by Eugie Foster
I'm not sure how long I've known that Mama found me something of a
disappointment. Not, certainly, when I was a little girl. She loved taking me into
her arms at night and telling me stories from when she was growing up. How
beautiful she was when she was young, so graceful and lovely that the tsar himself
came to watch her dance. Imagine that, the tsar coming to a peasant village to see
the daughter of a muzhik! Mama had danced so fine, her hair streaming in a golden
braid down her back, the hem of her sarafan flashing as she twirled and leaped,
that the tsar even clapped along with the music.
But there came a time when her stories seemed to chide more than delight, when I
saw that my hair -- all muddy drabness, so brittle it breaks before it can grow long
enough to plait -- was nothing like hers, when I realized I had Papa's ruddy cheeks
and long nose, not Mama's flawless skin and delicate features. And there was the
matter of dance. I have no aptitude for it. None. Aside from my inability to stay
on (or find, for that matter) tempo, I was as graceful as a waddling duck, less
graceful in truth, since I was as likely to sprout wings and fly across the Volga as
become a dancer worthy of the tsar.
For a while, I avoided mirrors and took solace in childish pastimes. As soon as
Papa taught me to grip a charcoal crayon, I began fashioning shadows and contours
on any receptive page -- a study of a knobby oak tree, the cook's plump dog
napping beside a basket of apples, an amber ring from Mama's treasure box. But
my drawings couldn't help me avoid Mama. She prepared sticky rinses for my
skin that made me break out in spots, and continuing our daily lessons in balance
and poise, she counted louder and louder as I floundered and tripped, as though by
volume alone she could impel me to some semblance of grace.
"You can't make an elephant out of a fly!" I told her. "I can't dance, Mama!
When will you accept that?"
I'd have done better convincing a fish to whistle. She crossed her arms and
declared, "God does not give to the cow that butts, Prascovia. You just have to
Some days we quarreled until we were both hoarse as grit, our eyes red and
glaring. By my sixteenth birthday, we had reached an impasse which promised to
persist until I either managed, through some miraculous providence, to catch the
fancy of some rich (possibly blind) nobleman who would whisk me away from
Mama's ambitions, or I mustered up enough courage (or desperation) to run away
and join a convent.
Then a third option presented itself, one which healed the gulf between us like
nothing else could have.
Papa became ill.