[Note: the narrator in my novel, Better You Go Home, is a diabetic nearing renal failure and facing dialysis if he can’t find a transplant kidney from a donor. In real life, my sister, Sandra Driscoll, is being kept alive on dialysis and is in need of a kidney. If you’d be interested in donating a kidney, contact the UW Kidney Center at 206-598-3627 or email: email@example.com.]
On December 28, 2012, Putin signed a law banning American families from adopting children from Russian orphanages. In the past two decades, some 60,000 Russian orphans had been adopted by American families. It was not a small step to take. The Russian media boosted the story that Russian children were abused in American homes and quoted teens who had returned claiming they had not been well treated. US media viewed Putin’s ban as a cynical retaliation for the US banning Russian human rights violators from entering American soil. A Russian psychologist who’d worked for 30 years at the Brynsk orphanage, claimed that Russian families would not adopt children who were ill or who had disabilities, whereas American families would and therefore Putin’s new ban was having terrible consequences for the neglected children in Russian orphanages. (See http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/30/17504450-outrage-sadness-as-americans-barred-from-adopting-russian-children?lite.)
This ban led me to reflect on the fate of Anezka, my centerpiece character in Better You Go Home. Research turned up her name. Family records show that she was the illegitimate daughter of the “maid,” a young reputed “beauty” from the farm next door. No father was listed, but it was easy to speculate that the same Lenoch relative who’d been siring other children out of wedlock was responsible. Anezka simply disappeared. Where, I wondered, had Anezka gone? There had been so many children. What was one more? A shame to the family, she was very likely sent to an orphanage.
Driving through eastern Bohemia in search of the original Lenoch house (Lenoch married into the wealthier Dostal family and took over their farm and that is the farm we visited),we were directed by mistake to the tiny village of Hnatnice. Here we found an abandoned building we mistook for the Lenoch house:
Rounding a fishhook bend in the road, Milada suddenly shouts “H-NAHTNEET-
tsa,” and jerks the Skoda to a stop. “Orphanage. It is your sister’s home.”
It’s a tiny village. A half dozen log-walled farm homes fold around the bend
under a canopy of chestnuts. We’ve stopped near a manse with gargoyles
leering out from beneath massive eaves. The old orphanage with its swayback
roof and flaking plaster is pretty dilapidated. A muddy hayfield separates
the manse from a newer brick flat that Milada believes might have been my
sister’s domicile when she was the director.
A neighbor corrected our mistake. This building we were told had been the local orphanage. Because we were a short drive (within ten kilometers) from the village where the mysterious Anezka had been born, it was easy to conclude that this building likely had been her home. I had to see inside. The door was locked. I could only manage a glimpse through cracks in shutters. The rest was left to research and my imagination.
My narrator visits the old orphanage. This is the beauty of fiction. He goes inside where I was unable to go. In the ruin of what had been his half-sister’s home, he considers their differences. Shame, guilt, physical separation prevented his father from making a bridge back to this world. It was left to my narrator to make that bridge. After describing an interior that “smells like a homeless person’s camp,” he observes:
My sister grew up here. Worked here… What concept would she have of …her father? Did she wonder who he was? What would she have thought if she knew he attended the annual kolatch festivals
in Cedar Rapids’ Bohemie Town? Could she have imagined him dancing the polka to the accordion strains of Cervenka and his orchestra Friday nights at Danceland while she was stuck here? Would she have conceived of him teaching Czech history to children at the Czech Saturday School but refusing
to come back for her? Poor Anezka never got to feel the tender grip of his hand at the back of her neck. Would she have minded him leaving smears of the Vaseline he used to clean his hands on the doorknobs? Would she have chided him, like Mom did, for his habit of chewing toothpicks after dinner? All that life lived there. And she never got to be a part of it. How sad. How utterly utterly sad.
He understands what she missed. He cannot fathom what life she holds within her from that orphanage, her mother less than ten kilometers distant, her father in Iowa.
One of the reasons I wrote this story was to find a way through fiction to cross that empathic bridge. Putin’s law reminded me that the act of burning of empathic bridges is not an historic relic. That conflagration burns in the world today. My Anezka was one of those abandoned orphans. What should we suppose is the Russian orphans’ idea of home?