"For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors" by Laura Esther Wolfson

Laura Esther Wolfson

Laura Esther Wolfson

Laura Esther Wolfson lives in New York City, where she earns her living as a translator of Russian, French and Spanish to English. Her writing has appeared in Bellingham Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry Daily, The Rumpus, The Sun, Zyzzyva and elsewhere and has been cited repeatedly as "notable" in Best American Essays.



When I was a very young woman, I spent many months working and traveling in Russia. The end of the Cold War would soon take many people by surprise. I was far from my mother, and from everyone else who mattered. In the Soviet hinterlands, I met a woman I’ll call Svetlana. Svetlana treated me like a daughter. She had none of her own. She clearly wished she did.

Reader, I married her son.


There was more to it than that, of course. I met the son first, and, in the usual way, he brought me home to meet his parents. And the son himself was actually very delightful. When he spoke, he grew irresistible. Small children (there were many in his extended family) were particularly susceptible to his charms. They would wrap themselves around his legs when he stood up from a chair, to keep him from leaving.

Those months spent in another language, an experience both freeing and confining; the tectonic historical shifts I witnessed at close range—these things changed me. That the changes might fade with time was unthinkable. I needed a way to bring it all back home.

I was too big to wrap myself around his legs the way the children did.


I hopped over to the States by myself to take care of some personal business, then circled back to visit Svetlana, her son and the rest of the family in those hinterlands I mentioned. Svetlana had just become a grandmother by her other son, who was the younger by four years. The household now consisted of Svetlana and her husband, the baby and its parents, the older son (who was my husband) and me.

Julia, the baby’s mother, complained to me about what I could see for myself: the family did not welcome her. The pregnancy had been an accident, their second. I say their second, but both mistakes were of course seen as entirely hers.

This time, the second time, Julia had headed over to see the family straight from the doctor’s office. Svetlana told me this part; it happened before I came to stay. Her coat still on, Julia made her announcement: the doctor had said that a second abortion would forever disable her for childbearing. If she didn’t have this child, she would never have one.

A wedding was cobbled together, with a dress, a white one, a popular model designed to conceal and to be let out, little by little.

That Julia had no father and a minimum of education only bolstered the family’s view of her as a climber. It did not aid her case when, a few years later, late one night after a glass too many, or perhaps more, her mother let slip that that story about the irrevocable damage a second abortion would cause was something the two of them had cooked up together, without input from any specialist.

By then, of course, there was no going back. Is there ever?


None of this had any direct bearing on me. I flew in, as I always did back then, with enough dental floss and other stuff—contact lens solution, birth control—for my sojourn: a suitcase full of extra everything, just in case.

We planned to settle in the States, Svetlana’s older son and I, so, late one afternoon, I repacked that suitcase (its contents now much diminished) for the trip to the West. Julia, in her uniform of bathrobe and slippers, leaned against the doorframe, watching. The baby was lodged on her hip; everyone else was out.

Her eye fell on a small, flattish, tan plastic box among my things strewn across the bed.

“Can you leave that with me?” she blurted, pointing to it. “You can get another one back home, can’t you?”

At the time, diaphragms were a rarity in the Soviet Union. I had seen one for sale in a drugstore once—huge, like a baby bonnet—in a locked vitrine, unpackaged. Julia seemed oddly familiar with the little box and its hidden contents.

“It might not be your size,” I said.

Her gaze did not waver from the small object on the bed.

I was reduced to stating the obvious: “It’s used.”

Even as I spoke, I knew that none of this mattered; in the USSR in 1991, cast-off birth control was the very best most women could hope for. To refuse her request would have been mean-spirited.

“I’ll boil it in the big soup pot,” Julia said, with a nod toward the kitchen. “To sterilize it.” She placed the child on the bed and it rapidly dozed off.

