The woman on the message said her name was Barb. She explained that her friend Raissa had died and — Barb knew how crazy this all sounded — she’d found my name on Raissa’s life-insurance policy. I assumed it was a scam. I called her back, anyway. How could I not?
My father’s family is small and disconnected. Whoever had managed to survive the gulags during WWII had come to America, but they existed like distant satellites, wholly unconnected to one another. I had never even met my uncle — my father’s only sibling — or any of my first cousins. Dad wasn’t a particularly sentimental type. Being born in Ukraine in the 1930s will do that to you, I guess.
I do not know if Raissa was my father’s first or second cousin. I simply referred to her as my aunt, though I’d met her exactly once when I was a toddler. She and my mother kept in touch sporadically over the years, long after my parents divorced, and I’d occasionally be pulled into a phone call with a woman who would address me as “my hon” in a Russian accent tinged with a Midwestern twang. I wrote to her throughout elementary school and high school, collecting her return letters in a box.
When I was seventeen, she sent me a bracelet that had belonged to her as a teenager, adorned with dangling charms commemorating her sweet sixteen and graduation.
“It’s a family heirloom,” Raissa explained. I didn’t understand why she was giving something so personal to me or how something so insular could be an heirloom. It would take me years to finally figure it out.
Sometime when I was in college, Raissa disappeared out of the periphery of my life. The letters my mother and I wrote to her came back undeliverable; the phone number we had for her was disconnected. It was just before the birth of social media, and finding someone was harder then. My mother and I called the police station closest to her last address, but she wasn’t technically a missing person. Raissa had our information. I told myself that if she wanted to reach out, she would.
After I got the voicemail, I called Barb back, and we awkwardly explained the roles we had in Raissa’s life. I told her about my father, who had just died a few months earlier. She told me how she and Raissa had become friends through work, and she told me about my aunt’s life for the past few years. Around the time I’d lost touch with Raissa, she’d had a series of strokes (I vaguely remembered one letter where her penmanship was rough and crooked — she had taught herself to write with her left hand).
Barb told me she moved around, jumping from the home of one friend to another's as her health declined.
“Why didn’t she call us?” I asked Barb. She didn’t have an answer. I’ve had the same phone number for twenty years; Barb had looked it up in Raissa’s address book shortly after she’d found the life-insurance policy. She told me dozens of numbers had been scratched out over the years, but my ten digits were pristine.
By the time I learned of her death, Raissa had been gone for two years. I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly two decades. My last attempt to contact her had been nine years earlier — when her invitation to my wedding had come back undeliverable. My mother and I would occasionally do an Internet search for her name, which yielded nothing besides an old address (even today, this is still true). Over time, Mom went from musing about what happened to Raissa to saying, quietly, “I think she’s dead.” I dismissed this idea until a few years ago, when I realized the probability of it and told her that she was likely right.