"Young Alexandra" is based on my conversations with octogenarian Alexandra Teploff at her weekly French-oriented meetings in the local library—"reunions," she called them.
Those reunions were relaxed affairs, a maximum of five or six attendees spanning the gamut of language ability, attempting to converse in French. There was no charge or obligation, no formal agenda—but a great deal of good-natured laughter, for Alexandra's joy in speaking French was infectious.
In time the reunion's attendance dwindled, and it occasionally happened that I was the only attendee. This didn't bother Alexandra in the slightest. "Good! Now we'll have a really good chat," she said. And so we did, often nattering away in French—fractured French on my part—for a couple of hours without a stop.
We talked about many things, but what I found most fascinating in those one-on-one meetings were Alexandra's recollections of her childhood in Russia in the turmoil before the Revolution of 1917, her coming of age in Estonia, and her youth in England and America. I took notes, and together with pastel sketches made by Alexandra's maternal grandmother, they became the core of "Young Alexandra."
Here in outline is what Alexandra told me. Her parents were aristocrats in old St Petersburg. With her dance master, her seamstress to make pretty dresses, and her French-speaking governess, Alexandra seemed destined for a brilliant debut in elite Russian society.
It never happened. With the collapse of civil society, her family sought safety in the gritty life of subsistence farming far from the capital.
For many a child in her position, life on a farm might have been a bore, but Alexandra loved to help with sieving grain, baking bread, feeding the animals.
Her governess having fled to her native Switzerland, Alexandra's education stalled. But then she made a lucky find—in a recently abandoned school house, a trove of easy-reading books in French. Already fluent in spoken French, she soon became literate in that language as well.
Four years later, seeing no hope for a return to normalcy in Russia, the family escaped to the relative safety of Estonia. There, 12-year-old Alexandra was eligible to attend school. But there was a hitch; while some Russian was spoken in Estonia, the only language permitted in schools was German, and Alexandra knew not a word of it. So she began her school days side-by-side with children six years younger.
At first she found it embarrassing. "I look like the class dunce," she complained. But she found a solution. She treated her classmates as younger brothers and sisters, and helped them with arithmetic. They loved her back, and helped with her with German. She graduated from high school along with her age group, with fluency in German a bonus.
The years in Estonia were happy ones for Alexandra and her family, but it was happiness that rang ominously hollow as the Bolsheviks began to look aggressively outwards to their small-nation neighbors. Her parents felt it was time for Alexandra to find a life in a more stable part of the world. They packed her off to a distant relative in a small town near London.
Drab, cold England! It felt like a dead end. But by this time Alexandra knew that, in life, when a door closes against you, another one might open. And so it happened; an American college faculty member on a abbatical helped her get an exchange-student Visa for study in America, and a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
She enjoyed her studies at Smith, and despite being a few years older than her classmates, she enjoyed the camaraderie of living in a dormitory. She left Smith with a master's degree in Education and a clear purpose—a career in teaching in the United States public school system.
There is more to that outline Alexandra's story than additional detail. In Alexandra's telling, her words, like her grandmother's pastel sketches, were clothed in love. Love of her family, of course, but beyond that, love