My mother mapped out scenarios, calculating the reach of the radioactive fallout if the blast hit Kansas City, say, or Washington. She drew ominous red circles in our Rand-McNally to mark the circumference of destruction. At the kitchen table, the hanging lamp created a tunnel of light under which she envisioned doom. She’d press her slide rule across swaths of U.S. territory. The fifty states were rendered in pastels—yellow, orange, and green—but as I squinted at them, the crimson lines that my mother etched around their innocent metropolises gave the whole nation a fiery hue. “Look,” she’d say, pointing at the Midwest of her childhood. The corn-soaked plains where her hopscotch squares had been overshadowed by stories of Hiroshima.
“What,” I’d say, moving into her orbit. It was not a question when I said it because I knew the answer. She always wanted to show me the same things. Missile silos dotting the prairies. Air Force bases with nuclear weapons stacked neatly underground, ready to violate the vast blue skies. She marked the location of these Russian targets with black stars. My mother didn’t look at me, but she took my arm, pulled me close. And then with one cool hand, she guided my stuttering finger across the page. For a moment, she was always still. Unusual for a woman who was generally so high strung. Who fretted through rooms, who would often shake her hands—as if spattering water—when she was thinking. She never realized she was doing it. Sometimes I’d call her from a friend’s house and hear the flutter in her voice. “You’re shaking your hands, aren’t you?” I’d say. “No,” she’d say and then pause and I knew she was startled by the sight of her own manic fingers.
My mother could never keep her hands on the steering wheel. Buckled into the backseat (even when my father was no longer there to claim the passenger side, she insisted I stay in the back where it was safer), I watched her hands flit from radio knobs to her scalp—she’d scratch absentmindedly when stalled at traffic lights—to her lips, which she’d tap with two fingers in a ¾ rhythm that suggested a waltz. I was used to her nervous energy and in hindsight, I realize that it kept her thin. She maintained a girlish figure without regular exercise. While my classmates’ mothers embraced the 1980’s aerobics trend, she worried herself into shape.
I liked to flip the atlas to the U.S.S.R., its borders drawn in a muted red. I couldn’t even fit the top of my pinkie inside Luxembourg, but could press both of my palms onto the Soviet sprawl. The Russians fascinated me. My mother and I watched clips of Brezhnev on the evening news—his chest clotted with medals, his eyebrows bristling under his fur hat—but it was ordinary Russians I was curious about. Moscow, as the capital of the other Superpower, struck me as Washington’s twin. Was there an eight-year-old girl somewhere in Moscow whose sister also died, whose father also left? “They live in communal apartments,” my mother said. “So that eight-year-old probably shares a bathroom with nine other people.”