Chapter One one
Lara and I grew up outside Schenectady, near the snow belt of upstate New York. Winter moved in for good by November and didn’t really start to lose interest until well into April. Summers were short, crisp, and businesslike, so brief as to seem a false memory. By mid-August, you could already feel the air changing, sharpening its teeth. In October, the ground frosted and hardened. Winter storms swooped down from the northwest with a thrilling blast of cold air that you had to bite into, just to breathe.
While our father saw patients at his office and made hospital rounds, our mother cleaned the house and everything in it. And I spent my earliest years stumbling after Lara, who seemed to be in constant motion—flying down the hills behind our house on a sled or a cart, running through the woods, and leaping off the ledges of my mother’s rock garden.
It was obvious to anyone that she owned me. Like most big sisters and mob bosses, she ordered me around, insisted on my participation in her schemes, and, if I balked, she could use brute force to get me to comply. Through her, I absorbed galaxies of information—about climbing trees and Indian wrestling, stick fighting, rock throwing, berry picking, and igloo building. Most importantly, I learned that resistance was pointless.
We were allies: we both loved adventure and action, tests of strength and courage.
We were enemies: we hated each other. I was half her size and a crybaby; she could throw me to the ground with one hand while eating an ice cream cone with the other.
Home Movies, 1956–61
The movies begin in Italy in 1956, before I was born: two-year-old Lara and Mom and her older sister, Auntie Zosia, are walking through the gardens at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, outside Rome, where Auntie and Uncle live. Mom is walking briskly—short dark hair, very trim; she cuts a smart figure. Auntie Zosia is a curvy redhead, with high cheekbones and an alluring, mysterious face. And there’s Uncle Giulio, daintier than the women, a small gem. He smiles sweetly at my father, who holds the movie camera. An authentic Italian count, Uncle is conspicuously beautiful, slim and sophisticated in his tailored linen slacks, yellow polo shirt, and sporty ascot.
Now Dad must have given Mom the movie camera, because here he is, striding toward us: freakishly tall compared to the rest of them, athletic. His hair is striking—white with a single dark stripe down the middle, combed straight back off his forehead like an exotic animal. He towers over the world, his legs crazy long, his chest and shoulders broad, his waist trim. He looks like some bizarre exaggeration of the ideal male body.
Trailing behind is my cousin Renzo, a gangly thirteen-year-old, dark and handsome with hooded eyes and a bored look on his face. Thirty-five years later, Lara and I would realize that things were not always as we’d been told. Renzo looks more like my mother than like anyone else in these movies, and he certainly doesn’t look like Giulio. For my mother, identity was slippery, and history was a vast game board on which the pieces could be moved, exchanged, and transformed at will. My mother’s survival of the war had depended on such sleights of hand and shifts in identity. For the rest of her life she would continue to rely on the stories she told to stay alive, long after the need for lies was apparent.
My father focuses the camera on Lara now. Here she’s running toward him, stumbling about, exploring everything. She’s curious, fearless, a live wire. She wears a little white dress over her diaper.
Cut back to my mother, who looks severe and unhappy. She barely glances at my father.
In the next scene, it’s the summer of 1957, and there I am, hidden from view inside my mother’s giant belly. She sits, very pregnant, on a lawn chair in Evans Mills outside the clapboard house with peeling paint that my parents rented as their first home and medical office. Despite her belly, she looks hollowed out, cold, devoured.
Suddenly it’s Christmas 1957, and it’s all Lara, all the time. My father cannot get enough of her. She’s opening presents, pure delight. And now a quick glimpse of me in the crib—holding on to the bars, stunned and wide-eyed, which is how I look in the movies for the next several years. A blob with big dark eyes, sort of in a daze, trying to make sense of all these characters.
And now my parents are working outside the rakish brick house they bought near Schenectady six months after I was born. The house was a full-fledged member of our family, and it had its own problems. Built on a hill, surrounded by woods, it was all sharp angles and soaring ceilings. The whole thing was made of mistakes. Its walls, inside and out, were a patchwork of partially exploded bricks, scarred by the kiln but not completely destroyed, and we liked them for their character. As a child I often had bruises in the shape of those bricks, whenever my sister shoved me against them. Even the floors were made of brick, shellacked and bumpy on our bare feet.
