I fully realize that the laws for child custody and adoption are much more complex than represented here. The real laws are frequently counter-productive and in many cases provide less support for children — rather than more. Several people have suggested that I change the time of the story back to when the bureaucracy was smaller — but for obvious reasons I wanted it generally in the current time frame.
So with poetic license and the forgiveness of my readers, I give you this story. I offer specific apologies to the Sedgwick County Department District Attorney's Office of Child Protective Services for impinging on their professionalism with my liberal use of artistic license (that is a colloquial term used to denote the distortion or complete ignorance of fact).
Thanks to RoustWriter for his edit and comments on an early version of this story. And thanks as always to Techsan for his great editing.
Such a tragic scene - two kids stranded in the rain.
I'd gone to the train station in Newton, Kansas, to pick up my mom — she was coming to stay with me for a few weeks for Christmas. The roads were bad and I was running late. A cold winter storm - this was almost the middle of December - had moved in. The temperature was hovering a few degrees above freezing and the rain had occasional flurries of sleet mixed in with it. Even with the four-wheel drive of my Range Rover I expected to find the roads treacherous.
This may be a surprise to some but Amtrak doesn't set up its schedules with the folks in Newton in mind. The eastbound train usually arrives early in the morning at 3:01 and the westbound arrives a few minutes later at 3:25. I say arrive — this is a whistle stop so the arrival and departure times are as near simultaneous as Amtrak can possibly make them. If there are no passengers or freight to pick up or drop off the train doesn't even slow down.
My mom was coming from Princeton, Illinois, where she lived with dad on the family farm. I'd checked the train status before I left home and found it was only running two minutes late. Glancing at my watch I'd figured I'd make it okay after all. I pulled into the station just as the eastbound was pulling out.
I parked and poured a large cup of hot chocolate from my thermos and wandered on out under the edge of the roof to watch for Mom's train to come in. I was bundled up pretty good in a fairly new sheepskin jacket - the kind with the big furry collar - and mused a bit about my failed marriage with Eileen. It was a not uncommon story: married too young with a wife that wanted to "experience life." I guess Mom was coming out to console me and make sure I ate right. Once a mom, always a mom.
I heard a noise, almost a whimpering sound, off towards the end of the platform. I couldn't see anything through the heavy, cold rain so I walked a few paces down the track. I saw a huddled mass kind of tangled together but I couldn't see clearly what it was. As I walked closer, I could see two small kids, one largish, cardboard-like suitcase and what I heard was out-and-out crying, not whimpering. I guess the strong biting northwest wind had muffled the sound.
I stood there looking down at the kids, my heart giving a lurch as I took in the sad pair before me. The two kids were poorly dressed, a light jacket on each. There was a girl of maybe six and a very small boy that looked about three... but turned out to be four. Both were emaciated and the sneakers they were wearing were falling apart and wet from the rain.
I'd never seen such a tragic scene - these two kids stranded in the rain, half frozen from the cold. Apparently someone had dropped them off during the brief stop. A chill colder than the rain came over me - it dawned on me that someone had deserted these two beautiful, bedraggled children. I saw the lights from the westbound train and heard the lonesome whistle as it resonated with the pain in my soul at seeing kids left in this state.
I grabbed the kids and took them under the overhang. I ran back for their suitcase, hoping it would wait to disintegrate until I could get the kids taken care of. I sat the kids on the wet suitcase, took off my coat and wrapped the heavy warmth around them. They looked like they were in shock and didn't say anything - they just sat there, startled out of their tears, looking at me with eyes large and round.
When I saw the kids I'd poured the hot chocolate back in the thermos. Now I poured a half-cup and tried to get them to sip a little bit to warm them up.
A loud squealing of brakes announced the arrival of the incoming train. When it came to a stop my mom stepped down, a porter close behind her putting her two small bags on the wet asphalt. It was getting slippery; the temperature must be dropping. I took her bags and led her over to the kids.
