In Memory of Elie Wiesel


“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” ~ Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)

 When, in 1990, at the age of 39, I emigrated from the USSR to the United States, I did not know about Ellie Wiesel, Anne Frank and other victims — or survivors — of the Holocaust. In fact, I didn’t even know the term “Holocaust.” And not because I was a bad student who failed to learn it in school, but because the anti-Semitic politics of the Third Reich were not covered in our school curriculum and our mass media — not before nor during WWII, nor afterwards. As a result, the atrocities that were well known in the West were hardly mentioned in the East. There, coverage of WWII was dedicated to the bravery and suffering of Soviet troops, and, until 1956, to Stalin’s military genius. So the mass killings of Jews – in Europe and Ukraine — did not qualify.

(Reproduction of the photo depicting Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, the place where 100,000 people, overwhelmingly Jews, were murdered in September 1941.)

This is not to say that the Russian population had it easy. The war was devastating for the USSR. Overall, more than 26 million Russian citizens died during the war, not to mention those who came back as invalids and hopeless alcoholics. Still, the fact that the Jews were systematically exterminated was not revealed in Russia (where casual anti-Semitism was the norm) for a very long time. Well, we knew about concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Buchenwald. In fact, there was a popular song written about the latter, which went like this:

“People of the world stand up a moment

Listen, listen. It buzzes from all sides

It can be heard in Buchenwald ringing off the bells

It’s innocent blood reborn and strengthened in a brazen roar.

Victims are resurrected from the ashes …”

Yet again, we were never told that the main goal of a camp like Auschwitz was the implementation of “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities.

When I found myself in Columbia, MO, and I had learned enough English to start reading, books about the Holocaust were not high on my list. First, I needed to learn about my adoptive country, its history, culture and customs. So, when one day (I was already working at the Reference Desk of the Columbia Public Library) a teenage girl came to me and asked about “The Diary of a Young Girl,” I had no idea what that book was about. I just looked it up in the library catalog.  And later, when another patron was looking for “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, I didn’t know anything about that book either.  In fact, I had trouble spelling “Wiesel.”

Time went by and I learned about the Holocaust, about Anne Frank and Ellie Wiesel and others. I saw a collection of victims shoes in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (the Nazis confiscated their victims’ belongings and sent valuables back to Germany; the shoes were to be repaired by the camps’ prisoners and reused).

And I heard a reading of names of the Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust (1.5 million names in all) in the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem, which is housed in an underground cave and lit by candles that, reflected in a system of mirrors, create the impression of millions of little stars. (The complex was built with donations from a family whose two-and-a-half old son was killed in Auschwitz.) And when I was read “Night,” I could hardly keep from screaming; for the way I felt, it all could have happened to me, my parents and my daughter.

(Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, Jerusalem, Israel)

There are some events so cruel and traumatic that people don’t want to talk about them, even less read about them. In fact, when Wiesel’s “Night” first appeared in print (in Yiddish) in 1954, its publication was hardly noticed. In America, when the book was published in 1960, it wasn’t an overnight success either. Gradually, though, it began attracting more attention, and when, in 2006, Oprah Winfrey presented “Night” to her book club, it became a New York Times bestseller.

Wiesel went on to write many more books and to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Above all, he remained a voice for Holocaust victims and survivors – the mission he considered the most important in his life.

“If I survived,” Wiesel said in 1981, “It must be for some reason. I must do something with my life… because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

 

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©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

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Volunteers: A Study in Contrasts


April 10-16 is observed in the United States and Canada as National Volunteer Week.

 

“Volunteer: a person who willingly does work without getting paid to do it”

IMG_1657-003Where I came from (Moscow, Russia), we never volunteered — at least not in the American way.  The thing was that we didn’t have to — authorities “volunteered” us when and where they desired. The “without getting paid” part (see definition above) worked the same way as it does in America. As for the willingness, nobody ever cared to ask.

The most common cases of Russian “volunteering” during my time there included sending citizens to express their (fake) enthusiasm at state parades, and sending city dwellers to collective farms to help with harvesting.

I still remember spending long weeks (even months) picking cabbages and potatoes, hours away from my home in Moscow — living in military-style barracks, wearing oversized black rain boots and ugly telogreikas (black, shapeless quilted jackets), and drinking vodka — the only entertainment available in the provinces.

I also remember “voluntarily” greeting foreign dignitaries, including Gerald Ford, who visited Russia (then The Soviet Union) in November 1974. My whole college was positioned along Moscow’s wide Leninsky Prospect (Lenin’s Avenue) for about 2 hours, bored and cold, waiting for the black limousines and leather-clad motorcyclists to drive quickly past us, while we waved at them and smiled forced smiles under the command of our superiors.

This is not to say that nobody in Russia would take to the streets voluntarily. There were a few — some protesting against the injustice of the regime and some trying to force the authorities to allow them to leave the country. Yet they were called “dissidents,” and the country had appropriate places for them — mostly the state prisons. All in all, “altruism” was not a common word in our vocabulary – “mandate” was.

Of course, I haven’t been in the country of my birth for a very long time, and things are different there now.  These days Russia, too, has volunteers.  One example is Russian soldiers — sorry, I meant to say “volunteers” — who fought against the Ukranian Army in 2014-15 (in Ukrainian territory, mind you).  Unlike my days of digging in the mud in Russian potato/cabbage/carrots/ etc. fields, those guys weren’t wearing telograikas and rain boots, but military style clothing. They were better equipped, too.  Instead of sacks for gathering veggies, they carried automatic rifles, drove tanks, and used Russian-made rockets. Yet small differences aside, it’s clear that volunteering has finally made its way to Russia. In fact, some Russian volunteers are fighting in Syria right now.

Coming to America in 1990 was disorienting for me in a number of ways — mentally, linguistically and culturally; and one of things that amazed me was this American “volunteering streak.” I remember asking people, “Do you mean that nobody forces (or pays) volunteers to travel to different states to help victims of natural disasters or to support a cause?! That some people would spend their time and money to feed the poor or organize and attend fundraisers?” And when I heard, “yes,” I just shook my head in disbelief.

I’m not saying everybody in this country is an altruist. Of course not. I am saying, though, that I know many people here who have done – and will do again – all of the above and more. And let me tell you, volunteering is contagious.  These days, I volunteer, too.  I’ve participated in a number of fundraisers, and I’ve donated things to my congregation and my library.  It’s not much, but it’s a beginning. For I finally understood that John Donne’s famous quote is not just poetic.  It is a truth of the human condition:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

A Wrinkle in Time


1-IMG_1657-002“You don’t look like Mama,” my granddaughter, Amelia, said.

“I am not supposed to look like your mama.  It’s your mama who is supposed to look like me …” I started but realized that my joke would be lost on a seven-year old, so I quickly corrected myself, “What do you mean, darling?”

“Mama doesn’t have so many wrinkles,” Amelia said with the cruel sincerity of a child.

I think I look pretty good for my age! — I wanted to say, feeling suddenly defensive — the subject of my ever increasing (and deepening) wrinkles has been on my mind for some time now even without my granddaughter’s reminder. In fact, just before we left our Missouri home, I looked at my passport picture — the one I considered to be my worst picture in the last nine years — and I realized that I’d love to look like that today. Yet I didn’t want to discuss the subject of aging with my granddaughter, so I said, “Your mother’s face is less wrinkly because she’s my daughter. Daughters look younger than their mothers.  You look younger than yours, and I looked younger than mine. The longer we live the more wrinkles we have.”

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“Your mama died,” Amelia said with the superiority of an insider.

“Yes, she did.” I said, momentarily choking from the acute pain that these three little words caused me. “Do you remember her, darling?”

“Yes. She had lo-o-o-ts of wrinkles.” Amelia said, not willing to change the subject.

Amelia is funny that way. Every time my husband and I come to London for our yearly visits, Amelia and I have long conversations about things. They started when she turned three and she began to learn about her family relations, which are more confusing than I’d would like them to be for her sake. Continue reading

Shameless Self-Promotion:)


Unfortunately, I haven’t written much for a while:(.  The only things I’ve done are several book talks and interviews.  If you’re interested in any of that, take a look:)

If you’re not interested, wait till my life becomes somewhat normal:)

For Vox magazine article — click here

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Book talk at the Columbia Public Library

 

Dreams


UntitledSince my book came out, everybody I know says, “How exciting!”

This, of course, is a very typical American reaction. You tell somebody that you’re going for a bike ride on the weekend, and they say, “How exciting!”  Or you ask someone how they feel about starting a new job, and they tell you, “I’m excited!”

When I first came to this country, I thought that Americans must be the most excitable people on earth. Even now, after having lived in the country for twenty-four years, this inexplicable American enthusiasm never ceases to amaze me. You see, I’m from Russia. We never got excited. We got drunk. Or, when we felt something “exciting” come over us, we got into fights. That was it.

Of course, I personally don’t drink much, and I don’t fight either (well, only rarely, usually with my husband:)). But every time I hear “How exciting!” I feel like saying: “Exciting? What are you talking about? I’m stressed out and anxious!”

And the publication of my book is no exception. In fact, it has made me even more anxious than I usually am. Why? Because there are so many things that first-time-authors have to do when their books come out – publicity, marketing (when you spend five years of your life writing a book, you do want people to read it!), begging friends and colleagues to “please, if you like my book, submit a short review of it to Amazon.com!,” asking established authors to read your book (those, of course, never respond), and waking up at night because there was something you should’ve done but you haven’t, or because you’re obsessing about something that you have done.

This last one really got me last night. The thing is that even without my book project, I rarely have restful nights. One reason for that is insomnia, which, as I age, bothers me more and more, another — intense dreams that fill my nights when I finally fall asleep. Sometimes these dreams are continuation of the daily events — so realistic that I have a hard time in the morning discerning what was and what wasn’t a dream. Sometimes they are nightmares, and often, they are reminders of the things I could’ve done better. And that was what my dream was about last night.

In it, I was reading reviews of my book at Amazon.com (I’mreview told that I should have at least twenty of them, but I have only nine so far), trying to figure out whom else I could to ask for one, when I noticed a new review that I hadn’t seen before:

“It’s a good book, daughter. Thank you for writing it. Mom.”