Then there was all that glass: an entire wall of giant floor-to-ceiling glass slabs running the length of the loft-style living room. If you leaned with all your weight and some of your father’s, you could slide one slab past the other along an extended track, and open the living room onto the screened-in porch.
I loved the house for its soaring self-confidence and the explosion of sky-splitting light, the way the land and woods seemed to be part of our living room. It had great flair, despite all its broken-brick bones. Everyone else I knew lived in ordinary homes with the rectilinear promise of solidity, propriety, and order. Our house, like our family, was dangerous and unpredictable, a wild adventure.
Here in our home movies, my parents are hauling rocks and building the slate steps from the driveway up the steep hill to the front door. And there’s Mom in a green surgeon’s cap, raking leaves in the fall, and in winter she’s out there shoveling paths through two feet of snow up those slate steps and around the house. Then it’s spring again, and she’s lugging boulders and heaving the earth like a steam shovel.
Together with my father, she pummeled the wilderness into lush hills of honeysuckle and pachysandra. This was where they put all the parts of themselves that they couldn’t put into words. All of their losses and betrayals and grief and rage went into the ground and rocks and trees around us. And unlike my sister and me, the house and grounds accepted everything they did without question or objection, and reflected back the best of them.
In all these home movies, there isn’t an ounce of play in either of my parents. They have work to do, hard, knuckle-breaking work, and there is a sense of great productivity and drive.
By 1959 they’ve already turned the house into a jewel of lawns and gardens in the middle of a forest. The isolation is striking. You could run through those woods, but you would not find another human being for what seemed like miles. In fact, there were a couple of houses some distance away, but they were hidden, childless, equally isolated.
That nowhere-ness of home. The sense of being apart from the rest of the world. No relatives or extended family, just us. And I was on my own planet, apart somehow from this family.
After I was born in 1957, my mother and aunt set up a schedule so that the two sisters could be together as often as finances allowed. Like the Summer Olympics, we went to visit Zosia every four years. On an alternating schedule, Zosia came to visit us in Schenectady. Renzo, already a teenager by then, was off in the parallel universe of girls and motorcycles.
Zosia and Mom would spend their days in Schenectady cooking and baking and inviting friends for dinner and bridge, and going for walks, and always talking, talking, talking in Italian. Once, Uncle Giulio came along with Zosia, and nearly froze to death because the Schenectady summers were so cold. Another year, Renzo—already an engineer—came and built Lara and me a superb underground fort in a field behind our house. But the main event was always my mother and aunt, who immersed themselves in a bubbling stream of Italian.
The two sisters endured the years between their summers together by writing letters to each other every day. When the mail arrived each afternoon, Mom made herself a ritual cup of tea and settled down to read Zosia’s letter. She typed her response on a blue aerogram, licked and folded down the flaps, and left it for my father to post the next morning. Lara and I learned not to disturb her during her reading and writing of Zosia’s letters. Even Dad must have realized by then that my mother’s heart belonged to her sister, and not to him.
Aside from this daily communion between the two sisters, my family was on its own in the New World—free of context, as far as Lara or I could tell. My father had no surviving relatives. Whatever possessions my family had once owned had been lost or destroyed in the war. There were no existing photographs of my parents until after the war, when my father’s hair was already white and my mother was sharp-angled and serious. As a child, I had trouble believing that my parents had ever actually been children, since no evidence supported this. I knew that my father had spent six years as a prisoner in Siberia during the war, but aside from that, my parents wouldn’t talk about the past, and everyone who’d known them was dead. In my mind, they had always been adults and always would be—hardworking, long-suffering, and serious. I was determined never to let adulthood happen to me, and by and large, I succeeded.
When my parents moved to our brick house outside Schenectady in the late 1950s, my father developed a small circle of doctor friends who worked at the local hospital. Their wives took turns hosting dinner parties followed by a couple of tables of bridge. Every few months when it was my mother’s turn, she dutifully followed the elaborate recipes of Julia Child, set the dining room table, and made sure the bar was stocked with sherry and vermouth. By the time my father came home from work and changed into his navy-blue suit, my mother had already zipped herself into one of her Italian dresses, combed and shaped her eyebrows, and glossed her lips red. Lara and I stared, amazed at the transformation.
