The elder brother was first in our family who went to war. He left in the summer of 1941 immediately after the final exams, along with the guys from the pedagogical institute.
We received the first letter from him about two months later. My brother wrote that he was being trained at accelerated officer courses in one of the cities of Kazakhstan. In the next, which came at the end of the fall, he wrote that he was promoted to lieutenant and that they were sent to the front as part of a rifle division.
There were no more letters. Just before the new year of 1942, the mail carrier delivered a notice that the lieutenant so-and-so lies in the bed of honour in the brave battles near Moscow. After many years, I learned that my brother died in the first battle. He never became a teacher as he dreamed, but still managed to spend his first lesson – a lesson of courage.
Mom did not cry. She turned black in face, retired into her shell and barely spoke.
“Killed in action” notice – a small piece of paper – changed our lives completely. The house, cheerful and noisy before, got filled with silence and sadness. And with the smell of tobacco. Father, who gave up smoking many years ago, now took to the cigarettes again.
On the same day, I came to the military registration and enlistment office and applied for the front. But I had to wait another half a year as I was under 17-years-old.
Mom, having learned about my decision, said nothing and never tried to dissuade. She stared at me for a long time, as if she tried to remember every my feature forever. She used to press my head to her breast and be silent. And, probably, the warmth with which my mother filled me before departure, the pain that pounded in her breast, gave me strength and helped me survive.
My father started talking to me like an adult. We walked with him through the streets of the city where he was born and grew up, in which my brother and I were born; we went into the city park. My father sat down on a bench near a large plane tree, took out a cigarette from a cigarette case, and talked about what he had never talked with me about – his childhood, adolescence, and how he met my mother, their first dating on this bench.
They planted this plane tree on their wedding day. My father avoided loud, fine words about duty, patriotism, valor. He just talked about himself, and I understood: he didn’t want me to have an abstract idea about the Homeland, as the place where you live.
He wanted me to take in the idea that Homeland is your home, your family, even this park bench and this plane tree are also homeland, and they need to be protected as a shrine, even if it require to give your life for this.
Six months later, I received a school-leaving certificate, and I left the home. Father and mother accompanied me at the same station, from which the elder brother went to his last journey. Mom got something out of her bag and put it in the breast pocket of my shirt. I wanted to see, but my mother stopped me: “You will have a look later. Just do what I say, my son, it should be done like this. God bless you!”
My father took my hand and put his old, worn cigarette case on it. We hugged. When the train started moving, my mother waved her hand after me for a long time, and my father took off his cap and stood with his head uncovered until the train was out of sight.
In the train, I saw what my mother put in my pocket – it was a small icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra, who also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker, patron of wandering and warriors. Mom had never been a believer, but after the death of her eldest son, she began to go to church, and set a candle for the rest of soul of her firstborn child. I put the icon in my father’s cigarette case.
The war was in full swing, there was no time left for military training. We have been almost immediately sent to the front.
At the first opportunity, I wrote a letter home. The answer took quite a long time. Mom reported that they are all right, alive and doing well, the father still teaches at the river technical school, she works in the evacuation hospital, which was located in our city.
I did receive no more letters. Maybe they were sent, but our part was surrounded and It took several months to break out of encirclement. During this time, we joined the partisan detachment in the Bryansk region and beat the enemy at the rear. There were not field post office.
In one of the battles, I was badly wounded. A piece of shell hit the chest. But I was lucky: it punched the cover of my father’s cigarette case, disfigured the icon and froze. Parents’ talismans protected me: I got a heavy concussion, a broken arm, but I survived.
Coming out of the encirclement, our unit was disbanded, and I was sent to the hospital. The contusion gradually passed, but the left hand remained hanging down.
From the hospital, I wrote the letter home, and shortly before the end of treatment, I received a response. The fact that the envelope and the letter itself were written by an unfamiliar hand, made me to worry about. However, the first lines were followed by an explanation: “Hello, my dear son! Forgive me for not writing myself, my hands are shaking, so I cannot write any word, just unclear signs. That’s why I asked for help a postgirl to write it. We are glad that you finally found it, because we have heard nothing about you for long time …” it has been told by mom that everything remained same, everything is fine and it made me calm down a bit.
Despite the insistence of the doctors about my commission, I asked the command to allow me to return to the war ranks. I received another letter written the same handwriting. Again, anxiety: Well, let resume that mom still cannot hold a pen in her hands. But why my father did not write a single word? Is everything at home as good as mom is trying to convince me?
In Poland, I was wounded again – one bullet harmed my cheek, and the other poked through an unhappy left hand, which was already beginning to act. This time, there were no chance for further military service anymore.
Having crossed the Caspian Sea by ferry, I sent a telegram about my arrival. The train drove me to my native land, I looked at my reflection in the glass of the car and thought about how my mother would be upset when she see my disfigured face and my motionless hand.
At the station, no one met me. Maybe they did not receive the telegram. I waited a bit, and then I headed to the parking, but suddenly someone called my name.