This is strange. Mom doesn’t write — or read! — in English, — was my first dreamy thought.

She must’ve asked somebody for help — was my second.

No, wait! This must be a mistake! Mom is dead!

This last thought woke me up and I mentally went over the calendar. Mom died exactly two years ago. Two years before my book was published. Two years before anybody could write a review of it. And yet, the message seemed real; seemed like something Mom could say. Something I’d love to hear from her but never will.

I couldn’t go back to sleep after that, and I couldn’t get up either. In this twilight state, in my mind’s eye, I began turning pages of my book, one by one. She was there – if not on every page then in every story. She was a young doctor carrying a bag with a stethoscope, injection bottles, and other shiny medical things. She was there exclaiming “Look how blew the sky is! And the air, it’s so fresh!” She was the one wh1-IMG_1315_1o, when I tried to skip school on account of being sick, told me that “only dead people have no ailments.” And she was the woman crying over the burial of her own mother, my grandmother, the way I cried over hers.

I tossed and turned, and tried to go back to sleep, but finally, I got up, grabbed my book, and opened it. Under the title and other required information, it read: “To Alex and Amelia.”

Even before I finished my book, I knew that I would dedicate it to my grandchildren. To my wonderful grandchildren whom I love so much but see so rarely. It just seemed logical to do that, to pass a so-called “torch” to the next generation. But, was that the right thing to do?

Alex and Amelia, who are now 10 and 6 respectively, may never read my book. Hopefully, they will take a look at the pictures of their forebears, but being so young, they’re unlikely to be interested. Of course, there is a chance of them finding my book later in their lives and, if I’m very lucky, reading it. But will they even notice the dedication? Should I have dedicated my book to my mother instead? Or does it even matter?

She’s gone, and nothing I do will ever reverse that.  Of course, I have my memories of her, some of which I put in this very book. Many of those memories are good, some funny, but some are regrettable. For, as Mom aged, it was easy to get upset with her for saying things that were not “politically correct,” for being not as sharp in her 80s as we, her middle-aged daughters were in our fifties, for her extreme candor — undoubtedly a result of life spent in the country where everything was black and white, with no half-tones allowed.  It was easy and it was understandable. And yet, for two years now, I have been ashamed of those memories.15-svet_17

Well, too late now. Mom will never know about my regrets,as she’ll never know about my book. All I can do is to open a page with her picture and say, “Forgive me, Mom. The way you always did. As for this book, even though it’s not dedicated to you, it is as much about you as it is about me.”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Weekly Photo Challenge: Cover Art


Jona1-IMG_1657-002than Swift is credited with saying (among many other things:)) that “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” If that is true, I surely have it! – vision, that is. I started my last post with a cover page for my forthcoming book. And this week’s theme for the WordPress Photo Challenge is — what do you know! — “Cover Art.” (Those of you who’ve been following me for a while know that I sometimes participate in photo challenges.) Since I’ve already posted my cover art, this time, I’ll post some of the pictures that will appear in my book.

By the way, I’m still trying to decide if I should release it in December, a month known for its festivities and impulsive buying:), or in January, which is symbolic of everything new. What do you think? In any case, here’s my new entry.

New cover smallIf you would like read the synopsis of my book, you may click here Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treshold


Our photo challenge this week is “threshold,” a concept that, according to the dictionary, can have several meanings:

1. the sill of a doorway.
2. the entrance to a house or building.
3. any place or point of entering or beginning

We all encounter thresholds in our lives, and we all have stories about how we passed (or didn’t pass) them. Here’s mine:

Library –Threshold of Learning

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“Two books per visit per week,” said the unsmiling librarian as she handed me a library card. Neither the limits nor her demeanor surprised me, a 9-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Moscow in the 1950s – a city where everything was strictly regulated and rationed. I read the two books in two days and impatiently waited for the next visit. Continue reading

Valentine’s Day


ValentineWhen we got married, I was already 45 and my husband was 53. Between us, we had two houses (mine tiny and his much larger but dark and cold), three children, and one grandchild. Behind us, we had two divorces (one for each of us), two different backgrounds (mine Russian and his Oregonian by way of Wisconsin), two advanced degrees (mine Masters and his Ph.D.), and plenty of experiences – mine mostly unhappy and his both happy and not so much.

Contrary to what you may think, I wasn’t sure that matrimony was a good idea for me. I had already had one bad experience and that with a person from a similar background. How could tying the knot with someone completely different be any better? Besides, I had no external motivations: I was already a U.S. citizen, I had a decent job, and I was used to being alone. In fact, because of this line of thinking, I didn’t finalize the dissolution of my first marriage for more than three years after my ex and I split up. This led to an embarrassing admission at the courthouse, where I had to declare that I got divorced in September (the scene took place in October), IMG_1879and I was already planning on getting married again. But, statistically speaking, people who were married before are likely to marry again, and so we did – “For better or worse for richer or poorer.”

Well, so far, it hasn’t been either rich or poor, although it has been turbulent at times. But whose marriage hasn’t had turbulent moments? The way I see it, turbulence is just part of the deal, like when you are on an airplane and they suddenly tell you to fasten your seat belt, because “We’re going through turbulence!” You aren’t surprised by that, just a little scared, right? Also, even under the best circumstances, life can be stressful, and it’s hard not to bring your negative emotions into your relationship. That said, there has been one long-lasting relationship that I came to admire – the relationship between my new husband’s parents. Continue reading

Christmas Letters and Other Matters


IMG_1657-003The last year of her life, my American mother-in-law wrote 153 Christmas cards. I don’t know how many she received, but I do know that after my in-laws died ten years ago (they lived with us for 4.5 years at the end of their lives), we continued to receive cards, letters, and even boxes (!) with fruit that were addressed to them for at least two years. Most of their correspondence was conducted by my husband’s mother. (She was also interested in genealogy, and she compiled her family genealogical tree, although I’ve never checked whether I, a relatively recent addition to the family, am included there.)

My father-in-law, an emeritus professor of physiology, who was less sociable than his spouse, also received cards and letters, mostly from his former students, for, sadly, he outlived all of his colleagues. Yet the thing that added significantly to the volume of my in-laws’ mail was requests for donations. They donated to a variety of causes – he Republican Party being one of them (nobody is perfect!). So, during an election after their death, a Republican campaigner photocalled us and gave my husband a speech about how horrible it would be if Nancy Pelosi became the House majority leader. The caller went on and on with his scripted spiel, until my husband shouted into the receiver: “I think Nancy Pelosi would make a great majority leader!” and hung up.

Continue reading

In Search of Paradise


IMG_1657-003“Where would you like to go this summer?” I asked my husband while we were finishing our weekend breakfast.

“To Paradise,” He answered without hesitation. “Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier!”

I put down my cup of hot tea (being from Russia, I always drink hot tea, and on a plane, I ask for juice with no ice) and looked at my American husband holding his mug of iced tea.

“Why don’t we go, then? A few years from now we might not be able to enjoy it. We’ll be too old.”

And so, the plan was born. To be honest, I like making plans. In fact, I get much more pleasure from planning things than from living them. For one thing, making plans gives me a chance to learn about new places. For another, as long as I am at it, I have full control over everything: drives and flights, hotels and motels, as well as things to do and to see. In the real world, we all know, cars break down, flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, and people (including those I travel with) have different tastes and opinions — which they usually share with me. Still, every time I start anew, my heart pounds, my eyes peer into the unknown with a new luster, and my mood improves. In short, I live from one plan to another, with a few disappointments in between.

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That said, three months, two flights, a desperate run through Dallas Airport, and a two-hour drive later, we spotted a snow-covered mountain rising ghost-like above the dark greenery of Mt. Rainier National Park’s Douglas fir trees, and forty-five minutes later, we pulled our rental car into a Paradise Inn parking lot.IMG_3060

The lodge, withered by many decades of heavy snow, strong winds, and Northwestern mist, didn’t look like the grand old palace I had previously imagined but more like an elderly housekeeper weary of her years and a constant stream of guests. Yet the lobby, furnished with old-fashioned wooden chairs and benches and softened by the orange light of table lamps and light fixtures, felt warm and welcoming – until we announced our arrival, that is. ne zhTwo young receptionists looked at us with the expression that is best conveyed in a classic Russian painting of the 19th century “The Unexpected Visitors” — “Ne Zhdali” (by famous Russian artist Ilya Repin, if anybody cares to know) — which shows a political prisoner unexpectedly returning to his family home from a forced settlement in Siberia.

Despite having a reservation (from three month ago!) we were not expected either — at least not before another couple, who was put in our room because they felt claustrophobic in theirs, returned from their day hike.

IMG_2993“And what if they come back tomorrow?!” I said, since from my Russian experience things usually go from bad to worse. Yet the receptionists just gave me a blank look.

Nothing of the sort happened, though. While we were having dinner, the claustrophobic hikers, apparently, came back — or another unlucky couple got shuffled around — and we finally moved into the room, the size of which gave me pause, for if this was a bigger room, what size was the room our invaders escaped from? Before I fell asleep, I made a mental note for myself – never trust my husband’s affinity for historic lodges.

When we opened the curtains next morning, the sun was already up, the sky was silky blue, and people with cameras, water bottles, and backpacks were hurrying toward Mt. Rainier, towering formidably in front of the lodge. We quickly finished our breakfast, grabbed our cameras and water bottles, and joined the steady stream of mountain pilgrims.IMG_2210

At first, we walked on a blacktop trail, then the trail turned into a gravel path, later yet, the gravel was replaced by stones, which gradually became bigger and the incline steeper, and, in about two hours, we found ourselves well above the timberline, jumping from one rock to another, crossing mountain streams, and sliding in the snow.

Back in Russia, we had an expression, “A smart person wouldn’t go to the mountain – he would go around it.” Yet there I was, panting and puffing, on my way to … Where exactly? We had no intention to climb Mt. Rainier. That would take much more vigor and adventurousness then we, two late-middle-aged people possess. Besides, the ascent is dangerous. It starts at the Paradise trail head and leads to Camp Muir, where mountaineers spend the night in tents and huts before continuing their journey through fields of ice and snow — 9000 excruciating vertical feet in all. IMG_2764And if this isn’t difficult enough, heavy snow storms blanket the slopes without warning, blinding white outs make people disoriented and vertiginous, and plunging temperatures hit them with hypothermia.

