Call to Prayer

It was Friday morning, Winter Solstice, and way too early for the sun. 

A sonorous chanting of Buddhist monks floated across the lake and into my open window. As the echo of the chants was dying down, a Muslim call to prayer extended the musical performance—a curtain call in a medley of tolerance. Were it a Sunday, perhaps a nearby church would have joined in.

Islamic scholar in the midst of a busy market town. He called his wife and kids out to meet me.

Islamic scholar in the midst of a busy market town. He called his wife and kids out to meet me.

It’s not exactly what I envisioned as I thought about spending Christmas in Bangladesh.

“Christmas in Bangladesh...” my friend Gay said to me last night on the phone. “It would make a great title for a book.” 

Yes, I am spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Bangladesh. Not an obvious choice, I will admit, but one that works for me. Spending time in places I know little about is always enlightening and gratifying. I love breaking impressions created from great distances. 

My trip to India in the preceding weeks circled Bangladesh from all sides, including a visit to a shared border at remote Agartala. In a confusing geography, India surrounds Bangladesh for all but a strip of land in the southeast that abuts Myanmar. Imagine Pennsylvania torn away by a distant king to become a foreign country, with Orthodox Christianity as its dominant religion, completely surrounded by the United States except for a tiny strip that connects it to Canada. Then imagine a long border open at random points with militia goose-stepping in elaborate uniforms to close the crossings every night. 

In your mental image, add an upcoming election in which Pennsylvania will decide whether to cozy up to the United States, as its current government is happy to do; or shift toward Russia, which is tempting given the two countries’ shared Orthodox religion.

You might now be coming close to understanding the confusion that surrounds the upcoming election on December 30. Add in a totalitarian streak in the government—not unlike what our president would enjoy seeing in ours—and you get closer still.

Wonderful Sufi mystic who led me up to the temple even after the management committee said it was not allowed. They finally relented.

Wonderful Sufi mystic who led me up to the temple even after the management committee said it was not allowed. They finally relented.

But Bangladesh, which tore away from Pakistan in December of 1971, declared itself a secular state and acknowledges alternative beliefs. My travel companions and I have visited Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic places of worship, as well as a Sufi temple.

Attending the border-closing ceremony on the Indian side started the shift in my awareness. Soldiers and barricades made it all look forbidding and impassable. Yet gradually, step by step, we were allowed closer to the actual border gate. Armed soldiers stood at the ready to make sure we didn’t step too far.

We got close enough to see another group of soldiers across the border. Their camouflage uniforms were distinguishable only by a slight difference in color—while the Indians and Bangladeshi both wore khaki and tan, the latter added a pale burgundy to the weave.

The formality and distance reminded me of a similar experience on the border between India and Pakistan. But there the similarity ended.

Indian border soldier in flag lowering ceremony.

Indian border soldier in flag lowering ceremony.

As the minutes ticked by and the sun dropped lower, the gap between the countries slowly shrank. First, one of our group was allowed a photograph close to the actual barrier. Then another one of our friends crept into the gap between the countries. The Bangladeshi soldiers approached, their curiosity aroused by our white faces.

As we smiled and took selfies of soliders on both sides of the border, our guide expressed concern that we not favor either group too strongly. We took pictures of both until darkness had fallen. Then we left, aglow with camaraderie.

My trip picked back up on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh. Here I feel comfortable wandering around greeting people. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but since our arrival we have seen no Americans, no white faces since we left Dhaka, the capital.

I look forward to the increasing fervor surrounding the election.

Selfie with Bangladeshi border soldier.

Selfie with Bangladeshi border soldier.

My Ganesha

I left the boat in the dark, walking on land untouched by human feet.

It was 5:00 AM. The large sandbank we spent the night on was reclaimed from a river that had dropped many feet below monsoon level. No humans wandered here. There was virtually no life. It was just me and the sand, the boat generator growling in the background.

Walking on water…

The light was hazy; mostly all I saw was sand and sky and water. As dawn started breaking, vague contours became distant hills.

