The Trump Effect


1-IMG_1657-002At our last Staff Day, I received a certificate marking my 25 years with the same library. My first reaction was, “OMG, I’ve worked here longer than I did in Russia!” My second thought was, “How old does that make me?!” (A silly reaction: it’s not as if I hadn’t noticed how much I have aged!). And my third thought was, “Things have definitely changed since I came to this country…”

I won’t lie and tell you that I became a librarian because of my humanitarian nature. You’d be hard pressed to find many Russians who give a hoot about humanity. That’s how we were brought up. We come from a country where everything was about “us” versus “them,” where “us” was our never-wrong-Russia and “them” was the rest of the world, hated and envied at the same time.

I didn’t become a librarian because of my love for books either. This is not to say that I don’t like reading. I do, but that wasn’t my motivation. Librarianship just happened to me.

When I arrived in the USA, I was 39 years old and spoke no English, so my first job here was as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home. I worked the night shift. This was good, because very few residents felt talkative at night. But it was also bad, because I couldn’t sleep during the day. After four months of chronic sleep deprivation, I felt like a zombie. When a friend told me that our local public library was looking for a shelver, I applied immediately. (Had he told me that someone was looking for a non-English-speaking-woman to send to Mars,  I’d have applied for that, too, so miserable was I.)  That’s how my library career began.

In the beginning, I was terrified of everything: library patrons who tried to talk to me and my colleagues who mostly pitied me. I was especially afraid of getting fired — because the little money I earned was my only source of income. Yet, gradually, I learned English, went back to school, got a Master’s degree in Library Science, and, eventually, became a full-fledged librarian – all while working at the same library.

I never regretted my choices._MG_6354 While librarians are not seen as glamorous creatures but rather as homely women of an uncertain age who wear square glasses, working at the library gave me a chance to learn about my new country. It also gave me a chance to work with like-minded people in an environment where camaraderie is valued above competition and where knowledge is more important than showing off.

Every day, I met lots of people – men and women, old and young. Most of them were patient with me, even when I made mistakes – and I made many mistakes when I first started. I confused whales with Wales, deer with dear, awful with awefull, sweet with suite, corps (as in Corps of engineers) with corpse, etc. And then there were idiomatic expressions and sports metaphors that made no sense to me.

Of course, it wasn’t just at work that I met people. There were people who, seeing me walk in 95-degree weather, stopped their cars and asked if I needed a ride (at the beginning, I had no car). There were sales clerks at grocery stores who – after realizing that I was a foreigner – said, smiling, “Welcome to this country!” And there were neighbors who, when a tornado hit our town, came to our door to take me and my daughter to the basement. (We never had tornadoes in Moscow, so during my first tornado, I actually went shopping!)

I remember writing a letter to my parents describing Midwesterners as friendly and nice, although somewhat reserved. (The latter I experienced first-hand when I married a Midwesterner whose natural inclination is to suffer in silence, while mine is to complain openly :)).

It’s all behind me now.  Having lived here for 25 years, I know not to look for animals falling from the sky when I hear, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” I don’t consider putting stamps on someone’s clothes when they say, “Keep me posted,” and I don’t worry about people’s limbs when they buy things that cost “an arm and a leg.” My ignorance and my Russian suspicion were cured long ago by experience and by the incorrigible Midwestern niceness.

Yet lately things have changed. These days, America seems to be catching up with Russia in racism and animosity toward the rest of the world. It’s as though Pandora ’s Box has suddenly opened, and ugly thoughts and behavior, usually hidden, have came out in the open. Vulgarity, misogyny and xenophobia have become a new norm, propagated not just by neo-Nazis but even by the man who hopes to become our next president.

It hurts me to watch this new America, since my many years spent among nice people stripped me of the protective shield I had developed in Russia, where open anti-Semitism was the norm, and where total strangers insulted me – and others like me — by calling us “kikes” and telling us to “get out” of the country of our birth.