"Land sakes, Ben. What's this?"
"I don't know, Mom. When I got here a few minutes ago they were at the end of the platform sitting together trying unsuccessfully to stay warm. Their clothes are soaked so there wasn't much chance of that. I guess they came in on the eastbound and someone on the train dropped them off. Let's get them into the station and get them warm, then we'll figure out what to do."
Just then, the station agent walked out, locking the door behind him. I went over and talked to him, pointing to the children, and explained what I thought had happened.
"I'm sorry, Mister, ain't nothin' I can do to help. I got a mare ready to drop a foal and I gotta get home. You live in Wichita, right? Whyn't you take them to Child Protective Services - they're part of the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office. Sorry again, mister, but I gotta run."
With that he was gone. Mom and I quickly talked it over and decided the best thing was to get them warm and fed. We put the kids in the back seat of the Range Rover and put the luggage in the back. We drove to my small ranch, ten miles or so northeast of Wichita. I bred miniature horses as a hobby while working for what used to be Beech Aircraft, now Raytheon, as an Aeronautical Engineer. Mom sat in the back with them and got them to drink a little of the now not-so-hot chocolate.
When we arrived at the ranch, Mom put the kids in a hot tub of water to warm them up. I looked through their suitcase to see if I could find a change of clothes. On top of what few clothes that were there was an envelope - I put that aside while I looked for something for them to wear. At the bottom of the meager few clothes was a threadbare nightgown for the girl and a pair of oversized pajamas with holes in the knees for the boy.
I took the clothes into the bathroom and gave them to Mom and asked if the kids had said anything.
"Not a thing. These poor little tykes... just look at them. They are pretty nigh starved."
I went back in the kitchen and fixed some more hot chocolate and warmed up some soup. Mom brought them in and they ate the soup ravenously, along with the oyster crackers I'd put in a bowl on the table.
SEARCHING FOR LOVE
While they were drinking their chocolate I was able to get their names from the girl. Her name was Anna and she spoke in a broken but only slightly accented English. The boy's name was Pasha, which I found out later, was the Russian familiar name for Pavel.
Mom got the kids asleep on the pullout sofa in the den and she went off to her room, looking a little too tired. Pouring a large brandy, for "medicinal purposes," I opened the envelope to see what I could find out. There were two letters; one in broken English and one written in what I assumed to be Russian; for sure, it was written using the Cyrillic alphabet. There was also a photo of the two kids with a small, dark haired woman who looked about thirty. She was pretty in a hard-edged way with short dark hair and had a tired look to her. From the size of the kids I guessed the picture was about a year old.
I looked at the short letter first:
To a good person,
My name Ludmila Serova. Come from Russia to get married. It was a trick and they made me bad woman. I can take no more, no more! My kids need home — no have family. You good person take my kids love them. They you kids now.
I no can take more I go way. Kiss hug my kids. Tell I love them. The man on train he sees me. No good for me no good save kids.
Goodbye good person god loves you.
I was crying by the time I finished reading this sad missive of pain. Reading between the lines I could see some of her hard life and problems. I washed my face in the hall bathroom and came back to look at the birth certificates. They did confirm that Ludmila was their mother but both were marked as "father unknown." The ages were four and six and one item grabbed my attention: Anna would be seven on Christmas Eve!
This was Saturday and I would go into town Monday morning to talk to the authorities to see what I could do. There was nothing in the envelope besides the letter. I was sitting on the sofa sipping another brandy when mom came in to talk to me.
After looking at me for a long moment — I guess to gauge my mood — she asked, quietly, "Do you want to talk about Eileen?"
Avoiding looking at her, I snapped, "No, I really don't want to talk about her."
Mom was silent for a while, then put her hand on my arm and kissed my cheek, "Okay, son. I'm going on to bed."