Still, a sudden thought flashed through my mind — Wouldn’t it be cool to say, “I have climbed Mt. Rainier”? Oh, well, we were long past the age when looking cool is more important than being safe. We came here in search of paradise – a place where existence is positive, harmonious and eternal – according to a dictionary definition that is.

In real life, though, the only eternal thing is death. As for “positive existence,” high altitudes are not suitable for human life. Mere walking requires a lot of effort, not to mention carrying backpacks or suffering from slashing rain or burning sunlight. Hikers get tired, sweaty (or cold!), and dehydrated. They slip on wet rocks and fall in the snow. And yet, people of all ages, including children, keep moving up — maybe not to the peak, like those with heavy mountain packs and mountaineer boots, but as high as they can go.IMG_2961

Why? Because there is so much heart-stopping beauty there: the glimmering glaciers, the rugged silhouettes of the Tatoosh Range, and the dream-like shapes of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood floating far away. Also, all around, impatient waterfalls hurry noisily to the mountain base, blooming meadows set off snow-covered fields and exposed rocks, and meandering streams whisper melodically into hikers ears. Even the thundering boom of an avalanche doesn’t break the spell of the scenery but added an ominous mystery to its allure.

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As we kept moving up, something new was appearing in our view: stretches of forest interrupted by patches of snow, whimsical peaks across the valley, a marmot playing in the snow, and hues of wildflowers, fragile and hardy at the same time. And if that wasn’t heavenly enough, there were “scenic outlooks” there, too: Pinnacle Point, Panorama Point, and others. There, some sat quietly soaking the view, while others talked, took pictures, and exchanged tips with complete strangers — for the mountain brings out the best in people, even as it tires them out.

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We spent three days in Paradise Inn – hiking during the day, watching the pastel colors of a dying day during the night, or taking pictures of Mt. Rainier reflected in a lake. We didn’t do anything special and didn’t set any records – 1-3105cour longest hike was only five miles long (don’t sneer at this, half of it was uphill :)). Yet, as we drove back to the airport, it occurred to me — The old Russian proverb is wrong. Really smart people don’t go around the mountain, they go up – to test their abilities or to look at the desolate world about them and the familiar one beneath their feet and put things in perspective, or to contemplate their lives and losses.

And although I’ll never be able to say that I’ve climbed Mt. Rainier, I can say that I’ve been to paradise. Not the one with large and luxurious rooms, however perfect they can be, and not the realm of the blessed some hope to enter after death, but a place where natural beauty, harmony, and good spirits combine to calm, console, and uplift us while we are alive.

P.S. Paradise Inn is a historic hotel built in 1916 at 5,400 feet (1,645 m) on the south slope of Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park in WashingtonUnited States.

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©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Of Soil and Feathers: Reflections on Life and Death


We were born in different countries.  We grew up in different societies, and we never met. And yet, from the minute I opened “Heartburn,” I felt as if I knew her all my life. She was my kind of person: smart, funny, and razor-sharp ironic. She knew what she wanted and didn’t take crap from anybody. She was the person I’d love to be but, let’s face it, never will be.

noraAnd then she died.It happened a year ago, but I am still grieving. I know it makes no sense. Famous people die all the time; some deaths leave me cold, some sad–like the death of Paul Newman, my virtual lover :). Yet her death I took personally. It was an affront to the world order in general and my world in particular. She was Nora Ephron for goodness sake! We had so much in common. We both were Jewish by birth and secular by conviction. We both remarried–well, she twice and I once. We had a similar sense of humor, and we were a little sentimental and a lot middle-aged. Still, one morning I turned on my radio and listened to the announcement of her death.

I couldn’t believe it. I had recently finished reading “I Remember Nothing,” a smart, funny, and somewhat sad book, and I hadn’t even discussed it with my friends! It was unfair. Almost as unfair as the death of my mother, who died while I was on my way to visit her. She was alive when I left Missouri, but by the time my plane landed in Tel-Aviv, she was already gone. She wasn’t even sick — at least not recently. True, she was eighty-eight and had a variety of afflictions, but nothing immediate or life threatening. She had dinner with my sister’s family, played with her great-granddaughter, and went to bed in a good mood—only to never wake up.

I arrived in the afternoon, several hours after Mom’s body was taken away in the ambulance. I knew nothing. My sister sat me on a chair, took my hands in hers, and said, “Mom’s died.”

“What?!” I said. “I brought her presents and Splenda!”

I always brought Splenda for Mom. I must have been the only person in the world who carried Splenda to Israel, for Mom believed that American Splenda tasted better than Israeli Splenda.1-IMG_1315_1

“She died overnight.” My sister said. “The funeral is tomorrow morning at 11:30.”

I started to wail. Israel is a good place for wailing. It seems appropriate, even if you’re not doing it by the Wailing Wall. Besides, what else did I have to do until next morning?  I did so much wailing that I had no voice left in me, or so I thought–until I saw Mom being carried into a little chapel where we had gathered to say our last good-byes.

I had attended Jewish funerals before — my grandparents’ funeral in Moscow and two more in America. Yet nothing prepared me for my mother’s funeral. For one thing, there was no coffin. Mom’s body was wrapped in a linen shroud that covered her head-to-toe and made her look like an oversized UPS parcel. And if that was not bad enough, we were not supposed to approach her. If that was her, for how would one know whose mother was hidden inside a wrapped package?

The ceremony was quick. A rabbi said Kiddush, and my sister and I repeated it after him–I barely following the Hebrew sounds. Then he stepped back, and the men who brought my mother inside hurried to carry her out.

Mom “Wait,” I screamed, suddenly aware that this was my last time with her.

The men stopped and stared. I was screaming in English.

“Let me see Mom’s face!”

“You can’t.” My sister grabbed me by the hand.

“Let me go!” I freed myself from my sister’s grip, rushed to the covered figure, and kneeled before it, trying to feel familiar features. Yet nothing felt familiar through the fabric whose purpose was to hide and separate, and not to reveal — neither the person beneath it, nor the mystery of her departure.

Somebody picked me up and pulled me to the exit and to an open grave in the harsh noon sun. Mom’s body was lowered, and the same men who carried her began shoveling red Israeli soil on top of her body.

No! – I wanted to yell. — In Russia, we didn’t pile dirt on top of our dead. We protected them from being crashed under its weight. We put them into coffins. We said, “Let the ground be like feathers for you.” Feathers, not heavy soil!

But, I didn’t yell, just closed my eyes. Quickly, the grave was filled and a little hill formed above it. The mourners topped it with small stones, and the procession headed back to the parking lot.

Mom and I, 1957

Mom and I, 1957

“Don’t take the same path back,” somebody said, and I thought how wise that was, for, of course, everything must be different now. There won’t be weekend phone calls to Mom, which always started with, “Svetochka, how good to hear your voice,” and ended with “Don’t forget about me, dochenka [Russian endearment for daughter].” Nobody will remember what a terrible eater I was as a child and marvel at the fact that I now eat “like normal people!” Nobody will demand Splenda from America, and nobody will ask me to send photos to her.

I was the only person in the family who sent Mom photos — my daughter’s, my sister’s (who lived in the same house with her!), and mine. In fact, my daughter once said to me after visiting her grandmother, “You should stop sending pictures of the two of you skiing. They all look the same, you know.” No, I didn’t know. Mom never said that. She wanted to see that I was healthy and happy. She always asked if my American husband and I loved each other. “Yes,” I’d say. “We do.” But next time I called, she asked again.

The wake in my sister’s house was like every Russian-Jewish wake I’ve attended. It started with a toast to Mom’s memory but soon turned to the business of living. I wasn’t attentive, though. I kept thinking: How did Mom die? Did she just stop breathing or did she wake up in pain and call for help?גרובמן

I’ll never know the answer, as I’ll never know how Nora Ephron died. Does it really matter? Probably not. What does matter is that both of them are gone–the person I knew all my life, and the person that I’ve never known. And the best I can do in their memory is to say goodbye.

Goodbye Mom. Goodbye Nora.                                  Let the ground be like feathers for you.

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Lost In the Details


Nature in Details

IMG_2521-001It was our third weekend in a row to go cross-country skiing! This time, we decided to drive to Eagle Bluffs, a state conservation area about 10 miles away from our home. First of all, the snow there would be untouched, and also, just before the storm, we had seen white pelicans there.

Pelicans used to be unheard of in Missouri. Yet about 20 years ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation built a wetlands area with a series of ponds at Eagle Bluffs, and over the years all kinds of birds began – no pun intended –flocking there. Some of them stay permanently, while others, including the pelicans, stop there on their migration north.Pelicans on Shadow Mountain Lake

I must admit that I never cared for birds when I lived in Moscow. There, if we had creatures with wings, they were mostly flies, mosquitoes, sparrows, or pigeons. If you wanted to see anything else, you went to a zoo, where you could observe parrots, flamingos, whatever! The best thing about this arrangement was that everybody knew exactly where they stood: people strolled along the asphalt paths outside the metal bars, and the winged inmates flittered – or swam — inside their cages. Not till I found myself in the United States, did I encounter people who willingly go into the wilderness (my analog to being sent to Siberia!), armed only with binoculars and field guides with the sole purpose of watching birds. Even worse, I managed to marry one of these people.

This fact, of course, didn’t come out before our wedding, so when I first spotted a pair of binoculars in my new husband’s possessions, I took them for a vestige of his military past — in his twenties, he spent two years in the army. But then, several months into our marriage, I caught him standing by the rear view window looking fixedly through the binoculars. What was he looking at? There was no beautiful woman undressing in front of her window across the street, nor even people having sex! In fact, there was nothing behind our house but the woods! Yet there he was – watching a couple of woodpeckers hammering away on a tree behind our deck.1-img_6173

Later, my husband invited me to walk in the nearby woods and told me names of everything that flew by. And shortly afterwards, he drove me to one of those bird infested areas that the state of Missouri is so proud of.

