The Mother Country

Denise Thomas is accused of trying to sell her adopted Russian daughter -- but the girl had been bought and sold all along.

After preparing for this day for two years, Peter Thomas leaves Denver on the morning of Monday, January 2, 1999, nearly misses the connection at JFK in New York (runs to make the flight), changes again in Stockholm and then lifts off for St. Petersburg. He has checked through two gigantic suitcases full of clothes and toys. He was so preoccupied packing them the night before, he forgot his overcoat -- not a small detail when you are going to Russia in the middle of winter -- so he buys one at the Stockholm airport during the hour-long layover. He carries $5,000 in stiff new $100 bills in a money belt worn cautiously around his waist. That's what it costs to bring a child back from there, and he's been instructed that they take only cash.

What must it be like? Peter has never been over the Atlantic, never outside the United States except for once so many years ago he barely remembers, when he went to Mexico on vacation. Neither that, nor growing up in California, Oregon and then Colorado, could have possibly prepared him for Russia in January, for the brutal transition from the free wine and gourmet food of Scandinavian Airlines to the cold cement grayness of St. Petersburg. The sky is oppressive, sodden and barely hangs above the square buildings. It is below freezing, and there are four inches of slush on the ground.

The disorientation suddenly makes the whole thing seem impossibly tenuous. Where must he go now, and how will he drag the monstrous suitcases through the forbidding customs station, and then what will the grim bureaucrats think of all that U.S. currency? And how will he ever find his contact -- improbably arranged through a woman in Maryland, who called a woman in Des Moines, who somehow found an orphaned girl in an institution eight hours north of St. Petersburg? When you think about it that way, what are the odds he can ever pull it off?

Elvira, soon to be Elena, with an official at the Russian orphanage.
Elvira, soon to be Elena, with an official at the Russian orphanage.
Elvira, soon to be Elena, with an official at the Russian orphanage.
Elvira, soon to be Elena, with an official at the Russian orphanage.

Here is Denise Thomas, at home in Littleton, knowing that she won't hear from Peter for days because the phone lines are so unpredictable; and anyway, he'll be on the road to St. Petersburg for the next two days straight, then on the overnight train to grimy, depressing, industrial Petrozavodsk, some 300 miles north. Denise doesn't travel well, so she stays home and waits. But she's nervous, too.

She'd met Peter at the insurance company where he worked; his job included dictating memos, and she was the transcriptionist. As she typed his words, she thought his voice sounded nice, so she screwed up her courage and asked him out. At first there was no talk of children, because they both enjoyed just being by themselves and the freedom that brought. But later, when their friends started having kids, well, that changed things, opened up the possibilities, and they agreed to try it, too. Denise had always been close to her mother, Ruth, and hoped she could duplicate that love with her own little girl, but in 1984, Steven was born. He was healthy, beautiful, perfect -- and when Denise got home from the hospital, cradling her son, holding her history and her future, she felt...absolutely nothing.

She didn't sleep. She paced for hours at a time or sat awake and raked her thighs with her fingernails until they bled. At times she'd hear things, babies crying when none were around. She looked at Steven and wondered who he was and why he was there. For four months, she paced and ate antidepressants, and Peter and Ruth raised the baby without her, wondering when Denise would return.

The bottom hit at Christmas that year, amid the forced holiday cheerfulness at a time when Portland's sky is low and stifling and the air is heavy and it feels as though there will never be hard light again. But then, suddenly, just after New Year's, Denise burst out of it, an immediate magical transformation from invalid to mother. Later, she is diagnosed as bipolar, manic depressive -- a relief, really. It explains so much, and the lithium is a godsend. Still, when Peter and Denise decide they want another child, a little girl to complete their family, there is no question that they will adopt.

Here is Elvira Starikova, eight years old, entering a strange apartment to meet her new father, whom she does not know and will not trust. Denise and Peter already have decided to give her the name Elena Star Thomas -- Elena because Elvira has been appropriated by a vampy actress and she'll be starting out with enough strikes; Star because it will be good for her to have some link to her heritage, even if it is only a truncated middle name; and, of course, Thomas, because that is who she must now become.

This is what Elena knows: Her birth father was drowned, most likely as the result of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and then owing them money and not paying. Her mother (later declared unfit) is a drunk -- irresponsible, unable to grasp that she has two girls at home, or maybe simply forgetting. At one point, the mother lives in a cardboard box. Once, she leaves the girls for five days, and Elena's sister Olga, five years old at the time, somehow manages to care for both of them -- a kindergarten mother, waiting until the real parent shows up. When Elena is three years old, the family is dissolved and the girls are split up -- sent, for reasons unexplained, into two different orphanages miles apart.

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