Once again it has been quite sometime since I posted to this blog. However, I am delighted to add a family story from my history. Flying solo without Kristine, however, she is always with me.
The following essay was written in the spring of 2022 and received Honorable mention in the Jade Ring Non-fiction contest of the Wisconsin Writer's Association. Introducing you to Olga.
I smooth the lavender fabric and stand back to admire our table. A plant with periwinkle blossoms picks up the delicate stitched pattern on the tablecloth. Winter has been long and dark, so I have chosen a pastel cloth to lighten the table for the small group that will gather on Easter Sunday. Because Olga Yevgushchenko, a Ukrainian student, gave me this cloth nearly 30 years ago, I think it’s fitting to use this year, 2022. My thoughts go to the Ukrainian grandmothers who will not set an Easter or Passover table because they have fled their homes. Images of mothers and teenagers shepherding young children with their warm jackets, stuffed animals and a single suitcase, bring back memories of Olga.
Nearly thirty years ago, a friend asked us if we could provide housing for a 15-year-old piano prodigy who was going from an exchange program in Racine to study with a particular piano teacher at UWM, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Because she was underage, the terms of her student visa required her to stay with responsible adults, but she also needed to be within range of UWM’s campus transportation system. As recent empty nesters, we fit all the criteria. Our friend introduced us to Olga’s Racine sponsors, Cathy and Scott Olson, who assured us that they would be responsible should any trouble occur.
Olga was fluent in English and had spent 6 months going to school and studying piano in Racine. So young to be living in a different country without her parents, she brought with her many of the social adjustment problems of a teen whose talent or intellect gallops ahead of her social maturity.
Now, when I see teen girls speaking for their whole families fleeing Ukraine in reports from Poland and Hungary, I marvel at their courage and think about our experience with Olga.
Our difficulties began with unspoken expectations for boundaries around her behavior. We assumed that she would eat at our house because she didn’t have a campus meal plan, but she never appeared when we were eating. We always invited her to join us if she was at home when we ate. She rarely did.
We expected her home in the early evening, that she would study and practice at our house. She generally slept until we had gone to work and returned between 10:00 pm and midnight with the UWM transportation van.
We expected that she would show some interest in our lives. She did not. From the beginning she treated us like annoying landlords.
We anticipated that the Olsons would be the parents in absentia. For the first weeks she was with us, they picked her up on the weekends and took her to their home in Racine, where she had lived the previous semester. Three or four Saturdays into her stay, we assumed, they would again, but she was still asleep in her room at noon. I woke her and asked why she was still with us. She grunted and pulled the covers over her head. Later as she was headed out the door, I stopped her. “Where are you going? Aren’t the Olsons coming for you?”
“I am going to practice,” she called over her shoulder, the front door banging behind her. The pattern was set. She interacted with us as little as possible. The Olsons got all the formal communications about grades and tuition.
Occasionally, I would find her doing her laundry or hear the piano as I came in the door from work. She made an effort to be self-sufficient, but still left towels in a heap on the bathroom floor. When an entire bag of oranges disappeared overnight or the peanut butter jar was emptied almost as soon as I brought it home, my maternal concerns heightened.
I talked with Cathy Olson about my uneasiness with what we were experiencing. She was both sympathetic and casual about Olga’s late practice times. She assured me that I didn’t need to worry. She would talk with Olga.
My husband, Walt, and I were both busy with our careers and volunteer commitments. The days passed without too many incidents. We didn’t see much of one another since we left before 8:00 am and her schedule, if there was one, seemed to begin at noon. Every once in a while, we did share a meal. We learned a bit about her. She was from Odessa. Her mother and father both worked for the government, but she was vague about what they did. We learned that she had gotten the scholarship to Prairie School in Wind Point Wisconsin after winning a piano competition in Prague. Her favorite composer was Rachmaninoff, her challenge was Chopin.
In November, she agreed to play piano for a visiting artist who had a small show in our home. Olga, young and vibrant, her long flowing blond hair and her broad Slavic hands creating magic on the keyboard, enchanted our guests. She seemed delighted with the attention. For Thanksgiving she went to the Olson’s, but chose to be with us for the Christmas holiday.
Our son and daughter, freshman and senior at different colleges, brought out a youthfulness we had not seen in Olga. She was kind to my grandmother and laughed at my father’s jokes. It was that Christmas that she gave us the lavender tablecloth. Looking back, I should have recognized that in its intricate design, beauty and complexity mixed, much as it did in Olga.
