From the #1 international bestselling author of The Lost Wife and The Velvet Hours comes an emotionally charged story about a mother’s love, a teacher’s promise, and a child’s heart....
Katya, a rising ballerina, and Sasha, a graduate student, are young and in love when an unexpected tragedy befalls their native Kiev. Years later, after the couple has safely emigrated to America the consequences of this incident cause their son, Yuri, to be born with a rare health condition that isolates him from other children. Maggie, a passionate and dedicated teacher agrees to tutor Yuri at his home, even though she is haunted by her own painful childhood memories. As the two forge a deep and soulful connection, Yuri's boundless curiosity and unique wisdom inspires Maggie to make difficult changes in her own life. And she'll never realize just how strong Yuri has made her—until she needs that strength the most....
A novel that will make readers examine what it means to live life with a full heart.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Alyson Richman
April 26, 1986
She walks the cobblestone streets, her lithe body moving quickly. Most days, she is wrapped in layers of thin sweaters and a scarf roped loosely around her neck. But today it is unseasonably warm, the sun radiating against the pale blue sky.
Everyone in the square is celebrating the surprising heat wave. Girls are wearing cotton dresses for the first time in months. Old men are playing chess in the park, their sleeves rolled up past their elbows. Young children are at the river with their parents, knee-deep in water they normally wouldn’t be able to swim in until July.
The heat. The sun. The light. For a few hours before, she had soaked in the unexpected sunlight in the privacy of her garden. But now, Katya finds herself joyously leaping over a puddle of soapy water left by the street washer. Her leotard is hidden underneath a thin black blouse. Stretching from the hem of her skirt are the sculpted legs of a dancer.
She walks as if suspended from the ground, arms swinging, her bag tossed over her shoulder. Her face is bone white, her blond hair coiled into a tight bun.
As she approaches the theater, no one takes notice of Katya as she pulls open the heavy door and ascends the cement stairs toward the ballet studios. Inside, the blinds are lifted all the way up to bring in the light. As the dancers stretch, their shadows mimic their movements across the wooden floor. Like dark ghosts resurrected by the sun.
Let me tell you a secret. A unique kind of person exists in this world, one who radiates light even through a curtain of darkness.
As a teacher, I’ve seen everything in eyes staring back at me: the child who hates school and wishes to be outside; the one who aims only to please; the glassy, sleepy-eyed child; and the one who’s perpetually lost in a daydream. But there are those rare moments when a student sits before you and you immediately are certain—and you can’t know why, it’s just a feeling in your bones—that they are different.
This child is not to be confused with the student who’s the most ambitious, or the one who is naturally strong at taking tests. No, this child, the one you sense is extraordinary, is the one who returns everything you give and more. He or she becomes your beacon, as every word you utter in the classroom suddenly has a destination. It’s as if you are teaching toward their light.
In the fall of 1999, I met Yuri, a student who one day would teach me lessons I could never have learned in school. I was young, just two years out of Columbia Teachers College. I had abandoned my first job after graduation as a personal assistant at a well-respected New York City PR firm, where my days had been so demoralizing and brain-sucking that I often thought eating glass might be less painful than spending twelve hours tending to my boss’s Godzilla-like needs. Hoping to switch into something that could restore my faith in humanity and also give my life purpose, I followed my mother’s suggestion and went back to school for a degree in teaching.
To be honest, I became nearly evangelical in my passion for teaching after I switched careers. The thrill of teaching children is that they don’t edit themselves, like adults do. Truth can be found in every classroom, and I savored that purity like a refreshing glass of water. I wanted to be the teacher who read passages out loud to my students, like my own English teacher had done when I was in sixth grade, so we could all hear the music in the words. Deep down, I believed a story could change us, and that if we read it deeply enough, a good book could transform our souls.
It was my second year teaching sixth grade English language arts at Franklin Intermediate School, and I was full of optimism. Everything around me seemed ripe with possibility. My boyfriend, Bill, and I had just moved in together. We had spent our first four years after graduating from the University of Michigan living a few blocks from each other on the border between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, where the rent was relatively cheap and the bars were plentiful. But I had grown tired of the twentysomething scene of young professionals unwinding in front of sports bar TVs and a sea of baseball caps. And the long commute from New York City to my teaching job in Long Island was killing me. I wanted fresh air and a backyard. I imagined Sunday mornings where we could spread out the newspaper and look up at each other through steaming mugs of coffee. Perhaps we’d even get a dog.
Bill resisted at first. He enjoyed the convenience of picking up a coffee and a bagel along with his copy of the New York Post from his favorite corner deli, before hopping on the number 6 subway each morning to his Midtown office where he sold corporate insurance. He loved the fact that there were fifty delivery places he could always choose from if he wanted something to eat after midnight. He had just started making good money and was happy to have places to spend it. He bought himself a new set of golf clubs and splurged on box seats at Mets games and concerts at Madison Square Garden.
But then, over the next few months, one by one, our closest couple friends started announcing their decision to leave the city and go where there was more grass and the lines for Sunday morning brunch weren’t always an hour long. One night over Ray’s Pizza, Bill observed that the migration had started. “And who am I to be the last man standing?” He wiped his mouth with a paper towel. “Maybe you’re right, Maggie, let’s make the move out to the burbs.”
We ended up renting a small cottage in Stony Brook, a part of Long Island that felt more like New England than the fancier towns closer to Manhattan. I had found the listing for it in my parents’ local PennySaver, and circled it in bright red ink. The location was perfect. It was close to the middle school where I was teaching, and Bill was thrilled that his Manhattan employer had a satellite office not too far away. I believed I was well on my way to becoming a full-fledged adult, at the ripe old age of twenty-six.
The new place appealed to the romantic in me. A small white clapboard cottage with red shutters and a brass doorknocker, it looked as though it was lifted from the pages of a children’s book. Others might have been put off by the low ceilings and the lack of closets, but I was completely sold by what the Realtor referred to as its “old-world charm.” Who doesn’t love flower boxes filled with purple and magenta petunias underneath their windowsills? Who needs air-conditioning when you have tall linden trees shading a slate blue roof?
