Of all the mother figures in my childhood, I think one of the most important ones I forgot. Or, rather, I couldn’t bear to remember.

I think her name was Nadezhda Matveyevna Dmitrieva. Of all the girls, there are only two whose full names I think I might actually remember. Nadezhda Matveyevna Dmitrieva and Natalia Yegorovna Stanislavova. Nadia and Nata.

The others are merely Agrifina, Ilyona, Eva, Maxima, Stefania, and Magdalena: Grusha, Lyonya, Evechka, Ksymcia, Stefcia, and Magda. And maybe also Laila, Aisha, Annousha, and Farzana, who are not from Slavic or Eastern European cultures and do not have diminutives.

The two full names I know I think I remember because those were the two most important people.

I imagine they called Nadezhda Nadia. But when I think of her, I think “mommy.” I suppose she was Russian. When I remember her—and I can remember her—she has a very Russian appearance. I might have called her “mama” or “mamochka,” but what cames back to my adult, English-speaking brain is “mommy.”

She had very blue eyes—not the bright, nearly turquoise blue that Nata had, but a darker, greyer blue that is still striking in the way Russian blue eyes can be. She wore sweaters a lot and the sweaters were soft. I suppose she was an older teenager to young 20-something when I knew he and I remember her from the time I was old enough that, standing on her lap, my face was more or less level with hers until the time I might have been 9 or 7 or even 5—a somewhat older child, not a baby anymore.

When I came back from the Capitol City and had all of those memories of safety, I was remembering her without realizing I was remembering anything. I thought those were feelings I had in the present, but they were experiences from the past.

I did not see her die, I think, but I saw her body mutilated. I think I had to eat her.

It makes me think, as I remember what happened to her, that these were really the best people I knew. The girls cannot have been terribly functional or psychologically healthy or even very mature, but they were most protective of me, the most nurturing, and the most empathetic. And my dad tortured, killed, mutilated, and ate them. This seemed to have been allowed by the culture at large, as though they had disposable lives and disposable bodies.

If these were the best people I knew and they had no value, then human life must have no value. It is merely a matter of being capable of escaping persecution and murder. Survival is then about being clever and powerful and forming appropriately convenient alliances. It creates a sense of utter bleakness for me. I can’t live like that. A dog eat dog world is not worth living in. I think it made the choices before me seem utterly untenable: being persecuted or being callous.

I was still in elementary school, and this is what I grappled with.