Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Academic Studies Press, 2022) is a rare dual memoir co-written by Yelena Lembersky and her mother Galina. Born and raised in the USSR, following the death of her prominent painter father in 1970, Galina decides to emigrate with her young daughter and aging mother. In anticipation of her departure, Galina quits her job and becomes a refusenik. Yet, once her immigration papers go through, instead of boarding an airplane, she finds herself behind bars of a Leningrad prison on a criminal charge. Her mother has already left for the United States. Her young daughter Yelena–nicknamed Alëna in the book–is left in the care of friends, in danger of finding herself in an orphanage.
The chapter below is narrated by Yelena, eleven years old at the time of these events. We are deeply grateful to the author and publisher for permission to excerpt a chapter from this revealing and touching memoir. To continue reading, please buy the book from Academic Studies Press.
To Fairyland, by Yelena Lembersky
Mama begins to sort our belongings. She needs to get special permission for the remainder of Grandfather’s sketches and a roll of dark Babi Yar paintings that Grandma didn’t want to take with her when she left. We have to give away much of what we own because it is banned from being taken abroad—old books, cut glass, amber, antique objects, rugs, and archival documents. Every day, friends come to say goodbye and they leave with a piece of my childhood. Aunt Kira takes away Grandma’s hand-cranked Singer that we used together, I cranking the wheel, Grandma guiding the seam. Someone takes our pot-bellied black-and-white TV. The pressure cooker is heading off to a neighbor, good riddance. Our cookbook, with food stains and Grandma’s handwritten notes, goes to Bélochka. All of my picture books and Grandfather’s art catalogues, which he collected by saving money on food and clothes, end up in the used bookstore. Mama’s favorite white-and-blue vase goes to Kiera Ivanovna, a ceramic artist, who had designed it for my grandparents back in the ’60s. It held every rose and carnation ever brought to our home, and Grandfather painted it in Mama’s portrait.
By and by, our home becomes empty. Suitcases huddle in the corner. Dust bunnies gather along the walls and when the draft prods at them, they slowly float from place to place. Every day, Mama goes downtown to shop for gifts for people she will meet in America—Russian wooden crafts, tins, trays, enamel brooches, and shawls with bright flowers and mottled fringes, which Russians wear on cold winter days and Americans don’t, but might drape over cupboards holding some forsaken old country samovar they will have purchased at a yard sale in Brooklyn or, years later, on eBay from immigrants’ descendants. She brings souvenir playing cards with pictures of harlequins, theater binoculars that are mostly useless, but she can’t find, let alone afford, the military ones so valued in Rome. And a brown teddy bear, a mascot of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. “These are collectibles,” she says emphatically. “You may get top dollar for them one day.” Then she brings home a spear gun, an accident in the making.
“Going fishing, Mama? There is no sea in Ann Arbor.”
“There are five lakes nearby—learn your geography. And the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. Okay? Fine. A saleswoman set it aside for me at Gostinniy Dvor, I couldn’t say no. Maybe we’ll sell it at a flea market and have some money to travel. Do you want to see Venice? Can you believe we will soon see the world?”
I don’t know why Mama puts off our departure and why she goes to the center of Leningrad every day.
“Look what I found, Alëna,” she says as she puts down a painted rooster and a horse on the table. “See here, this is the year of the Rooster and it’s our sign in the Chinese horoscope! You take this happy guy with flowers, and I’ll take that sad little horse.”
“Why are you sad, Mama?”
“Who said I am sad? I am just joking, Alën’. Why do you take everything for a silver coin?”
May arrives. I want to go to the May Day parade. Mama says no. The day after, there is a trail of ripped balloons, flags, and candy wrappers trampled in the mud, where the parade had passed.
“I don’t like May,” Mama says. “May is unlucky. We won’t travel in May.”
A subpoena arrives in the mail, a request to make a witness statement for some ongoing and unspecified investigation. No signature required. Sent by the OBKhSS, the state law-enforcement agency for combating economic crimes.
“What should I do?” Mama asks Yuri.
“Get on the next flight out of the country.”
“What should I be afraid of? I have never broken the law. No, I’ll go and answer their questions. This might be about Kosmétika, and maybe I’ll help exonerate someone.”
I remember coming home from school on the day she went there, to find three men scouring our nearly empty apartment, flipping over what’s left of our things—our bedsheets, pillows, our clothes, bedding, books, crafts, and suitcases. Mama stood in our tiny hallway, leaning against a door jamb, looking as if she were not present in the moment. Movers? But these men were not picking up but scattering. Burglars?
“Who are these people, Mama?”
“Go for a walk, Alëna.”
One of the men overheard her and said to his crew, “We are almost done here. Let’s go.”
Another man walks out of the bedroom, carrying a dusty bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of small manicure sets that I used to trim my Olympic teddy bear’s toes.
“Mama, are these men from your work?”
The men leave. She sits down, lights a cigarette, and stays silent.
“Mama! Mam’ . . . Mam! Mama!”
“They took our visas.”
The Mediterranean. Rome. Ann Arbor. Grandma. A cold feeling of collapse sets in. An ugly double extracts herself from my chest, turns toward me, and points her finger, cackling, “You thought you could dream of all that? A loser! You deserve nothing.”
Our empty kitchen shimmers, the walls pixelate and dissolve into white. Mama stays as still as an ancient sphinx, swaddled in a quivering smoke. Her lungs contract and expand, contract and expand, taking in the poison. I keep my eyes wide open, unblinking, fixed on her. She is safe while she stays in the frame of my view. In my eyes, she grows large, the curve of her nape and shoulders become the ridge of a mountain. Then she contracts—a child, whom I failed to protect. My child-Mama. I don’t yet know what is happening, except that disaster is coming. This feeling will never leave me. It will grow with the years and take over my happiest moments—our family holidays, the birth of my children.
“When will they give back our visas, Mama? Let’s go right away.”
“They’ve brought criminal charges against me. We can’t leave, Alëna.”
Yelena Lembersky’s first book, Felix Lembersky: Paintings and Drawings, was devoted to the art of a prominent Leningrad artist with roots in Poland and Ukraine; her grandfather is now best known for his Execution: Babi Yar canvases and his non-figurative work created in the 1960s. Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, a memoir, co-written with her mother, Galina, is her first work of creative non-fiction. Her short pieces have appeared in World Literature Today, The Forward, Cardinal Points Literary Journal, and The New Yorker. She grew up in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in 1987. She holds degrees in art and architecture from the University of Michigan and MIT.