“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 Elie 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 Elie 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 Elie 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.”
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
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”
Where 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
I am honored that Caroline Leavitt, an American novelist and the New York Times bestselling author, interviewed me for her blog. Here is her entry:
THURSDAY, JUNE 25, 2015
I love discovering great small presses. Musings Publishing is based in Missouri, and they sent me a book with the provocative title, THE EDUCATION OF A TRAITOR, complete with a haunting cover photo. Kirkus Reviews calls this “an intimate look at a young woman’s struggle to find her own truth in a repressive society.” Midwest Book Review calls the memoir, “Hard-hitting and involving.” I’pm honored to have Svetlana, who grew up in Moscow during the Cold War, on my blog. Thank you, Svetlana.
I always want to know what sparked a book. Why write a memoir now?
It was my American husband who “sparked” my book. It happened five years ago. At the time, I was working on a book describing my coming to Columbia, Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old Jewish immigrant with no English and no knowledge of American life, was as disorienting as if I had landed on the Moon. I had a good time writing that book, because the most difficult period of my immigration was already over, and I could have fun describing my learning English — mixing up words “desert” and “dessert,” “hair” and “hare,” and getting puzzled by expressions like “keep me posted” when no postage stamps were in sight.
My husband, however, thought that my life in Russia was a more important subject to write about, and, eventually, I agreed with him — not because I believed my past life to be exceptional, but because it was representative of other lives spent under an oppressive regime.
Why now? For one thing, it took me a long time to improve my English, and it took me even longer to feel strong enough to relive my past. This does not mean that everything in my Russian life was painful. Some things were so absurd that they were actually funny. Continue reading
“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.”
“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
Since 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’m 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 who, 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.
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
Jonathan 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.
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
“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
Those who’ve been following me for a while may have noticed that I have another blog, too – Svetlana’s Photography. (Don’t take me wrong. I have no illusion about my ability as a photographer. I just enjoy taking pictures:). Here’s how it works. Every week, WordPress announces a theme, and people like me (as well as some professional photographers) post their photos to illustrate it. The theme for this week is “Treasure,” and the example we’re given is a heart-shaped stone, a keepsake that the photographer has kept in her possession for 25 years and three house moves. This, of course, made me think about my keepsakes, but I quickly realized that I no longer have them in my life, and I want to tell you to why.
When I left my former “Motherland,” I was allowed to take anything I wanted – as long as I could pack it into two suitcases per person (actually, diamonds were not allowed, but I never had them; as for gold, the limit was one item per person, so my wedding ring qualified). For a family of three, this translated into six suitcases of bare necessities, and I cried packing 39 years of my life into them. I kept putting things in and taking them out, rearranging, pushing and pressing, but, in the end, all the treasures (or keepsakes) that made it into my suitcases were pictures: my parents’ and grandparents’, my sister’s and me, and my daughter’s as a baby and a toddler – one small album in all. The rest I gave out to friends and family who stayed behind. (Many of them left later, too, leaving their treasures to somebody else or throwing them away.) Continue reading
When 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), and 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
“Slow down!” I screamed at my husband when a gust of wind threw another clump of snow at our front window, obscuring the world outside our car. We were driving through a blizzard, and my rhetorical question “Are we there, yet?” no longer reflected boredom but acquired a true urgency. Yet – finally! – our Subaru, loaded with ski clothes and equipment, and electronic gadgets (just the number of chargers is unbelievable!) reached Rabbit Ears Pass and began descending to Yampa Valley — the town of Steamboat Springs within it.
The 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 called 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.
My first Thanksgiving in this country wasn’t a great experience (click here to see my story about it). Formerly an engineer, I worked nights at a retirement home making the 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, so I thought I had little to celebrate.
Since then, I’ve had all kinds of Thanksgivings: most of them good and tasty. Yet there was one — during my divorced state – when I almost set my house on fire while making my first Thanksgiving dinner for myself; and also one after which my whole family got violently sick (this is after I remarried).
On the whole, though, I like Thanksgiving. I like its food, I like the fact that it is a family holiday, I like that afterwards we always have leftovers. In fact, I don’t understand people who complain about eating leftover turkey for too long. I don’t mind that. To me, turkey meat is tasty, lean, and healthy (vegetarians, skip this). Also, did you know that that great pragmatist, Benjamin Franklin, wanted a turkey to be the symbol of America and not a bald eagle? Continue reading
There is a picture on my desk – my husband, in white shirt and dark suit, stands next to August Rodin’s statue depicting young lovers locked in a passionate embrace. That picture was taken in Paris seventeen years ago. Just recently, I put another one next to it, a picture of my grandchildren looking out from the Eiffel Tower.
