The Girls, Alone
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.
"A frequently powerful journey into a unique personal and political history."
Praise for The Girls, Alone
"Bonnie J. Rough traces her maternal history and stakes out her place in a long line of women in "The Girls, Alone." … Smart, engaging writing weaves Estonia's history with the stories she discovers along the way. The memoir becomes a story of mothers, linked together through history."
"Bonnie J. Rough's writing is often marked by an honest probing of her life as a writer in ways that can be instructive to any author. … She recognizes the need for writers to accept who they are at different stages of life and to grow into those changes rather than resist them."
The Humble Essayist
"Part family history, part memoir, and part travel narrative ... a very readable story of personal growth and discovery, and coming to terms with our whole selves."
"What begins as a lark becomes a quest, and we follow Rough from museum to library to graveyard, as she attempts to answer questions about Anna: “Was she alone when she heard pounding at the door? Did she curse the long life she’d led and the children and husbands she’d lost?”
Rough frames her memoir with scenes in the Estonian saunas, which become a metaphor for her travel forward and backward in time. She takes a leap of faith, steps naked into the unknown, withstands the overwhelming heat and emerges regenerated. ... “The Girls, Alone” is a frequently powerful journey into a unique personal and political history."
San Francisco Chronicle