Of course, most of this does not happen to me personally. After all, I work at a library, and I live in a college town. So I was unprepared for the day when an older, respectable-looking man approached our reference desk with a question, and, on hearing my accent, said, “Where did you come from?”14-IMG_5572

I looked up from my computer – I was already working on his request – and said, “I’m from Russia.”

“I see,” He said, accentuating each word. “When I lived in Chicago, I dealt with your kind a lot!”

My heart began racing. “What kind is that?” I wanted to say. But I did not. I knew exactly what he meant. In his eyes, I, as an immigrant, did not deserve to be treated as an individual but as a part of some dirty mass. A pest to be rid of.

“Are you worried about me taking someone’s job?” I said, blood rushing to my face. “Don’t be. There wasn’t much competition for my position 25 years ago.”

There were lots of other things I wanted to tell him. But, my professional ethics kicked in, and I took a deep breath and continued helping him.

When the man left, I felt deflated. Nothing was new about the way he addressed me. Degrading human beings was a tactic used by Joseph Goebbels to dehumanize German Jews. At first they were called rats and vermin, and then, when everyone got used to that, they were sent to concentration camps and gassed.

When I came home, my husband, whose American roots go back more than 200 years and to whom I’ve been married for 18 years, said, “I apologize to you for that man, honey.”

That episode happened two weeks ago, but still, I cannot forget it. In the larger scheme of things, it may not seem important. But it is. Because every horror starts small. And if we let it go, if we tell ourselves that, after all, it’s not directed at uswe are not immigrants or Mexicans; we are not disabled or Muslims– a little story told by Martin Niemöller may easily repeat itself:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

P.S. If anybody’s interested, here’s a link to my interview with our local PBS station, where I talk about my book, “The Education of Traitor:” 

Interview with KMOS-TV

Interview with KMOS-TV

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Volunteers: A Study in Contrasts


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

Caroline Leavitt featured me on her blog!


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

Svetlana Grobman talks about growing up in Cold War Russia, writing, and so much more

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

Shameless Self-Promotion:)


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

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

For Vox magazine article — click here

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Book talk at the Columbia Public Library

 

Two Birthdays and a Funeral


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Both birthdays took place on Saturday: one in the afternoon and one at night. Both were birthdays of our friends: one Russian and one American. The former was celebrated in a park, in an outdoor shelter. The temperature was about 85 degrees, and when my husband and I joined the party, the guests, red-faced from the heat, were already enjoying themselves, eating home-made food, drinking wine, and talking and joking in Russian. This, of course, is the way it should be. Russian is their native language, so why would they speak anything else? Yet we were here — my American husband and I–and people began switching to English.

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It always makes me feel uncomfortable that our arrival forces people to abandon their comfort zone. Some do it willingly, because they want to talk to my husband, and some begrudgingly–or that is how I perceive it, anyway. And there are always some who don’t care for “foreigners,” unless they are at work, in grocery or department stores, etc., so they ignore my husband altogether. Which also makes me feel uncomfortable. Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treshold


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

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

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

Library –Threshold of Learning

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

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes or Life is Like a Box of Chocolates


IMG_1657-003A new photo challenge read: “Threes” — a photo story in three pictures:  a broad photo of a subject, several elements from it interacting with one another, and a close-up.”

I went through my pictures.  Some of them could work, but, I recently used them, so I needed something new. Mentally, I assessed my options: the day was a typical Missouri winter day – gray, cool, and windy, with no recreational (or photo) values of any kind. There was nothing special going on in town, either. Where would I go?

“Let’s drive to Eagle Bluffs, I said to my husband while we were eating our Sunday breakfast – I my usual cereal and he the leftovers from a dinner party we held the night before.

“Sure,” he said and reached for his binoculars.

Those who’ve been reading my posts know that my husband is a wildlife lover, and since Eagle Bluffs is a state conservation area about 10 miles away from us, it is one of the places he’s always ready to go. Over the years, I came to like that area, too, although the first time my husband took me there, I was disappointed.