I took her arm and pulled her back down to the sofa. "Hey, I'm sorry, Mom." I didn't say anything for a couple of minutes, then added with a smile, "Mom, she left because she was jealous of you... she knew you would always be my best girl!"
She laughed and gave me a big hug.
"I guess I would like to talk about it. I've had it all bottled up inside of me and it's been festering." I thought about it for a bit, collecting myself and remembering. "I told Eileen when we got married that I was more or less a stay-at-home guy. With the work at Beech and everything I have to do around here, I just don't feel like going out. She told me that was what she was looking for, that she liked peace and quiet.
"Then about a year ago — that was more or less four years after we got married — she suddenly wanted to start going out dancing on the weekends. I tried to accommodate her, but some nights I was just too worn out. Finally one night she came out of the bedroom with her dancing clothes on and with a stubborn look on her face she told me she was going out dancing. We started a big argument but she looked at her watch and just walked out the door.
"I was standing there kinda with my mouth hanging open and heard a truck drive up. It dawned on me someone was picking her up! I ran outside just as the truck took off. I stewed for a long time and thought about trying to find her but there were just too many places. If they had gone out west towards Maize or south to Haysville or Derby I'd never find them. Hell, for all I knew they might be going to Hutchinson or almost anywhere.
"I drank too many beers and just sat there in a fugue, wondering if my marriage was over and whether I cared or not. I heard a noise but it was a few minutes before I realized it was that truck coming back. I grabbed the poker from the fireplace and ran out. I guess the guy saw the light from the front door 'cause the passenger door flew open and she came rolling out ass over teakettle.
"The truck was peeling out of there, tires spinning in the mud and I knew I couldn't reach him before he was gone. I threw the poker as hard as I could and heard a satisfying crash of glass — I think I hit his rear window and then he was gone.
"Eileen was sitting there in the mud with her skirt around her waist and her shirt unbuttoned. Mom, she didn't have a bra or panties on! I wanted so bad to kick her but I couldn't. I ran inside and locked the door with the chain, grabbing a bottle of Jack Daniels.
"The next morning her car was gone and I never saw her again. My lawyer, Jerry Allen found her and she wanted out of the marriage as bad as I did. Jerry came by one day about six months ago with signed divorce papers and a list from her of the stuff she wanted and I took the rest to the dump. I never was able to find out the name of the guy that she went out with. Probably just as well."
Mom gave me a hug and stood up, "Honey, you'll find a good girl some day. They aren't all like Eileen."
"I don't know, Ma. I'm pretty bummed on finding someone now."
She went on to bed and I sat there staring at the fire for a long time. I slept fitfully, woke up early and went out to the large barn to take care of my ponies. Everything was a winter wonderland of white. The trees were covered with ice and the ground was slippery with a sparse coating of snow over a thin layer of ice. It was still overcast and much colder than normal for this time of year but it did look like the rain was over. I finished my chores and went inside to fix breakfast for everyone.
I made a pot of coffee and sat looking out the window thinking about the kids. As soon as I heard Mom stirring around I made some chicken-fried steaks and sausage gravy with a big pile of fresh biscuits. Mom brought the kids in, yawning and rubbing their eyes as kids do, and we sat down. It was clear that the kids had never had sausage gravy served over a hot biscuit - they started slow and then really dug into it. Mom cut up their steaks and gave them a large glass of milk... and then another. It was obvious the kids were undernourished.
We tried talking to them. The little boy spoke no English at all and the girl spoke a broken English about a year below her age level - the kind of English you get from watching too much television. We didn't learn much, other than her mom cried a lot and they didn't have much to eat on the train. The language barrier was going to be a problem.
The weekend was both good and bad. It was a challenge trying to communicate with them and they were clearly upset and heartbroken that their mom had left them. They didn't understand. I showed them the letter and I think I got through to the girl how much her mom really loved them.