Around the house, Mom wore no-nonsense slacks for her daily housecleaning rampages. Armed with scouring pads, rags, and cleaning solutions, she was a veritable cleaning dynamo—furiously dusting, vacuuming, and mopping up after us. She washed the windows inside and out, scrubbed the toilets, tubs, and sinks, and vacuumed not only the dog hair from the carpets but also the dog himself. The surfaces of our house sparkled, especially when she was upset or anxious or angry. “Cleaning is my outlet,” she said. The worse things got at home, the better our house looked. The minute you put something down—a book, a sweater, a pair of glasses—it was swept up, dusted under, and dispatched to your room.
But she had a number of elegant dresses from her years in Rome, when clothes had been bartered and tailor-made in a perpetual recycling of prewar garments. In 1946, she’d married my father on her lunch break in Rome wearing a wool business suit that had been made out of one of Uncle’s black Fascist uniforms. Her shoes, too, were Italian, and every Sunday, when she dressed to take us to St. Pius, our local Catholic church, she looked stylish and sophisticated.
When she stood next to my father in her Florentine high heels, my mother’s head, with its defiant waves of thick, dark hair, barely grazed my father’s armpit. You could fit three of her into his chest alone. My father’s shoulders rose like a mountain range above her. His head, too, was large and majestic, with a chiseled nose, ice-blue eyes, and white hair combed straight back. While my mother was quick, lithe, and impossible to catch, my father was tall, powerful, and impossible to move.
But their attachment was more intellectual than physical. They liked each other’s minds, and they were closely matched in the areas of self-confidence and stubbornness. I never saw them kiss or hold hands; they rarely touched each other with affection.
When their guests arrived, it sounded like a home invasion—women screeching their hellos, heels clattering on the brick floor, pots and pans banging in the kitchen. In the safety of the television room, Lara and I hunkered down with the dog, listening to the adult voices rising and falling like boats on the ocean, here a crescendo of chatter and laughter, there the tinkling of ice in cocktail glasses, now the booming laughter of one of the men, and above it all my mother’s animated voice, lively, bright, filled with theater.
Careful to keep quiet, Lara taught me various kung fu moves that she invented on the spot. We practiced in the hallway, flying through the air, folding ourselves into pretzels. In her Wrangler jeans and Fruit of the Loom T-shirt, she looked like a loose-limbed boy with wild brown hair. We had matching short haircuts, but mine was darker and more obedient.
At some point after the guests had been fed and tamed and seated at their bridge tables, Lara and I would be trotted out to say hello to them. Then we disappeared into the kitchen, stunned by the mess that adults could make: stacks of dirty dishes, decapitated hors d’oeuvres, and a scattered graveyard of cigarette butts stained with garish pink lipstick. It was the Lebanese lady who smoked. She took only a few puffs from each cigarette, then stubbed it out and lit another. Her lips were everywhere.
By morning, my mother had already scrubbed everything clean. The bridge tables had been folded up and rolled back into their boxes; pots and pans glistened like cairns of stainless steel rising from the dish rack.
My mother acquitted herself of such social obligations quite well, offering genuine warmth to her friends without burdening them with too much intimacy. Later I came to understand that my mother did not have close friends on purpose. She was a chameleon, effortlessly blending in everywhere, attuned to everyone, but trusting no one. Whenever I saw her with others, I marveled at her complete fluency in the world, the ease with which she displayed her many colors. She dazzled me.
My father was less adept at social skills. His idea of conversation was cornering one or two people at a party and telling them the intricate details of something he had just read about—cold fusion, perhaps, or gravitational collapse. He could never read the glazed-over faces of his victims, who were too polite to extricate themselves.
His most successful relationships were his chess friendships. He had become something of a chess champion in the Gulag, where playing chess was punishable by death, so he had developed a lightning-quick technique that he still deployed. While his opponents contemplated their next move, my father would busy himself by cracking open and eating all the nuts in the bowl on the table, or getting up and stretching his legs. The second his opponent had completed his move, Dad would pounce, snatching his own chess piece and slamming it down on another square, leaving his opponent once again to study the board and ponder the possibilities.
