The stories of Russia my mother told me as a young boy were like fairy tales, verging on the grotesque but fascinating too. So I read about Russia and discovered the mysticism that joins Russians to the land they call Rodina—Motherland. In my young mind’s eye, Russia became a supernatural force in a woman’s form—with a troubled past and the darkest of secrets. As an adult confronting my mother’s shadowy past, I would discover that her secrets and Rodina’s were layered so that each held yet another.

In 1941 Adrian Mikhailovich Romanovsky and Alexander Valentinovich Trepoff left Paris and returned to Russia. The older man must have been seeking vengeance; the younger might have been escaping. I’ll never know—both men perished in Rodina’s frigid embrace. Against the backdrop of World War II, their fates were unimportant, but returning to Russia was so consuming, so headlong that they deserted my mother in German-occupied Paris. Years later in California, and forsaken once again, her past consumed her, and she abandoned me—her only child.

Memories of my mother often take me back to the garden behind our home in Berkeley where we took afternoon tea and considered my Americanization. Her advice was simple: “Do what you have to do.” She was preoccupied; my adjustments impeded our wanderings. We were travelers. Art books and museums were departure gates. Her incredible imagination allowed her to walk into paintings, explore the settings, and talk to the subjects. When I was a boy, I followed her; but after she died, I put away such make-believe.