I roamed, searching for an image to take as a keepsake of this morning. Praying for a holy man to emerge from the mist didn’t do the trick, but it did bring back the memory of a man on the Ganges who appeared to walk on water. That image had memorialized the moment. Now I prayed for something to memorialize this morning.

I started seeing shapes in the sand. I found myself appreciating the beauty in every one of them. They became beautiful on my screen.

Until I realized I had just memorialized a bird dropping. Was I that desperate for beauty? Was there beauty in everything?

A transcendent picture of shit?

I was walking in a trance, meditating on God’s gifts, when I almost stepped on Her. Shocked, all I could do was stare.

Self-portrait of Ganesha

Ganesha lay before me in the wet sand. Fearing she was a creation of my mind, I hastened to abduct her image—sheltering her in my Cloud—and quietly walked away. 

On the ship, showing the blessed gift to my friends, I couldn’t articulate my experience.

“Who drew that?”

“The Goddess.”

“Oh, yeah, sure . . .”

It didn’t go over well. 

I went out for more wandering. But Ganesha would not let me go. 

I had to go back to her.

I recalled a tiny nut imbedded in her image. I decided the nut must have been the artist, pushed around by the wind. Now I wanted that nut. 

Trying to find a tiny pattern in a vast expanse of sand was even harder than I could have imagined. I gave up twice. But when I realized I still had a few minutes before the boat left, I dashed back out for one more search. 

My old footprints finally led me to the spot. I scooped up the nut and sped towards the boat. 

Home of the Goddess

Gently brushing away the sand, I watched as the nut turned into a beautiful little clamshell.

And then I understood: my Goddess had crawled into the clamshell, danced around to draw her self-portrait, then drawn me to her through the morning mist. 

I don’t know where my Goddess floated off to afterward, but I’m bringing her clamshell home with me. She can rest in it whenever she needs to.

Sunset on the boat

Angels and Demons

Saviors and monsters. Angels and devils. Good and evil. Life. 

“But how did Lenin turn into a monster?”

Our writing group was critiquing my book about my family’s exile from Russia a hundred years ago. Trying to mix personal story with world history is a challenge; but this question had nothing to do with my writing.

I had tried to paint Lenin as neutrally as I could, as a man who started out with the goal of creating a worker’s paradise. Just a few pages later he had launched the Red Terror, which eventually evolved into Stalin’s genocidal rule.  Whatever their initial objectives might have been, they had replaced the Tsar with a far greater evil. 

“You know, he’s not the only example of a leader bringing salvation in the form of Communism who instead brought damnation on his country,” someone said.

My mind immediately returned to Cambodia, where I had recently traveled. Someone else brought up China. The debate disintegrated into disagreements over Cuba. It was hard to bring the discussion back to my writing.

A few days later a New York Times headline announced: Khmer Rouge’s Slaughter in Cambodia Is Ruled a Genocide. It continued: “Pol Pot and his Communist disciples turned the country into a deadly laboratory for agrarian totalitarianism.”

Russia judged Stalin just a few years after his death. Cambodia waited forty years to succumb to external pressure to judge Pol Pot’s supporters.

A photograph headlined the story:

Photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Just days earlier I had been hosted by the prison’s official photographer at his home in Siem Reap. I met his mother, wife, and child. I documented and photographed our time together. 

Nhem En and his work

Nhem En and his work

Nhem En was an enigma. He was completely flat in his affect, and his eyes revealed nothing. He made his living from the world’s morbid curiosity about his past.

As I listened to him talk, all I could think about was that my father, too, took pictures of people with an uncertain future. But his were photos of those waiting to go to Canada or Venezuela or America. Nhem En’s were of people facing certain death.

My father never talked about his years in a refugee camp, years of an uncertain future. Nhem En hasn’t stopped talking about it for twenty years. A few years ago the Guardian wrote: “And the photographer is far from a sympathetic advocate: before starting his career as a self-published author, he tried to sell Pol Pot’s sandals and toilet seat online.”