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Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure


IMG_1657-003Those 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.Mom

Mom and I, 1957

Mom and I, 1957

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

Christmas Letters and Other Matters


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

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

Continue reading

Let’s Talk Turkey


IMG_1657-003My 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

The City of Love


IMG_1657-003There 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.

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Continue reading

Imagine


IMG_1657-003I’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. IMG_3116-001Then, 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.”

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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.

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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: IMG_9372-001one, 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, IMG_1742or 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!” IMG_3209And 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 …

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“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.”

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 ©Svetlana Grobman (and Dale Chihuly — kind of :)). All Rights Reserved

Diary of a Russian Immigrant


IMG_1657-003It’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 🙂

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July 19, 1990

Arrived in Columbia, Missouri.  A group of people in shorts 1-small__537921148met 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

1-IMG_2021Americans 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,1-IMG_6871-001 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!

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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

1-DSC00833small-001A 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 1-IMG_7248red 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.

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December 25, 1990

American Christmas comes before New Year’s. IMG_1004In Russia, it came after, and nobody celebrated it.IMG_9757

February, 1991

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.

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September, 1991

What a language!  Half of the words have multiple meanings, while the other half sound 1-matreshkathe 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.

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October, 1991

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?   1-IMG_1466Also, “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?

December 1991

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.

October 1992

Started reading books in English.  1-2009_0106gooddrbkdisplay0001 Also, made my first “Library will close in fifteen minutes” announcement.   Everybody left immediately — including some staff.  They said that it “sounded scary.”

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December 1993

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.

December 1994

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.

January 1994

Going to school part time, working at the library full-time – 1-IMG_6736now at the reference desk.  Yesterday, a nice-looking gray-haired lady asked me about whales.  I took her to the animal section. IMG_0549 Who knew she was going to Wales?  No time to eat.  Lost five pounds.

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December 1995

Became a naturalized American citizen.  At work, a patron asked how to “dress” a deer.IMG_1076 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.

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September 1996

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.

December 1996

Got my Master’s degree! clinton Voted for Clinton and he won.  Also, received a marriage proposal.  I don’t know about that, but it felt good.

Fall 1997

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.

Fall 1998

My husband does a great job of correcting my English — 1-IMG_0006 sharpespecially 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.

Fall 1999

A guy wearing a “lion” cloth tried to enter the library today. 1-IMG_7485As 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.

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Spring 2000

We moved to a house by the edge of the woods [see a story about that later].  1-IMG_1229Now, I’m spending all my free time landscaping our yard.  Lost five pounds.

Fall 2000

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.1-IMG_1322_1

Summer 2002

Found one kind of bush that the deer don’t like.  Planted them everywhere.

Spring 2004

Went bird watching with my husband.  IMG_1268Saw 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.

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November 2004

No bird feeder survives.  We keep losing them to the deer, 1-SCopier - C13042615261raccoons, and squirrels. Voted for John Kerry and he lost, too.

Summer 2005

Deer destroyed everything, again, so no landscaping is needed. 1-IMG_1550 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.”

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Spring 2007

Now, we are having moles and “aunts” problems.  Wrote about that, too.  My husband read my story and said, “I think you meant ‘ants.’”

Summer 2008

Continue writing.  IMG_1879This 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.”

Summer 2010

1-IMG_1676Wrote 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.”

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Spring 2013

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?1-nikita Here you have it: twenty-three years in 1250 words 🙂

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

SONNET 30

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.

~William Shakespeare

Of Soil and Feathers: Reflections on Life and Death


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me see Mom’s face!”

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and I, 1957

Mom and I, 1957

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9887

Whatever Works: Musings on the Nature of Art


 

IMG_1657-003I didn’t start blogging for pleasure. I started blogging because everybody who knew anything about publishing industry told me that if I want to find a publisher for my memoir, I must have a Web presence. True, it used to be enough for an aspiring author to have a manuscript, but things have changed and I have to change with them. And so, I started blogging.

