My mother went missing for 1000 days…
Growing up, I never knew my mother’s real name. She couldn’t tolerate touching or hugging, not for any length of time. Even in the hot prairie sun, she hid a blue tattoo of numbers on her left forearm under long-sleeved dresses. It was a strict family taboo to look. On her deathbed, in our final moments together, I could not bring myself to do so.
Her whole life was one dark, impenetrable secret.
Except on those special nights in Netherhill, Saskatchewan when everyone else was asleep, except us. She called them, her “Russian Nights”. In the solitary house on the Number Seven highway, the rousing, patriotic Russian Army choir awakens the nine-year old girl at midnight. The black vinyl 33 LP spins, transporting Mother and Daughter into the vortex of memory. The clink of ice-cubes in a glass of vodka. Blue curling cigarette smoke. Only then, does she talk. I discover that she was a Soviet Red Army soldier, captured by the Germans during World War Two. She became on of Hitler’s slaves. She survived the camps, but how? Something unthinkable. Unspeakable.
When the war ended, she couldn’t go home. She’d be sent to prison. In Stalin’s eyes, she was a traitor.
Tucked into the corner of the couch, I am spellbound but I don’t dare ask questions. It is forbidden. After the session ended, I climbed back up to my bedroom, shut the door, and furtively, jotted down all I could remember. The next morning, nothing is said. The yellow school bus arrives.
It is as if the prairie winds had scoured away the whole night. There were about half a dozen ‘Russian Nights’. And then, one day, they ended. Unknowingly, I had breached the rules.
I entered a public speaking contest, confident that the story of my mother would win first prize. Projecting beyond the footlights, I described the Gestapo shoving my mom into a wooden ‘punishment’ box, too small for her to stand or sit for three days, of a Nazi soldier cutting her with his knife to see if her blood was red, or “are you Jewish?” Even the untimely drowning of Emma the Cow, “her only friend” made it onto the pages of my speech. It was the only time I ever saw her cry.
No one in the family came to hear my speech, except my Dad who drove me to the school auditorium. The ride home was silent and awkward. I tucked the carefully typed three pages into my special leather briefcase that held all my treasures. it was all so anti-climatic. A few days later, the grade six speech that won second place prize at the district school contest, disappeared.
The Russian Nights came to an end.
Once broken, the covenant, unspoken though it was, could not be fixed. I left the Prairies to become a TV journalist. Over the years, I never stopped collecting details, looking for clues to weave a timeline for the woman who locked me outside her private Iron Curtain.
But those missing 1,000 days remained so, to her last breath. This film, will it free me once and for all, from the burden of secrets, kept and broken? Will I regret knowing the Truth?
In the last twelve weeks of her life, bedridden at the palliative care centre in Calgary, we resurrected our ‘Russian Nights’ one final time. Mother and Daughter. Russian music again transported us back to those special midnight hours on the Number Seven highway, half a century ago.
And then, her last lucid words to me. “Don’t write it.” Am I now, the final traitor?
Roxana Spicer is addicted to story
All kinds of stories, from one end of the globe to the other. Her career began as a CBC TV journalist, working major markets from Vancouver to Halifax and netting Journalist of the Year award in Atlantic Canada. When she moved behind the camera to become a director/producer, her long-form documentaries won national and international recognition for “the fifth estate”,“Contact with Hana Gartner” and “Marketplace”, logging 200 hours of credited directing on CBC’s flagship primetime information programs. As one of the first CBC videographers, she filmed award-winning investigative stories in Belfast, Moscow, Munich, and Havana.
As a journalist, I want the story. As a daughter, I fear the truth
This season, she wrote and directed a series of short-form documentaries for prime-time Global TV: “High Drama” retraces the kidnapping of a Canadian couple in Ecuador, “Lost Childhood” exposes the abduction of Doukhobour children by RCMP in BC, and, on “Stolen Faces”, the shocking stories of acid attack victims. Last year she undertook a research trip to the edge of Siberia, into the last remaining gulag in Russia, to Moscow’s KGB archives, and to a former SS barracks in Germany searching for clues about her mother, among the records of 17.5 million Nazi victims, including the original Schindler’s list.