The telephone call took me completely by surprise. I had been puttering around the house that morning. All the kids were at school, and for some reason I had a day off. Around noon, the phone rang, and at that point my day shifted into high gear.
"Bethie," said the voice on the other end amidst crackles and hums, "How far do you live from the San Francisco Airport?"
"About two hours," I answered my friend, Zina, who lived in Moscow. "Why do you ask?"
"Because Ksenya is on the plane. It lands in two hours. She is going to live with you now."
"Uh, okay, I gotta go. I don't want a teenager who speaks no English wandering around San Francisco by herself. I'll call you as soon as I can get through the telephone trunklines once we return."
And that is how Ksenya ended up as our sixth child. The daughter of an Armenian mother and a Tatar father, now divorced and living separately in Moscow, Ksenya would have had almost no career options in either Moscow or Armenia where discrimination against such mixed ethnic and non-local ethnic individuals at that time (and to some extent still) ran rampant. America, then, looked like a land of opportunity to Zina and to Ksenya herself, and so they made the brave decision for Ksenya to come live with her "Aunt Beth" in the USA and hope for the best to come from that. (Of course, it might have been a little easier on me had "Aunt Beth" known about this decision more than two hours in advance!)
I had known Ksenya since she was four years old. When Lizzie and I lived in Moscow, where I was doing my dissertation research in the winter of 1984-1985, Ksenya was a first grader and Lizzie, four years older but already in the 7th grade, babysat her on many evenings when Zina and I had things we wanted or had to do. Zina, like me, was a graduate student at the time, and we both took classes at the University of Moscow. The fact that Zina felt that she could just put her child on a plane and expect me to scoop her up at the other end and finish raising her testified to the strength of our remarkable Russian-American friendship that had survived the test of the Cold War, including the need to stay under the KGB radar, which we did not always do perfectly, there being stool pigeons among the graduate students. So, our friendship had withstood some difficult political moments. That, I suppose, is what made Zina confident that I would simply take Ksenya into our family without discussion, which I did.
Ksenya was a remarkable child. Very talented. Once we got past the evenings when she would curl up on the couch, lay her head on my lap, and tell me in Russian how much she missed Moscow, Ksenya took charge of her own dreams. She wanted to be an actress. I told her that people don't emigrate to the USA and waltz into Hollywood, but that is exactly what she did. She auditioned for the Child Actors' Studio and got a full scholarship. Lizzie checked out the authenticity and quality of the studio. It was taught by many of the American well-known actors and actresses, particularly those from sitcoms and soap operas. She graduated at the top of the class, then stunned and pleased me with the announcement that she no longer wanted to be an actress because she did not want to live the lifestyle that most actors lived. She felt that if she were living and working in that environment, her social life and morals would be influenced by it. Instead, she decided to go back to school, to a music institute, in order to become a singer. (Now, I am not quite sure how or why there is a difference in lifestyle of singers and actors, but at least for her there seems to have been.)
About this time, Ksenya's mother showed up in Salts. Lizzie said that when she received the phone call from Zina, saying that she was at the bus station in Salts and to please come pick her up, she was certain that she had forgotten Russian because she knew that "Aunt Zina" was really in Moscow. Just in case, she drove to the station, and there was Zina.
Zina lived with us for six months or so. During that time, she attended English language classes at the local adult school, where she met and fell in love with Rob, a Vietnam War veteran. To oversimplify and significantly shorten a very complex story, they married, moved into their own place, and purchased a business, which they ran until Rob experienced a relapse of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and attacked Zina with a carving knife, wanting to "kill the damn commies." The police locked up Rob, the veteran administration determined that he would likely be subject to such relapses indefinitely, and Zina put him on a plane back to his parents in New England. Then, she left for Moscow, to confer with her mother and family there and try to put her life back together.
While Zina was still in the USA, Ksenya graduated from the music institute and started her career with a bang. She landed her own show at an LA Club. Johnny Angel visited one of her shows and reviewed it on the front page of the LA Weekly under the title of "From Russia with 'Tude," concluding that Ksenya was "a star if there ever was one."
Then she met the man, Arlen, who was to become her husband. He was handsome and rich. About the time of their Las Vegas wedding, Ksenya was deciding that her Russian-American sound needed to change to a purely American sound. They moved to Arlen's family's property so that Ksenya could develop a new sound and cut demo records.
And that is where we lost Ksenya. Although she had not given us her coordinates after the wedding, not knowing them at the time, with much still being up in the air, she could have contacted us once she learned them. After all, she knew where we were, right? Wrong! During this same period of time, every single member of our family moved: Donnie and I moved for a short period of time to a river in the woods, Lizzie moved from San Diego to Illinois for graduate school, and with her went Blaine. That brought Noelle back from San Diego to Salts, and Doah spent a year with his uncle in Ohio. This was also the time that Zina returned to Moscow, and, unfortunately, in our move I lost my address book with Zina's Moscow phone number.
During this period, Ksenya disappeared from our lives. We had no idea where she was, and she had no idea where we were. No previous addresses or phone numbers for any of us would have worked. As for Zina, she returned to the USA and tracked down our phone in our woods two months after we had moved to Jordan, leaving our phones and furniture until I could return in the spring to disconnect everything and put the furniture in storage. I heard Zina's message that she was living with Ksenya and Arlen and would like me to call her, but she did not leave a phone number. She probably assumed that we had Ksenya's, but we did not.
And that is, unfortunately, the end of the story of Ksenya as the sixth Mahlou child. I have taken a few days to put this post together because I have not really known how to tell Ksenya's story since I have been privileged to know only a small part of it. It has been five years now, and we have had no insights into how to find her. We do not know if she is trying to find us. We do know that she is with her real mother and with her husband is likely starting a family of her own since she has not showed up on the Hollywood scene after leaving LA. While it would be wonderful to know for sure what is happening in her life, perhaps it was only ever meant that we should be there to help her when she needed an American family. For whatever we could do for her, we were blessed to be a critical part of her life at a critical stage of her development, and we thank God for that. We know that He is watching over her because he brought her safely to me at the San Francisco Airport and because He always watches over the Mahlou clan -- and whether or not we know where she is, whether or not we ever see her again, Ksenya will always be a member of the Mahlou clan.
PS. If God ever grants us the possibility to tell "more later," I will be certain to add it here!