Even the good part was bad in a way. Simply put, mom and I were falling in love with them. They both had dark, curly hair and - when properly teased - had angelic smiles. They were very quiet and were enraptured when I put something on from the Animal Channel: a special on baby animals. The first laugh I heard from them was from watching baby lions playing with each other. I guess at some level, kids all over the world are pretty much the same.
That afternoon, we took them to a department store and bought them a few clothes: something to wear to the county offices and some sleepwear plus heavy winter coats. I had everything in the cart and was ready to check out when mom grabbed my arm and pulled me aside, whispering in my ear.
I felt kinda dumb... Eileen and I never had any kids and I'd forgotten such a basic thing as toys. I probably overindulged (from a guilty conscience... though I wasn't sure what guilt my conscience was worried about) but when we got home they were a pleasure to watch. I figured there hadn't been many toys for them - or much joy either.
Sunday morning the storm had completely passed and there was a hard bright sun. The air had that special clarity that winter brings to Kansas; you had the feeling that you could see China except for the curvature of the earth. The remaining snow and sleet would disappear quickly except for a few shady patches. I knew we were going to have a lot of mud by that afternoon.
After lunch I took them out to see my miniature horses. They were all pretty tame and used to youngsters, but I had one that was very steady. She had the coloring and spots of a fawn, so I'd named her Bambi. I put Anna first, then Pasha on Bambi and walked them around the corral, staying alongside the horse. The ride brought excited smiles to their faces. By the time we went in, their cheeks were ruddy from the sun and cold... and my heart was lost to them.
That night they were worn out and went right to sleep. Mom asked what was going to happen.
"I don't know. I do know that I'm getting too attached to them. I've always wanted kids, but Eileen kept saying no. I think we might have made it if we had a child or two. I think she just got bored."
Monday morning at nine, I called the Child Protective Services office. I explained everything to them and after some hemming and hawing about jurisdiction; they agreed to have me come in at eleven. Earlier, I'd called my boss to take a week off - I didn't tell him about the kids, just that my mom was in town.
The meeting took most of the day, but it came down to their not having anyone that spoke Russian. I filled out lots of forms and they took Mom's fingerprints and the kids plus mine. They also took pictures of the kids and made copies of their birth certificates. They had a person in the Sheriff's office they work with. His name was Joe Cates and he came by and talked with us. He was a long drink of water with hair that looked like it wasn't sure what it was supposed to do.
"This clearly looks like child desertion. It will be tough but we will give it a shot. We will check with Amtrak and see if we can find the origin and destination info. We will send the info we have to the police in those locations - though this won't help much if she got off at some other stop.
"We will also check with the State Department; her hometown is on the birth certificates. We will keep you posted, okay? It's a damn shame; those kids are precious. You wouldn't believe how often we see things like this though. I'm guessing that she was tricked into coming over and was caught up in the sex trade. Those are some rough characters. I don't know if it will help but I'll also check with Interpol — they have a sex crimes unit.
"One thing that is good. With the birth certificates it's clear they are American citizens so we won't get into a pissin' contest with the Russian authorities."
"I have a letter from her that might explain things somewhat. It's in Russian and I need to find someone to do translations and help me with the kids."
"Okay, make sure you get me a copy of the original and the translation. I'll make sure it gets to the right people."
We took the kids back home with us until the following Monday at the same time.
The people at the Child Protective Services office were very nice, but confused about whether they had any authority to handle the case. The bottom-line was they didn't have money in the budget for translation services so it was up to me to find someone.
When we got home, Mom fed the kids while I got on the horn with my faculty advisor at Wichita State and told him what I needed. I'd become good friends with him while I was working on my Master's degree in Aerospace engineering.
"Bill, could you find out if a student or professor in the Modern and Classical Languages and Literature Department that teaches or studies Russian could help me? Or, if that doesn't work, maybe you could also check to see if anyone from Russia is enrolled in any of the other departments?"