I dove into the suitcase after the remaining, unopened tubes of spermicide and, what the hell, while I was down there, I also found the white plastic refill plunger that screwed onto the tip of the tube; it was for inserting extra spermicide when you felt like going at it a second time, or a third—she could toss that into the soup pot, too. I explained how all the items functioned together and how to grip the diaphragm so that it slid toward and then into, rather than becoming airborne, which might lead to a stain on our shared mother-in-law’s fancy wallpaper.

Julia never had another child. Perhaps she actually used the diaphragm, and perhaps it actually worked. On the other hand, she could have had a dozen abortions later on, and I would never have known. (Svetlana’s best friend, a schoolteacher like her, and married to a man who didn’t like condoms—isn’t that redundant?—had had thirty. That was, she noted sadly, enough unborn children to fill every seat in her classroom.)

I say that I would never have known, because although Julia and I married into the same family, we would eventually lose touch. Sometimes I get updates from Svetlana, who hears about Julia from the grandchild, now grown. That’s how I know she stopped at one.


During my stay, I watched Svetlana steadily amassing maternal rights as Julia’s dwindled proportionately. Svetlana was very skilled at childcare, and loving. The child couldn’t have asked for a better mother than her grandmother.

Julia withdrew. She ceased caring for her own child. No way could she compete. The only duty she retained was breast-feeding, and that petered out soon enough.

A few years later, Julia and her husband moved into their own apartment. Svetlana reported on the phone that the little girl categorically refused to go with her parents. She’s staying here with us, Svetlana added, sounding pleased.

Good Lord, if I’d been that child, I’d have done the same thing. I’d have chosen Svetlana, too. And Svetlana still needed to sate her daughter-hunger, so it was an ideal arrangement, kind of. When the child got older, Svetlana took her to school and picked her up each day and made friends with the other mothers. The child visited her parents a few weekends a month, until they were no longer together.

After we got off the phone with Svetlana that time, I said, “Your mother will not come over here to raise our child, when we have one. We will raise our own child.”

My words were met with silence.



The person who was supposed to be in charge of the country had not been seen for some time. A group announced that he would be replaced owing to concerns about his health. They broadcast Swan Lake on television over and over. The people understood what was happening.

A few months later, fifteen big-bellied men sat around a table, signing papers. At one minute before midnight on the last night of the year, the flag was lowered. Pundits declared the breakup bloodless and deemed that miraculous. There was, they said, no historical precedent.

Women crossed the border by the thousands now: Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian and so on. They were going to jobs in Germany, Cyprus, Israel, Dubai. They would send money home. Opportunities included babysitting, waitressing and modeling, according to the agencies that placed them. Agencies that were run, for the most part, by burly men with Albanian passports.

We house-sat, the husband and I; we sublet; we rented. We were students; we were employed; we were unemployed; we were self-employed. With the passage of years, we stayed in larger and larger places.

Dignitaries met. Friendship was declared. Memoranda of understanding were signed. Commitments were made. Nuclear missiles would be dismantled. Their components would be stored somewhere safe.

My knowledge of Russian was in demand. I traveled a lot: mostly within the United States, accompanying visiting dignitaries; sometimes to Russia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Interpreters and translators of Russian had full employment, for a time.

A few people grew extremely rich. Most slid into poverty. A middle class emerged. Those who could now afford nice things were very pleased. Some people vacationed on islands in the Indian Ocean.

There was war in Ossetia. There was war in Abkhazia. There were wars in Chechnya. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was put on hold. The war in Transdniester was put on hold. The war in Tajikistan came to an end. There were probably other wars that didn’t make the news.



Children? I kept on asking.

We were past thirty. Six years we’d been married. We had good jobs and a large apartment. Exactly what did we still need to do? Buy a crib? Diapers? Just what was missing?

The last time, he said, “We would need to place it in twenty-four-hour day care.”

This was puzzling, on several counts. Why have a child if not to raise it ourselves? Why put it in an institution? And what on earth was twenty-four-hour day care?

I asked the last question first.

“Twenty-four-hour day care?” I repeated, trying to keep my voice steady. “Would that be seven days a week?”

