The Big Sister
Miss Vivian Bolsky walked briskly along Boylston Street in
Boston, next to the Public Gardens, on her way to meet her stepmother.
There wasn’t time for her to go on one of the swan boats, large pedal
driven flat boats for tourists in the shape of swans. That was too bad.
She liked the boats. She was also impressed with the exertions of the
young men supplying the power through a hidden bicycle mechanism in the
Crossing the street to Park Square without serious opposition from the mid-morning traffic, Viv went down to the almost hidden entrance of the WE&I. The Women’s Educational and Industrial Institute didn’t really try to educate its members, still less add to the gross national product. There might have been some charitable activities tucked away in some slum somewhere, but it was mainly a ladies’ city club, a place where one could relax from shopping and have tea or lunch. It was quite comfortable without being ostentatiously luxurious, and, being in Boston rather than New York, it was always in good taste. Mrs. Ivan Bolsky, nee Longstreet, had a membership for both herself and her two stepdaughters. It might have been thought that she sometimes liked to meet them in an atmosphere in which no one, including herself, was likely to emote.
At the top of the stairs, Viv took a peek at herself in a full-length mirror provided for ladies who wished to up- date their appearance frequently. But, in her case, it was hardly necessary. At twenty-six, she had a fairly confident picture of herself. She wasn’t pretty, but neither was she plain. She knew from the fit of the sunglasses she often wore that her left ear was higher than her right. But her right eye was slightly higher than her left. To get both eyes centered in the lenses, both ear pieces had to be judiciously bent. A friend had once told her that all her features were scrambled, but in a pleasant way. The friend had then added, “You get used to it after a while.”
Buoyed by that news, Viv had foresworn lipstick and make-up with the idea that they would only accentuate the scrambling. At any rate, she had a strong lithe body, and was capable of beating up a good many people, not all of them women.
Viv didn’t feel comfortable in an expensive dress and heels, but she had been shopping. It was conventional knowledge that, unless one commanded the respect of the salesgirls, one would be cheated. Not only that, she could hardly have come into the club in one of her usual costumes.
At the present time, Viv was re-discovering Boston after more than a year in Spain. In her vocation as a nurse, she had, in ’36, volunteered for the Republican forces against the fascists. Partly because of her Russian father and her fluency in the language, she had wound up with a Soviet air unit. While anyone who thought about it would realize that her father would have to have been an anti-Soviet White Russian émigré, no one seemed to worry about it.
The squadron had brought planes, pilots, and mechanics from Mother Russia, but no medical personnel. When they began to take casualties, they were happy to accept volunteers such as Viv. In fact, with a chronic shortage of doctors, she had often fulfilled that need as well.
Not only that, women pilots were encouraged in the Soviet Union. Already an accomplished flyer, Viv was eventually allowed to take up the Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s. On a number of occasions the fascists had also been in the air. Among other things, she had shot down a German Bf109c. However, among those few who knew, Viv was quick to point out that, while the 109c was a Willy Messerschmitt creation, it didn’t have the Daimler Benz 601 engine, and was no faster than an I-16.
All this was a semi-secret. There had been with the unit a Pravda correspondent, Andrey Serov, who had written an article about Viv. He represented her as an ardent communist who, like the young Englishmen, had come to Spain for ideological reasons. He had also credited her with two He-51s and a Ju52 tri-motor transport/bomber. Fortunately, the article, of which she had a copy, was in Russian. It was virtually inaccessible in America, and Viv wanted it to remain that way.
Viv found her stepmother, Barbara, sitting at a little ornamental table in what amounted to an ice cream parlor. Beautifully turned out as always, Barbara rose to greet Viv, hugging her in a way that wasn’t likely to disarrange either of them.
Barbara was, in some ways, left trailing behind the rest of her family. She wasn’t athletic, nor mathematical, nor scientific. Nor could she fly an airplane. Nor did she make up for these deficiencies by being the sort of modern civic-minded woman who kept abreast of events and organized fund drives. However, Barbara did have some skills which would have been useful in any age. At forty five, she knew how to look thirty five. She was also good at pleasing men. In particular, she had pleased, and still pleased, her husband. Moreover, she could say the right thing in almost any company. Since her utterances were usually well received, that led to more of the same. Considered to be charming by a wide range of people, she was particularly successful in her role as the wife of an aircraft industry tycoon, particularly one full of Russian, sometimes off-putting, eccentricities.
Like many stepmothers, Barbara had some difficulties with her husband’s daughters. Again like the others, she had to combat the image of the evil stepmother so prevalent in children’s fiction. Barbara knew perfectly well that she wasn’t evil, but she was quick to admit that Viv and Liz baffled her. Still, mystified or not, her obviously sensitive antennae would be alerted when something was wrong. Viv was fully aware that, in her case, something was, from Barbara’s perspective, wrong.
It seemed to Viv that ambiguity was built into their relation. Nineteen years older, Barbara could have been her mother. But she wasn’t. Viv’s Russian mother was long dead. Moreover, Viv was sixteen and Liz thirteen when Barbara had married their father in 1928. Viv, as the older female in the family, had been pretty close to being an adult housewife in an admittedly extraordinary household. Barbara had avoided the more obvious pitfalls, but her point of view, empowered by the conventions of the outside world, had largely prevailed in the expanded Bolsky family.
They were hardly into their elaborate ice cream concoctions when Barbara worried about communism. One of her friends had warned her. Viv had been with the Russians, and the Russians were communists. Viv wasn’t a communist, of course, but the gossip had already begun. She inquired gently, “Were some of the men huge savage brutes?”