"I can do better than that, Ben. I have a girl who is working on her PhD in my department. She just has a couple of classes left to graduate so she isn't too busy right now. She's a lovely girl, very bright and personable but a bit shy. She came here originally on a tennis scholarship but she has turned out to be a brilliant scholar."
The next day I got a call from Bill's student, Alina Zvonareva. She spoke English quite well, and we agreed to meet for lunch the next day. We met at the Olive Garden on North Rock Road, since I knew it would be quiet and it was convenient for both of us.
When we met in the lobby, I was stunned by her attractiveness. Not really a classic beauty, but more of a cross between the-girl-next-door and the half-starved, anemic look of a model. She was the same height as me, right at six feet. She was slight, but certainly not boyish. She had a slightly olive complexion with quite long, dark hair cascading down her back in gentle curls.
The meeting went great. She was fascinated by my story and anxious to meet the kids. She agreed right off to go with me for the Monday meeting at the County Attorney's office. I had a longer term plan to ask her to tutor the kids in both English and Russian but I didn't mention that as yet. I was going to pick her up Friday morning to spend the day with the kids.
The minute she walked in and said hello to the kids, I knew I was in trouble. Their faces lit up like a Christmas tree, and Alina and Anna started jabbering to each other like long lost cousins. Both of the children ran to her, grabbing her legs and crying like there was no tomorrow. Alina knelt down and pretty soon she was crying too. Looking at her I realized how homesick she must be... and just how much the kids were missing their mother.
Later, the kids lay down for a nap while I talked everything over with Alina. She read the second, longer letter and basically told me that the kids' mom was in trouble and she had to run. She was out of money and was flat out of choices and someone was looking for her. It broke her heart but she wanted some kind American to take her kids and give them a good, happy home. There was more but Alina wanted to talk about it later. She did say it was very sad and maybe there was stuff we should give to the police. I remembered that Joe Cates wanted a copy.
Alina said she would translate the letter for the various authorities. One thing she told me was that it was clear that there was no one in California or in Russia that would have a claim to the children. I felt both sad and excited about that. Maybe there was a way I could keep these children and give them the love and care they needed.
Things moved fast after that. I was given temporary custody as long as my mom was there. If she left I'd have to turn them over to Child Protective Services. Before I could adopt them I'd have to have someone to be a mother for them. They also said there would be periodic visits by a case officer; most of them would be scheduled but for some they would show up unannounced. My dad agreed to come out for a couple of months - that gave me some breathing room about Mom staying longer. But I sure needed a creative idea.
Alina did agree to the tutoring — we worked out an arrangement for fees and times. She had an old beat-up VW so transportation wasn't a problem. She would start during the holiday break. As she left I thought about one of the things she was concerned about. She was in the USA on a student visa and would have to return to Russia in June when she graduated. I had an idea but I'd have to think about it.
I invited her to come for Christmas. Our family tradition was always to go to the Christmas Eve mass, have a big dinner around eight or nine and open presents afterwards. It always worked out great since everyone could sleep in.
We didn't have any meetings with any of the county authorities until after the first of the year. I did drop off a copy of the translated letter to both the Child Protective Services and to Joe Cate. The letter was stunning in its sadness and I was irate that something like that could happen in America. I read the letter again, tears in my eyes:
Translated by Alina Zvonareva on this 17th day of December 2006. The translation is literal to better show her mood and feelings.
My name is Ludmila Serova. I am from Moscow.
I write this story with the truth, as I know it. I use real names and attached is a list and description of all the bad men and everything that I could remember.
My father always called me Elena, but he died when I was seventeen I stopped using that name. My mother had died when I was twelve.
I lived with my aunt and uncle for one year, then they told me, "Ludmila, there is no opportunity here. We understand that a lot of girls go to America. Anna Abelev down the street married a man from Chicago and her mom says she is happy. She gets a letter once a month from Anna.