Cambodia continues to haunt me. My graduation from college, in 1970, was canceled because the University at Berkeley rose up in protest in response to the U.S. invasion. My father was deprived of seeing the result of years of hard work; he was dead by the time my graduation was ceremonially held in 1990.

Cambodia is still recovering. In the declaration of genocide, the tribunal found only three living people guilty. All others have been exonerated of any influence in the decisions taken by the leadership. Lucky for them, since many—including the current prime minister—were Khmer Rouge members.

One of the guilty was called Dhuc. He ran the notorious prison and was Nhem En’s boss. Nhem En explained that he testified against Dhuc. And then he dropped what was, for me at least, another bombshell: he had photographed Pol Pot with a Yugoslav leader. 

In 1950 Pol Pot had spent a month building a highway project in Yugoslavia. During his rule, Cambodia considered Yugoslavia one of its few friends in the world.

“Wait,” I wanted to say. “Leave me out of this!”

I was an infant in Yugoslavia in 1950. I did not need to learn that my mother’s country supported this horrific dictator. I had already lived through watching my homeland endure one war crime tribunal. Did it help to reassure myself that it was the totalitarian leader of Yugoslavia who exiled my family?

In any case, I was in Siem Reap to take a photography workshop, not to rip my soul. People came here to see the ancient temples of Angkor, not to revisit their past.

A few days later, walking out of the gate from the temple of Angkor Thom, I stopped to photograph some faces on the bridge. They represented a story of Guardian Gods and Demon Gods facing off to roil the waters of the Earth.

A thousand years later, it seems the gods are still at war. And my personal demons are also still at battle. Once you start turning the pages of your past, I have learned, you can’t control what comes out.

Back to the Future

Street food from home...

Street food from home...

Returning to Vietnam after almost fifteen years feels like jumping off the diving board into the deep end of a pool.

At first, I was shocked at all the changes. Then, as I slowly drifted through, I felt the link between the past and the present. In the vibrance of the old city, they are truly merging.

One phenomenon is overwhelming throughout the country.

At the beginning of this millennium most people in Vietnam rode bicycles. In addition, there were around four million motorbikes. Today virtually every adult in the country owns a motorbike—there are over five million of them in the city of Hanoi alone.

As I walked the streets of Hanoi, trying to bring back old memories, instead I kept thinking about the contrast between two cities.

Easy to tell the tourists…

Easy to tell the tourists…

It would be fun to see a graph comparing the number of bicycles in Hanoi and San Francisco over time. I am quite confident that today there are far more bicycles in San Francisco. And it is not, as it is in Hanoi, the poor people who are on two wheels. It is ironic that while at home we try to reduce the number of carbon-emitting vehicles, their growth in developing countries is explosive. 

The conical hat and the bicycle laden with goods are slowly joining the cyclos—the traditional three-wheeled taxis—as purely tourist attractions. Fortunately, street-food stands and house-front markets of all sorts persist in the old town. They are, however, getting squeezed out by chic coffee shops and boutique hotels.

It’s funny that people think San Francisco has changed incredibly over the last 15 years. You only need to go to Vietnam to realize that, in comparison, our pace of change at home is that of a snail crawling next to a leaping grasshopper.

Luckily there’s still a bike repair guy on every corner.

Luckily there’s still a bike repair guy on every corner.

Nirvana in a Cup

Distractions while on the hunt…

Distractions while on the hunt…

“You have to try egg coffee in Hanoi. It’s delicious.”

I looked up the best place to go, and found Café Giang near my hotel. I wasn’t a bloodhound on the trail, I confess; but I walked down the street and checked for the café where the address indicated. However, when I asked for number 39, one person pointed left, another pointed right. I got distracted by a group of men smoking a pipe made from a three-foot piece of bamboo. And then by women steering bicycles full of fruits and vegetables and endless commodities.

I never saw the café.

The next morning I decided to order an egg coffee at my hotel. I was staying at the Metropole, Hanoi’s most famous hotel and one of its most sophisticated. Its guests have included Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin, and my personal favorite, Joan Baez. Surely they could handle an egg coffee.

