This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is from Chapter 6 of The Twelfth Time, “Lena’s Prayer Is Answered.” 1924 is drawing to a close, and while Lyuba and Ivan have been having a number of problems over the last few months, by and large they’re still fairly happy. Their marriage hasn’t yet started on the disastrous downward spiral it heads towards later on. Their friend Pavel, who lives downstairs from them, saved Tatyana’s life when she was a baby. (This has been slightly edited for length and so it’s all “sweet.”)
Lyuba feels like a princess as she reads the paper and listens to the gramophone while Iván prepares a full-course meal on Thanksgiving. It feels like such a welcome relief to finally be able to sit down and just relax, instead of having to attend to every single household duty. She knows they’d never have been able to afford the nice meal they’re going to enjoy, nor the trip to Toronto, without their savings, but it’s not like they went out and spent a thousand dollars on these things.
By the standards of the old Imperial Court, the meal isn’t anything that lavish or fancy—turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted vegetables, cranberry sauce, cornbread, applesauce, carrot, tomato, and cabbage salad, blinchiki with blackberries, sugar, and cream, and chocolate cinnamon bread. Lyuba feels glad at least the cornbread, dessert bread, applesauce, and cranberry sauce came from the store, so Iván won’t have to spend any extra time preparing an already large meal.
“Are you ever going to have a baby for us to play with, Dyadya Pávlik?” Tatyana asks. “If you get much older, you’ll be like Tädi Katrin’s friend Anastásiya. Is there a word for a man who’s old and doesn’t have a wife or kids?”
“It’s called a bachelor,” Lyuba says. “There isn’t really a word in any language I know of to describe a male version of a spinster or old maid. It’s rather sexist, since it operates under the presumption it’s okay for a man to get older and not have a family, yet the worst thing in the world if a woman isn’t married off and having children by the time she’s twenty-one.”
“I’m only twenty-two. That’s still pretty young,” Pável says. “And there’s always hope that my girlfriend will get out of Siberia early. Your stepaunts Gálya, Mótya, Dína, and Svéta got out early. Maybe Nádya will escape, or she’ll get her punishment shortened. She didn’t even do anything that deserved twelve years in Siberia besides get that old bully Mísha mad and tell her new bosses what she used to do for a living.”
“I don’t think I remember Tyotya Nádya. The only thing I remember about Russia is when Papa jumped off an icy roof holding me and Mátushka so he could take us to safety in Estonia.”
“I’m sure Nádya remembers you. We lived together one winter, in Nádya’s old house. We had a lot of good times, in spite of the cold weather and the Civil War. Nádya loved you very much. Neither of us have any other relatives left, so it’s very important we have little children of our own when we’re finally together again.”
“Nádya has a family. Dédushka Ilyushka is her uncle, and all of Mátushka’s stepsisters are her cousins. She’s going to be so happy when she joins us in America and sees she finally has a boy cousin and a new aunt!”
“It’s not the same as having parents and siblings, or children of your own.”
“Isn’t Fédya the cutest little boy ever?” Iván brags to Pável. “You can tell he’s my boy, since he looks exactly like me. I bet he’s going to grow up to be over six feet tall too, and as strong as ten men.”
Lyuba wonders what’s going through Pável’s mind as he plays with her older children and holds Dárya while they’re waiting for supper. Perhaps he doesn’t look jealous or unhappy now, after only a few years, but if Nadézhda really is in Siberia for another eight and a half years, it’ll be a lot harder to bear. People are expected to be married and have children by Pável’s age, and there’s only so long he’ll be able to get away with it on the sexist assumption that it’s okay for men to be single longer than women.
If it weren’t for those rotten Godunov cousins, particularly Mísha, Nadézhda would’ve been safe in America with the rest of them. She and Pável would’ve been married and the parents of at least one darling child, a playmate for Lyuba’s children. Nadézhda must be lonely out in Siberia too, longing for the loving embraces of a belovèd husband and the precious smiles of darling children.
“Is it too much imposition if I sleep on your davenport tonight?” Pável asks as they sit down to supper. “Since we’re going to be leaving early in the morning for the depot, it might be easier if we all leave together.”
“Of course. You’re honorary family, and you would’ve been my stepcousin-in-law by now if Nádya hadn’t been arrested,” Lyuba says.
Iván makes a cross over himself and says Grace. “Christ our Lord, bless us your servants, our home, and the food and drink before us, for you are the source of all blessings, now and forever and ever. And thank you also for blessing me with the beautiful neighbor girl as my loving wife, the three precious children whose care you have entrusted to us, our safety in America, and all the love we have even though we don’t have as much money as we’d like. Amen.”