“Let’s try to negotiate a little on the rent,” Bill advised, the businessman in him always thrilled by the chance to get a better deal. But I ignored him. The real estate agent was pointing out the wood-burning fireplace, and I didn’t want to be distracted when she was detailing the craftsmanship in the carved molding.
“That’s all the heat you’ll need in the winter,” she laughed, pointing to the logs of cherrywood the owners had thoughtfully stacked to the side. I was sold! Already, I could imagine myself curled up underneath a blanket, reading Toni Morrison as the fire blazed on.
At the end of the tour, Bill thanked the agent and promised we’d get back to her in a few days.
I waited until he was several feet ahead of me before I pulled her aside.
“We’ll take it!” I said, squeezing her arm. I had always been a sucker for “old-world charm.” I could almost smell the burning cherrywood, even though it was days away from the start of summer.
We moved in at the end of June, just after my first year at Franklin ended, and I found myself doing most of the unpacking. I wiped down the wooden shelves in the tiny living room and lined them with all my favorite novels. Ever since I had first left home, I brought with me every one of the books I had ever loved. So even my favorite ones from eighth grade now found their way to my new shelves. My dog-eared copies of A Separate Peace and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were lovingly placed next to more recent additions, like The God of Small Things and A Suitable Boy. Every day I worked toward making the cottage our new home, while Bill went off to work. I placed photos of the two of us in college over the mantel, and cut wild roses and arranged them in old mason jars. The fireplace hinted at all of our cozy nights to come.
In the meantime, I found a slice of heaven in the Adirondack chair under one of the trees in the garden. I knew, come September, it would be the perfect spot for me to correct my new students’ papers. I couldn’t wait to discover whose sparkling eyes were going to inspire me most in the coming school year.
The Friday before Labor Day, I arrived early at Franklin Intermediate, eager to set up my classroom. I had filled my silver Toyota with boxes of supplies: folders, paper, and marking pens. My friend Suzie Price, the art teacher, was in the hallway stapling colored paper to the bulletin board when I walked inside. I knew it would be a full-blown art gallery of student works on display in less than two weeks’ time.
“Hey, beauty,” she said. In truth, Suzie was the real beauty. With bright red lips and perfect skin, and all her scarves and mix-matched separates, she had that artistic way of styling herself I so envied. Come winter, when I’d be bundled up in a practical wool cardigan, she’d be wearing one in chenille with buttons made of sea glass.
“The best! No more reverse commute from the city. Bill and I found a great new place . . . a cottage out in Stony Brook.”
“That’s amazing news, Maggie. I need to move out of my place one of these days. Living in a basement isn’t good for the artist’s soul.”
“Check the PennySaver,” I hollered over my shoulder as I carried my box down toward my classroom.
Room number 203, my classroom, was smack in the middle of Franklin’s west wing. Like the majority of Long Island’s public schools, Franklin’s interior was devoid of any charm or architectural detail. The ceilings were low, the cement-block walls were painted a drab shade of putty, and the floors were a checkerboard of linoleum tile. But nearly all my fellow teachers relished the opportunity to defy the 1960s functional architecture and transform their surroundings into something inspiring for their students once they stepped through the threshold of their classroom.
We all prided ourselves in the various themes we used to decorate our rooms. That summer, I had deliberated over mine for weeks before finally deciding on “The mind is a powerful tool.” I spent hours creating a template for a squiggly shaped brain with all its infinite coils. I then color-coded each section with an array of neon magic markers to highlight the two parts. I made the left side of my template orange to show the children “the logical brain,” where language and analysis were generated, and then I highlighted the right side in pink for “the creative brain,” the area that sparked daydreaming and imagination. I also made a miniature brain for each of my twenty-four students, and wrote their names in the center with a thick black Sharpie. I hurried to my classroom, eager to begin working on setting up my bulletin board.
When I entered my classroom, much to my surprise, I found a yellow Post-it note from the principal already taped to my desk.
Ms. Topper: Need to speak with you when you get a chance. I’ll be in my office all day. Stop by whenever it’s convenient.
I wondered what he could possibly want to discuss on my first day back. I checked myself in the mirror, took a deep breath to calm my nerves, and prepared to go see him.
Principal Nelson was standing over his metal filing case when I walked into his office. A desk fan was circulating warm air in the corner.
“Glad to see you, Maggie.” He gestured for me to sit down. “Did you have a good summer?”
“Yes, thank you. But I’m happy to be getting back to school.”
“Good to hear.” He smiled as he walked over to his desk and settled into his chair. “I have an unusual request for you . . .” He leaned in closer to me.
“Maggie, I was pleased with your work here last year. You bring an enviable enthusiasm to the classroom.”
I blushed and was about to deflect the praise when Mr. Nelson lifted his hand to stop me.
“No need to say anything more on that subject. I just wanted you to know that I’m looking forward to a great second year with you here at Franklin.”
He cleared his throat. “And, in fact, I was so pleased, I thought of you right away when I got this special assignment from the superintendent.”
“Sounds intriguing . . .” I felt a surge of nervous energy pass through me.
“There’s a child entering the sixth grade this year who just moved into the district. He was actually slotted to be in your class, but from what I gather of the details, he was born with a heart defect that has really weakened him.”
I felt my stomach tighten.
“Since he’s too weak to be at school right now, the administration has agreed to send tutors to his house for him, so he doesn’t fall behind. And I was hoping you’d be his English language arts tutor.”
He tapped his desk with two fingers as he awaited my response.
“We’re obviously hoping he’ll get his strength back and be able to join your class later on in the year. But in the meantime, the district will pay for you to visit him after your classes end here each day. We were thinking two days a week to start. The administration will be arranging another tutor to help him with math and science, but I don’t believe he or she will be from Franklin.” He folded his hands on the desk.
“Does that sound like something you’d be interested in doing, Ms. Topper?”
The excitement I felt only seconds before was now replaced by dread. The memory of a sick little girl from my childhood flashed through my mind, her eyes pressed to the window as the school bus passed by her house.