The beautifully dressed young waitress was replaced by a gracious gentleman. He bowed and told me that, if I would wait six to eight minutes, he could bring me an egg coffee. When I asked if it took that long to make, he explained that he would have to find the place that makes them somewhere “in the garden.”

Ten minutes later I was sipping my drink. The presentation was sublime. A delicately framed candle burned in a translucent porcelain base, which supported a larger square bowl half-full of hot water. The coffee cup rested in the water. Every effort was made to keep it at the perfect temperature.

“How is it?” The waiter attentively asked.

“It is very nice.” I graciously replied. Graciousness is my tactic when enthusiasm is lacking. The coffee tasted like the Three In One instant coffee I make in my room when traveling in Asia: cloyingly sweet hot liquid with the underlying taste of caffeine.

“You know,” the man said, reading me perfectly, “I can tell you where to get a real egg coffee.”


“Yes, it is not far.”

He walked to the front of the restaurant, grabbed a small notepad and pen, and wrote down: Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan. My friend, Catherine, had also recommended this spot, so it had to be.

This time I persevered. Fifteen minutes after I left the hotel, I scoured the side of the street where my map application sent me. Usually trustworthy, this time the app was way off. I crossed the road, walked up and down the other side of the block, and kept asking for number 39. Finally, someone spoke English and directed me almost next door, to a very narrow slot and then a stairway going up. I snapped a shot for future reference.

A group of Myanmar nuns I had been observing along the way followed me into the café. At tables that came to my knee, we sat down on chairs the height of a hiking boot.


After placing my order, I talked and laughed with the nuns, who were very happy to meet someone who knew their country. Hugs were soon being exchanged, and the nuns’ joy expressed through requests for photographs. Of me.

The café was reminiscent of a beatnik coffee shop in a rundown section of a large city. Mold competed with the paint on the walls. The furniture was something McDonalds should copy to get you out as quickly as possible. It would contort the average American into intolerable pain.

The egg coffee came in a simple cup with the café’s logo. It rested in a small bowl of warm water. It looked like a small latte with a murky design. When stirred, the froth was dense. The liquid below was black.

And then, a moment later, I was transported into my very earliest childhood. I closed my eyes and took one more tiny sip of the coffee.

Senses that hadn’t been tantalized in decades burst to life. I reached out and sent a text to my brother. The tiny chair I now sat on matched the one my baby butt had cuddled as I waited impatiently for my mother to finish what she was doing. Holding a bowl in her hand, she beat its contents so hard, she threatened to destroy the bowl itself.

Gogglj-mogglj— the j making the ending baby-soft—was our name for these beaten egg yolks with sugar, gentled down to a creamy thickness by my mother’s perfect touch. A tiny spoonful of it would roll through your mouth and line your throat with nirvana. 

Egg coffee was apparently invented in Vietnam during hard times when milk was hard to come by. My Mama’s treat had been made in a refugee camp where a similar scarcity of ingredients prevailed.

I did a search on Google. It turned out that something called Kogel Mogel was created out of scarcity in Eastern Europe and is still eaten by children in Poland today. I’ve never asked my relatives in Serbia or Croatia about it, but I certainly will. 

Hanoi and I have both moved far beyond our era of scarcity, but I have rediscovered a love affair with the token of gold that shined its light into my soul. 

His father is the little baby.

His father is the little baby.

As I was leaving, I met the young man whose grandfather started the café. He pointed to his father, the baby in a portrait of the family. I will always remember Hanoi egg coffee as something his grandfather created for his father to keep him happy in hard times.

Sri Lanka Seaside


I sit watching the dawn rise over the ocean—always a different ocean—whose molecules perhaps touched my far younger self as I fished with my father. I sit here now, in peace, and contemplate the patterns left in the sand, the rocks in the water, the sound of waves. It takes but an instant to gain a freeing calm, a soothing generous gift from the earth.