“We could take it out on weekends, if we felt like it,” he answered.

“They probably don’t accept newborns,” I said hopefully.

“We’d have to look into it,” he said. “When that time comes.”


Many years later, deep into another marriage, I’m visiting my friend Katya in Philadelphia. I ask if she ever heard of twenty-four-hour day care, back when she was growing up in the Soviet Union.

“Yes, I think so,” she says, furrowing her brow in an effort to recall. “It was for single mothers working as train conductors, I believe. So they would have a place to leave their children when they had to make long train trips. You know, if there were no relatives nearby to help.”

For single mothers working as train conductors. Leave it to the Soviets to make sure that particular corner of the social safety net did not get frayed. But I wasn’t a train conductor; nor was I single; nor did we live in the Soviet Union.



Svetlana keeps on writing.

When her son and I separated, she lived in Russia still. She and I talked on the phone twice a year: on her birthday, which falls in January, and on mine, in August. Then, about a decade after the divorce, she broke the pattern one year, writing in the month of March to tell me that her son was bringing her and my ex-father-in-law over to the U.S. to live permanently.

Unable to fathom it, I didn’t believe it. But I toggled over from the Latin alphabet to Cyrillic and wrote, “I look forward to having the two of you close by.”

“The decision to leave cannot have been an easy one,” I continued, struggling over and over to hit the right key. “I will help you adjust to life here in any way I can.” I included all of my phone numbers: home, office, cell. I said other things too, but this is what I remember now.

We read your email and we wept, she replied.

For months, I heard nothing more. They’re not coming, I thought.

On the night of my birthday, just before sleep rolled in, I noted that Svetlana had missed the day: for the first time in many years, she hadn’t called.

In the morning, a birthday email was waiting, sent off at 11:59 p.m. “We’ve been in Philadelphia for three months,” she wrote. They were living with her son, his wife and their baby.

That time stamp—one minute before midnight—told me that she’d struggled with her conscience all day before finally resolving to write. That they’d been here for three months before I received word of their presence told me that something had prevented her from writing sooner. Whatever it was, she vanquished it, because soon we were corresponding regularly. But no phone calls.

When she still lived in Russia and we spoke those two times a year, she used to pass the receiver to whatever family member happened to be around—her husband, nieces, various cousins, all of whom I’d known well, back in the day—so they could say hello. Now I understood that her son was simply unaware that she had been speaking with me all those years, for, having stayed on in America after we parted, he was never in the room with her during those calls, or even, for that matter, on the same continent. His ignorance of our contact required no great deception; it was just a matter of not mentioning it to him, ever. Everyone else—the cousins, nieces, et cetera—must have known not to mention it to him, ever, either.


In a recent email sent from her new home in Philadelphia, Svetlana wrote offhandedly, “I’m very busy with my little grandson. I’m responsible for him seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.” These words, buried amidst other news of her daily life, nearly slid past unremarked.

But then I found myself posing the old, sad question, though the stakes were far lower now. Why have a child if not to raise it yourself? Why was the grandmother responsible twenty-four hours out of the day? Even in a culture where grandmothers are actively recruited for child care, that’s a lot of hours.

Twenty-four hours… Twenty-four-hour day care… The words echoed, they echoed something from some fifteen years back.

He had not been referring to an institution for single mothers working as train conductors; no, it was his mother he meant. His mother, who, during most of the years of our marriage, had been far, far away, and was, this time around, immediately to hand and making herself useful. She was the day care.

A question, posed in 1996 and 1997: what was needed, in order to have a child?

The answer, received in 2012: Svetlana was needed, staying in the spare bedroom and taking charge around the clock.

The question: launched, then forgotten, but heard, somewhere—yes, heard. The answer, boomeranging back with a tremendous delay. By the time it reached me, the matter no longer pressed. The reply was a missing jigsaw piece, nothing more—but one that fit into the gap remarkably well—part of a puzzle I’d long ago given up trying to solve.