It was a voice of a young girl of about eighteen years old. She said my name again and, having received an affirmative answer, said: “Hello! I came to meet you. I wrote letters to you.” I asked: “How at home? Is everything all right? The girl did not answer. She said only: “Let us go on foot, I’ll tell you everything.”
We walked through the streets of the city, which had not changed at all. The girl explained me everything, I had a lump in my throat while listening her. While our unit was surrounded, my parents were informed that I was missing. This girl brought the notice.
Father then told my mother: “Now it’s time for me. I’m sorry, but I can’t live in peace unless I take revenge for my children.” He took his things and left with the people’s volunteer corps. Instead of the promised letter, another “killed in action” notice was delivered. My father died in Czechoslovakia, during the liberation of Prague.
The postgirl did not dare to show mother the sad paper, but my mother herself guessed everything, the mother’s heart and female intuition felt it. She has become very old at once, she has gone quite grey and she has lost interest in life.
The girl used to visit her every day, helped with the housework, and cooked. But mom did not eat anything almost. She was nearly faded away, becoming sick from day to day, and she had difficulty getting out of bed.
One day, she suddenly asked to get a suitcase from a shelf and began to pack things into it. To the question: where is she going to, my mom replied: “I need to go to the children. They are waiting for me. I have to bring them gifts for the New Year.” It was July.
Mom ordered to put the suitcase in the corridor and asked the girl to find a car that would take her to the children. Then she gave her the key and said: “Close the door of the apartment when I leave.”
The next day, the letter that I wrote from the hospital arrived. The girl rushed at full speed to show it to my mother. The door was not locked, there was a suitcase in the corridor, and my mother, dressed, was lying on the bed. She has already left this house. Forever and ever.
It was then that letters from an unfamiliar girl began to arrive, letters that warmed me and gave me strength to survive.
At the entrance to the cemetery, we bought flowers. I knelt in front of the grave mound, and it suddenly seemed to me that I could hear the mummy’s low voice.
I stroked the ground with my hands, on which the grass was already making its way and the ants were swarming, and it seemed to me that under my palms a weak, tired mother’s heart was beating quietly.
Mommy, my dear! I fought for you, for us, far from here, and I could not think that war would come here, thousands of kilometers from the front, and destroy your life with its black wing, destroy my family and devastate my house.
The suitcase that my mother prepared was still standing in the corridor. The clothes of me, my brother and father, photographs, and even our kid stuff – all the most precious things that my mother had as a souvenir from us – were neatly put together in it.
It was hard living alone in the empty house. In the afternoon, I wandered through the alleys of the city park and spent hours on my father’s bench under the large plane tree. It was late autumn, the park was covered with fallen leaves, but the sun was shining and it was warm. Street cleaners raked leaves up and set them to fire. The bitter smell of fallen leaves reminded me the smoke of partisan bonfires, and the smell of my father’s tobacco.
The post girl continued visiting me every day. Just as for my mother, she cooked, cleaned apartment, washed my clothes. Her mother died before the war, her father died at the front.
A year later, we got married. We took two children from the orphanage – a 5-year-old boy evacuated from Rostov, and a 7-year-old girl taken out of besieged Leningrad.
The boy was stuttering badly. It was so much so he turned blue with the effort every time as he put his fists together and impatiently stamped foot, trying to pronounce incapable word. The stuttering was due the shock he experienced: the fascists, in front of the child’s eyes, burned his mother alive. They killed her just because they found a picture of her husband in the house in the form of an officer of the Red Army.
The family of the girl died of starvation in the besieged city. She survived only due to the fact that she managed to crawl out onto the landing, where neighbors picked her up and rescued her from starvation, feeding her with the mix of wood glue and orache. It seemed that fear and sadness settled in these children’s eyes forever. It took quite a long time to see the very first shy smile at their faces.
And then we had twins. We called the son after my father’s name, while the daughter was given the name of my wife’s mom. So, I got the family appeared, and the house that was silent for a while, came to life and revived.
And I received a letter from my father. After many years, I found his grave at the soldiers’ cemetery in Prague. It was a mass grave, and the father’s name, stamped on a marble slab, was included into the infinitely long list of names of his fellow soldiers. Here, in the museum of soldier glory, under the glass of one of the stands, I saw a scrap of yellowed paper with dried blood stains. And immediately recognized the familiar handwriting.
It was the letter of my father, written for mom and unfinished. “Hello, my dear, my love! You cannot imagine how glad I was to receive your letter – warm, friendly, sincere. I live without you quite a long time – whole year. I never could have imagined that such a merciless feeling as parting with my family and my dearest and nearest one would enter into my joyful, sunny, happy life. I remember our boys, and it gives me strength, I think of you, and with extreme clarity I understand how empty my life would be without you, without you all. I remember your every features, every, even the smallest birthmark. I am alive by faith, hope and love. By believing that we will win, by the hope that we will meet, by love – to you …”
Here the letter breaks. My father never had time to finish and send it. I did not try to make a copy of the letter; I just memorized its every word.