One day soon after we'd brought our kids home my older daughter was sitting in the family room looking through a book on St. Petersburg. She kept her finger on the glossy Hermitage and looked up at me.
"Mama," she said, marking a picture of something ornate. "In America you have Santa Barbara?"
Santa Barbara? Was it possible she knew American history? United States geography? She was only 13; a new arrival from Eastern Europe.
"In California, you mean?" I asked, somehow realizing she didn't mean that at all yet not knowing what she meant.
She nodded confidently. "Yeah," she said. "Do you have?"
"Santa Barbara?" I asked, sitting next to her on the couch as though proximity to her question would help me better understand. It seemed like a simple enough question but something about it felt very complicated.
"Santa Barbara," she said, and jabbed at the television with her index finger. Then she smiled hopefully. "In America. On TV?"
My notion that she had been talking about the so-called American Riviera 90 miles north of Los Angeles where vaqueros once patrolled the vistas quickly subsided. "No," I said, feeling simultaneously ridiculous and a little let down that she hadn't meant the real place on the map. That, in fact, she'd meant the city's eponymous soap opera of power and deception, with characters named Minx and Eden.
"Sorry," I said. She was already watching enough soap operas anyway, something we allowed to, ahem, help their English skills.
She went back to the book, and then suddenly looked up. "Are you sure?"
I told her I was sure. Then asked why.
"Babushka," she said, pointing, first to her eyes, then to the television set. In the blank screen I could see her movements as if she herself were on television, her slender finger ticking back and forth like a maestro's baton, a hypnotist's wand.
This was ironic. Not just because the first-ever American soap to be broadcasted in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, when our daughters were five and three, had gone off the air here in the States a long time ago. Or because of its cancellation here was one more thing she wouldn't have in America, just like she wouldn't have the babushka with whom she'd watched the soap opera named after the city she'd never been to. It was, to me, most ironic because Santa Barbara to her was a fictionalized television drama while to me it was the real thing.
"It's a real place," I told her, thinking this would somehow impress her.
"Oh," she said, giving me a look that said, that's nice but I really don't care if it's real. "Babushka likes," she said, meaning the serial that wasn't real, letting me know this trumped all.
It didn't matter that we had the actual Santa Barbara just up the coast. Her memories were of a place that existed, yet didn't exist at all.
So, why does this matter? Because it's about asking the question: What's really real? And then asking yourself if what you're really asking is, Is my reality more real than yours? Then it's all about listening to the answer--to both questions.
I'm pretty sure at that moment my daughter was pretty sure her reality was more real than mine. Of course, the only reason I picked up on that was because I had a similar opinion about my own.