Walt received a very elaborate Russian-made wristwatch. We wondered how Olga’s parents were able to send such an expensive gift. We heard rumors of involvement with the Russian mafia, but no one really knew.
In the New Year, we were hopeful that the easy mood of the holidays would continue. It didn’t. The erratic hours, night-time binge eating and disregard for our feeble attempts to be responsible quasi-parents reached a crisis point in early February. I confronted her one evening at midnight.
“Olga, you must start coming home earlier. We could both get in trouble for you being out so late.”
Her response was furious and immediate. “You have no right to tell me when I can come and go.”
I tried to keep my voice calmer than I felt. “No. Local law does not allow young people under 17 to be out past 11:00 pm on weekends. If you don’t start coming home by then, I will report you.”
She tossed her hair, eyes blazing as she spit back at me, “It is late because that’s when the practice rooms are available to me. I always come home with the UWM van.” She continued with teen age drama, “I left Odessa because of people like you.”
We were at an impasse. I was bluffing, but worn out from not sleeping until she came in. We had paid our teen-age parent dues with our own children and considered sending her back to Racine. I called the Olsons, who encouraged patience, urging us to give Olga more time to improve her ways.
Days passed with her coming in after curfew but not so late. Most nights, I lay in bed listening for the UWM van to pull up and our front door to open. Our encounters diminished to leaving notes taped to her bedroom door. She never left any for us. Mail arrived regarding piano competitions all over the country. When I peeked into her room, among the usual clothes strewn everywhere were thick musical scores. Walt and I began to count the days until the end of the semester. Lacking any cooperation from Olga, we could not continue this arrangement.
On a wintry day in March, I got a call at work from Cathy Olson. This time, she was the frantic one. Olga had not been attending classes and was in danger of flunking out. If she wasn’t in school, her visa wasn’t valid. And she was still a few months from turning 16, a child for whom the Olsons were legally responsible but who was living under our roof. Her piano professor and the Olsons met with her. They were not bluffing about the consequences of what would happen. Regardless, not much changed.
A month or so later, the Olsons decided to send Olga back to Ukraine. Attempts to communicate with her parents had failed. Olga was still only sporadically attending piano classes. The Olsons set a date with us but did not tell Olga. The day before they were to pick her up, I came home after work and noticed the door to her room was open. Her clothes and cosmetics were gone. Sheet music, junk mail and empty chip bags littered the floor. Later, I found her house key on an entry table.
I was alarmed, but given the tension we had been living with, I called Cathy Olson just to make sure I hadn’t mixed up our days. She was shocked. Where was Olga? She called her contacts at UWM. I called Walt. By this time, it was dark. Nevertheless, we drove up and down the streets of Shorewood and the East Side of Milwaukee looking for any sign of her. We contacted UWM security and the Milwaukee Police. Because we were not her legal guardians, they couldn’t help us. Cathy Olson called them both. There was no evidence of foul play, but I had come to distrust anything about the Olga situation.
Around midnight, Carole conveyed a call from the Milwaukee PD. Olga had been found in an East Side apartment with one of the security van drivers from UWM. The police had tracked them down from their marriage at the courthouse earlier that day. Olga’s parents had faxed their permission for their almost sixteen-year-old daughter to marry a stranger in his twenties. As much as we had known that the situation was bad, we had never suspected that it would lead to this. Olga asked to retrieve the bags she had left in our garage. We left the garage open for her but did not see her again.
In later years, we heard that her marriage had been brief, but she somehow had managed to stay in the United States. Living then in California, she was studying to be a doctor. She had married again and had twin daughters. Ten years ago, we heard that she very much regretted her behavior with us and would like to be in contact. We were happy for her that things worked out but, in the midst of a family transition of our own, we didn’t follow up.
With the events in the Ukraine and the images of those young, bereft and fearful women on the nightly news, I now wish we had made the connection with Olga. Was her family involved with Russia? Does she have someone she loves in the fighting? Are we seeing her mother, aunt, niece being interviewed? Is Olga using her medical skills to help them? Will they survive only to find the world harsh and lonely to navigate, torn from their home communities? I’d like to pass my tablecloth on to someone from there who has lost both fine linens and a table to spread them on.
There is a grim beauty in the strength of Ukrainian people in the face of horrific acts of war. We who sit in our comfortable living rooms cannot imagine what it would be like to see everything we call home destroyed. The days and weeks to come for five million displaced Ukrainians will be filled with brave but frustrating stories from helpers and helped alike. More than one Olga-like situation will occur.
I examine the tiny intricate stitches on my Easter cloth closely. Only when I step away do I see any pattern.