The first time my husband and I went out, he wore a bright blue raincoat and Russian-Army-style high boots. He offered no excuse for the flashy raincoat, but the boots, I soon found out, were supposed to show me how much he admired my culture, and so, I decided to give him another chance.
Things did work out between us, and half a year later, I found myself planning our honeymoon in Paris. The first thing on my agenda was letting him know that the boots were not going with us, nor would they be welcomed in our house afterwards. As for the raincoat, there was no time to find a substitute for it, and since the weather forecast for Paris was rainy, I had to put up with it.
I know what you think — a honeymoon in Paris sounds both indulgent and clichéd. Well, the only excuse I can offer is that I was already forty-five, and that trip to France was going to be my second overseas adventure – the first being my immigration from Moscow, Russia, to Columbia, MO.
At the beginning was the word. Or, rather, a paragraph I read in a blog — about Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk. For those who don’t know about Scott Kelby, he is a photographer and an author, whom I discovered when I was still a library selector. Don’t know what that means? Well, it used to be that librarians ordered books for their libraries — each for her selection area. Mine was the arts, and photography was included there.
I said “used to be” because I no longer do that. These days, selecting materials in my library is done by just four people, and I am not one of them. So, I now do de-selecting or “weeding.” Not a garden variety, mind you, but important nevertheless. I discard books that have been chewed by dogs or torn by toddlers, history that nobody wants to remember, classics that are no longer revered, that kind of stuff.
Anyway, in the golden days of selecting, I came across Kelby’s works, and they literally changed my life. The thing is I’m obsessive. Every time I develop a new passion, I throw all my time and energy into it — until I find something else to obsess about. Anyway, the first thing I did when I entered my Scott-Kelby-inspired photography stage was to buy a camera. For most of my life, I knew little about cameras, lenses, flashes, and things like that. But when I opened Kelby’s books, I began craving expensive equipment as if my life depended on it. Of course, being a librarian married to an academic, I couldn’t really afford it. I had to settle for reading. So, today, if you let me, I’ll tell you everything I know about full-frame and cropped sensor cameras, good glass (that’s how photographers refer to good – and very expensive — lenses), flashes, task-sharp images (something I am still working on), and other things like that.
Unfortunately, none of my loved ones understands the importance of photography in my life. When I ask my husband to pose for me (I like taking pictures with a “human” element), he immediately assumes an expression described by a Russian proverb as, “Virazhaet to lizo chem sadyatsa on krilzo” or “He wears an expression that makes his face look like his butt.” As for my grandchildren, one of them begins rubbing his eyes with his fists and the other rolls her eyes or sticks out her tongue.
I persevere anyway, and the reason that I am still unknown to the world of photography is that I don’t have a high-end camera/lenses/etc. Another thing that holds me back is that I’m self-taught. I’ve never taken any photography classes, and, in fact, I don’t have anybody in my life with whom I could discuss f-stops, shutter speed, HDR photography, and other fascinating subjects like that. This is why I got excited about the Scott Kelby Photography Walk. It was going to be a turning point in my photographic career.
The walk was set for October 6, which was great, since October is the best time of the year in our area. Yet when I woke up that morning, monotonous streaks of rain were hitting our bedroom windows, and the outside world appeared depressingly gray. For fifteen minutes or so, I debated with myself whether I should go. Who takes pictures in the rain? My camera will get wet. Of course, I can carry an umbrella, but how am I going to hold my camera steady with one hand? Then it occurred to me that somebody else may want to take my place but I couldn’t think of anybody. Finally, I got myself together and drove along damp and empty streets to the gathering place.
A crowd of 15 or so people huddling underneath their umbrellas in the middle of a small park looked somewhat misplaced. Several of them were young, several had gray hair, and all carried bulky cameras. The leader gave us his last instructions and a map of our photo walk, and let us loose on the town. In two-and-a-half hours we would meet for lunch.
The park and its surroundings appeared dull and lifeless. The only bright spots were umbrellas of my fellow photographers, many of whom had already sprung into action – some snapping pictures of a nearby creek and the bridge over it, and some bending over wet bushes.