For a while, I kept humoring him, hoping that time would weaken his obsession. But when a pair of binoculars and “The Birds of North America Field Guide” found their permanent location next to my husband’s place mat, I got ready for a fight. Not with the birds of North America, of course, but with the place they took in my husband’s heart and, especially, on my dining table.1-IMG_5179

The thing about me is that I’m neat. I’m the kind of person who goes around picking up things and making sure that everything on the surface is arranged symmetrically. In my world, binoculars do not belong on the dining table, neither as tableware nor as decorations. This nonsense had to be stopped!

At first, I decided to buy a bird feeder, so instead of us driving around looking for birds, they would look for our feeder, and we’d save time and gas. Unfortunately, the bird feeder idea didn’t work (more of that later), and neither did other solutions I learned about while researching obsessive-compulsive disorders. I considered marriage counseling, too.  Yet in the end, I gave up.  What did it matter that I used to be a sophisticated Muscovite who frequented the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Conservatorium, and read a magazine called “Foreign Literature”? Things change, and, as those of us who have lived long enough know, they rarely change for better. And truthfully, worse things could’ve happened to me.  I could’ve married a bigamist or a serial killer, or even a Republican!

Today, some years later, I recognize quite a few birds, 2-12-IMG_6455and I find white pelicans — so clumsy and weird-looking in the Moscow Zoo — beautiful. And since the pelicans graced our area with their presence, we headed there, too.  I also had another goal in mind.  Ever since I caught photography fever and started participating in wordpress photo challenges, I’ve been on the lookout for things that go with their current themes, which this time is “Lost in the details.” It’s actually not about getting lost, but about getting closer and noticing small detail, and Eagle Bluffs was as good place as any to do it.

We drove until the road became impassible, put on our skis, and I hung my camera over my neck.  The heavy snow of an earlier storm was covered with fresh powder, and our skis glided easily over its sparkling surface.  We passed by several ponds spotting only Canada geese, who protested our invasion by honking loudly and flapping their wings.

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Feeling disappointed, I began taking pictures of snow-covered bushes, animal tracks, and hawk’s feathers lying on the ground. But as we approached yet another pond, we suddenly saw royal-white silhouettes on the cold-gray surface of water.

IMG_9876 The pelicans swam aimlessly around the pond, back and forth. Every so often, they dived, so that all we could see was their snow-white rears, but they quickly appeared on the surface with their large yellow beaks up and their necks stretched, and then their shuttle-like floating continued. They moved in perfect unison with their bodies touching each other and their beaks pointing in the same direction, and their motions looked like a mysterious ritual or a perfectly choreographed dance.IMG_9874

Careful not to scare the birds, I skied to the water’s edge and began taking pictures. When my camera’s memory card ran out of space, I looked at my husband and said, “What are they doing?”

“I think they are feeding,” my husband said. “Look, they’re herding the fish!”

“What do they lift their beaks for?”

“They swallow the fish, don’t you see?”

He was right; it wasn’t a dance or a ritual, and the birds weren’t swimming for pleasure. They were working, preparing themselves for the long journey still ahead of them.

“Still, why are they moving in unison?” I said, puzzled.IMG_9885

“It must be more efficient that way,” my husband said. “You’d think that every one of them could have more fish on her own, but that’s not the case. Like us, they do better together.”

We watched the pelicans a little longer, but then we left them to their business and headed for the car.

“At our age we’re still learning about nature,” my husband said contemplatively on our way home.

“Sure,” I said. “There is a Russian proverb about that, too,

‘Live to be a hundred and IMG_1004learn as long as you live.'”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Forward


Forward: an Essay in  Pictures.

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I don’t know about you, but when I was young, I was very smart.  I also had a great vocabulary (Russian, of course) and I was going “to make a difference.”  The strange thing is that now, many years later, I no longer feel very smart, the differences I make are mostly culinary (so the only person who notices them – or not — is my husband), and my English vocabulary could still use some improvement.  Just today I told my husband that, due to a winter storm that struck our area the day before, two Midwestern airports had to close, leaving a lot of passengers strangled there.  Naturally, I meant to say “stranded,” but despite that, my husband burst into laughter and, after he stopped laughing, said, “Don’t you hate it when that happens?!”

How and when my decline began I cannot say, since for a long time I believed that I was moving forward, the way one is supposed to.  cover for The Education of a TraitorYet in fact, I apparently have been regressing for most of my adult life.  Some of it I can blame on my Soviet past.  It’s hard to keep your sanity when strangers on the street shout at you, “You dirty kike go to your Israel!”  It’s even harder when, after you had finally decided to move to America, gone through an interview in the American embassy, and – lucky you! – received an entrance permit to the United States, you found out from your local authorities that you had “no right” to leave the country where everybody hates you.  Talk about catch 22!   It’s amazing that I escaped with most of my faculties intact!

Also, my regression might be a result of aging.  For example, I used to remember everything.  Now my only means of staying on top of things is my Google calendar.  And if there is something that cannot be entered there – random names for one thing — I’ll never be able to come up with it.  Well, this is not exactly my fault. Some people’s names are way too complicated, like that actor’s — you know … … the one who played Abraham Lincoln … Something Month-Lewis.  Besides, it’s not like I forget the name of my ex-husband.  He’s name is …  Well, what do I need his name for?  I’m no longer married to him anyway.

Actually, the worst thing about this age related backsliding is that things and objects around you suddenly take a life on their own.  For example, you take off your bra and panties and climb into your bathtub, thinking that afterwards you’ll take your stuff to the laundry.  Yet by the time you shower, dry your hair, and apply night cream to your face, both the bra and the panties are nowhere to be found.  You then spend the next 30 minutes turning everything in your bathroom (and your bedroom) upside down and interrogating your husband — all to no avail.  But in the morning, your husband finds your panties on top of his shaving kit and your bra in his chest of drawers, and nobody seems to know how they got there.

But the way, speaking of underwear, I never drop my clothes on the floor; I have a moral conviction against that. When I watch movies where lovers, in the moment of passion, rip clothes off each other and strew them around the floor, I always feel like screaming, “Pick up your clothes!  Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”

IMG_2505Going back to the winter storm I mentioned at the beginning.  Until recently, we had  no winter at all, not even for a day.  But at the end of February, a blizzard fell on us like a gigantic white pillow, smothering everything in its way and completely stopping life in our town.  Even the library where I work closed – it lost both power and, most importantly, the Internet.  So with nothing much to do at home, my husband and I decided to go cross-country skiing, which is not very popular around here.  Actually, since we get snow once in a very blue moon, none of the winter sports is, and we must be the only household in town that owns cross-country skis.

With 10 inches of snow on the ground, we started our run from our porch IMG_2536(we live some 300 yards away from a city recreation trail).  For a while, we struggled to get our muscle memory back, but soon, we found our rhythm and began moving forward.  It was a slow going — the snow was deep and we were the first to break its puffy surface.  Yet gradually my breathing relaxed and my mind, no longer needing to supervise my feet, began wandering.  I was moving faster now, enjoying the fresh snow and admiring the silky blue sky, and there it suddenly struck me.  Skiing is just like life!  When you’re young, your parents put you on your skis and teach you how to move, and for a while, you follow their tracks.  Then, by the time you become strong yourself and leave your family behind, someone else comes along and slides beside you.  And later yet, you have your children, and they begin following your tracks – until you move aside and they continue on their own.  And while we, the skiers, change, the run continues, for a long time for some and for others not, but always in the same direction – forward. IMG_9842

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Home


My Home is Where You Are

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Every week WordPress.com announces a new photo challenge and multiple photographers/bloggers post their photos and browse through the posts of others.  I didn’t know about this when I first began blogging, but when I finally caught up, I decided to participate, too.  For one thing, I have always liked photography and I have accumulated a lot of digital pictures, which just sit there clogging my computer’s hard drive.  For another, it gives me a chance to look at my old photos, think about the time and the place they were taken, and, sometimes, contemplate my life.  This is exactly what happened when I learned about WordPress’s latest challenge – home – and I began thinking about it.

To celebrate my birth in 1951, my parents planted two birch trees beside my grandparents’ apartment house in Moscow – my first home. I cannot actually remember this, but my parents have told me about it so often that, eventually, I began to feel as though I were there with them – watching my father dig two holes in the thawed ground and lower two spindly saplings into their depths, then help my mother water the trembling newcomers. I do remember growing up with these trees – my parents and I lived in my grandparents’ one room apartment until I turned five — and being proud of the fact that my arrival in this world was marked by something alive and symbolic, for birch trees are symbols of my mother country Russia, as bald eagles are symbols of the U.S.

Throughout my life in Moscow, I returned to my first home numerous times – at first to visit my grandparents and later, after they were gone, to celebrate their memories and look at my birch trees. The last time I went, I was thirty-nine years old and about to leave Russia for good.  I desperately wandered around my grandparents’ old neighborhood, trying to find the patch of earth that remembered me as a young girl, but I never found it. The house was demolished by then, and clusters of gray concrete-block clones had mushroomed in its place, leaving me forever uprooted.

Before my family left Moscow, we had to turn in our Soviet passports (and pay for that, too!).  We had to clean, repaint, and repair everything in our small apartment. And we had to pack our lives into six suitcases – two for every member of the family. What did we take from our Moscow’s home? Some clothes, a photo album, a couple of books, three small pillows and blankets, cutlery, and $180 – all that we were allowed to take.

Our first stop outside the USSR was Vienna, Austria.  It was a temporary place, never meant to be our home.  This was just fine, though — we hoped to build a future in America anyway.  It took us several years to achieve our American dream, but when we finally did, the home we moved into quickly became a broken one — our marriage deteriorated and my husband left.  My teenage daughter soon moved out, too.  So there I was, alone in a house that consumed most of my income, leaving me with $25 per week for food and “entertainment.”  I should have sold it, of course.  It wasn’t a home anyway – just a place to sleep and cry.  Yet I did not.  Instead, I got a loan and went back to school.  For the next four years I had no time to feel sorry for myself – a full-time job and part-time school left no time for that.

And then a miracle happened — I met a man.  I didn’t think I’d fall in love again.  Surely not in this strange country and not with someone who grew up on the other side of the world.  After all, what did we have in common?  We grew up speaking different languages, reading different books and listening to different songs.  And yet, the moment he took me in his arms and carried me over the threshold of his house, I felt at home.  It wasn’t the building itself that made me feel so, but his strong arms and his warm embrace.