I never had this sense of peace as a child. If I calmed down for one minute, a rock would push its way into my consciousness. A rock that needed to be dug up, retrieved, explored for urchins, thrown into the water; a source of chaos that my father eventually had to quell.

Today’s version of his daughter understands his need for those calm hours at the water. Comprehends that the long pole he carried was his guardian against interruption. That the fish we ate were merely an excuse, although a welcome one, for his pre-dawn slipping away from  responsibilities, for his hours spent alone. For his departure, for a while at least, from struggles: for his dive into peace.


And finally I think about the morning, while I was high in the Himalayas of northern India, that he rose for the final time in those predawn moments. A short time later he could’ve been at a beach like this one, whose water lapped his favorite city, his home, his San Francisco. He could have been hooking cornmeal balls carefully crafted the night before to tease the fish. 

Maybe he, or his spirit, did all those things. Maybe he is still doing them. Maybe it is him that I watch in the distance, hanging on to the pole that reaches over waves that lap the beaches of Sri Lanka. Maybe it is he who is watching over me, teaching me to enjoy life in a new way.

I can’t know for certain, because on that morning, while I slept in a tent beneath a 20,000 foot peak in the Himalayas, my father slipped quickly away.

I see a fisherman in the distance, and, as so often when I am again in the time zone of the land I explored as he, too, started exploring something new, my mind turns to Papa with an inevitability that is both familiar and soothing.


It could have been me


When I was six months old I was an enemy of two countries. 

Yes, that’s right. Six months old, and not hated by one country, but two. One of them declared me stateless and threatened to send me to the other. Possibly to death.

My father was Russian, and a refugee from that country and its 1917 Communist revolution. Had my grandfather not fled, he would have been executed. My father was a baby at that time, and grew up in what he thought was a safe haven — Yugoslavia.

My mother was Yugoslavian. Her childhood too included exile, from a part of the country given to Italy after World War I. She too thought she was living in a safe haven.

Both of them believed they were happy, secure, and financially successful citizens of their country.

But by the time of my birth in 1949, Russia and Yugoslavia and its communist dictators, Stalin and Tito, were no longer friends. Then it got worse.

Soon, Tito declared that all Russians in Yugoslavia were spies, and therefore enemies. These were mostly people who, like my family, had fled Russia 30 years earlier and were considered enemies in that land as well. So were their children, I guess. 

All of us were declared stateless, our nationality stolen from us with the swipe of a pen. If we waited too long, like some neighbors had, we could be sent directly to Russia. A one-way ticket to the gulags. The death camps of Siberia.

We fled, and ended up across the border in what is now Italy, but was yet another disputed territory. The city of Trieste was fought over by Yugoslavia and Italy for years after the end of World War II and was a United Nations protected zone. That, for us, was where Yugoslavia ended and the rest of the world began.

We arrived there in January 1950, along with thousands of other unexpected refugees, another flood bursting onto a world already filled with millions of the Second World War’s leftover lost and homeless. 

We were crowded into a place that — as I learned 40 years later — had been a concentration camp during World War II. We spent four years there.

People often feel sorry for me when they hear this and learn that I grew up in a refugee camp. But I was fortunate.

Today’s America makes me understand more clearly than ever how fortunate I was. I was not legal at the moment of arrival across that border. I was stateless and seeking asylum. 

I was an enemy of two countries before I could talk, or think clearly, or understand what a country was, or come close to comprehending the concept of an enemy.

I could have been separated from my parents at the border. I could’ve been sent back —although there was no “back” to be sent to. I could’ve been greeted by an administration like Donald Trump’s. The way my country is now greeting families just like mine.

Instead, I was welcomed by those who lived in the camp; I was carried in my mother‘s arms to the barracks where we would spend the next four years; I was loved by the homeless adults who surrounded me.

It was all a gift beyond imagining. Writing these very words has brought tears to my eyes. It has finally given me an answer to the question: “What comes to your mind when you hear about what’s going on at our borders, about the children separated from their parents?”