Of my parents, Mom was the one you wanted to be with. She was strict, but warmer, more patient. Dad, on the other hand, waited for no one and accepted no excuses. His word, he always told Lara and me, was iron, and whenever he said this, he made a powerful fist with his right hand. He had a sharp wit and a sly sense of humor, but his bitterness ate into everything he did. While he was in Siberia, fellow prisoners had broken his left elbow while trying to steal his clothes. Years later, surgeons in Italy removed the calcified joint and sewed him back together, but he never recovered full use of his arm. My father tried not to speak of his years as a prisoner, but he acted like a man who had lived with beasts. He wolfed his meals in seconds, and nothing my mother said or did could get him to slow down. “I can’t,” he’d say helplessly. “It’s food.”
He kept ferociously busy, saw patients day and night, built rock ledges behind the house, planted bushes, mulched trees, chopped wood. One year he bought a thousand evergreens and planted them across the grounds, along the driveway, all over the lawn. He was a colossus of efficient, if furious, energy. At night, his shrieking nightmares jolted us awake. The next morning my mother would dismiss them with a weary shrug, saying, “The Gulag again,” as if genocide were just one more annoyance that kept intruding into our lives.
We never knew when an image or a sound or a fight between my sister and me would trip the invisible wire, and my father would blurt out a horrifying incident from the camps, or my mother would cry, “I should have died with my parents! Don’t you understand? We shouldn’t be alive!” My sister and I would freeze—the whole planet froze—as we watched our parents being stolen from us by the past.
These moments would never be spoken of afterward. Our family circled them with a thick layer of silence, around which my sister and I tiptoed, magically thinking that if we were careful, we could avoid sparking another explosion.
Through such experiences Lara and I laid down the framework of our own story. We absorbed their secrets and turned them into our own drama. Maybe it wasn’t an exact translation of our parents’ war, but it was the best we could do with what we had. To Mom and Dad’s unspoken past we added our own hunger, the rapacity of children who have everything and still want more—love, attention, adoration. Lara and I fought each other as if battling for the last scrap of oxygen in the house, as if there were room in our parents’ hearts for only one child.
By the time I was in second grade, I decided that Lara’s usefulness as an older sister had expired. She had become baggage. Her socks sagged at different heights. She buttoned her blouses right up to her chin, and wore braces on her buck teeth. She was flat-footed, with long narrow feet that didn’t seem to match her solid body. Even the clothes my mother sewed for us looked all wrong on her—her legs were too long and her waist too wide. She had no friends. She got straight As. In class, she was obedient, polite, and brilliant. And she had a gift for math and music and science, and she later learned Russian—all the skills and talents my father had—ensuring a lifelong competition between them.
Although her teachers loved her, her classmates at Glenwood Elementary School laughed at her for her geeky height, her chipmunk cheeks and weird hair. Every day she ran home in tears. “Why are they so mean to me?” she cried to my mother.
I was exactly the opposite. Perhaps I had learned something from watching her, or perhaps I was just plain lucky, but from the moment I set foot in school, I began my conquest of friends. Although I wore Lara’s hand-me-down clothes, I wore them at a raffish angle and thought I looked cool. I had no time for Lara now. Without so much as a backward glance, I shucked my sister like an old T-shirt, and courted my classmates. Lara watched this parade of little kids in and out of our house, and saw me laughing and goofing off with Jill and Pam and Lori and Freddie, and it made her want to break my smile over her knee.
One day I came home from second grade to find Lara writhing on the floor in the doorway to the kitchen. She was screaming that she would never go back to school again. Her eyes had a wild look to them, and her teeth were clenched. When she saw me standing in the entranceway, she shouted, “I hate you!” and started hissing. Her hair, thick and tangled, flared from her head. On the other side of my sister, a safe distance away, my mother tried to reason with her. Mom glanced up at me. “Helen,” she said in her most ordinary voice. “How was school?”
I decided to take her cue and pretend Lara wasn’t there. “Can I get a glass of milk?” I asked.
“Of course,” Mom said.