Don’t take me wrong.  There is nothing special in my story.  Thousands and millions of refugees around the world flee from wars, oppressive regimes, and economic difficulties in search of a place they can call home.  Numerous military and diplomatic families and Piece Corps volunteers move from one place to another in the call of duty.  How do they do it?  Do they put their lives on hold or do they build temporary homes wherever they find themselves?  And what is a home?  A building or a street outside our window?  Children sleeping in our arms or a pet curled up on our lap?  It must be different for everybody.  As for me, my home is where you are, my darling.  Happy Valentine’s!

Valentine

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

A Sense of Snow


IMG_1657-003Every time winter comes around and my colleagues begin complaining about the cold, I find myself longing for snow. Not for six months, mind you, the way I experienced it in Moscow. Just for a couple of weeks or so. This, unfortunately, never happens in Mid-Missouri. Our usual pattern is this: it snows heavily for a day and the roads become slick and dangerous for driving, but as soon as the city takes care of that, the temperature rises and the snow melts.

The only way I can get my snow fix is by going to Colorado. Well, once my husband and I found a small place for skiing near St. Louis, and we immediately decided to check it out.  The name of the place is Hidden Valley, and it turns out to be so well hidden, that about a mile or so from our destination, we found ourselves utterly lost. It was an unusually nice February day; the sky was silky blue and the temperature was 50 degrees Fahrenheit. So when my husband suggested that I should go to a nearby gas station and ask for directions, I refused to do so, for, clearly, a foreign woman asking about a “ski resort” under these conditions was going to be directed to a mental hospital — if not farther. Yet shortly after we left the gas station, a large snow hill appeared in front of us like a mirage — the main difference being the entry fee we had to pay. The snow, of course, was man-made, but who cares?  It was just over two hours of driving from our house!

It also turned out to be the most dangerous ski place we had ever visited — which is rather surprising considering its small size. Of course, it wasn’t the hill itself; it was the skiers on it that made it so. The thing is that in regular ski resorts, you mostly see experienced skiers. But in Hidden Valley, MO, the majority of the skiers were not experienced. Worse even, they didn’t think that experience was required. So soon as I came down the hill, a skier behind me made a spectacular cartwheel, and while I obliviously continued my descent, my terrified husband watched the guy’s skis and poles catapult every which way and his four-pound ski boot come off his foot and land two yards in front of me – missing my head by an inch or so. After that, we just looked at each other and headed toward the exit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all skiers from 1-IMG_2344Missouri are bad and those in Colorado are all great. When we were learning downhill skiing in Steamboat Springs, CO, we met another unpredictable skier. By the way, what’s wrong with the English language? Why do we say “downhill skiing”? Did anybody ever ski uphill? Another vivid example of peculiarities of English is the expression “horseback riding.” What do we need the “horseback” for? What other part of the horse would you ride on?

In any case, it was a middle-aged woman whom we met on a chairlift while taking a ski lesson. Unlike us, she had skied for years, and not just in the USA but all over the world. In the Swiss Alps she met a famous slalom skier.  In Italy, she took a lesson from a local ski legend. And in Chamonix, her French instructor put a rubber band around her ankles to force her to keep her skis closer together.IMG_2428

By the time we got off the chairlift, I felt so intimidated that I asked our instructor to transfer us to a lower level. He gave me a grumpy look and said that he would watch us ski and then make his decision. My husband and I skied first. I almost ran into a tree, and he lost his balance and slid down the slope on his back. The Chamonix woman was last. She carefully adjusted her ski boots, brought her ankles together, and headed straight down the slope with a speed unimpeded by even a perfunctory attempt to turn. Had this been a race, she would have been the first to cross the finish line. As it was, though, she ran directly into our instructor and knocked him down (!), severely dislocating his shoulder. We never saw that woman again (neither did we see the instructor — he was taken down on a stretcher), but I still remember her run. As they say, “Never trust the French!”

1-SKMBT_50112051409450Going back to the snow, it is impossible to break completely from your past. No matter how many years go by, your past still haunts you — with smells of food your mother used to cook for you, with flowers you enjoyed in your youth, or, as it is in my case, with snow. Not because I regret leaving my home country. I never do, and I never have any nostalgia for it. And yet, there are some memories that make my heart ache: lullabies I heard as a child, a large Moscow park where I got lost once, and light sparkling snow – things that remind me about the little girl I used to be.

P.S. Some of you may think that skiing is a rather expensive hobby to have. All I can say about that is that after one turns 70, her chairlift tickets are free!  And if this is not an incentive to live longer, than I don’t know what is :).

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

 

Sounds of Music


 A Concert in Kansas City

I didn’t want to go to that concert.  True, I was the one who bought the tickets, but the only reason I got them was that buying five performances at once cost me less than the three I actually wanted to attend.  Still, my husband wanted to go, and so we did.  After two hours of driving, we finally entered the state-of-the-art Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. If you haven’t been to Kansas City’s Kauffman Center, you should definitely put it on your list of things to do. For one thing, the building looks similar to the famous Sydney Opera House (trust me, I’ve been there!).  Actually, on second thought, the interior of the Kauffman Center is even better.  You may not know the story, so I’ll tell you.  IMG_2478The architect who designed the Sydney Opera House spent so much money and took so much time that he and the city authorities began having “irreconcilable differences,” and when they finally got “divorced,” the shell of the building was completed, but the inside was not even started.  To finish the project, the city hired several local architects, who did their best with the money they had left – which, sorry to say, does show. (Forgive me, my Australian followers :).)

We parked our car and walked upstairs to our seats, past an elderly lady with an oxygen tank and several groups of people with gray hair, canes, and other attributes of old age – all waiting for the elevator.  By the way, I’m really worried about the future of classical music.  It’s rare that we see young people in the audience.  Most of our fellow concert goers are our age and up, which makes me wonder, what’s going to happen to classical music when we die out?  Is it going to disappear like the Dodo bird?

It took some time for the concert to get going: at first the symphony director talked about their new season, then the conductor introduced new members of the orchestra, and finally, the orchestra began playing the National Anthem, and everybody got up and sang.  As surprising as that was – I am a person who never goes to any sports events where that kind of thing is common – I liked it, for we naturalized citizens often feel aroused by the sounds of the American National Anthem.  Eventually, though, the concert started — most of it Russian music.  Familiar sounds filled the large hall at the conductor’s will, reminding me of my youth and also of the concerts I attended in Moscow.

Back there, I often went to the Moscow Conservatorium, especially to the concerts conducted by one man.  He was a wonderful musician, and it cost me an arm and a leg to go see him.  The thing was that in the Russia of my day you couldn’t just buy tickets for a good performance (or anything good, for that matter) — you had to have “connections,” or you had to pay “under the table.”  I never had any connections, so I did the latter, spending more money than I should have.  But, what can you do if you’re in love?  And I definitely was in love with this man.  Well, not with the whole man, just with his back and his hands, for that is how you usually see a conductor – from the back, right?  In fact, since I left Moscow, I’ve never met anybody who was as sexy from the back as this guy.  His hands flew in the air, enticing and promising carnal pleasures, and with a slight movement of his wrist, he sent thunder and lightning into his audience. small_6911531738 When at the end of the concert he turned to face the applause (and the applause was thunderous, I tell you!), all you could see was a middle-aged balding man.  Yet while he was conducting, goose bumps crawled up my spine, my legs trembled, and my heart beat like a caged bird.  He could have taken me anywhere and done anything he wanted with me, and I wouldn’t have said a word or put up a fight — as long as all I saw was his back and his hands.

The concert in Kansas City was also very good, and so was the conductor.  Like that man from my past, he unleashed musical thunder onto his listeners with his raised hands and a flick of his wrist.  And when he opened his palms at the end, the final sounds whooshed to the ceiling like released birds. We all experience the power of music one time or another.  We know that it can energize or make us sad or angry, but only classical music has the power to make us feel we are better people.  It can force our breath to stop and our hearts to ache for no discernible reason, and it can lift our spirit to the heights of beauty and humanity.

It took us some time to leave the building full of people who, instead of hurrying to return to their regular lives, paused at every turn, some to look out the full glass walls of the building at the city below and some to prolong that special feeling one gets when one witnesses true art.  We did not hurry either.  When we finally got back to our car, I felt exalted but also slightly sad — as if I had left someone very dear to me in a country I would never return to.  Or, maybe, that country itself was the object of my longing, for, in the end, the world of music is its own country, a place that has no official language and no boundaries, but beautiful melodies and loyal citizens. IMG_2488©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

P.S.  In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t having any erotic fantasies during this concert.  First of all, I am much older now.  Secondly, our seats were to the left of the conductor, which allowed me to see his profile but not his back :). P.P.S.  Click “like” if you like music! P.P.S.  What kind of music do you like?  Please tell me! photo credit: Dr. RawheaD via photopinHaags Uitburo via photopin cc

To Make or Not to Make … New Year’s Resolutions


IMG_1657-003Humans’ attempts to improve themselves go back for centuries. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods to repay their debts at the beginning of each year. The Medieval knights took vows to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry at the end of Christmas, and we make New Year’s resolutions. Well, “we” doesn’t actually include me. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, I believe that they’re grossly overrated. Do you know what the success rate of New Year’s resolutions is? Less than 20%! Also, you have to remember to make them — which isn’t easy in the excitement of a shopping season; and then you have to remember to follow up on them – as if the thing you’re testing is your memory.

In any case, I’m still influenced by the customs of my mother country, where people don’t make resolutions – they make good wishes. What’s the difference? Wishing is a humble thing to do, while declaring that you’ll live differently next year is rather presumptuous. First of all, it assumes that you have control over your life — something we’d never assume. How would we? We’ve lived through revolutions, wars, perestroikas, and Mr. Putin. No, scratch my last statement; Russia still has Mr. Putin!