What’s the point? – I thought to myself. — On a day like this, nothing is going to look pretty. Then I lowered my gaze and, as things came into focus, I suddenly spotted little red berries on the bushes growing along the creek, drops of rain glistening on the leaves, and the freshly green blades of grass. I was wrong. Even in the rain, the world was full of colors. In fact, they became as vivid as ever, and even simple objects, like benches, bikes chained to a rack, and the railing of a bridge looked interesting. And the air! It was fresh and energizing. I wasn’t wasting my time by coming here. I was encountering a different world. And I turned my camera on and began taking pictures.
True, operating a camera in the rain was … let’s say, challenging. But I welcomed the challenge, for it made me look, really look, and notice things I usually miss: patterns of puddles on the street, sidewalk paintings, reflections in shops’ windows, and, of course, people, some of whom hurried along hidden under their umbrellas, and some paid no attention to the rain. I couldn’t stop pressing the shutter, as if I could see better through the small opening of my lens than I could with my eyes.
Time speeded up, and soon, I found myself at the end of our route. Now I needed to hook up with the rest of the group.
“I’m not going to lunch with them. I don’t feel comfortable with strangers.” I had said to my husband before I left home. But there I was, at the table with people talking passionately about resolution (without referring to the American government shutdownJ), lenses (What’s the sweet spot for this one?), and flashes (“You need one master and, at least, two slaves”). I was participating, too—if not by talking then by listening. I was learning about the art of photography, but, most importantly, I was learning about how differently we see the world. For we all walked the same streets, squares, and alleys. We saw the same people and buildings. Yet what we documented with our cameras was different. None of us caught everything, but together, we could compile a picture of our town – things that were beautiful about it but also things that were mundane and ugly.
As I was driving back home, I kept going over my morning. Did it improve my technical proficiency? Not by much. That would require more time and effort. But, it improved my understanding of how we – if we want to — can fit our individual pieces into a larger whole. As for the rain, as one Russian song goes, “There is no bad weather in nature. Whatever happens has its time and purpose. And we should be grateful for all of it.”
- if you’re interested in the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk look here: http://worldwidephotowalk.com/
“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.
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.
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. Two 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.
“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.
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. And 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.
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.
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.
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 – our 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.
I’m not imaginative. Never have been. So when I learn that the library where I work as a librarian would host a workshop “Unleash Your Imagination,” I decided that this was exactly what I needed.
On the appointed day, I joined twenty some women of different ages who crowded around a large table with a workshop leader at its head. The first thing the leader, a well-into-middle-age woman, told us to do was to relax. This made a lot of sense to me, for how can you unleash anything if you are tense? Except, I have never managed to relax successfully. As soon as I hear somebody telling me to close my eyes, I immediately feel as if something got into them, so I open my eyes wide and wink energetically. Then, something else gets into my nose and I begin sneezing. Then, usually by the time I am supposed to relax my lower body, my back starts itching between my shoulder blades and… You get the idea.
This time was no different, so I soon gave up my attempt at relaxation and began looking around. Everybody else sat with their eyes closed and their bodies limp, and two women even had their mouths open–kind of like people who had died without anyone around to push their chins up.
Then, the workshop leader said,“Imagine yourself in a place where you feel peaceful and free. Smell the smells, enjoy the taste, admire colors, and caress the surfaces.”
Here, everybody’s expression turned even more serene and the two women with their mouths open began making little chewing movements.
Being tense myself, I had a hard time finding a beautiful place to imagine myself in, so instead, I recalled the village of Williams Bay on Geneva Lake, which my daughter, my two grandchildren, my husband and I visited a month earlier. On account of having allergies, I couldn’t really smell anything, and the only sound I remembered was the annoying cry of seagulls. As for colors, it was already dusk when we got there, so everything looked kind of gray and yellowish. Still, the grandchildren liked the beach, so it was nice any anyway.
By the time I got really comfortable with my memories, our leader commanded, “Now, open your eyes and draw the scene you just imagined.” Immediately, everybody sprang to action and began drawing rather complex scenes with trees, waterfalls, and butterflies, while all I could manage was two lines: one, wavy, for the lake, and another one, straight, for the beach. Behind the straight line, I put several small blots for seagulls and several bigger blots–with sticks indicating arms and legs–for my family. I was about to start coloring my granddaughter’s hair, when the workshop leader stopped our artistic endeavors and asked the participants to tell the group about their drawings and what they represented.
