It would be about twenty years ago now that my daughter Xela first saw a little girl about her age playing in some enormous piles of snow in the library parking lot next to the Classical Condominiums where we lived. Apart from her sister there weren’t any other kids in the condos and she was eager to get to know this other 6 or 7 year old. They had a few “play dates” with each other and found that their bedroom windows, in Xela’s case a skylight, each were visible from the other across Temple Street.
It was around this time that I was learning Russian. All of the adult immigrants from the former Soviet Union whom we saw on our ramblings through the Quadrangle were polite regarding my language skills, my grammar, my accent, but not little Masha, she laughed and laughed and pointedly remarked on how terrible my Russian really was; ah, kids. The Springfield haters at the Quadrangle (if only those museums could be airlifted to Wilbraham!) deceived the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association into believing that the gates of their new fence would be open from early morning to late, late in the evening and so we supported the installation of said fence. Turns out their plans were to have all the gates closed all the time and charge a fee for entry into the park. In the end that plan went too far for even the state to tolerate in terms of “taking public money and then doing what you god damn well please” but I digress.
The locking of the gates at museum closing time put an end to the tradition of hanging out with the Russians (mostly Russian speaking Jewish Azerbaijanis but whatever) at the Quadrangle on hot summer evenings and, over time, we lost touch with Masha and her family. A few years later we saw that Masha’s mom had gotten a job at the library; she had been a teacher in the Soviet Union. Her husband was an engineer or scientist or something but he drove a truck for the local paper.
Every once in a while I’d run into Masha’s mom or Xela would run into Masha somewhere and we’d get an update on their lives. About a year ago that update was that Masha was dead. (There was no follow up to this article, or this report in local media in 2014), About a year before that she had been driving to work on a sunny Sunday September morning and had collided with a tree. Since that time I had wanted to reach out to her family but I couldn’t remember their last name; was it Grinshtin, Grynstein, Grynshtyn? On my visits to the library I hadn’t seen her mother either. Until last Monday.
The moment I saw her at the help desk I knew I had to say something. I should have started with small talk perhaps but I just blurted out “I am so sorry.” She knew right away what I meant and started sobbing. She explained what had happened as far as they knew: she was alone, her car suddenly swerved and she hit a tree. There were no other cars involved and no witnesses. Her mom wants to believe a child ran out into the road and Masha had to swerve to avoid her. “Maybe a deer?” I said stupidly, as if dying to save the life of a deer would help give her any solace. “No, on a Sunday morning, it must have been a child.”
She asked me about Xela. My Xela who is very much alive, who just got married, who is moving into a new house. Xela who is doing all the things her daughter will never do now. I had to answer, of course, but I also knew that every mention of Xela’s life and milestones was heaping more pain onto this poor grieving mother. She said that she didn’t know how they did it, but they just kept going day after day. Masha was their only child.
As Masha’s mother narrated the story of her final, fateful drive she explained that it happened “…in Southwick, it is a nice community…” and I knew what she meant. When they came here as immigrants around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union they had been obligated by circumstance to live in the urban core of a “Gateway City”. As with the other “Russians” they knew how to live in a city, how to use parks and plazas to enhance daily life, but they soon learned that the “dream” was to move to the outskirts, to get a house and live in a place where you could drive to shop, to recreate, and to work.
Driving to work at 10 a.m. on a Sunday passing by Congamond Road to get from Westfield to Enfield perhaps? I didn’t ask. I had been told everything she needed to tell me, to ask for more would be even more cruel than just engaging in this conversation itself had been. Two other “twenty something” young women died just this week in the valley: One in Amherst and the other in Deerfield. Whatever their futures held their parents likely had visions of weddings and homes, all too common milestones now that everyone else’s child will be attaining them in what I’m sure will become a ritual of agonizing monotony. I can’t imagine the pain and hope that I never have to do more than imagine it.
Two other people I knew, one a former student and the other the parent of a former student, have died in car crashes not a mile from where Masha passed away, one of them on the very same road. I’ve driven it many times myself, it makes a wonderful short cut on the way to visit family in Avon. We’ll be driving down that road tomorrow as a matter of fact, on the way to a Sweet Sixteen. When do kids start driving these days, sixteen and a half? Sweet Sixteen indeed.