I could feel the color draining from my face, and my mind froze. I wanted to say something professional and well-meaning, like how wonderful it would be to teach a student one-on-one, or how it would be a privilege to tutor a child who was in need, but my words failed me. I could only feel myself fidgeting nervously in my chair.
Mr. Nelson leaned forward again. “So, can I count on you, Maggie?”
I swallowed hard, desperate to do something that would at least enable me to respond, but I could not stop thinking about my childhood neighbor, Ellie.
“What’s the student’s name?” I pushed myself to ask.
Principal Nelson lifted a sheet of paper from his desk and squinted.
“Yuri Krasny.” He read the name quickly. “I have no idea if I’m pronouncing that right . . .”
“Yuri?” I said the name again. It sounded exotic and interesting. Not like all the Michaels and Jonathans who were so plentiful at Franklin Intermediate.
I felt a whirlwind of emotions rush through me—thoughts of wanting to help a child in need, and fear of the emotional baggage that I’d been carrying around for fifteen years.
“I know it would be a very special opportunity to tutor him. But would you mind if I took the long weekend to think about it? I just want to make sure I’m not spread too thin in the afternoons.”
Mr. Nelson looked surprised.
“Well, sure, Maggie.” He tucked his pencil behind his ear and pushed himself away from his desk, the wheels of his chair squeaking across the tile floor. “Take a look at your schedule and get back to me Tuesday. But I’ll have to decide on another teacher if you’re not up to it, so please don’t take any longer than that.”
“Of course, and I’m sorry for needing the extra time.”
“But I do hope you’ll see the importance of this assignment,” he added. “It’s unique, and I think you’d be well suited for it.”
I nodded. I knew it was a vote of confidence for Mr. Nelson to have asked me, but deep down I worried if I was up to tutoring a sick child in their home. My mind kept returning to Ellie. That is the thing about memory. As hard as we try to will ourselves to forget certain events, our histories remain. I thought of those serpentine coils on the miniature brains I had made for my students. Every one of us had stories locked away in the intricate mazes of our minds. But, like most things, our stories can remain buried for only so long.
I was thirteen years old the summer that Ellie Auerbach got out of bed one morning and felt her legs go weak beneath her. She was five years old. That summer she had gotten her first bicycle, a bright pink one with a straw basket and a metal bell fastened to the handlebars. We heard her going up and down the street for hours each day, her training wheels dragging behind her, the bell ringing in the air.
I remember Mrs. Auerbach telling my mother that she thought maybe Ellie had slept in a funny position and her legs had fallen asleep. But there had also been the inexplicable fevers that plagued her the month before, and the persistent virus that her mother thought might be a late-season flu. These were all clues that perhaps Ellie’s mother had overlooked, because they interfered with her refusal to waste her energy on worrying too much about things she thought would eventually pass. Yet, eventually, these events glared in a painful, telling light.
Mrs. Auerbach had always believed in the goodness of the world, and that the sky changed color every sunset for a reason. “The universe doesn’t want us to grow complacent in its beauty,” she told me one hazy afternoon on her large white porch as she handed me a tall glass of lemonade. The condensation was cold against my fingers as I took it in hand and sipped from a paper straw. She was pregnant with Ellie then. Her abdomen was large and full against the linen of her white dress, her cheeks rosy, and her dark auburn hair in a long, single braid. She put her hands on her belly and cried “Oh, Maggie, I felt a kick! Do you want to feel the baby?” Before I could tell her I was too squeamish, Mrs. Auerbach had put my hand over her middle. And that bright summer day, I felt a little heel or a clenched fist—round and impatient—making its needs well-known from within the confines of its womb.
They brought Ellie home in a straw Moses basket a few weeks later. Pink and wrinkled beneath a crocheted bonnet, her five little fingers clenched at her mouth. Mr. Auerbach stood outside in pressed cotton khakis, sunlight striking his face. “A little girl,” my father had congratulated him. “There’s nothing quite like having one of your own.”
I remember my mother telling me not to get too close to the baby, but Mrs. Auerbach had only raised her hand and laughed. “If Maggie’s washed her hands, it’s okay for her to peer in and see the little bug,” she told me as she nestled into a large comfortable chair, her body still full beneath her dress. I felt so happy at that moment as I leaned in and my finger grazed Ellie’s cheek. Her eyelids lifted open and I saw the soft haze of her newborn gaze, her little fist now unclenching. As Ellie’s small finger reached out to touch my own, she became the baby sister I never had.
Eight years between us, I was always ahead in my milestones, but Ellie was never far from my family’s house. She loved to putter in my mother’s garden, where she wore my old rubber boots and used my little watering can with the painted daisy on the side. So that summer, when the pain in her legs first appeared, we held our breath as Mrs. Auerbach took Ellie from doctor to doctor, until a specialist in New York City finally told the Auerbachs that Ellie had a rare form of cancer.
She didn’t get to go to kindergarten that year as planned. Those first few days of school, the yellow school bus still slowed outside her house, as though it was waiting for the little girl to hop outside.
“They told me to cut her hair short,” Mrs. Auerbach confided to my mother, her voice low in a whisper. “So when it falls out, it’s not too upsetting,” she explained as the tears rolled down her face. The next time I saw Ellie and her mom, neither of them had their braids. Mrs. Auerbach had also cut her hair short, the moment the hairdresser had finished cutting Ellie’s.
Their house transformed from a home where the planters were always filled with bright red geranium flowers and the windows were wide open, to one that was suddenly shuttered and impenetrable. The curtains all drawn closed. Flowerpots filled with shriveled stalks and leaves.
My mother and I would still visit, but Mrs. Auerbach was no longer the mother with a carefree sprit and hopeful gaze. She looked gaunt and tired, her eyes rimmed in dark circles, her smile erased to a thin, drawn line. The air in the house was stale; the orange medicine vials lined the counter. And most painful was little Ellie on the sofa, her scalp fuzzy like a newborn, but her eyes far older than her five years.
Ellie remained in the back of my mind for most of my adult life. I might hear wind chimes sounding in the breeze, and the image of a pregnant Mrs. Auerbach on her porch would flash through my mind. And every time I heard the sharp, metallic sound of a bicycle bell ringing in the air, it didn’t make me feel cheerful but had the opposite effect. A painful reminder of the unfairness of life, and the incomprehensibility that a child could be taken from this world far too soon.
