If you want to know what kind of girl my daughter, Vera, was, there is a story her mother, Katya, tells over and over. I wasn’t there myself, but it is part of the family lore: little Vera, five years old, her dark hair in braids, attending another little girl’s birthday. It was an overly elaborate party for a five-year-old girl, with candied violets on the cake, a gazebo, tasteful jewel-toned paper streamers, crowns made of real flowers for each little girl to wear, and a chalkboard listing a schedule of party games in cursive script.
But it was a hot day. The children were beginning to melt. No one wanted to play the games, which seemed to be going on forever. Only the girl’s mother, wild-eyed and possessed by the fever of party orchestration, was enthused, and she led them through endless rounds of red rover, musical statues, even an egg-and-spoon race. By the time a game ominously titled “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone?” was about to start, the birthday girl was crouched under a picnic table crying.
Vera, ever the ambassador, ventured under there to powwow. The girl was hot and hungry. She could tell the other children weren’t having fun. The party had been going on for three hours and cake and presents were not yet in sight. Why was her mother doing this? Couldn’t they at least do one of the fun party games, like the piñata? Wasn’t the birthday party supposed to be about her? But her mother didn’t even care that she was crying there under the table. Her mother was going to make everyone play “Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone?” no matter what.
Vera patted the girl’s skinny thigh. “Maybe your mom just doesn’t understand how you feel,” she said. And so Vera crawled out from under the picnic table, and went and found the girl’s mother, tugging at the woman’s dress as she was trying to explain the rules to the new game.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, “Samantha would like to open presents and eat cake now. She doesn’t want to play games anymore.”
“Well, right now we are playing games,” the girl’s mother said, leaning down to Vera’s eye level, her hands on her knees. “We have three more to go before it will be time for cake and presents.” She pointed at the chalkboard that listed the party activities.
“But maybe,” Vera insisted, “you could just skip some. Maybe you could skip to the piñata?”
“Samantha is welcome to join us if she decides she wants to be a big girl. Otherwise, she can stay under the table and cry.”
Vera stared at the woman for a moment, and then said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you wanted a birthday party so badly, you should have thrown one for yourself.”
Vera was always just like that. Almost brutally clear-sighted. Even as a child, she saw through people. Saw the reasons they did things. Saw the machinery behind the façade.