To my humiliation, everybody began sharing a paradise-like vision of herself sitting, lying, or walking in a garden with singing fountains, in mountains covered with light puffy clouds, or on a boat lit by the setting sun. There was only one lady there whose imagination took her to a twisted Dali-esque landscape she had once hallucinated in a morphine-induced state while recovering from surgery.
After all the other participants had spoken, the leader’s gaze turned to me, prompting me to begin. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, but … no sound came out, for instead of a warm and fuzzy, dream-like vision, I pictured my grandchildren running by the water’s edge, shouting, scaring seagulls, and spattering us with wet sand. Then I heard myself telling them a joke I heard earlier that day, “Do you know why seagulls fly over the sea? Because if they flew over the bay, they’d be called bagels!”
Then I saw my seven-year-old grandson turn to his younger sister, point to the seagulls flying over Williams Bay, and say, “Look at those bagels, Mary!” And my four-year-old granddaughter, who must have decided that “bagels” was the proper thing to call these birds, ran in the direction of their flight shouting, “Bagels, bagels!”
Here, my daughter said, “She can’t understand that joke. You shouldn’t have told it,” and I said, “Well, it’s about time for her to learn about humor,” and my husband said, “I don’t think so. She’s too young,” and I said, “Not really. I told her about Winnie the Pooh and she laughed,” and the three of us began arguing about stages in child development …
“Would you like to share your vision with us?” The leader said, smiling encouragingly.
I looked at her through the cloud of my memories and, to my surprise, a sudden pain pierced through my chest, halted my breathing, and lodged somewhere between my shoulder blades. And as if I were reading the story of my life, I suddenly knew that that casual evening when everybody was healthy and good-natured, although it lacked beautiful colors, enticing sounds, or profound words, that evening was better than anything I could ever imagine. It was simple and it was precious, and it will never be repeated again…
“Sorry,” I said, shrinking under the gazes directed at me from all sides. “I have no vision to share. I couldn’t unleash my imagination. I only unleashed my memories.”
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been living in this country for 23 years. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about commemorating this fact. Yet, so far, nothing original has come to my mind but publishing a brief chronicle of my years here. After all, Marco Polo wrote about his travels, Thoreau wrote about his pond, and I my (illustrated) diary. I hope you like it 🙂
July 19, 1990
Arrived in Columbia, Missouri. A group of people in shorts met us at the local airport — presumably, our sponsors. They don’t speak Russian and I don’t speak English, so it’s hard to know for sure.
July 4, 1990
Americans are celebrating their independence. I’ve never studied American history, so I’m not quite sure from whom. The temperature is 41 degrees Celsius. They measure everything in Fahrenheit, and my thermometer reads 105 – which makes me feel even worse.
August 18, 1990
A small tornado hit the town. Nobody got killed, but several houses lost their roofs. Some people say that we may have an earthquake here soon, too. Reconsidering my coming here. As bad as it was in Russia, we never had either one!
September 6, 1990
No Russian-speaking engineers needed. Had two choices: going to work for Merry Maids or a nursing home. Chose the latter. Now, I’m a nurse’s aide working the third shift. Which is good — the residents sleep and nobody speaks English.
October 31, 1990
A neighbor with two children dressed in black cloaks came to the door looking for candy. They didn’t look hungry, so I’m very suspicious. After they left, I looked outside – the street was full of children searching for sweets. Apparently, they have shortages in America, too.
November 22, 1990
Got invited to a Thanksgiving dinner. The food was baked turkey and red potatoes. Even in Russia, where red was very popular, potatoes were white! I skipped the potatoes and ate the turkey that was stuffed with bread. That way, I suppose, they can feed more people.
December 25, 1990
American Christmas comes before New Year’s. In Russia, it came after, and nobody celebrated it.
Learned some English phrases, quit the nursing home, and got a job at a public library shelving books – that way I do not have to talk to anybody, although one young woman did ask me where the restroom was. It was just around the corner, but I panicked and gestured towards the reference desk.
What a language! Half of the words have multiple meanings, while the other half sound the same but mean different things. Besides, no matter how I twist my tongue, I can’t roar the American “r,” or hiss their “the.” My “think” comes out as “sink,” and even when I say “Hi,” people ask where I’m from.
American expressions are weird, too. When did they ever see “raining cats and dogs”? And what about “give a leg up.” Why would I lift my leg if somebody needs a ride home? Also, “it costs an arm and a leg.” We never paid with our limbs! Yesterday somebody said, “I dropped the ball.” I looked. No ball. What did she drop? Where?