So much of Ellie’s death remained unprocessed for me, buried underneath layers of suppressed grief. The Auerbachs moved away less than a year after Ellie died. Their house was now occupied by an older couple from Boston, who had moved to be closer to their son in New York City. Yet there were times I would see a little girl who looked like Ellie, the moon-shaped face and hazel eyes, the golden braids tied with white ribbon, and thoughts of her would come flooding back to me. After all this time, Ellie remained six years old in my mind, even though I was now a grown woman teaching students of my own.
On Sunday, Bill and I went to visit friends in Westchester for a barbecue and we spent the day on lawn chairs, eating hot dogs and wedges of watermelon, savoring the last weekend in summer. On Monday, the day before school began, Bill went to play golf with a college buddy, so I took a drive out to visit my parents.
My family lived even farther east on Long Island than I did, two towns over in a remote area called Strong’s Neck. This was a place where people enjoyed their solitude. In the spring, the air was laced with the smell of honeysuckle and hyacinth. In the autumn, it was the rich scent of sugar maple and oak. Long stretches of land with tall grass and ancient trees bordered the winding roads, and many of the old houses dated back to the early settlers of Long Island. My own family’s house was far from historic. It was a modest ranch with cedarwood shingles and shutters that my father had purposefully painted hunter green to match the pine trees surrounding the house.
My father had the veneer of a sturdy Irishman, but the soul of an old Italian craftsman. He had taken up making violins for his post-retirement hobby, a strange and exotic passion for a man who had been in sales his entire adult life. My childhood basement, where my friends and I used to play Twister or conduct séances during sleepovers, was now a workshop with wood shavings on the floor and glass jars filled with glue and varnish. Even the smells of my family home had changed. It used to have the unmistakable scent of simmering garlic and tomatoes. Now, the fragrance of freshly planed spruce filled the air.
When I rang the doorbell, my father answered. It always still amazed me to see him so transformed. My schoolgirl memories were of him wearing a navy blue suit and striped tie, gripping a saddle-colored briefcase. Now, my eyes had to readjust. Dad was wearing a vinyl smock, a pencil tucked behind his silver-flecked hair, and when he hugged me, I could feel the calluses on his fingertips.
“Hey, Mags!” His cheeks lifted with a smile as he kissed me hello.
“To what do we owe this surprise visit? You must’ve missed your old man, right?”
“I missed mom’s lasagna.”
“I’ll happily take second place to that.” He grinned.
My father had won the prize when he married my mother, a first-generation Italian American. There was no greater cook in the world than she, as she could take anything and make it into something delicious. But my father always insisted it wasn’t Mom’s cooking that had made him fall in love with her, but rather her beautiful singing voice, which he believed to be more perfect than any instrument he could ever craft by hand.
“And you’re in luck . . . she made manicotti last night. Help yourself to whatever leftovers are in the fridge.”
“How are your hands today?” My father’s arthritis had become especially painful over the past year and a half.
He lifted his hands up, the knobby knuckles and sunspotted skin betrayed his sixty-three years.
“Nothing a little ibuprofen and an ice bath can’t fix.” He came over to me and hugged me. “Your dad’s no wimp.”
I rolled my eyes. “But are those violins really worth all the agony?”
“Well, to me they are.”
I smiled. I knew that after a life in pharmaceutical sales, my father finally had the chance to devote himself to what he had always wanted to do, and no amount of pain or discomfort was going to stop him.
I slid my bag down and went to wash up.
By the time I got out of the bathroom, my mom had come in from the garden. Her green clogs were by the side door, and she was standing barefoot by the kitchen sink washing sprigs of freshly cut arugula that she had just collected in a straw basket. My mother looked artful even when she had been on her knees in dirt all day. Her chestnut brown hair was threaded in silver and pulled back in a loose chignon, and around her neck she had tied a red kerchief. Her old-world elegance never escaped her.
“Maggie!” Her eyes lit up when she saw me. She shook her wet hands in the air, and little raindrops of moisture fell onto the linoleum floor. “What a nice surprise. Are you hungry, honey?”
“Have I ever not been?”
You could see her perk up immediately at the thought of feeding me. She gestured toward the kitchen table. I followed without protest as she began to heat up the food.
My parents had one of those classic love affairs. The Irish boy from the Bronx fell in love with the dark-haired Italian girl down the street whom his parents had warned him about. My father always told my brother and me that like the Sirens of ancient Greece, he had become entranced with our mother’s voice even before he saw her beauty. One day, when he was onstage rehearsing with his high school orchestra, he heard a girl singing behind the curtain. Notes floated toward him that sounded so perfect and clear. Family legend has it that he put down his violin and went off to search for her. And when he realized the tall girl with the long hair and dark eyes was the one with the voice of an angel, he fell head over heels in love.
And although my father’s family initially resisted my mother, she eventually won over her future mother-in-law, not through her angelic voice or her cooking but rather through what the Irish call the gift of story.
My favorite was about my grandmother, Valentina. Her American cousins had received a photograph of a petite Sicilian girl who looked malnourished and in need of a good home. When she finally arrived at Ellis Island, no one could make sense of the rotund girl who claimed to be their cousin. All the relatives whispered as they took the girl, who seemed to be bursting out of her clothes, back home to the tenement apartment near Arthur Avenue. They showed Valentina a room with a large metal tub where she could take a bath and change her clothes. The other women were rendered speechless as the fat little girl began to take off her coat, then her dress, then another dress, and then another. One by one all her layers of clothing were removed, and there stood the skinny child they now recognized from the photograph. They realized that instead of packing her clothes in Valentina’s suitcase, her mother had made her daughter wear all of them for the entire journey over. She could then fill her suitcase with all of the other necessities, like shoes, underwear, and sweaters.
My mother had gifted her love of story to me. Showing me that storytelling had the power to connect us to others, that a good tale could even bridge the space between children and adults. Whenever a child needed soothing, she had an arsenal of tales ready to tame even the crankiest toddler. She would offer a saffron-colored cookie and then tell a colorful anecdote about her friend from Sweden who had shared the recipe with her, so that the story was yet another ingredient folded into the layers of flour and butter.
