Author Ruth Rudner discusses what she has been up to since her
last book, Ask Now the Beasts and where she got the idea
for her next book, a novel set in Belarus.
View photos from Ruth's trip to Russia
When my parents came to live with me near the end of their lives,
I found a photograph I had never seen in one of the boxes I helped
unpack. The Cyrillic writing on the photographâ€™s cardboard
frame showed it had been made in Minsk. There was more
writing, but â€śMinskâ€?was the best my poor Russian could make out.
In the photo an old woman sits on a straight back chair, her eyes
focused on the floor ahead of her, her demeanor denying the
photographerâ€™s existence. In refusing to be present, she is
absolutely present. Her mouth forms a thin, severe
line. She has the high cheekbones of an Indian, and long, elegant
hands. Wearing a peasantâ€™s blouse, a long, dark skirt, a black scarf
over her center-parted dark hair, she is a world away from the two
younger women in starched shirtwaists and coiffed hair next to her.
The features of the younger women are coarser, their comfort in the
world greater. Mesmerized by the old woman, I asked my mother,
â€śWho is that?â€?
â€śMy grandmother,â€?she said. â€śYour great-grandmother, the
person you are named for.â€?/p>
â€śAnd the other two?â€?/p>
â€śHer daughters. My aunts.â€?br />
It was the first moment it had ever occurred to me that I had
ancestors. Although I had known my motherâ€™s parents as a very
young child, it never occurred to me that there was anyone before
them. It was as if they had sprung fully-formed from the
earth, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Perhaps because
my grandparents and I had no common language, I had never asked them
questions. Perhaps because my mother spoke my language,
she seemedâ€”to meâ€”more part of me than of them. Perhaps I never
thought there were questions to ask. Is such a thing possible
on the part of a writer used to doing research? Used to
digging back to the reasons for things? Did I, whose world is
nature, whose subject is nature, think myself outside of
Before seeing the photograph, the single question I asked was the
name of the village that was my motherâ€™s birthplace. So,
before I knew I had ancestors, the only thing I knew about my
history was the name of Logoisk, a town about thirty miles from
Minsk, in what was White Russia when my mother lived there, and is
This past autumn, I went to Belarus. I went because I wanted to make
up my great grandmother. I wanted to invent her story. I
wanted to begin a novel that comes out of the startling, penetrating
presence of the peasant woman in the photograph. To do this, I felt
it necessary to be in her place, the place where she was born and
died. I needed to feel the air and see the earth. I
needed to walk the roads of her village, to sit by the river, to
engage with the place. In Lagoisk I met with Mr.
Antonovich, the local family finder. Mr. Antonovich is a
journalist. Eighty-six years old, he was not yet born by the
time my motherâ€™s family left Logoisk. He looked at a picture I
brought of my grandmother and her four daughters. My mother is
about four years old in the picture. She stares directly into
the camera as if she would understand the camera. She
wants to know what will happen in that box, what happened to the
head of the man behind the box. She wants to know how this
will work. Mr. Antonovich asks my grandmotherâ€™s name, the name
of each child. He asks if he may keep the photograph for the
little museum in the cultural center where we meet. He
welcomes me to my motherland.
And I weep. Because, as it had never occurred to me that I had
ancestors, it also never occurred to me that I came from somewhere.
That there was a beginning.
Afterward, we all go into the village to walk the old dirt roads
lined with wooden houses. It is afternoon and women in aprons
and babushkas come out of the houses to sit on wooden benches in
front of low wooden fences surrounding the houses. A dog runs
down the street. Goats browse the yards. No one looks at
us through windows. No one wonders who we are. Later I
walk through the park that once formed the estate of the Tyshkevich
family, the dukes who owned Logoisk. The residence is in
ruins. A few walls remain, walls and high, arching doorways.
The forest surrounding the ruin has grown up through it.
According to my brother, the duke provided my grandfather the wood
he needed to keep his mill running. I have no idea how my
brother knows such a thing, although I have three tiny brass cups,
hardly bigger than thimbles, that my brother says were a present
from the duke to our grandfather. (I have no idea how he knows
that, either.) Mr. Antonovich shows me the place where he
believed the mill to be. A flat space now occupied by an old
age home rises into a sloping field. The trees in the field
are golden in a golden autumn. There is no sign this was once
a mill site.
I walk down to the river, the Gaina. It was on the bank of
the river that my oldest aunt once found three copper coins.
In her memory, I leave three coins. I canâ€™t imagine what some
child coming upon them will think, growing up in a country that has
only paper money, no coins. I spend an hour sitting by the
Gaina, partly because it figures in the novel, partly because I have
placed part of my motherâ€™s ashes in the water and want to remain
with them. They spread out, linger, move on in the flow of
water. As she moved on in the flow of her own life. As I
do now, knowing I come from somewhere.