This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is from the opening of Chapter 4 of The Twelfth Time, “Seven Years After the October Revolution.” The women gather at Katrin’s Upper West Side penthouse in November 1924 for the seventh birthday party of Nikolay, who was born at only 28 weeks and 2.5 pounds. The female doctor Eliisabet saw the day after his premature birth went to the St. Petersburg State Medical University, Russia’s first women’s medical school, which was founded in 1897.
“Can you believe today already makes it seven years since the October Revolution and dear little Kólya’s birth?” Eliisabet asks as she and Lyuba enter Katrin’s penthouse suite with their children. “It seems like such a lifetime ago, and yet seven years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things.”
“It’s hard to believe your miracle baby, my darling godson, was born the same day those heartless Bolsheviks took over. One blessed event and one cursed event share the same anniversary.”
Nikoláy’s eyes light up at the sight of all the brightly colored balloons, streamers, banners, and decorations set up by Katrin’s maid Mrs. Samson. He rushes to the birthday chair of honor and boosts himself into it. Eliisabet winces a little at how he’s still a little small for his age, even though he’s not grossly undersized.
“That’s so amazing how he was born out of a hospital, didn’t even have an attending doctor or midwife, and yet turned out perfectly normal.” Viktóriya sits doing a crossword puzzle in lieu of studying the geometry and French homework she brought home for the weekend. “This proves that doctors are not gods and don’t always know everything. I wonder if any doctor would even treat a baby born at twenty-eight weeks. I’ve studied the eugenics movement, so I know these things.”
“Lyuba was my midwife,” Eliisabet says. “And the next day, Pyotr brought over a doctor. She said we’d done the right thing by not cutting off his cord till it stopped pulsating and not rubbing off his vernix, and said we had to make sure to keep him extra-warm, not to let him get wet, and keep him close to the stove for warmth. And our Grand Duke Dmítriy Pávlovich was born at only seven months too, and he’s perfectly normal. Little Dárya here was also born seven weeks early.”
Anastásiya falls into a swoon at the mention of her belovèd Prince Dmítriy’s name. Everyone rolls her eyes.
“Who do you like more lately, Dmítriy or Rudy?” Viktóriya taunts her. “I’d pick the prince over the actor, after that godawful costume drama I had to suffer through. Who finds a guy handsome when he’s dressed in some powdered wig and seventeenth century outfit?”
“You little brat, you’re going to pay for that!”
Viktóriya laughs as Anastásiya gets up to chase after her and trips over her high heels and long skirts. “You’re probably the only woman in America under thirty who still walks around in clothes our grandmothers wore.”
“First we’re going to have a birthday supper, then games, and finally birthday cake and ice-cream,” Katrin announces. “Nástya, leave Víka alone. At this point, you’re the guest in my house, not my little sister.”
“Leave her alone? She was the one who was taunting me!”
Katrin’s cook Mrs. Oswald brings out several platters and bowls. Eliisabet and Katrin selected the menu, but Nikoláy got to approve it within reason. He wishes they could only eat cake, candy, pie, and ice-cream, but had to agree with his mother and unofficial aunt that too many sweets aren’t good for anyone. They ended up selecting corn, tomato, cabbage, and pickle salad, roasted chicken, shashlyk, kisél, hard boiled eggs, spinach quiche, vegetable soup, and blinchiki. Several pitchers of grape juice are also brought out.
“You trust these kids to drink purple grape juice on a white tablecloth?” Anastásiya pesters.
“Mrs. Samson is a miracle-worker about getting out stains. She’s gotten out all my postpartum bleeding from my sheets and clothes so far.”
“You’re lucky Ványa isn’t here,” Lyuba laughs. “He said he couldn’t look you in the eyes again after reading your paean to hospital birth.”
“That’s so typical of him. I never understood how your husband could be so modern and enlightened about some things and so horribly old-fashioned and prudish about others.”
“I have to admit, I was a bit scandalized too,” Eliisabet says. “You really didn’t blush as you wrote some of that? Now everyone will know what your unmentionables look like!”
“They’re not so unmentionable if I wrote about them in public. Besides, it’s a very left-wing publication, not some cleaned-up affair like The New York Times or some snooty society publication.”
“You only gave these kids one fork and spoon, Kátya?” Anastásiya demands. “And you’re letting the younger ones eat with their hands!”
“I might have money, but that doesn’t make me a snob. What’s the point of having twenty different forks and spoons for one meal? Kids learn to use utensils when they’re ready. Thank God you’re never reproducing, though I’d love to see what a kid of yours would look like.”