Anyway, despite my aversion to New Year’s resolutions, I have a warm place for New Year’s in my heart. It is a centerpiece for Russian celebrations, and many attributes of the American Christmas somehow migrated into our culture to make New Year’s festive: a fir tree, a red star, and a bearded man with presents. Of course, in our country these symbols lost their religious meaning. The fir tree no longer evokes the Christian faith, but symbolizes New Year’s. The star on top does not recall Bethlehem, but the Soviet Revolution, and Santa Claus became Ded Moroz (Father Frost),although unlike Santa, he comes with his granddaughter Snegurochka — a pretty woman in a sparkling blue coat and a pointed kokoshnik (a traditional woman’s headdress).1-medium_3086820006

Also like Christmas, New Year’s is the best holiday for children, and it’s accompanied with sweets, presents, and New Year’s plays. The latter take place in theaters, concert halls, and open-air amphitheaters. Their usual scenario is this:

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka are traveling from the North Pole to our cities and towns. They are in a hurry — the kids are waiting for their New Year’s gifts and, more importantly, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka must light the yelkas (fir trees), entwined by strings of unlit bulbs. If they are late, the new year will never come, and although no child knows what that would mean, everybody understands this would be a catastrophe. As the show progresses, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka get separated, and both of them face countless obstacles and Russian folktale villains. The story is breathtaking and suspenseful. Will Ded Moroz and Snegurochka find each other? Will they deliver the gifts? Will they light the yelka on time?

My most memorable New Year’s performance took place when I was five and my grandfather took me for a walk to the nearest park. It was a clear winter day. Snow-dusted trees, benches, and ice-cream kiosks sparkled under the frigid northern sun, and small snowy waterfalls streamed down the stately pine trees. Yet the reason we went there wasn’t the beautiful scenery but a beer stall located in the middle of the park and well attended by rowdy men even in the winter. Actually, Grandpa didn’t plan to take me there — he left me in a small playground next to the stall, where children made snowmen, built snow fortresses, or had snowball fights.

Unfortunately, he paid no attention to the fact that that day the playground was sparsely populated — many children had moved to an amphitheater nearby, which was decorated with tinsel and a large fir tree. I soon headed there, too – just in time for a winter tale to begin. Never seeing a live play before, I was so fascinated that after it was over, I, unnoticed by my grandfather, followed the actors to another amphitheater (there were several in the park), and kept following them around for, possibly, several hours – never getting bored with the repetition and never thinking about my grandfather.

1-IMG_2344When the last performance ended, the sun was setting and blue shadows spread on the snowy ground. Children and their parents began leaving, and I finally realized that my grandfather was no longer nearby.  This was scary by itself, but to make matters worse, I suddenly felt freezing cold. Tears began rolling down my cheeks, and a lump in my throat sent a shock of panic down to my weakening legs. I was alone in the darkening park with no hope of finding my grandfather and nobody around to help me.

Yet a New Year’s tale, unlike real life, always ends well. A passer-by who heard an announcement about a lost five-year-old girl over the park’s loud speakers took pity on me and delivered me to the park’s entrance — all the while reprimanding me for hanging around the park alone and telling me that my grandfather would “wanna teach you a lesson!”

In truth, the only thing my anxious grandfather — who by that time had lost all of his beer-induced happiness – told me was: “Don’t tell anybody. Especially your grandma!” — which I accepted only too willingly, for that meant that nobody would punish me for my misbehavior.

That was a long time ago, and yet, every time New Year’s comes around, I recall that winter day in the park. I even included it in my memoir, which I really-really wish to publish next year. Oh, what the heck, maybe I’ll make a New Year’s resolution this time around, too. A very small one – to be a better person.  How hard could that be? 🙂

P.S. If you’d like to read a full story of my winter adventure, place click “Like!

P.P.S. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka photo credit: zsoolt via photopin cc

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Mark Twain and I


Before I read Sholem Aleichem, I read Mark Twain.  I was eight years old then, and I read it in Russian.  I didn’t know that Mark Twain was a famous American humorist, and in fact, I didn’t even know what humor was – until one day I opened that book and read:

“Tom!”

No answer.

“Tom!”

No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder?  You Tom!”

And even as I type these lines, I smile thinking about the many adventures of Tom Saywer and Huckleberry Finn, who taught me, among other things, that children, too, can be free spirited and enterprising.

My next brush with Mark Twain took place when I turned 39, shortly after we left Moscow for Vienna, Austria.  We didn’t really choose Vienna.  It was chosen for us by the Hebrew Immigrant Aide Society (HIAS) that helps the world’s Jewry to resettle.  There must have been thousands of Russian immigrants there already – some waiting for permission to stay in Europe, some to go to Australia and New Zealand, and many more to enter the United States.

My family arrived in Vienna from snowy and aloof Moscow at the end of February.  Somebody met us, dazed and disoriented, at the airport, and drove us to the place that HIAS rented for the waves of new Russian immigrants.  There was no snow anywhere, the air was filled with early spring dampness and uncertainty, and the gray sky was reflected in the windows of residential buildings and shopping malls.  The city was beautiful, though, with soaring cathedrals, imposing buildings, and museums, spoiled only by numerous dachshunds mincing on their short legs next to their orderly owners along the city streets — the same streets that, in 1938, saw the proudly marching columns of Nazis and the terrified crowds of Jews, who were driven from their homes to, first, clean Vienna’s pavement with forks, spoons, and even their tongues, and, later, transported to the Dachau concentration camp.  Of course, we were not desperate like them, but you could not help wondering about the ironies and unpredictability of life.

We stayed there for four months, which wasn’t too bad for a family with no friends or relatives to sponsor its move to America (and you had to have a sponsor to do that), and whose only hope was that HIAS would find somebody willing to sponsor us.  It was a strange, shadow-like existence.  We were free at last, or, maybe, in a free fall — only time would tell which one it would be.  If we had died there, the city wouldn’t have noticed.  For one thing, nobody knew us there.  For another, no Russian immigrant was allowed to work – at least not legally, and the only source of income we had was the little money that HIAS gave us each month and even the smaller amount we earned ourselves by selling  our camera, cotton bedding, and matrioshkis — as well as other Russian souvenirs –at the flea market.  And yet, life went on and my daughter even attended school, or what passed for school in that ephemeral existence: a room in the Jewish Resettlement Center, where children of all ages studied together with the teachers who were also in transit — one day the school had a math teacher and the next day she was gone.

And then, one day, somebody called from the American Embassy:  “Congratulations!  You’ve received an entrance permit.  You’re going to Columbia, Missouri.”  “Where is it?”  “Between St. Louis and Kansas City.”

We hung up the phone and ran to the nearest library.  There we found a map of the United States, in the middle of which we spotted a tiny dot for St. Louis and, close to it, another one for Kansas City.  Columbia was nowhere on the map, yet the word “Missouri” rang familiar.  Wasn’t that the birthplace of Mark Twain?  I grabbed a large dictionary.  Yes, Samuel Clemens was born and raised in Missouri, and since he went on to become a major American writer, we couldn’t go wrong there, either.

Fast-forward another ten years.  This time, I am on vacation in dry and beautiful Santa Fe.  We — my American husband, my daughter and her future husband, and I — are walking along the streets edged by blue and yellow adobe houses, admiring their bright colors and front yards landscaped with rocks and cactuses, and stopping at every art gallery.  At one intersection, I turn around the corner and, suddenly, come nose to nose with Mark Twain.  The great man sits on a bench surrounded by bronze horses, statues of children, and other art objects.  His left hand rests on the back of the bench, and his right hand holds an open book.  What in the world is he doing in New Mexico of all places?

Well, I never found the answer to that.  But that day in Santa Fe, I found an answer to something much more important to me.  Some time earlier, I began to venture into writing.  Yet to my surprise, it turned out to be very hard, and not only because English was my second language (although that was a big part of it!).  There was something else missing in my prose, vital and elusive.  I spent hours on my computer.  I poured my soul into every phrase (I came from the Russian tradition where “soul” was very important!), yet everything came out dead and full of self-pity.  What was wrong?  But as I stared at the familiar face framed with a mass of wavy bronze hair, it suddenly came to me.  The thing I was missing was humor.  Life has many facets, and humor is one of them.  It enlivens our life when we perform everyday chores, and it makes our life bearable when we suffer.

It would be wrong of me to say that the sudden encounter with the statue of Mark Twain miraculously improved my writing (in fact, it would take me another five years to publish my first piece), but it definitely helped me find my “voice.”

P.S.  Before we left the gallery, I asked my husband to sit next to Mark Twain and took a picture of both of them together.  Here they are – two great men in my life!

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, Florida, Missouri.  Happy Birthday, Samuel Clemens!

Please click “like” if you like my picture :).  Also, tell me about your “role models,” would you?

 P.P.S. This is a long post, but if you’re still reading, I’ll confess to you that, originally, I wrote:  “Life has many faucets, and humor is one of them,” which my husband had a good laugh about.  Now, if you’re chuckling, too, I must tell you, humor—like God—works in a miraculous way! 
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

What Was That Holiday in November?


Dear friends,

This is a story I wrote some time ago for the Christian Science Monitor.”  I hope you like it 🙂

“I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.”

“Why?”

“It’s their holiday. I don’t know what it’s about. Besides, what’s there to celebrate?”

I looked at the middle-aged Russian woman. She had settled in our town recently, and I hardly knew her. Yet, I knew her very well, for, reflected in her tired eyes, I saw myself many Thanksgivings ago.

Every time I heard the phone ring, I felt like dashing to the bedroom, covering my head with a pillow, and pretending that I was still in Moscow. 

The honeymoon phase of immigration had passed – when the never-before-seen abundance of food sent me into a trance, and aisles of Wal-Mart clothes thrilled me as much as a field trip to Lenin’s Mausoleum. But a new reality had set in – a nagging fear that I’d never make it in America and that bringing my young daughter here was the most irresponsible thing I had ever done.

The phone kept ringing. I picked it up, muttered, “I don’t speak English,” and immediately hung up. At night, it rang again, and my daughter, who knew some English, answered it.

“The Hermanns are inviting us over for Thanksgiving dinner,” she translated.

“Thanksgiving? What’s that?”

“A holiday.”

“What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure.”

Americans had invited us to meals before, and I appreciated their effort, although not the food. One family cooked us a Mexican dinner. The only thing I knew about Mexican culture was that they wore sombreros. As for the food, I had no idea what it consisted of, so when I bit into a jalapeño pepper, I was surprised and unprepared for the spicy aftereffect. The alarmed hosts rushed to me with a glass of ice water, the only drink they had at that meal. Where I came from, nobody served tap water to guests.