Her mom says there is this nice man that arranges everything. He has a book of pictures and information about men. You look through the book and pick three men. They take pictures of you and write a description. This is sent to those three men. If any of them pick you then we arrange the marriage. If more than one likes you then you take your pick. If no one wants to marry you, then you pick three more men.
I thought it over and thought, "What can I lose?" I met the man and picked my three names. Two of them liked me. One was a farmer and I thought that must be hard work. The other man owned a restaurant in the movie star place of Los Angeles. I didn't think I could be a movie star but I had worked for my Uncle, Vanya, for years in his restaurant. I thought I could help this man.
I picked the restaurant man. He was older than I was by fifteen years but I didn't care about that. His picture looked kind; he was just a little chubby and didn't have too much hair. His name was Kirill Aleksashkin and he was from St. Petersburg. I was blessed to have a fellow Russian that would help me learn English and teach me how to live in America.
The man that helped me was Dmitri Budarin. He did the passport and all the other paperwork for me. He gave me the plane ticket to Los Angeles, where Kirill would meet me. I only thought he was helping me. May that man burn in hell!
The flight was a wonder for me, everything so different. When I got off the plane I had no problems with immigration and customs. Kirill was waiting for me and he was so nice. He greeted me formally in the Russian way. He took me to the parking lot and carried my small luggage for me. There was a large black van with a lot of seats - I think nine altogether.
When we parked he sat next to me in the first row of seats behind the driver. He told me, "We have to wait for some friends. Is that okay, Ludmila?"
I told him okay then he shyly asked me for a kiss. "Ludmila, we are to sleep together this night and we will marry soon. I already love you."
He started kissing me and put his hand on my breast. I was not ready for that so soon but he was my husband to be so I let him. For about ten minutes he put his hand on me in different places. I was embarrassed to do this in the parking lot. Then there was soft knock on the door and two more couples and a man I found out later was the boss.
His name was Lev Katzev and he was from Moscow like I was. The other two couples sat on the last two rows and Kirill was the driver. While we were in the airport and later heavy traffic, the man called Lev sat next to me and talked about Moscow.
We drove for a long time. I couldn't believe all the lights and the cars. America looked like a wonderful place. We went through a town I saw a sign that I remember as Palmdale then out to the country. Lev said we needed to go to a place for training for two weeks.
Then he did something strange, he said, "Sit on my lap."
It wasn't a nice way how he said it. I shook my head no and he pinched my arm really hard. I had a bruise for a long time. I was crying but he pulled me on his lap. He pinched my breast hard then put his hand up my skirt. I tried to stop him but he slapped me.
We got to a farm; it was not near anything. There was a large house and we all got out. An older Russian woman came out and told us to follow her. She took each of us to a separate room and told us to get undressed. "And I mean take off every thing! If you do not obey you will be hurt. If you don't obey on everything you will be hurt. I promise you."
A man came to the room and took all of my stuff. He said he was going to burn everything we had, even our passports. He looked at me in a way that scared me. I knew then I was in for a bad time.
An hour or so later, a man came in and hit me in the stomach then slapped me hard. He took me and I fought a lot. That happened twice more that night with different men. The next day when a man came in I fought again but not as much... and I didn't get hurt as much. After that I just lay there and let them do what they wanted to.
Then they took me to a house and men would come and use me. Three years later I got pregnant; I don't know how. They wanted to stop the baby but I told them I would kill myself. They moved me to the farm and I didn't have to do so many men for a while. My baby Anna was born and then two years later my beautiful boy, Pavel... Pasha, as I called him, was born.
I had to work hard to get my body back and I was one of the prettiest girls. They would bring rich men out and have parties for them. One of the men, he was old, over sixty, liked me and maybe felt sorry for me. One time he came out and all the men were gone and made me hurry to pack an old suitcase I used for the clothes for my kids and took me to the train station.
He said he had heard that they were keeping me around because they thought they could make a lot of money off of Anna in a few years. He told me that he wasn't a good man but he couldn't let something like that happen.