“Did you paint your new bedroom yet, Maggie?” She placed a warm plate of oozing mozzarella and ricotta goodness in front of me. “Do you want me to come over and help you?”
“The color’s actually growing on me, Mom, so I’m not sure I will need to paint it. I tell myself it’s not off-white but buttermilk, and somehow it doesn’t seem so boring anymore.”
“Aah, the soothing color of buttermilk,” she teased and sat down next to me. “You were always so good with words, Maggie. And you can always find the positive and the beautiful . . .”
I laughed. “I got that from you, Mom. If only I had inherited your gift with food, too.” I lifted my fork to my mouth and savored the warmth and melding flavors. In truth, I thought it was my mother who could discover beauty where one was least expecting it. Many times, I felt she had that effect on me. I had grown up always feeling awkward about my height, strawberry-colored hair, and freckles. But somehow my mother had the magical capacity to make me feel better about myself, whenever she smoothed down the stray tangles of my hair or cupped my face in her soft hands.
“So, school starts tomorrow. You must be excited, Maggie.” I didn’t answer her for a second, and she picked up on it right away. I could feel her eyes on me as I drew my fork in the puddles of runny ricotta.
“I actually came here to talk to you about something,” I said, placing my fork down.
“Yes? What is it, honey?”
“Well . . .” I hesitated for a moment, trying to gather the right words. “On Friday. I went to drop off some of my supplies at school and get the classroom ready, and there was a note from the principal asking me to go down to his office . . .”
My mother’s face looked puzzled.
“No, it wasn’t like I was in trouble or anything. It was the opposite, actually . . . Principal Nelson wanted to offer me an extra assignment because he was so pleased with my work last year.”
“Isn’t that good news, Maggie?”
“Well, it’s not that black and white, Mom. He asked me if I’d consider tutoring a child at home in English language arts who isn’t healthy enough to be in the classroom this year. He was born with a heart defect, and he’s too weak right now to go to class with the other kids. The district is sending two teachers to his house to keep him up to grade level.”
My mother’s hand reached toward me and she covered mine with hers. “Oh, honey, this child needs you.”
I could feel my body stiffen. I blinked back tears. “I know, Mom. But I keep thinking about Ellie. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to go into a home with a sick child each week.” I sucked in my breath. “What if I can’t handle it?”
My mother shook her head and looked away from me. I knew talking about Ellie was difficult for her, too.
“What happened with Ellie was so terrible, Maggie.” she said gently. “And you were so brave with Ellie. You visited her all those times when she was sick even when it was hard to see her that way. You read to her. You did coloring books with her. Do you remember you even sometimes played school with her? Mrs. Auerbach told me you were the one person Ellie looked forward to seeing more than anyone.” My mother sighed. “I know now your father and I didn’t do you any favors by not telling you right away.”
I felt my expression tighten. This had long been a sore spot between my parents and me. I was away at camp the summer Ellie died. None of us could have predicted it would happen, of course, but she passed away while I was gone. My parents didn’t tell me until after I got home, nearly a week after the funeral.
“I never got to say good-bye,” I said, my voice breaking.
“We made a mistake. Your dad and I were young parents, and we didn’t want to ruin your summer. Whenever we told you it wasn’t going to be easy.”
“It’s just one minute she was here, and then she was gone. Those first few months after she died, I kept on thinking I was going to hear her on her bicycle or see her on the porch with Mrs. Auerbach waving to me as I got off the school bus.” The pain resurfaced, fresh and raw.
“And you’re afraid to get attached to this student?” My mother’s voice lowered. “That’s understandable, Maggie. But we can’t be so afraid of experiencing pain that it interferes with the things we love. Think about your dad, how much he suffers with his arthritis. I see him every morning putting his hands in a basin filled with ice before he starts his day’s work on the violins. But he doesn’t stop doing it, even when things are difficult. He can’t. And neither should you.”
She leaned in closer to me and rubbed my back.
“Do you know the child’s name yet?”
“Yuri,” I said softly.
“I think you owe it to yourself to at least make an effort for Yuri,” my mother counseled. “He’s cooped up in that house and not able to go to school like the rest of the kids his age. Think about what you could bring to his life,” she said gently. “And imagine what he might bring to yours.”
The following Tuesday morning, as promised, I went to see Principal Nelson before classes started and gave him my answer.
“I’m thrilled, Maggie. You’re going to do a great job with Yuri.”
My face grew warm. I hoped he was right, but I felt plagued by uncertainty. I knew I had switched careers because I wanted to make a difference in the world and thought there was no better way to do that than by helping to shape a child’s life. But, suddenly, the stakes seemed so much higher than they had before. I couldn’t fail this sick little boy.
“I’ll let the family know you’ll be stopping by tomorrow to introduce yourself.”
“Sounds good,” I said and then hurried down the hall to get to my classroom before my first set of students arrived.
Every teacher, no matter the grade or how long they’ve been teaching, struggles these first few weeks of school. We have only a small window to connect with each child, and we need to form a good impression from the get-go.
Their muscles still cling to the memory of summer vacation—the sports at camp or lazy days at the beach. Most of them, particularly the boys, strain to sit still for the full period.
As one of the newer teachers, I still had great reserves of energy. In the morning, I transformed myself from bleary-eyed, coffee-deprived Maggie Topper in her petal pink cotton flannel pajamas, into a caffeine-fueled teacher extraordinaire. I blow-dried my hair to a clean sheet of copper and wore clothes that I thought were professional, but still had a bit of flair.
The unexpected revelation, I scrawled on the blackboard the first day I met with my sixth grade English class. “We will learn when we’re least expecting to.”
“Cool,” Oscar said. “No homework, then?”
“Not so fast. We’ll be doing a lot of writing this year. There will be things you never thought of before you took your pencil to your paper.” I gave a little tap to my desk. “Now, how cool is that?”
