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Travels in Siberia

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Emma, my 22-year-old daughter, has long dreamed of Russia. Its exotic onion domes promise delivery from the dull safety of her suburban upbringing. At last she is there, studying for a semester in St. Petersburg. It’s not Siberia, but the vastness that separates us feels like a kind of exile.

Thousands of miles and eleven time zones are not all that keep us apart; Emma has always required her space. Self-possessed from the get-go, her penchant for privacy was coupled as she grew with a vigilance against usurpation. Once I made the mistake of lavishly praising a picture she had drawn. Emma savagely scribbled all over the paper, destroying her creation but also any attempt to appropriate what was hers. I often made such inadvertent incursions.

Eventually, I learned to heed the “No Trespassing” signs Emma posted from an early age. When she withdrew further into the interior, as every adolescent must, her natural reserve had already prepared me for the unrequited longing all parents must bear. Growing up is in part always an act of exile, a necessary escape from the soft smother of love.

My friend Leslie recalls when her teenaged son skulked away from their once-close bond. She said to him, “I know you need to do this, but I’ll miss you, and I’ll be glad when you’re back.” A decade later, he put his arms around her when she was doing the dishes, and said, “I’m back.”

Emma is far from being back, and I miss her. When I take the dog out at night, I look up at the sky and travel light-years to her through the star-strewn blackness. Emma is half a day ahead of us, doing who knows what in the scant daylight eked out of a Russian winter, yet I feel closer knowing we are under the same canopy.

Still, it is not enough.

I read in the newspaper that the writer Ian Frazier will appear at our local bookstore to read and sign copies of Travels in Siberia. I am decades beyond the pull of Russia and its novels, whose sweep of despair and unpronounceable names once captured me as they now capture Emma. But I might give Russia another try, now that Emma is there. If I venture through the portal of Frazier’s book, maybe I can sneak into Emma’s territory without tripping the alarm. My friend Roberta tried something similar. She hates baseball, but learned all about RBIs and earned-run averages so she could talk with her son throughout his adolescence. Their bond is deep, as is her grasp of baseball statistics.

Hoping to emulate Roberta’s success, I drive to the bookstore, buy Travels in Siberia, and take my seat. Maybe I will find Emma along the way, or at least understand her case of what Frazier calls “the dread Russia-love.”
Ian Frazier sports a middle-aged paunch and a baseball cap covering his bald spot, but he and Emma have a lot in common. For one thing, they are both lousy photographers. I am instantly charmed by Frazier’s out-of-focus pictures of dreary horizons, by his low-key intelligence and boundless curiosity. Frazier is infected with a fever for “the incomplete grandiosity of Russia,” relishing, as does Emma, its simultaneous greatness and brokenness. He inscribes the book I buy “For Emma—a fellow Russophile—all best luck from Ian Frazier.” I go home not exactly sold on Russia, but eager to travel the miles through his prose to my faraway daughter.

I feel like a trespasser, though. This is Emma’s journey, not mine, much as I want to accompany her. Perhaps she needs the vastness between us now more than ever, and will regard me as just another marauding Mongol sweeping across the steppes. I do not want to force her again into scribbling out what she has created to protect against incursion.

But Frazier reassures me; setting out on his epic road trip across Siberia, he marvels at the absence of fences and “No Trespassing” signs. Encouraged that the unbounded landscape is spacious enough to absorb both Emma and me without crowding, I press on.

Commenting on the loneliness of exile in Siberia, Frazier writes, “Longing and melancholy worked their way into the very soil.” So it is with parents and children of a certain age. Standing now on the opposite end of a lengthening road that takes Emma farther and farther away from childhood, I feel the sorrow of exile as she goes down the road without me.

It has not been easy for Emma either. Her once-sure trajectory unspooled erratically as she zigzagged in and out of different colleges and half-baked plans. “All who wander are not lost,” I tried to reassure myself. But what if she could not find her way back? It looked like breakdown to me.

Frazier, too, encountered breakdowns on his journey across Siberia in a rickety van. Initially he fretted that it kept sputtering to a halt, just as I fretted about Emma. Over time, though, Frazier came to see the fits and starts as essential to the pleasure and genius of discovering what to do when things go wrong.

I have come to see the same about Emma. Eventually I learned to trust that her breakdowns and detours were not so much obstacles, but the road itself that would take her where she needed to go.

Right now Emma needs Russia, with its convulsive revolutions. How could she not? It is every adolescent’s job to overthrow the tsar, and every parent’s job to surrender the throne. The old order gives birth to the new in benign or violent spasms, but there is no stopping the transformation.

Emma on the cusp is drawn to places in transition. She prowls abandoned industrial yards and derelict neighborhoods not yet gentrified. Like Frazier, she savors crumbling Soviet-era housing blocs, babushkas hunting for mushrooms along busy highways, the ubiquitous trash. Russia, stubbornly insistent on remaining itself despite the homogenizing onslaught of progress, offers a bulwark as childhood edifices give way to Emma’s relentless induction into adulthood.

Siberia is no longer synonymous with exile. Frazier freely comes and goes after the Iron Curtain is lifted, and Emma, too, is less shuttered. Although she must linger apart for awhile on the verge, her necessary wanderings have never been to the land of no return.

In fact, she’s back. Not in the arms-around sense of Leslie’s grown-up son, but back from St. Petersburg and the need to keep us at arm’s length. Our mouths water as Emma describes slurping broth from fat dumplings stuffed with minced beef and onions. She is thrilled that Russians mistook her for a native. No wonder; her face, bright-eyed again, reflects her great-great grandfathers’, who fled the mother country in their own passage to adulthood.

We ask Emma to show us her photos, and she reluctantly obliges. My husband and I sit next to each other at the dining room table as she positions herself on the side. Emma removes certain photos before carefully placing each of the others at an angle where we must twist our heads to see them properly. We politely ask her to set them straight before us. She politely ignores us, allowing only an oblique glimpse into her edited world.

Emma’s pictures are terrible: A shot of sky with an onion dome in the corner, a kitten that’s only a speck in the foreground. They are as blurry and without context as Frazier’s shots of the endless horizon.

But they are hers. And she is ours again, if we let her set the frame.

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