I realize that it could have been me.

The Zen of Photography

One of the first people who I studied photography with is Eddie Soloway. Eddie is primarily a nature photographer, and a very meditative person. One of the exercises he shares with students is going out to the beach at sunset.  

That sounds quite normal until you get to the important point  —  NO photographic equipment of any kind is allowed. The very thought of being on a beautiful beach at sunset with a group of photographers and without a camera seems anathema. It would be like taking a 10-year-old to a candy shop and not allowing them to buy any candy.    

Today, it is hard to imagine anyone on a beach watching the sunset resisting the possibility of taking a picture  —  since most people have their camera phone ever present. It makes the exercise take on an even deeper perspective. We are there defenseless, stripped of our ammunition. Forced to see, and feel, and absorb, and think.

I went with Eddie to Big Sur about seven years ago, when I realized that I was filling my camera with people as a consequence of losing my husband, Harold. It was as if I was replacing the man at my side with the humanity through my lens  — a safe way to fill an empty space.  

I came back from that trip with five images that line the wall of my living room  —  Zen abstractions of sand patterns  —  that help ground me every time I see them.  


I was hoping to find the feeling of peace that I found when I created the images in my living room, once more. 

A predicted storm was brewing as I drove down the coast, but it was calm in the trees. Arriving in the late afternoon, I drove directly to Pfeiffer Beach. As I neared the water the intensity of the wind increased to the point that when I paused to observe a pattern, the car rattled and shook. I looked around at the steep hillsides and decided it was the better part of wisdom to return with others at another time. That night I was deep in the forest amid giant redwood trees in a small wooden cabin. It was quiet and still, but I was not in the least relaxed.  

All I could think about was the calm before the storm. By early morning the streets of our town were flooded, but as yet there was no rain at Big Sur. I joined some friends at Pfeiffer Beach. It was hard to focus on photography as the wind howled, the waves churned, sand blew in my face and lens. Suddenly, I realized that a friend, Bernie, was floundering in the surf, trapped by the water while chasing his renegade camera bag. He fell on his hands and knees, struggled to rise, gazed helplessly as the bag moved past him and finally gave up and desperately scrambled out of the water. The event soured us on the beach and sent us back to our cabins in fortunate timing as the beach closed shortly afterwards because of landslides along the narrow access road.  

By Friday evening, the rain paused and we headed out to Garrapata Beach. As we descended the long stairway we realized the storm surge had the water covering the entire beach, even though the tide was theoretically halfway out. At sunset, I finally made my way down to what I thought was a dry beach. As I squatted to get an image a wave crashed into me. It was completely harmless and when it ebbed I was covered in foam, not water. Nevertheless, I climbed back up the hill. Saturday dawned bright and sunny, so I drove further south, heading for Point Lobos State Park, a famous photographic spot.  

As I neared, the orange barriers declared it closed as well. Apparently trees had fallen there as elsewhere along the coast. For sunset I headed back to Garrapata, and dropped to the gully filled with calla lilies. The torrent in the gully was by now passable, so I made my way across. As I rocked on the two final boulders prepared to leap to the sand, Eddie said, "Don't ruin that perfect beach."  

Where are you Burton Maxwell?

Tania pictured back row, third from the left. 

Publishing my book has led to many readings and wide ranging discussions. Recently, refugees and immigration have sparked much of that debate. People are curious about the impact of that experience on my life. One evening recently, the conversation moved to my upbringing.

We talked about my father’s fear for his children. His fear that growing up in America was not guaranteed. His fear that we would become refugees again. His fear of the seeming inevitability of continuous uprooting, of repeated exile.

I was asked at that reading, if that fear impacted me. Did I grow up fearful?

I acknowledged that rather than fearful, I grew up angry. Somehow I worked my way around to proclaiming myself a ‘badass.’

“And where did that stem from, your being a badass?” A friend asked. 

“The schoolyard.” The answer popped out, as surprising to me as to the others.

“The schoolyard?”

“Yes. I went to an inner-city school in San Francisco where I was one of the few white kids.”