The classroom rustled. I saw Jack shift in his seat. Rachel tore a sheet of loose-leaf paper from her binder and crumpled it in a tight ball. A pencil rolled to the front of the class.
“In a few days we’ll begin making our writer’s notebooks. Each of you will be writing your own personal narratives in these books. They’re going to be reflective of all your thoughts. Your likes and dislikes. You’re even going to decorate the cover with images or words you think best define you.”
Some of the boys rolled their eyes. A few of the girls in the front were needlessly writing down every word I said.
“For those of you who are already half-asleep,” I joked, “wake-up. Because this year is going to be fun.”
It had been my mother who encouraged me to leave my job in PR and pursue a job in teaching. She took one look at me that spring after working nearly a year at Mellancamps Strategies and said, “Your eyes are looking dim, sweetheart. What happened to that sparkle I know so well?”
“It’s just not how I imagined it would be,” I complained. “I thought I’d like the frenetic speed of things in the office. The excitement of trying to help package the latest account. But everyone is angry half the time and yelling at each other . . . I feel sick to my stomach every day, nervous my boss is going to scream at me because I didn’t order enough bagels for the directors’ meeting, and I’m getting an ulcer over a job where I’m not even using my brain.”
My mother was quiet for a moment.
“You’re twenty-three, honey. You know you’re young enough to make a career change. One thing you never get back is your time . . .”
“But to what?”
She knew the answer before I even asked the question. She had seen me dress up since I was a little girl and put my father’s reading glasses on top of my head and use the easel in my basement as a makeshift blackboard. From the moment I first walked into kindergarten class, the classroom felt like my natural arena. I instinctively gravitated toward the desks closest to the teacher. I relished the proximity to this person who knew the answer to every one of my questions, and when they were talented, exuded an energy that radiated from every pore. Every day, I put my books on the classroom windowsill and pretended it was my own bookshelf. When I was in elementary school, I imagined I was the teacher. I sat with my back straight and my eyes alert, and I could transport myself into her seat or see myself standing in front of the blackboard.
“You can go back to school for your master’s. Apply now and see if you get in. It can’t hurt, Maggie. You’re a person who thrives on a real sense of purpose. That’s why you’re unhappy at your job.” She gave a little tap on my forehead. “Your brain is being wasted,” she said. “And so is your heart.”
I knew my mother was right. During my last year of college at Michigan, my friends were looking forward to their first jobs at banks or large corporations. Bill had accepted a job at a big insurance company, which he had landed through one of his fraternity connections, and he couldn’t wait to start. But I loathed the thought of leaving school. I lived for it. I loved its various cycles. There was always a chance to do something new, and learn something different, the following year with another set of professors.
I didn’t look back once I started teaching. I loved the energy it gave me, the electricity that began as soon as I entered the classroom. It was so much more rewarding than marketing a new brand of marshmallows or a toothpaste that whitened your smile. Teaching was about opening children’s minds to infinite possibilities, to make them think and question the world around them. There were certainly some days that left me exhausted or irritated, but how many jobs could actually give you the opportunity to make an impact on a life? With teaching, I had finally found a sense of purpose.
The following afternoon, after my last class was over, I prepared to meet Yuri. I opened up my big floppy bag and placed my notepad and folder in it. I had written up a handout for all my students that described much of what we would be doing that year. I couldn’t wait to get the children working on their individual writer’s notebooks. I was happy that, in less than a half an hour, I’d have a better sense of Yuri and what our time together would be like. I had willed myself not to imagine how sick he might appear. I didn’t want to press my memories of Ellie onto Yuri. I glanced at the address Mr. Nelson had given me and took a deep breath.
The Krasny residence was only a fifteen-minute drive from the school, just past Moriches Road and not too far from the local farm where Bill and I had bought corn all summer.
The house was small, nearly the same size as our rental, but the exterior paint was peeling and it seemed to sag in a sigh of neglect. Outside there was a brick pathway that followed from the curb to the door. Dandelions poked out from the spaces in the cement joints, and the grass was covered in patches of clover.
I parked on the street and checked my face in the rearview mirror. I had been up since six a.m. that day, and my face clearly showed it. My fair complexion, with its smattering of freckles, looked sallow. The edges of my eyes were rimmed in pink like a tired rabbit. I wanted to make a good first impression, and a weary face surely wasn’t the way to get a new student enthused about schoolwork. I fumbled in my bag for my mascara and lipstick and reapplied my makeup quickly.
I reached over for my handbag, locked the car, and made my way toward the house, dandelions folding beneath my feet.
She didn’t introduce herself at first, the slender woman who answered the door. Her skin and bone structure were clearly Eastern European. I had never seen such pronounced cheekbones. Her wheat-colored hair was coiled in a tight bun.
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Maggie Topper, Yuri’s English tutor.”
Her fingers were slender and cold; her eyes were shadowed in dark circles. She forced a brief smile. “I’m Katya, his mother.” She wore no mascara or lipstick, and I now wished I could tissue off the shade of Raspberry Glacé I had just applied.
“Please come in.” She ushered me inside, her speech revealing a distinct accent. It wasn’t that the words weren’t clear. It was more her cadence, which made her sentences come out in a halting, staccato-like rhythm.
Inside, the house was dimly lit. The scent of simmering onions floated in from the kitchen. The house had that same stifled air and heavy quiet that I had remembered when I visited Ellie, as though illness had made itself a permanent guest.
“Yuri is on the couch.” She gestured me toward the living room. “He’s a bit tired today. The math tutor came yesterday.” She walked toward the room’s threshold and then stopped. “Can I get you some tea?”
“I’m good, thanks. Just had my third cup of coffee.” I looked at her wrapped in her sweater. We were having an Indian summer, so outside it was close to 70 degrees, but Katya looked like one of those women who always seemed as if they were freezing.
“I think today he and I can just get to know each other a bit,” I reassured her. “And, don’t worry, I won’t give him any homework, so he can get his rest tonight.”
She forced another smile. “Good. He’ll like that.” Katya hesitated for a moment. “I guess I should mention, Yuri’s had a hard time lately. He really liked going to his old school, even though he missed a lot of days being sick. With the new move and being home all day, he’s been really down.”
