There was little time to take a break en route, usually only one or two hours, even on the overnight stops. We would stop in a bombed-out village, an abandoned farmhouse, in a field, or up in the mountains. Women en route would gossip, tell personal stories, and exchange useful information with each other. After fleeing one city where the bombing had just killed hundreds, my mother was telling her stories to a weeping gypsy woman whose husband had just left her for another woman, back in a bordello or “gypsy hall” as the euphemism went. Mother of course sympathized and consoled the gypsy.
My father, Fedor Ivanovich truly loved my mother, Palina Vasilivna, as she was known (in old Russia a married woman took her own father’s name, as did a man. In the same way, I am Ludmila Fedorovna after my father). But even she had known infidelity.
One afternoon, my mother overheard one maid say to another, “Poor Pola, her husband is at the bordello with all those women, since last night!” My father had never been unfaithful before, but like all Russians (especially Cossacks) he loved to drink, and with the war raging around us and the flight to safety ahead, everyone was wondering if they would be alive for another month, another year. Was he really in town with the whores, saying goodbye to life, or just drowning his sorrows? My mother had been under the impression that Fedor Ivanovich was at another town on business, but when she heard this, she jumped on her beige and white mare, whip in hand, and rode like lightning into the village. She burst into the “gypsy house,” wielding her whip like Indiana Jones, and began administering lashes to all the men, including Fedor, who could not hide from her fury.
In telling this story later, my mother laughed and said, “Well, I wasn’t there holding a candle!” After weeks of flight, and witnessing the horror of the bombed-out city with the screams of the injured, dead bodies being dragged in from the street, children with rags on their feet, it felt good to hear my mother laughing again.
Soon after, my father fell ill and was lying sick and feverish with me inside the wagon. I looked outside and saw refugees walking along behind us, hope and fear in their eyes; I knew I was blessed to be safe inside the cozy wagon. For those few days, my mother steered the wagon, brave and strong and fearless, driving the horses as well as or better than any man, never stopping.
Finally, after father recovered, he climbed up and took back the reins. We heard him say to her: “Move over! Go back into the wagon and rest, woman. You did well.”