Another time, we were invited to a Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese food either. Also, we weren’t given knives and forks, and I couldn’t eat with the chopsticks they gave me. So I left that feast hungry.

On Thanksgiving, I timidly opened the door of a two-story brick house from which came wonderful aromas of food. What were we celebrating?

Back in Russia, we celebrated the anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution in the fall. A large military parade took place in Moscow’s Red Square. Rocket launchers, nuclear missiles, and tanks shook the square’s cobblestones, thousands of troops goose-stepped, and “volunteer” factory workers paraded past Lenin’s red-granite mausoleum, where high government officials waved and smiled to shouts of “Slava!” (glory) from the crowd.

None of it seemed relevant now. No tanks rolled through our Midwestern town, and no military marches were heard.

Could Thanksgiving be a religious holiday? I had vague recollections of Thanksgiving prayers in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet, there wasn’t a single onion-shaped dome in our town.

What holiday was it, then?

The house was decorated with carved pumpkins and mums. On the table rested a large brown turkey, a gravy boat, a bowl of cranberry sauce, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, and pies.

I wasn’t used to turkeys – chickens and ducks were more common back home – but I liked the taste. I didn’t touch the cranberry sauce, though. (Who eats poultry with jam?) Sweet potatoes looked weird (aren’t potatoes supposed to be white and salty?), so I skipped them, too.

I also skipped the pumpkin pie. My mother used pumpkins to make kasha (porridge), not a dessert! There was some kasha-looking dish on the table called “dressing.” To me, “dressing” implied putting on clothes, so I didn’t try it.

When the dinner ended, I asked my daughter to inquire about Thanksgiving. “Oh, Thanksgiving started at the time of the Pilgrims. They celebrated their first harvest and good fortune. And we, like them, express gratitude for everything we have,” she was told.

I had never studied American history, and the only pilgrims I’d heard about were people traveling to holy sites in the Middle East, not in America. As for gratitude, I mentally reviewed my situation. Formerly an engineer, I now worked nights at a retirement home making minimum wage. I rented a small apartment and drove a rusty car. I had no friends, and my daughter was my only family. I couldn’t even speak English. I had little to celebrate, I thought.

Many things have happened since then. Gradually, I learned English. Later I met and married a wonderful man, and, in time, my daughter became a mother herself. My life was similar to the lives of others who came here before and after me – with work and worries, sadness and happiness.

As for Thanksgiving, it became mine, too, because who are we immigrants, if not pilgrims? Like them, we come to a place we don’t know much about. Like them, we rely on the kindness of strangers. Like them, we go through hard times. And like them, we come to appreciate our good fortune.

I looked at the Russian woman. “You’ll celebrate Thanksgiving,” I said. “You’ll see. Just remember our Russian saying: ‘Without effort, one cannot pull even a small fish from the pond.’ ”

Thanksgiving turkey by antonellomusina
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Choices


I hate having choices! Where I grew up (in the former Soviet Union) we usually had one choice. For everything. In fact we were happy to have that one choice, because most of the time we had none at all. For example, if you saw a line for winter boots, you wouldn’t be picky about the size they had left by the time you reached the counter. You’d try to make them fit (if nothing else, that was a good exercise in building your character), or, in the case of absolutely irreconcilable differences between your feet and the size of the boots, you’d pass them on to somebody else – a family member or a friend.  The same went for jeans, bras, and any other essentials.  Most of the time, when we saw a line, we wouldn’t even ask what it was for – we knew we needed it.

The upside of that life style was that we had no confusion.  Here in America, you can’t order a sandwich without being showered with multiple choices of ingredients, condiments, breads, etc.  And that is not to mention that at the end, the sales clerk will ask, “For here or to go?”  When I heard that for the first time, I – fresh off the plane – said, “Is there a particular place I need to go to with my sandwich?”  (Just kidding, I couldn’t have said that.  I spoke no English then :).)   I was also asked if I wanted a “bottomless cup,” which left me almost in a state of paralysis, for how could a bottomless cup hold any coffee?!

Another thing that is wrong with having several choices is that as soon as you make your choice, you are responsible for the outcome of your decision. This is exactly why my husband avoids making decisions altogether: where we should go on vacation, where we should stay when we get there, etc. In fact, he doesn’t even choose the movies we see! Which means that I am the one who makes all these decisions and who suffers the consequences (well, I usually let him know that I’m suffering, so he’s not completely oblivious).

And you know what his indecision does to me? I’ve become really and truly neurotic. When a waitress walks me to a table, I am never happy with that table, so I ask her if we could sit at a different table – which inevitably turns out to be even worse than the first one, and I have to start all over from the beginning. Actually, my problems start even before my husband and I walk into the restaurant – at the moment when he asks me where I’d like to go for dinner.  This usually happens on a Friday night – when my decision-making ability is depleted by working 5 days in the library and dealing with whatever that may entail. (Did I tell you that the last time I was the librarian-in-charge somebody jumped off the second floor balcony, and I had to call the police and the ambulance, and then talk to three traumatized bystanders who tried to prevent the guy from falling and killing himself? — Don’t worry. The jumper landed on his feet.) In any case, the last thing I want to do on Friday night is to make another decision. So, I say, where do you want to go? And my husband says, where do you want to go? And after several rounds of that, he finally names a place – which is never the one I want to go to. You’d think that after 15 years together he’d know better! Yet he never does. Even worse, as soon as I convey that fact to him, he says, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” And I say, “Because before I didn’t know that I wouldn’t like it!”

Jokes aside, we make choices every day, and even the smallest of them change us in some ways – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and at other times both. Yet we rarely know in advance which one it will be. The most important choice I’ve ever made was to leave my home country. Was it a good choice?  Yes, it was, and I am glad to have made it. But I am separated from my sister and my parents, who now live in Israel, and my daughter decided to spread our family even further – she, as well as my two adorable grandchildren, lives in London. These are the consequences of my decision. Did I see them coming? Of course, not. As Kahlil Gibran said, “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.”

Going back to choices, a week ago, we all made our choice. Let’s hope it is a good one!

P.S. Do share your stories with me, would you?


©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Elections 2012


Thank you everybody who read/liked/commented on my Halloween story!  It’s so encouraging (and inspiring) for a writer to be appreciated.  You, guys, are great!  Now, I was not going to publish anything until November 15, but since we’re all waiting for the results of this election, I thought you may like my other older story, too.  Enjoy!  (I hope :))

Thank goodness for democracy!

I sighed. “Another sweepstakes.”

“Did you sign up for that no-call-no-mail-no-contact-under-any-circumstances list?” My husband asked.

“Yes, I did,” I said, opening the envelope.

Ms. Svetlana Grobman, you’ve been selected for a Presidential Campaign Survey.”

“It’s not a sweepstakes,” I informed my husband, wondering how my adopted country managed to survive without me during the years I lived in the Soviet Union.  The USA obviously needed me. For example, since I became an American citizen in 1995, I’ve been called for jury duty four times! I work with people who’d love to serve, but had never been called, including my mother-and father-in-law, who were seventh-generation Americans. Even my husband, now retired, has been called only once.

Similarly, when strangers telephone our house, they always ask for me, although nobody can pronounce my name. Only rarely do they want my husband with his conventional English name, Charles.

“Did anybody else receive a presidential campaign survey?” I asked my colleagues the next day. None had.

That night, I told my husband, “I have to answer that survey. It’s signed by a presidential candidate. He’s asking me to participate in the democratic process.”

“Did he also ask you for a donation?” my husband asked.

I disregarded this remark. Nobody had asked him to participate in the democratic process. Besides, he was used to democratic elections, with a choice among candidates; whereas, during my 39 years in Moscow, I never experienced such a thing.

My first Soviet election of the 1970s was a grand affair. Bravura patriotic music poured out of loudspeakers. Dressed-up people filled the sidewalks. Yet the polling place looked like my idea of purgatory – with many people going in and very few coming out. I walked inside. Several unsmiling officials crowded at the counter, busily checking voters’ passports, putting check marks by their names, and handing out ballots. Behind the counter perched an unused voting booth. The only things spoiling the bureaucratic orderliness of the voting process were the scents of seafood and noises oozing from the adjacent room, where crowds of people blocked the doorway.

“Masha, lend me some money!” I heard somebody shout.

“How much?” the invisible Masha hollered back.

Clearly, the next room was a happening place, and everybody around me thought so, too. As soon as they got their ballots, they quickly deposited their votes, and dived into the mass of bodies and tempting aromas on the other side.

While waiting to deposit my ballot, I absent-mindedly read its contents, which did not surprise anybody in the country. For every election, there was only one name on the ballot for each office, and the Soviet people were always unanimously united behind that person.

The best thing about this system was its simplicity. We weren’t bothered with phone calls or mail, we never researched our candidates (the names on the ballots rarely changed anyway), and we never had any doubt about the results – 99.9 percent of the population happily embraced their only choice.

The excitement in the next room was triggered by a buffet set up there for the election. It was covered with delicacies one wouldn’t find on any other day. Cans of caviar stood there like Kremlin turrets, packs of smoked salmon emitted mouth-watering scents, and piles of cured sausages rose like revolutionary-era barricades. In short, it was a celebration of the Soviet regime at its best.

This happened year after year, until, in the late 1980s, the Soviet economy plummeted and the assortment of election goodies dwindled. I lost my “election” enthusiasm long before that. One year, I walked into the voting booth, shut the curtain, and crossed out the only name on my ballot. The next time, I tore the ballot up. Finally, I just stopped going.

Yet, the election result was always the same – 99.9 percent approved. Actually, not voting caused me more trouble, since, inevitably, a portable ballot box appeared at my door, brought in by a grumpy bureaucrat, eager to put a check mark by my name.

My first American election took place in 1996. It was a casual affair. The polling station was in a nearby church, and the atmosphere lacked the excitement I was used to. One gray-haired volunteer checked my voter registration card, and another handed me a ballot – a document with several columns of little ovals and names. At the end, I was given an “I voted” sticker and a doughnut instead of caviar.