“In San Francisco? Where?”

“On Hayes Street.”

I could feel I was losing them. Hayes Street is evolving into the height of chic. One restaurant after another is opening. The old freeway entrance has been converted into a lovely little park. The price of housing is skyrocketing. It’s hard to imagine my talking about an inner-city school in this context.

Yet, in 1960 we moved away from there into the foggy outerlands of the Richmond District to avoid an evolution of the city — sometimes referred to as ‘white flight‘ — which helped make me into someone tough enough to deal with the world, but made my father extremely uncomfortable. 

I am grateful for those years. I am grateful for whatever it is that turned me into a badass. In later life being a badass helped me deal with challenges that had more to do with being female in a man’s world than being a little white girl surrounded by tall black boys, but it was my black schoolyard mates who taught me to stand up for myself. 

I have almost moved out of that badass phase of my life, but it’s only because I rarely feel threatened. Age and success have rounded those sharp edges. But point your daggers at me, and you could still be sorry.

Growing up in San Francisco, I was happy in my tough schoolyard and my neighborhood. I admired my badass friends. More than that, I wanted to be like them.

Who wanted to be the smart white girl in that environment? The teacher’s pet. The goody two shoes? Not me.

And who, you might wonder, was Burton Maxwell?

Burton Maxwell was a cut up. A young lad from a tough family background who still came to school most days. He was tough in the schoolyard but laid low in the classroom, out of fear of being called on.

One day the teacher lived up to his expectations and called out Burton for raising hell in the back of the classroom.

Except it was both of us who were raising hell.

In a moment I can never forget, Burton looked at me. He stared just long enough for me to read his message. He may as well have put his hand on my forearm to keep me from speaking up. To keep me from taking responsibility.

I let Burton take the fall. 

Sixty years later I still sometimes troll the Internet looking for Burton Maxwell. I am looking for a 69-year-old man to apologize to. I am looking to see what happened to my friend, to the young boy who took a fall for a smart white girl who just didn’t quite fit in with her tough friends. Who, when push came to shove, chickened out and let a young black lad take the blame.

Tania, third row, fourth from left. Sherry Rowland, second row, fifth from left. Burton Maxwell, front row, fourth from left. 

My sense of inferiority lasted far longer than you might expect. I was a scholarship student studying Mathematics at U.C., Berkeley and working in the deli in my old neighborhood when Sherry Rowland walked up to the counter. I had been with my boyfriend Greg for several years by then, but was still—barely—a virgin.

Sherry’s round belly, on the other hand, announced the imminent arrival of her second child. The first raced around while she and I tried to figure out what she could pay for with her food stamps—then a new concept—and I snuck a roast chicken into her cart. 

You might think I felt smug and superior. That was far from the case. Still the foreign white girl, I was in awe of her maturity and experience. She was a woman and a mother and I a young and naïve schoolgirl. I knew I could never match Sherry in toughness.

I sit and stare at old classroom photographs, at an evolution. A class that started with two black kids in kindergarten ended with a black majority by the fifth grade, and lost almost all of us palefaces, including me, in the last year of grammar school. 

I see the three of us. Burton Maxwell—a sweet, smiling kid who doesn’t match the tough guy in my memory. Sherry—a defenseless little girl, not a world weary teenage mother of two. Me—a tentative little kid in a frilly dress her foreign mother made for her. 

And once again, I wonder. Where are you Burton Maxwell?

Read my latest book, Mother Tongue, to learn about Croatia, the Balkans, and my family history — following three generations of strong women. 

Are we related?

Truth is stranger than fiction. Once again.

It started off innocuously, with an email from The Economist.

Dear Armet Amochaev,

Welcome to The Economist. You can now look forward to independent thinking and a distinctive world view, every week. Your first print issue is on its way

Except I hadn’t ordered a subscription to The Economist and my name is not Armet.

I decided to ignore it, but the next email included Armet's address and a requested confirmation for the credit card charge. 