He gave me money for a ticket to Chicago and the address of his sister. He said he would call and ask her to help me out. I took the kids and that old cardboard suitcase on the train and I prayed for the first time in years that I could save my babies.
The first night on the train I saw Kirill and I knew all was lost. There would be men waiting for us in Chicago. Kirill was just watching us to make sure we didn't get off. I didn't have much money left; I had no hope anymore. The idea came to me if I could get the kids off I could save them.
The first two times I tried to put off the kids Kirill was too close and the stop was for longer time. Finally I heard someone say the next stop was in a place called Newton and it would be late at night. The train would stop just for one passenger to get on.
I had to take a chance; there might be no other. I wrote this letter and put it with the kid's papers. Take care of my babies and get bad men. I cry for my babies. I cry for Ludmila.
That week before Christmas Alina came over every day to get to know the kids better. Without really thinking about it I realized I wanted to get to know her better. I'd have to consider that some. I realized I had told mom I wasn't interested in women but now I was hedging a little... at least to myself.
During this time Alina wasn't doing the more formal education tutoring we'd talked about. She was trying to make the children feel comfortable and to start teaching them some rudiments of English necessary for some basic communication. She would make it a game - like learning the names of all the foods at each meal, how to say good morning, stuff like that.
It was amazing to me how fast the kids filled out. They always ate everything on their plate but never asked for more. I figured that was from years of there not being anything else to eat other than what they were served. They were becoming more relaxed but were still very shy, especially Pasha.
Alina knew about Anna's birthday being on Christmas Eve so we planned a party for them. We were going to include Pasha like it was his birthday also - he wouldn't be five until March. After my not thinking of buying toys that first day we had the kids my mom and Alina gently shoved me aside and said they would do the shopping. Dad was here by then so he was the designated chauffeur for what seemed to be lots of shopping trips.
Alina said that both she and the kids were Russian Orthodox so it was fine for us all to attend the church I usually went to — the large, new Catholic Church way out on East 13th Street, about ten miles from my ranch. I guess ranchette would be a better term since it was only twenty acres.
She went on to explain that the Eastern Orthodox Church was essentially Catholic in belief but not under the See of Rome.
"I attend the St. George Cathedral and there is a small Russian Community there. They have dinners once a month with food and music from our country. I'm sure Bishop Basil would be happy for me to bring the children to church with me and make sure they receive all their sacraments and any necessary instruction."
This touched me and she could see it in my eyes. Alina squeezed my hand and smiled. We went on to talk about the Christmas Eve party with her with the special birthday add-on.
Dad had flown in early. Mom hated planes but Dad would rather fly. Mom had told him about the kids on the phone so he was prepared when he saw them. He tried to act tough but I saw the tears in his eyes when they shyly gave him a hug.
With my parents and Alina we went to the five o'clock mass at my church where, as it was every year, the children's choir sang the traditional carols. The kids looked really cute in their new clothes and their eyes were huge as they were given candy canes when we left the church.
When we got back to the house, Alina told us, "I have to go back and change and pick up a couple of things. On the way back I'll pick up my date, if that's okay with you."
Date? Damn, what was that about. She hadn't said anything about a date, or that she was going with anyone.
Mom saw my confusion and quickly told her, "Alina, that's fine. We'd like to meet your young man."
She started to say, "Well, he's not..." but then shrugged her shoulders and left.
I looked at mom but she just shook her head and walked into the kitchen. I poured a small bourbon with a little water and sat in the den watching the kids playing with some of their toys. I turned on the TV, something on Disney, and they came up and sat next to me on the sofa. I guess the idea I'd had was pretty stupid... maybe it was more of a daydream than an idea.
I'd thought that maybe Alina and I could have some kind of a sham, but legal wedding, allowing her to stay in America and me to have someone to help with the kids. Something like in Green Card, which had always been one of my favorite movies. Well, anything with Andie MacDowell in it would be one of my favorites.