“I bet,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll do my best to make our time together as fun for him as possible.”
Katya nodded, and lifted her hand toward the hallway.
“Anyway, the washroom is on the left. We all must be vigilant about hand washing. His heart condition can sometimes make breathing difficult for him.” She inhaled deeply. “So even a little cold can be dangerous for Yuri.”
“Of course,” I said. “No need to explain. It makes sense why you’d have to be so careful.”
I dipped into the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and rolled up my sleeves.
When I walked into the living room, I found Yuri bundled under a down comforter, his face peeking out from a mountain of puffy layers. My first reaction was relief when I saw him, because he did not look sickly the way I remembered Ellie. Instead, he reminded me of a little bird. His blond hair was sticking up in feathered peaks. He had the same pale white skin and sharp cheekbones as his mother. Staring at me were two large marble blue eyes.
“You must be Yuri,” I said. I was the one who now appeared like a bird. I could hear the sound of my voice, which was almost freakishly chirpish.
He pushed the covers down toward his waist, and I could see he was still in his pajamas. They were the old-fashioned, button-down kind, blue and red checked like the kind my father wore.
“I’m Ms. Topper and I’m going to be tutoring you in English language arts.”
He lifted his hand from the comforter and offered me a weak, half-hearted wave.
I smiled at him. “Yuri, we’re going to have fun together this year.” I sat down and placed my bag next to my feet and pulled out my folder. “We’ll be reading lots of great books . . .” I lifted my eyes to him. “Do you like to read?”
I saw two textbooks already stacked on the coffee table next to him. Math and science. I also noticed a pocket Game Boy, but there were no clues about any recreational reading.
My question went unanswered. Instead, Yuri’s eyes drifted toward the bird feeder by the window. Two starlings were pecking at a mound of seed, their feathered tails bobbing up and down. Spattered against the cedar decking was a spray of fallen seeds and wet leaves.
“Hmmm,” I said, trying to refocus the conversation. “Did you read any books over the summer?” I knew Franklin had sent out a list of suggested summer reading to all of the sixth grade students.
Again, Yuri didn’t answer. His gaze remained fixed on the window and on the birds outside, as though he envied that they were on the opposite side of the paned glass.
“So if reading’s not your thing . . . I’m going to take that as a personal challenge for this year . . . to change that.” I forced a laugh. “But in the meantime, how about telling me about something you do like?”
“I’d like not to be stuck inside all day,” Yuri answered flatly.
I felt a chill run through me. All my hopes of dazzling Yuri with my boundless energy and creativity were quickly fading.
“I can imagine it’s very frustrating not being able to go to school like everyone else,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
“You can’t imagine,” he said, staring at me. “Nobody can.”
For several seconds, the silence between us felt awkward and oppressive. I didn’t have the buffer of other children in front of me, like I did in my classroom. I couldn’t call on another student to fill the air. I didn’t have a blackboard to turn to and start writing different prompts. It was just the two of us, and I felt like I was drowning in quicksand right there in front of him.
Luckily, Katya’s voice soon floated into the room like a welcome life raft.
“Yuri? Ms. Topper?” She stood at the threshold of the living room holding a tray of cookies and two glasses of milk. “You said you didn’t want tea, but maybe I can tempt you with some cookies?”
“Now you know my secret weakness.” I laughed. “In my family, food is our first language.”
Katya smiled and placed the plate of cookies on the table between us.
“I hope Yuri is being a good boy for you.” She looked over to him and gave him a knowing look, as though she had been listening to our brief exchange.
“As you can see, he is not so happy to be home all day.”
Yuri reached over and took a cookie. A thin veil of powdered sugar settled on his lips.
“I think you’ll find Yuri to be a very smart boy, once you get to know him,” she said, lifting the tray into the air. There was a gracefulness to Katya that seemed second nature to her, and made her appear different than most of the other mothers I had encountered.
Yuri took another cookie and looked out the window. He made no attempt to counter anything his mother had said, as some children who are unhappy often do.
After she had left, I once again tried to whet Yuri’s appetite for what we’d be doing together this year.
“So like I said, we’ll be reading lots of great books . . . and doing some really fun things like making our own writing notebooks. All the students love decorating them. You’ll see . . .”
But it was obvious Yuri wasn’t listening to me. His eyes had returned to the window. The one remaining starling perched on the deck flapped its wings and flew off. As I reached into my bag to find my notepad, I could feel Yuri retreating from me, without his uttering a single word.
Over the next few weeks, I visited the Krasny house six times, and each visit was less productive than the one before. Yuri failed to complete the homework I assigned him. I had left a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows that my midlevel reading group at Franklin was using for discussion. When I tried to engage in a discussion with him about the book, it was obvious he hadn’t even bothered to open it. I contemplated approaching Principal Nelson and telling him he might need to consider replacing me because I was failing to connect with Yuri. My frustration was taking its toll.
“The great irony of it all,” I complained to Suzie over coffee, “is that I have command of twenty-four students in my classroom, but I’m unable to reach the one child who is sitting right across from me. How is that even possible?”
“I think you’re being way too hard on yourself,” she counseled.
“I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. Maybe I’m not as good a teacher as I thought I was.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Suzie cut me off. “He’s having a hard time. The kid’s cooped up in his living room all day and not able to go to school like other children. Why would he be so quick to bond with you? You need to stop expecting him to be a normal kid, when he’s not. His situation is unique . . . and so is he.”
I made a face. I knew she was right, but it was so hard to have clarity when I was failing so miserably.
“The thing about kids, Maggie, is that they can tell right away when you’re trying too hard. It’s like they can smell it on you. He probably hates how everyone strives to put a happy face on when they see him.”
I knew she was right. I had been trying too hard.
“Children need to feel that they can trust you. And maybe it takes longer with some kids than with others to earn that trust.”
It was far more challenging than I anticipated to appear laid-back with Yuri and not push so hard. But then something unexpected happened between us. Something I could never have anticipated would help me connect with Yuri. It was baseball.
That afternoon, I was twenty minutes late to Yuri’s house. An accident had shut down much of Route 25A and I had to take two detours to get to him. When I arrived, Katya looked concerned.