Having just spent days researching my father’s background in Russia, I was intrigued by this rare reference to our last name and forwarded the note to my brother Alex:

ME: 6/2
Thought you might enjoy this. Do you think I should tell them they have the wrong email address?

ALEX: 6/2
Sure. But maybe he’s related us. Can we get his email?

ME: 6/3
I doubt it — but we could find his house! It’s near Moscow. And I have figured out that there’s a train stop at the village father was born in, on the line from Volgograd to Moscow. Want to go next summer?

ALEX: 6/4
Maybe. Let’s see what develops. 

I then told The Economist about the error and in return got a robot who didn’t want to discuss the subject with me.

This is an automated response ...

That inspired me to check on Facebook, where I found an Armet Amochaev from the correct town and sent him a message asking if he had subscribed to The Economist.

He had, and had misspelled his last name in the email address. I did not find this surprising as transliteration from the Cyrillic is not an exact science. So we had an email exchange.

ME: 6/9
By the way, my family were Don Cossacks from near Urupinsk. I don’t suppose we’re related?

My uncle's hand-drawn map from 1977.

My uncle's hand-drawn map from 1977.

ARMET: 6/9
Dear Tania, thank your a lot for the letter! It was my mistake, I wrote my email in a wrong way :) 

You know, I think that we're related. My grandfather was born in a khutor (a small village farm) near Urupinsk in 1935 and my ancestors also were  Don Cossacks. 

Tania, I've visited your website and will definitely read all your literary works and I'm going to start with the story of your first trip to your father's homeland. It must be very exciting! 

A few words about myself. I'm 28-years-old. I live in a suburb of Moscow and work in a road-construction business. I am very pleased to meet you!

ME: 6/9
Lovely to hear from you. My brother suggested I write you on the theory that we might be related. Our family are the only Amochaevs in America. 

I actually want to write a book about my father. I don’t suppose your grandfather is still alive or that you know what village they came from?

And I am impressed that a 28-year-old in Russia wants to read The Economist. I used to read it in my career as a business executive. 

ARMET: 6/12
Dear Tania,

I read your story in one breath. It made me excited and sad simultaneously. I'm excited because you mentioned some familiar places in the story. My grandfather was born in the collective farm "Serp i Molot" right near khutor Kulikov and stanitsa Jarizhenskaya (Ярыженская). I attached a piece of the map. Cossaks weren't allowed to live in their family khutors and villages because of the collectivization. 

But your story also reminds me about very dark times in our history. A civil war is the most disgusting thing that can be. My grandfather lived after those events, but there were rough times too: The great famine in the region in the '30s and WWII later. None of his siblings survived  and he didn't know much about his father. My grandfather was a very stubborn person. He managed to leave that place, worked and studied hard and become a major in the engineering troops. He served in many places in the Soviet Union and retired in Kharkov, Ukraine where he died eight years ago. I wish I could ask him more about the family story. Tania, I think we're related, but just from different branches. 

By the way, last September I was traveling to Urupinsk for a business purpose. I work in a company that supplies high-end equipment and technologies for construction. This region is getting more attractive for the agriculture business and the local road network is being renovated. Now there were none of my relatives there, but I visited khutor Amochaev. Now it's just two farms with no Amochaevs there. I also attached some photos from my trip. 

I think that writing a book about your father is a great idea! 

Now I'm  getting my executive master degree at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. I already have the engineering one and I do believe it will be useful for my further career. That's why I'm reading the Economist. Besides, I try to get information from different sources. 

ME: 6/13
I’m afraid your note brought tears to my eyes. I would definitely like to meet you someday, and it would be fun to find out how closely related we are. If you’re interested, I could get you a DNA test on ‘23 and me’. My brother and cousin and I have all done it, and we could see how closely linked we might be.

I was happy that he responded to say that he would be happy to see if the DNA test showed a family link. 

You never know what you might find in the junk email in your inbox! 

Read my latest book, Mother Tongue, to learn about Croatia, the Balkans, and my family history — following three generations of strong women.