?”
“No, we didn’t. Why, Jen?”
Now I saw concern on her face.
“It’s weird, mom, my friend Grace thought it would be a good idea for me to do one of those DNA tests to see if we had any relatives. So I did.”
Now I saw fear in her face.
“Mom, it said my DNA was Russian. How could that be?”
She put her hands to her face, shook her head and said, “Tak mnogo sekretov”.
The words were Russian.
She looked at me calmly now as if a weight had been lifted off her.
“So many secrets,” she now said in English.
“Mom, what are you saying? You and dad are Russians? How could that be with names like yours? Did they change them at the orphanage? And how is it that you speak Russian? Did Dad?”
The questions were pouring out of me.
“My darling daughter. We never were at that orphanage. The orphanage existed but our papers were false and our names were made up by our handlers.”
I stared at her dumbfounded. “Handlers? What handlers?”
“Jen, your father’s real name was Dmitry Petrov and mine is Annika Pavlovsky. We both grew up outside of Moscow and attended school at the Lenin Institute in the city.”
“I still don’t understand, Mom. If you and dad are Russian and have fake names, what are you, spies?”
“No, we were called sleepers. We would only be called on for the most serious or extreme reasons. You were never supposed to find out. We were to take our secrets to the grave. We had everything covered. Fake birth certificates acquired by our handlers opened up all kinds of doors to other documents. And you were to be cared for if anything happened to your father and me. But let me back up a bit.”
She got up from her chair, shuffled to the bed, sat next to me and held my hand.
“Your father and I met at the Lenin Institute and excelled in our studies. We also were members of the Pioneers, a youth group in the Soviet Union that trained young people for leadership positions. It is also where I fell in love with your father. Someone took notice of this, in those days someone was always taking notice of something, and we were called to a meeting of high ranking members of the NKVD Foreign Intelligence Service. It was there we were offered the opportunity to serve the Soviet Union and Comrade Stalin in important work…in America. You must understand Jen, we were true believers. We were brought up to work for the greater good of the Soviet Union no matter the cost. So we said yes.”
To say I was in shock would be an understatement.
I struggled to wrap my brain around what she had told me.
She gripped my hand tighter.
“Eventually your father and I attended a special school were we learned American English, including slang, as well as cultural education and American politics. By now it was the early 1950s and as you know tensions were high between my country and the US. We came over here on a passenger ship and were inserted into our new life here in America with help of course. All our documents including passports were flawless fakes. The NKVD which became the KGB were excellent in their work and they had a worldwide network of experts working for them. We were settled here, bought a house and in 1958 you were born, much to our delight.”
“But dad’s job at IBM? No one suspected?”
“Suspected what? We were well trained, our background was well mapped out, we had false records from the orphanage and we acted very much like a typical American family.”
“You weren’t a typical American family, Mom. You were frauds.”
By now my voice was rising and my anger building.
“So what does that make me, Mom? A Russian? A fake like you and dad?
I was close to tears.
“No, my darling. You are an American, through and through. Never forget that.”
“I know my history, Mom. The Soviet Union fell.”
“Yes and either our handler didn’t care, simply forgot where he placed us or was liquidated in the many purges. He rarely contacted us anyhow. As I said we were only to be activated under dire circumstances. We thought we would be during the Cuban Missile Crisis and that had us very worried. You were so young then and we weren’t sure if we would obey our handler, but to keep living and I do mean living, we had to put our feelings aside. We were in too far and couldn’t get out. So as time went on we just kept this life of ours as “Americans” going. Once the whole Soviet system collapsed we seemed to be adrift. But you know Jen, all those years here convinced us that we really were Americans and we fell in love with this country and its people. Our dual lives merged into one.”
She put her arms around me. “Don’t hate your father and me. We did what we thought was right and we believed we were patriots, but patriots of Mother Russia. And we always loved you.”
“I know, mom and I still love you and dad. I just need to wrap my head around this.”
Her blue eyes filled with tears. “And now you have a secret.”
Her confession had drained her. I helped her back to her chair, put a blanket on her, kissed her on the forehead and walked out the door.
David was getting dinner ready when I came in. I was silent for a while. He knew I was disturbed and gave me some time to gather my thoughts.
“Is everything ok with your mom? What did you find out?”
“Grab the wine and glasses, David, I have a story to tell you about family ties and secrets.”