“Those are the Siberians. The pilots sat around discussing Tolstoy.”
Mrs. Bolsky nodded in the right way, as always when she heard a famous name, and seemed to be somewhat reassured. She then suggested, “And they treat ladies nicely?”
Viv was momentarily tempted to reply that rapes occurred only on Saturday nights, but said, “They’re much more gentlemanly than most American men. It’s the Spanish and Italian fascists who commit atrocities.”
“Oh dear! Well, anyway, you’re home safe.”
“Yes. I realized that my side was losing, and you don’t want to be part of the chaos of defeat. Anyhow, I decided to save what I have for the real thing.”
Mrs. Bolsky didn’t ask what the real thing was, and changed the subject. “How do you find your father?”
“Fine. You may make a country gentleman of him yet.”
“I’m afraid he’s going off again.”
“You mean leaving you?”
“Oh, no! At least I hope not. I mean off the trolley. Having another crazy spell.”
That set Viv to thinking.
Her father, Ivan Bolsky, was a Russian born in 1893 who had fought for the Tsar as an airman. Then, after the revolution, he had been in the ill-fated White campaign before escaping, with his two children, to America. His English was really very good, as was his business acumen, but he remained very Russian. In this sort of conversation, Viv usually reminded her stepmother, a girl from Virginia, of that fact. It didn’t work this time. “You know it’s more than that, Viv. He’s always been manic-depressive.”
“I don’t really believe in those things. He’s certainly been enormously productive.”
“Oh yes. A brilliant mathematician, a brilliant pilot, and a fine polo player. A self-made multi-millionaire. But with no common sense, and no sense of caution.”
“Well, Liz got the mathematical ability, I got the piloting, and we’re both sportswomen. But common sense and sanity?”
“You’re both pretty stable. And neither of you are really Russian.”
Viv, laughing, replied, “But, Barbara, we have a Russian father and we had a Russian mother. How could we not be Russian?”
“Oh, you know what I mean! Anyway, he’s been talking with Sikorsky.”
Igor I. Sikorsky, a Russian pioneer in aviation ranking just behind the Wright brothers, had, before the war, designed, built, and flown the world’s first four-engined aircraft, the Ilya Mouromets. In the war that soon followed, it had become a bomber, by far the largest and most dangerous at the time. Ivan Bolsky was Sikorsky’s protégé.
Sikorsky had been, and still was, a man who had a hundred ideas a day. Some were extraordinary, many very good, some marginal, and some dramatically bad. One of his ideas was to have the big bombers carry fighters piggy-back. When attacked, the fighter would be released, defend against the attacker, and then come back to the bomber. Sikorsky and Bolsky had together perfected the re-attachment mechanism. On the occasion of its first use, Bolsky had piloted the fighter, shot down the German attacker, and returned to the bomber. The fact that it worked on one occasion showed that it wasn’t a bad idea, but it had turned out to be unworkable in the long run.
Mrs. Bolsky was very much afraid of ideas coming from I. I. Sikorsky, and she always gave this one as an example. Viv had heard it many times, but it was always interesting to watch her stepmother’s dramatization with gestures and little well-modulated shrieks. Viv could only reply, “The Ilya Mouromets is long gone, and I don’t think they’ll try that with a B-17.”
“No, but Sikorsky starts him up. Then he won’t stop. No good ever comes of it.”
It amused Viv that Barbara had picked up elements of Russian style. Virginia girls didn’t slap themselves on the forehead when saying, ‘No good ever comes of it.’ That, if not Jewish, derived from the fatalism of the endless steppes on which men were tiny powerless dots.
Laughing despite herself, Viv asked, “Do you know what Ivan and Sikorsky talked about?”
“From what I could overhear, it was flying boats. Sikorsky invented the big Clipper four engined ones, and Ivan has twin-engined Catalinas. They’re hatching something.”
“Remember, Barbara, Ivan has large holdings in these companies, and they have to listen to him. But he has no executive power. He can’t hatch very much.”
“Maybe not. But he can get very excited, do foolish things, and get out of control. I can’t manage alone, and someone’s got to help.”
At that moment, a friend of Barbara’s came up. Barbara immediately changed personality, introduced Viv as if she were a young Richmond lady, and carried on vivaciously. When the woman eventually drifted off with a little wave, she asked Viv, “What do you think of this proposal that Liz has received?”
“She shouldn’t do anything that would upset her pattern of life. But I don’t see why this would. It seems that I’m also invited to come along and join the household.”
“I believe Wordsworth lived with both his wife and her sister.”
Viv squirmed a little in her uncomfortable clothing, and replied, “I imagine that it can be pretty civilized.”
“There is one thing about the English. The babies are handed over to nannies, and are only brought around when it’s convenient.”
“Besides which, there are now more ways of not having children.”
“That would be a pity. And, of course, the English people would expect it.”
“In the kind of war that Hitler’s obviously organizing, civilians and children are likely to be bombed. Apart from that, modern war eats up young men.”
“What an awful idea!”
“I’ve seen it.”
“But I haven’t. And this is America.”
“Lots of young Americans died the last time.”
“I hardly knew any.”
“Anyhow, Barbara, neither Liz nor I are maternal types.”
“I guess I’m not, either. Your mother probably was.”
“I don’t know. I hardly remember her, and what Ivan says about her isn’t very illuminating.”
“Anyhow, if Liz marries this man, she’s going to get pressure. The English are entirely obsessed with producing heirs.”
“Liz isn’t easily pressured.”
Barbara cocked her pretty blonde head to one side, and then greeted another woman who came up.