The way I envisioned it was that it would be strictly platonic — just a way to solve both of our problems. At some level though I couldn't really lie to myself and I knew that if there were more it wouldn't break my heart. She seemed the sweetest girl but what could she see in me? I guess we both were focused on aeronautical engineering but I figured she was about twenty-five and that made her ten years younger than me. Add to that the baggage of a failed marriage... staring at the fire while the kids watched TV it seemed the "ho, ho, ho" had gone out of Christmas.
The doorbell rang and I jumped up to get it. I was at the door before I remembered that Alina wouldn't be alone. She waltzed in with a swarthy Latin in tow — I later learned he was from Guadalajara.
"Ben, this is Manny Rivas. He's the coach for the women's tennis team at WSU. Manny, this is Ben Johnson. He is an aeronautical engineer at Beech."
I instinctively disliked Manny... intensely. He was an inch or so shorter than I was but stocky, with wide shoulders. He tried to crush my hand but I was having none of that. He quickly backed off and tried a different way to show how macho he was.
"Alina's been my best gal ever since I coached her as an undergraduate. She was all Missouri Valley her last two years. Hey, she's a really hot number, isn't she?" He walked off giving her a swat on her slim but firm butt and wandered off muttering something about, "Ain't there no place to get a drink around here?"
Something tightened in my throat and I looked askance at Alina. She flushed, obviously embarrassed, and put her packages on the hallway table and went off looking for the kids. I shrugged and walked into the kitchen to see if mom needed any help.
Dinner was great: mom had fixed her usual turkey with all the trimmings. I ate too much as I was wont to do and it wasn't hard to entice the kids into having seconds. It was amazing how well behaved they were. I could see they were still hungry but instead of asking for more they quietly sat and looked at their plates. Alina smiled at me and served them some more, quietly saying something to them in Russian. Alina had fixed several traditional Russian desserts and I could see Anna and Pasha starting to look plump just eating them.
Manny made an ass out of himself during dinner, cracking crude jokes, starting to eat before I'd said the prayer, reaching for things instead of simply asking for them and polishing off a bottle of Pinot Noir from Carneros without even blinking. If he came as a package with Alina I was going to have to rethink my plans to use her to tutor the kids. Every time he did something stupid Alina would turn red and look away.
The image came to me of Manny making love to Alina — no, a man like that could never make love, just rut — and I lost my appetite and didn't eat any of Alina's delicious looking desserts. She looked at me when she passed the dessert plate and when I didn't take anything she looked hurt. How could I explain to her why I had lost any desire for dessert?
After everything was finished in the kitchen we gathered around the tree. Mom had made a Santa costume for Dad and Alina explained the Santa Claus tradition to Anna and Pasha as best she could, but it was clear that the kids were only interested in the boxes and packages around the tree.
Before she passed out presents to the kids she told them the story of the Babushka. She told it to them in Russian and told us in English after they went to bed.
Babushka (meaning 'grandmother') distributes presents to children in Russia. According to the folktales, she is very old and when the Three Wise Men stopped on their way and asked her to accompany them to visit Jesus, she declined because it was very cold. However, she regretted the decision later and set off with presents for the baby in her basket. However, she never found Jesus and in the hope of finding Him one day, visits all the houses with children and leaves toys for the good ones.
I guess we had gone a bit overboard — the kids both looked overwhelmed with the bounty they reaped. I gave Alina a nice silk scarf and a pair of very soft gray leather driving gloves, both from Italy. She ran over and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I looked over a Manny and he was steaming! I guess he didn't like me any better than I liked him.
She gave me a nice leather billfold. I guess mom had told her mine was wearing out. She gave mom a set of Babushka dolls — the outermost one opened up to reveal a smaller one inside. This continued until there was a tiny doll in the inner core. Mom cried when she opened it.