Got promoted to the Front Desk. Understand about 25%. Today, a patron asked about groundhogs. I knew “ground” and also “hogs,” so I sent him to a grocery store. Expect to be fired every day.
Started reading books in English. Also, made my first “Library will close in fifteen minutes” announcement. Everybody left immediately — including some staff. They said that it “sounded scary.”
Decided to go back to school and get a Library Science degree. Went to the local University and filled out an application. Spelled “Library” just fine but not “Sience.” Got a funny look from the admission staff.
Took the GRE. Scored 95% on Math and 15% on English — confused “hair” with “hare,” “tale” with “tail,” “wonder” with “wander,” “desert” with “dessert,” and “whipping” with “weeping.” Passed anyway — they counted the average.
Going to school part time, working at the library full-time – now at the reference desk. Yesterday, a nice-looking gray-haired lady asked me about whales. I took her to the animal section. Who knew she was going to Wales? No time to eat. Lost five pounds.
Became a naturalized American citizen. At work, a patron asked how to “dress” a deer. I said, “Do you mean clothes or stuffing?” Another patron wanted pictures of a stagecoach. I knew “stage” and “coach” (like coaches in sports) but couldn’t imagine them together and had to ask for help. Lost another five pounds.
Last semester. Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam and dating an American. Ran out of “I was sick” excuses and told my professor that my paper was late because I was getting married. He understood. Not sure what I’ll tell him next time. Maybe, “I’m getting divorced”? Lost five more pounds.
Got my Master’s degree! Voted for Clinton and he won. Also, received a marriage proposal. I don’t know about that, but it felt good.
Was promoted to a reference librarian – doubled the salary and the fear of being fired. Married the American, too! Now I speak English 24/7. Gained five pounds.
My husband does a great job of correcting my English — especially when we argue. Also, dreamt in English for the first time. Is that what happens when you marry an American citizen? Gained five more pounds.
A guy wearing a “lion” cloth tried to enter the library today. As soon as I got home, I described the event to my husband. He was very surprised — not with the guy, but with the cloth. Then he said, “Did you mean “loin?” Gained five more pounds.
We moved to a house by the edge of the woods [see a story about that later]. Now, I’m spending all my free time landscaping our yard. Lost five pounds.
Deer ate everything I planted. We voted for Al Gore, but he lost.
Summer 2001 Tried new plants, and so did the deer. The plants are gone; the deer are still around.
Found one kind of bush that the deer don’t like. Planted them everywhere.
Went bird watching with my husband. Saw 3 ducks, 5 geese, and one woodpecker – all of which live in our neighborhood, too. Put up a bird feeder in the back yard, so we don’t have to drive anywhere.
No bird feeder survives. We keep losing them to the deer, raccoons, and squirrels. Voted for John Kerry and he lost, too.
Deer destroyed everything, again, so no landscaping is needed. Used my free time to write about the deer eating my “lushes” plants and sent it to the local newspaper. The story got published, although they replaced “lushes” with “lush.”
Now, we are having moles and “aunts” problems. Wrote about that, too. My husband read my story and said, “I think you meant ‘ants.’”
Continue writing. This time, I wrote how my husband and I “tied the nut” eleven years ago, and how “exiting” that was. Showed it to my husband. After he stopped laughing, he suggested replacing “nut” with “knot” and “exiting” with “exciting.”
Wrote an essay about what life was like in Russia, especially for Jews. The essay got published in The Christian Science Monitor, and I got my first fan letter. Opened it with shaking hands … and read that the only thing missing in my life now was “converting to Christianity.”
Spend all my free time writing. No time for working in the yard, watching movies, and even weighing myself. Is that what it means to be a writer? Here you have it: twenty-three years in 1250 words 🙂
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
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.
And 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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
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.
Nature in Details
It 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.
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.
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.
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, and 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 learn as long as you live.'”
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
Forward: an Essay in Pictures.
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. Yet 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?”
Going 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 (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.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
My Home is Where You Are
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!
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
Every 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 Missouri 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.
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!”
Going 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 :).
Colors of Love
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
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. The 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. 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. ©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 photopin, Haags Uitburo via photopin cc
A Beacon of Knowledge
Columbia Public Library, Columbia, MO
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
Humans’ 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).
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.
When 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!”
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved
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:
“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
This is a story I wrote some time ago for the Christian Science Monitor.” I hope you like it 🙂
“I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.”
“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.
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?”
“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.’ ”
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