I tried to step over Lara, but she emitted a snarl, then a gurgling sound deep in her throat. Her eyes widened, and for a moment it seemed she would leap from the floor and sink her teeth into my leg. I backed off. At ten, she was already bigger and stronger than my mother.
“She won’t let me in,” I said.
My mother considered this. “Lara, let her into the kitchen.”
“Make me!” Lara shouted. “You make me!” She planted her foot against the doorjamb for leverage.
My mother looked disappointed.
“Mom,” I pleaded.
“I’ll get you a glass of milk,” she said. She took a step toward the refrigerator, but Lara kicked at Mom’s ankles. My mother backed away. “All right, never mind, Helen.” Mom was not in the mood to fight. “Change your clothes. You can have a glass of milk later.”
My father came home from the office two hours later. By then my mother and sister were murmuring softly in each other’s arms in Lara’s bedroom. I watched them from the hallway, jealous. I heard the quiet of my father’s entrance, the way the air shifted around his body. He always entered the house as if on a stealth mission—ears pricked, eyes alert, every muscle tensed. He and I were hooked up to the same radar. He seemed to weigh the valence of electrons in each room. I met him at the top of the stairs. He cocked his head.
“They’re in Lara’s room,” I said.
I steered a wide berth around my sister after that. It took nothing to set her off. She would slam me against the brick wall if she happened to pass me in the hallway. An elbow to the jaw, a knee in my ribs. I quickly learned to fight back: whenever I was safely out of reach, I would snicker and call her a weirdo, or laugh at her for being such a creep. I delighted in seeing her face turn red, even though I already knew I was toast. Because that was my trump card; Lara could beat the living crap out of me, but I knew she feared being different, freakish. I did my best to remind her of it every chance I got. And so we went to war.
My parents couldn’t do much about this. We fought offstage, while my mother was cleaning the house or writing her sister, and my father was at the office or the hospital. Our fights did not compare to the more pressing concerns of earning a living and running a household. In the annals of competitive suffering, Lara and I knew from an early age that we were lucky to be irrelevant. But on the scorecard of our daily lives as children, we wanted to matter.
And of course we did matter very much to our parents, as long as we did our jobs as blue-chip children and straight-A students.
“My life is over,” Mom often told us. “My life ended in the war. You are all that matter.”
We were small shoots now, perhaps, but with care and feeding and sunlight, with green vegetables and vitamins and snowsuits in winter and sunblock in summer, with French lessons and piano lessons and ballet lessons and swim lessons, we would grow strong and cultured and smart, and we would redeem all that had been taken from her, restore reason in the world.
And, oh my, the love. Our parents loved Lara and me with such a ferocity, it was hard to remain standing in the face of it. They loved us with cyclone force. They loved the arms right out of our sockets. My friends were loved with the casual American ease of prairie love, of cows grazing in a fenced-in field. My sister and I were loved with the blazing heat of immigrant love. The scorched-earth love of a people hunted down, displaced, and resettled countless times before clawing their way to the topsoil of upstate New York.
Overlooking our increasingly frequent fights, Mom seemed gratified to see how closely Lara and I mirrored our mother and aunt. “You’re just like me,” Mom always told me. “You were an easy child.” I opened my mouth and words came to me. I closed my eyes and sleep embraced me. I went to school and children played with me. For Lara, nothing came easily. She was in constant battle with herself and the world. “Lara is so much like Zosia,” Mom would say. “Always in motion, always restless.” She assured me that Lara and I would be closer than anyone else in the world. Sisters shared each other’s secrets and saved each other’s lives. It sounded good. But by the time I was in the second grade, I started to think I had the wrong sister for that. I brought this up with my mother. “I don’t think Lara is right for me,” I said. Mom smiled. “Just wait. You’ll see when you get older.”
But with time, things only got worse. Night would fall, and Lara’s eyes snapped open with the certainty of danger. Enemies filled her room, hid in her closet, slipped between the sheets of her bed, stole behind the radiator, leaked under the windowsill. If she closed her eyes, they would spring out to get her.