“We weren’t sure you were coming today. You’re always so punctual.”
“There was a bad accident on 25A,” I apologized.
“He’s in the living room watching TV. I told him he could watch a game since I assumed you weren’t coming.”
“No problem,” I said, sliding my bag off my shoulder. “I’ll wash my hands and go say hello.”
I found Yuri with his feet up on the ottoman, his body lunged forward and his eyes fixated on the television screen.
I walked deeper into the living room, and Yuri’s head turned to me. A look of alarm crossed his face. He didn’t want to have to stop watching the game.
“Hey, who’s winning?”
“The Yankees are losing to the Orioles. It’s five nothing, bottom of the ninth.” His voice was tense.
“They pulled Clemens, and now Grimsley’s pitching. Too bad they can’t put Rivera in.”
I smiled and sat down next to him and started watching the game. “You’re right. They’re too far behind to bring in their closer.”
I could feel Yuri glance at me sideways and smile.
It was strange. Even with silence between us, I felt the energy shift in the room.
I spent the next half an hour with Yuri watching the final inning of the game. It was a study in itself to observe him interacting with the players on the TV screen. The listless, disinterested child I had encountered in my previous visits had now transformed into an incredibly impassioned and informed fan. Seeing him in this new role made me realize that nothing was more alive for Yuri than baseball.
I was not a complete stranger to the game. I actually considered myself a pretty decent fan, enough to know what a “closer” was, anyway. My older brother was a die-hard Mets fan growing up and so was Bill. I loved going to the games and getting caught up in the feel-good energy of America’s favorite pastime. I even had my own Al Leiter jersey that Bill had recently given me to wear to the occasional game at Shea Stadium.
But I was clearly out of my league with Yuri, who started quoting batters’ statistics when they came up to the plate. He spoke of his four favorite players. Pettitte, Posada, Rivera, and Jeter, and why they made the Yankees so great.
When the game ended, Yuri picked up the remote control and shut off the television.
“Thank you, Ms. Topper, for letting me finish the game. I appreciate it.”
“It was a pleasure watching you get so into it. You really know a lot about baseball, don’t you?”
He smiled. “My dad and I really love the Yankees.”
“Well, you’re in for a treat, then, because guess what? I like the Mets.” I couldn’t resist teasing him.
“You’re clearly rooting for the wrong team, Ms. Topper!”
“Am I?” I played along.
“They haven’t won a World Series in thirteen years.”
“I guess I have a special spot in my heart for the underdog,” I said.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place then, Ms. Topper.”
He lifted his hand and placed it on his chest.
“Meet Yuri Krasny. Underdog number one.”
“You don’t strike me as an underdog,” I said, feigning that I didn’t see the bevy of orange plastic pill containers next to the lamp, and the large dehumidifier by the couch.
“Nope. And even if you did, the one thing I know about baseball is that it’s the player you’re least expecting to do anything who then hits the ball out of the park.” All those late-night conversations I had with Bill and his fraternity brothers over the years swirled inside my head for a second, and I reached deep into my memory to pull out the right comparison to impress him.
“You know, like Bucky Dent hit that home run that time.”
“Did you just say Bucky Dent?” An expression of disbelief washed over him. “You know who he is?”
Miraculously, a random reference that Bill had made over the summer to a friend of ours visiting from Boston about Bucky Dent’s famous home run against the Red Sox had stayed with me.
“Of course I do. He was a little guy, not a particularly good hitter. But he still had one of the most important hits in Yankee history.”
I saw Yuri’s face change when I said that. Again, I suddenly felt something shift between us, and my spirit lifted now that I knew we had a shared interest.
I now had the hook with him I had been looking for. Who knew that listening to Bill and his buddies drone on about baseball for all those years would finally come in handy?
But it clearly had.
Yuri lifted his chin and looked back at me. And that’s when I saw the sparkle of light behind his eyes.
It glimmered so brightly, it was blinding.
Reading Group Guide
The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman
Questions for Discussion
1.Maggie and Yuri’s teacher-student relationship is the heart of The Secret of Clouds. Do you have a teacher who left a lasting impression on you or made a permanent impact on your life?
2.How do music and dance serve as different forms of language for the characters in The Secret of Clouds? Think about how music is embraced in Maggie’s home and how it ultimately draws her to Daniel. How is it different from Katya’s family’s attitude toward her dancing? Does the fact that Katya is a ballet dancer influence her romance with Sasha?
3.How do the Topper and Krasny households communicate through food? What are the cultural differences? What are the similarities? Does food play a role in your family’s traditions and holidays?
4.Maggie’s mother tells her, “We can’t be so afraid of experiencing pain that it interferes with the things we love.” What are the different painful obstacles that the characters face, and how do they overcome them?
5.There are several references to butterflies in the novel. Why do certain characters identify with butterflies? Sasha also describes the butterfly effect to Katya early on in their relationship. Can you think of an example in your life where one individual meeting changed your destiny?
6.Do you believe Yuri’s heart defect was caused by the Chernobyl accident or was just a random case of bad luck? Does the author imply there were certain things that increased Katya’s risk of having a child with a birth defect?
7.How do Katya and Sasha approach Yuri’s diagnosis differently? How do their experiences as parents differ? How does each of them deal with the strain and fear of having a sick child?
8.How does Sasha’s faith transform over time? How is the conflict between science and faith explored in the novel? How do Sasha and Katya’s beliefs differ on this issue?
9.What role do sports play in The Secret of Clouds, and how do they unite the various characters in the novel? What makes baseball such an attractive sport for Sasha and Yuri?
10.Both Florence and Katya have family stories that they don’t share readily with others, yet these histories impact how they are perceived by others. Did you have greater sympathy for these characters once you learned about their past experiences? Do you know people in your life whom you saw differently and more empathetically once you learned something they don’t often reveal to others?
11.Do you think there are individuals who are destined to become teachers because of certain qualities that they possess? What traits do you think contribute to making some people more suitable than others for the profession? Is teaching a calling? Have you been drawn to a certain profession? What made you a perfect fit for that job?