In recent years, I’ve voted at a school, where there are no doughnuts, coffee, or music. And yet, I do not miss the Soviet-style elections, for whatever the weaknesses of American elections, they have something I didn’t dream I’d ever see – choices.

No, I’m not naive. I know my single vote doesn’t count for much. But together with the votes of others, it has power – the collective power we pass on to our candidates, hoping that they’ll use it wisely. As for the torrent of dinnertime phone calls, campaign materials, and donation requests – I’m annoyed with them at times, but, I tell myself, “Thank goodness for democracy!” And, sometimes, I even reach for my checkbook.

©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Happy Halloween!


It’s been two weeks since my last post, so let me tell you what’s happened during that time.  First of all, I received a comment that my “How I met my husband” post sounded kind of familiar.  In fact, it sounded so familiar that the commentator even pinpointed its source — “My Fair Lady.”  This I really liked a lot, since I admire Audrey Hepburn and I always dream of being dressed as elegantly as she was :).  (By the way, the source for “My Fair Lady” is Barnard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which means that my own story  should be traced to it, too!)

I also got a message that went like this: “Mr. X liked your post.  Check out his post and see what he’s up to!”  I, of course, immediately did that, and I found out that Mr. X. enjoys a Facebook application called Dooba.  This cool app analyzes your newsfeed, and it finds people you might want to date among the friends of your friends.  Well, I personally will stick to my current husband (although I found him accidentally and not as a result of a sophisticated analysis), but those still on the dating scene should definitely check it out!  (And please, please, please, send me your dating story, too!)

Now about where I left off last time — I’ll take a rain check on that.  Since we’re approaching Halloween, I thought I’d offer you my Halloween story, which I first published in the Christian Science Monitor in 2006.  I hope you like it :).

A Sweet Welcome to America

I cautiously opened the door and there they were – a smiling blue-eyed woman in worn-out jeans and a bulky sweat shirt, and a little girl dressed in a long red gown and a black star-speckled cloak. A tall peaked hat crowned her curly blond hair.

“Hi,” the woman said amicably, and her smile widened until it couldn’t get any bigger or more sincere. Her eyes seemed to fix on me conspiratorially.

“Hi,” I echoed apprehensively.

Suddenly, the girl stepped forward and blurted out something short and rhythmical. I stepped backward. She spoke English, but I had no way of deciphering her words. My only translator, my teenage daughter, was not at home.

“Do you need help?” I asked, carefully pronouncing one of the few phrases I, a former Russian engineer, had learned in the Midwestern retirement home where I currently worked as a nurse’s aide.

The shape of the woman’s mouth changed from a crescent to a straight line. The girl turned to her mother and then again to me. She gave me a demanding look and forcefully repeated her mysterious chant.

A knot of panic formed in my stomach. The visitors did not look like criminals, although you never know.

There were beggars in Moscow who went from house to house asking for money, carrying their crying children dressed in rags.  Also, Gypsies occasionally came and offered palm reading. In fact, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine had her palm read by a Gypsy who told her that she would embark on a long trip overseas in about 20 years. Of course, the last I heard of that friend, she was still in Moscow. It was I who found herself overseas anxiously gawking at two strangers.

Well, everything here in my new home was strange. The temperature fluctuated between 85 and 105 degrees F. for the first two months after we arrived in July. Accustomed to Moscow’s mild summers, we found the heat unbearable.  Then, in September, we experienced our first tornado. Tornadoes were unheard-of back in Moscow, and, at the time, I never listened to the radio (What would be the point for me? It’s all in English). So, despite the screaming of sirens, I headed for a grocery store. It was about 1 p.m., but as soon as I got into my beat-up Buick, the sky darkened as though it was night, and the wind started wailing so ominously that only a clueless foreigner such as I would venture outside.  Fortunately, the traffic lights saved me. Blinking yellow in all directions, they confused me – a driver with only two weeks’ experience – so I turned back home. There a good-hearted neighbor dragged me into our apartment building’s basement while I tried to persuade her in my broken English that I had better things to do.

Two weeks later, the town started preparing for an earthquake, and I was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my decision to emigrate to the United States. We had plenty of problems back in Russia, but we never had earthquakes!  The disaster was expected to strike in 10 days, so people and businesses prepared for the worst – storing canned food, bottled water, and other imperishable necessities. Because we lived in a small apartment, I stocked things under the kitchen table – where they stayed for a month after the anticipated date had passed and, to my relief, no earthquake struck.  And now this unexpected visit.

Slowly, I tried to close the door, but the girl’s lips started to twist and the mother burst into a long tirade in which I recognized “give” and “candy.”

Did they want candy? I eyed the visitors and noticed a small basket in the girl’s hand – half full of candy.  If this was a robbery, it was a “sweet” kind, although this might have been just the beginning.  Suddenly, a warning penetrated my brain: “If you’re being robbed, never argue, just give them what they want.”

Nervously, I rushed to the pantry, snatched two bags of Hershey’s Kisses and a bag of peanut clusters, and handed everything to the robbers.  This time, the girl stepped back, and the mother fanned the air with her hand in a rejecting motion.

“Candy, no?” I asked warily.

The woman gave me a look overflowing with pity and grabbed one of the bags. She tore it open, and then turned to her daughter and whispered something encouraging.  Immediately, the girl’s fingers dived into the open bag and came out with three pieces of chocolate. The mother shoved the rest of the bag into my hands, smiled brightly, and said, “Welcome to this country!”

Several minutes after they left, I was still in the doorway, vacantly watching chocolates spilling from the open bag.

That was my first American Halloween – as new to me as garbage disposals, garage-door openers, and all the other American conveniences.  Since then, Halloween has become a mark of my immigrant’s progress. On my fourth Halloween, I moved into my first house; on my seventh Halloween I got engaged to an American man; and on my 14th my grown-up daughter had her first child – my first grandson.

When little Alex is old enough, I hope we’ll go out together on Halloween night. He’ll say “trick or treat!” while I stand behind him, smiling.  And if someone answers the door who knows nothing about Halloween, we, too, can say, “Welcome to this country!”

P.S.  Picture courtesy of  Transguyjay

Happy Halloween!
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Welcome to my blog!


I never thought that I would start my own blog, and yet, that is exactly what I’m doing.  Why?  Not because I believe that I am a profound thinker and the world cannot live without my opinions, and not because I am a vain person.  Why then?  Well, I’ll be honest with you.  Because I just finished writing my first book “The Education of a Traitor” (I have published essays and articles before), and now I need to build “my platform,” or, to put it plainly, I need to prove to the publishing world that there are people out there who will read what I write; that I have something to say to them –even if they are very different from me.  Can I do it? I don’t know.  I just have to try, for there is nothing more important for a writer than readership.  And now, let me introduce myself.

I am a foreigner.  I was born in Moscow, Russia (which in those days was called the Soviet Union) and I lived there for 39 years.  When I immigrated to the U.S., I didn’t speak English, and despite many years of studying, I speak with an accent.  This may take time to get used to, although people usually say, – oh those polite Americans! – “What a charming accent you have!   Where are you from?”  (Just between you and me, I HATE my “charming” accent.  So if you ever meet me in person, don’t ever say that! :))  In any case, I usually reply, “I’m from Russia,” to which many say something like this:  “I’ve been in Moscow/St. Petersburg/etc.  Great country!   Great people, too!  Do you go back often?”

Well (this, again, is between you and me), I haven’t been back since the day I left my crying relatives at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (none of us knew whether we would ever see each other again) and, accompanied by the hateful glances of the Russian border patrol, boarded a plane.  Why don’t I go back?  As I already said, I lived in Russia for 39 years — which was a very “interesting” experience in itself, but to make matters worse, I was born into a Jewish family.  I did not know then that that wasn’t a good idea, but neither I nor my parents could do anything about it anyway, since in Russia being Jewish is very different from being Jewish in any other place on Earth.  It doesn’t mean that you go to religious services and celebrate Sabbath every Friday (sorry to say, I still don’t even now).  In fact, the Soviet Union was an atheist haven where nobody believed in anything, but everyone cited Karl Marx: “Religion is opium for the masses.”

To tell the truth, very few of us knew what opium actually was, but we all understood that it must be something very bad, like rotten capitalism, wars, exploitation of the working class, or writing curse words on the wall.  Our knowledge of religion was mostly gastronomical.  For me and the Jews of my generation being Jewish meant eating gefilte fish and matzah for Passover (if you don’t know what matzah and gefilte fish are, google them!), and for my Russian counterpars, the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church narrowed down to painting eggs and baking cakes for Easter.  Also, a week before Lent, we all religiously ate blini (small pancakes) with sour cream, and those who had “connections” (and you absolutely had to have some kind of connections if you were to survive in the Soviet Union) ate them with caviar – nobody giving a hoot what Easter was all about.  Which was actually good, because outside our stomachs, religion could mean serious trouble – expulsion from college, difficulties at work, and possibly, even worse.

So, what made me and others like me Jewish?  Our ethnicity, of course!  Well, they called it “nationality,” and as such it was recorded in all our documents: from our maternity wards to day care centers, schools, colleges, places of work, and in the most important places of them all – in our passports, which every Soviet citizen received at the age of sixteen.  Whatever the document, it read (always on the fifth line): “Nationality — Jewish.”  Of course, it didn’t help that, as popular saying had it, our Jewishness was “written on our faces” — meaning that in the sea of the light-headed and light-eyed Russian majority, we, dark-headed and dark-eyed, with tanned complexion, stood out.  This might not have applied to everyone, but it surely applied to me.

The most revealing thing about me was my nose. It was long and protruding (still is, in fact :)) — a typical Jewish nose that I inherited from my father. My mother’s nose, on the other hand, appeared almost normal. In fact, her nose appeared so normal that she didn’t look Jewish at all, so her patients (she was an overworked and underpaid district doctor) told her anti-Semitic jokes and complained about the global domination of Jews: “Those kikes took over all the good places, so true Russians don’t have anywhere to go!” To which Mother, whose low salary was often less than the salaries of her “true” Russian patients, only nodded and said, “Take these pills twice a day and get a lot of rest …”

Well, see how far talking about my accent got me?  I think I’d rather stop now.  Talk to you later! 🙂