The voices began as whispers, then grew louder, she would tell me years later. Everything buzzed. Her bed began to move. She leapt from it and stared at it—but of course, now it was still. The curtains fluttered. She lifted one corner and traced the pattern of movement across the fabric, a wave on the beach. So elusive, the shadows. The creatures had no shape or form, but only a function—to hurt her, to laugh at her, to twist her into knots.
While Lara was fighting her demons in her bedroom, my father was back in Siberia, and my mother was having her own nightmares of being taken by the “police” from her home, as she would tell us in the morning. I knew nothing of this at the time, but now I wonder if Lara’s voices were coming to her through the walls of our parents’ unspoken memories.
When she was eleven, Lara finally went crazy in a way that perhaps our whole family had been waiting for. Every night after our mother had turned out our lights and retreated to the living room, Lara would start.
I could hear her get out of bed and flick the light switch in her room on and off rapidly, dozens, maybe hundreds of times. My room shared a wall with hers, and I could hear the sharp click-clack-click-clack, like a rapid-fire machine gun. I’d hear her snapping the curtains back and forth along their runners the length of the room: Zhiiiiing! Zhiiiiing! Zhiiiiiing! Then back to the light switch—click-clack-click-clack. Then a muffled rummaging sound, when she must have dropped to the floor and scanned under her bed. Then the curtains sang again. Now she was rustling in her closet, sweeping the skirts and blouses back and forth on their hangers.
I didn’t understand what she was doing, and I didn’t care. As far as I could tell, most of the things Lara did were intended to irritate me, and I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction. Out of vengeance, I fell asleep.
But her rituals got even longer and more elaborate. I would wake in the middle of the night to the sound of my sister’s drapes flying across their runners. I would listen for what would come next. Midnight, one o’clock, two. The rest of the house was dead, and only Lara’s room was alive with sound. Her Concerto for Lights and Drapes.
It never occurred to me to tell my parents about this. One night, though, I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom. Lights blazed in my sister’s room, and I could hear the murmur of my parents’ voices. Just as I walked past the door, I heard my mother say, “psychologist,” and the door to Lara’s room swung shut. The hairs stood up on my neck.
Lara’s gone psycho, I thought with a chill. Like those wide-eyed freaks in the horror movie reruns on TV, arms outstretched, lurching robotically. All of a sudden, I realized that stuff like that didn’t just happen to people on TV; it was happening to my sister.
The implications were terrifying. If such a condition could strike Lara, it was only a matter of time before I too succumbed. She’d given me everything—measles, chicken pox, mumps—and I’d catch this from her too. I hovered outside Lara’s closed door, transfixed by the seam of light glowing under it. I could not make out my parents’ words, just their hushed mumbling voices.
After that night, Lara skulked around the house under a dark cloud of dread. I was careful not to get too close to her, but I studied her for signs of craziness. Her hair had always been thick and unruly, and now it looked even worse. She had dark hollows under her eyes, and her fingernails were picked to bloody stumps. When she caught me looking at her, she bared her teeth and growled wolfishly. My parents spoke Polish all the time now in hushed tones.
A few days later, my mother carried the skinny fold-up cot from the basement and set it up in Lara’s room. Mom assured my father it would only be for a night or two, but it turned out to be three nights and then four, then a week, then two weeks, and then we just pretended it was normal that my mother slept in Lara’s room.
Soon after she moved into Lara’s room, my mother told me that Lara was going to start seeing a psychologist who would help her feel better. “You cannot mention a word of this,” she said in a low voice.
I nodded. Mom looked hardened, like metal.
“I want you to take a vow,” she said. “You must promise never to say a word about this to anyone.”
“Okay,” I said.
“This is a private matter,” she said. “A family matter.”
I knew what that meant. Our family had many things we were not allowed to speak of. We didn’t speak about my parents’ war, or about their parents, or about anything that had happened Before.
When I went to school the following morning, the secret of my sister’s illness weighed on me. I saw my eight-year-old classmates as if from a great distance, and I felt a strange gap open up between us. They were still my friends, but suddenly they seemed so young and free. They were unaware of the enormity of danger in the world, and although I myself didn’t understand what that danger was, I knew that our family had it, that it was in our house. A deep, unspeakable line separated me from everyone outside my family.