While I was trying to rationalize the idea of a solo ramble in Europe I decided to do something I didn’t do often enough, which was to call Vona Ema, my grandmother. I told her I was thinking of a visit to Estonia—a place she had never been, and now, due to difficulty walking and blindness from macular degeneration, would never go.
“Do you know where your grandmother Anna is buried?” I asked.
“Nowhere, I would think,” she said. “She was murdered by the Russians.”
When my grandmother told me this, I was sitting in the sun with my sandals in the wood chips while I watched my three-year-old daughter at the playground near Dan’s childhood home, in Port Townsend, Washington. We were there—two hours from our house in Seattle—to visit his parents and escape a heat wave in the city. Life was undeniably good: We had been to coffee downtown by the water that day, and had cocktails at the movies the night before—boilerplate Woody Allen, my weakness. Later that afternoon we would go to the beach to watch otters and swim, then have dinner with Dan’s parents in a sun-filled house built in 1889 when this Pacific Northwest town was booming with sailors and loggers and prostitutes, and when Anna in Estonia was a twelve-year-old farm laborer in a dying feudal system.
“I can’t believe I never heard that before,” I said. Vona Ema’s memories—sometimes vivid, sometimes blank—had helped me to write my first book. She was a tart, fickle, funny old lady who tended to put people on the spot and couldn’t be bothered to make things up.
My daughter hollered from the swings; she wanted a push. I walked over and pressed the phone harder to my ear, figuring I would hear Vona Ema better when laughter took the place of yelling.
“How would you have heard about that?” I asked.
“My aunt got a letter from the Red Cross,” she said. It would have happened sometime during World War II, when Vona Ema was just a teenager, the middle child of three girls, and about to become a nursing student.
“What did the letter say?”
“I have no idea. I just remember Mum being so sad. We always just heard they took her out into the fields at night and shot her. She wasn’t the only one.” I pictured Juline in her hand-built farmhouse in Alberta receiving months-old news of family: First of the half-brothers she’d known as tots, conscripted and then deported to labor camps in Siberia, never to return. And then her old mother, a final frail crumple of cotton and bone in the dark.
“I hope you’ll have many surprises,” Vona Ema said.