At first, I just posted my little essays, hoping that my brilliance and originality would be quickly noticed by leading New York agents and/or editors at Random House. When nothing of that sort happened, I began following tips on how to attract “followers.” This included bugging my real life friends and relatives (which wasn’t easy for me; I hate to bug people), promoting myself through my Facebook, Twitter and what not, and IMG_7395even posting something on YouTube.

Alas, being an immigrant, I don’t have a huge number of friends in the U.S. Most of my relatives live abroad and don’t speak (or read) English. As for YouTube, I’m afraid that even if I post a video of myself reading my memoir naked, it won’t attract much attention, since who wants to see a naked very middle-aged woman? People tend not to notice me even when I’m fully dressed!

Anyway, I have not achieved my goal yet, but, unexpectedly, I found a community of people who put their energy into blogging. In fact, many of them have been doing it for some time and, contrary to my former belief that only vain and lazy spend their time that way, there are plenty of people out there who have truly interesting things to say, including things that can trigger your creativity, too.

Also, if you feel blue or experience writer’s block, there are all kinds of prompts to fuel your mind and imagination on WordPress.com: daily prompts, wiring prompts, Friday Faves, weekly challenges – you name it! One can easily find things she never even thought about and, suddenly, feel violently passionate about them.

1-IMG_1322_1 Of course, the way my mind works, I read a thoughtful essay about which is more important, the forest or the trees, that starts with “The first thing I saw when I looked out my window this morning was  …,”  and I immediately feel like saying, “Let me tell you what I saw when I looked out my window this morning! Deer eating my flowers! And do you know that they’ve already destroyed our apple trees, too?”

Or I come across some librarian’s blog (being a librarian myself, I follow those, too) where she talks about the homeless and mentally ill in her library, and something inside me starts screaming, “You think it’s bad in your library? Last time I was the librarian in charge, an old guy jumped from the second floor balcony, and I had to call the ambulance and the police, and then search the whole 2000 square feet building for the  stuff he left “somewhere by a chair.”  

My library at night

My library at night

(By the way, do not worry. The guy landed rather safely, although another patron who noticed the old geezer’s rapid descent and tried to catch him got so traumatized that I spent at least an hour calming him down.)

This is why when I feel stressed, I browse through IMG_7421photographers’ blogs. Why? Because I love photography. I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, I used to be one of those people who takes pictures of members of her family in front of world-renowned masterpieces, like Notre Dame, Rodin’s The Thinker, or the Mona Lisa (just kidding, they don’t allow flash photography in the Louvre :)).  That way my friends will recognize what well-traveled people we are.

My husband never liked that. He believed that it was architecture or, better yet, nature that was worth photographing, not us. IMG_9697Yet for a long time I ignored his opinion, until, six years ago, for our anniversary, my husband gave me a nice camera and, voilá, just like that, I got converted into a true photography fan. This doesn’t mean that I became a good photographer myself (I wish I did!), but I’m still trying :).

1-Leanne Cole PhotographyIn any case, one of the photographers I’ve been following on WordPress.com is Leanne Cole. Leanne lives in Australia and she is as wonderful as she is prolific — which is especially good for me these days, since I recently experienced a loss in the family and I have not recovered from it yet. Most of what I’ve been doing lately is browsing. As for writing, I haven’t done anything, for nothing seems to inspire me these days. That is until several days ago, when I opened my WordPress.com account and found Leanne’s photographs of the building that belongs to a charity Deaf Children Australia. She posted several pictures of the impressive Victorian style house, one of which (a “strange image,” as Leanne herself put it) suddenly triggered my memory — and desire to write about it.

1-Leanne ColeIn the summer of 2009 my husband and I were visiting Tate Modern, a modern art gallery in London, UK. It was our second hour of being there, so our pace began to slow down and our perception of modern art began to blur. We were already on level 4, when I stopped in front of an object which looked like an air vent, with a sign above that read “Acrylic Composition In Gray #6.”

I carefully examined the object. True, it was gray, but was it acrylic? I wasn’t sure. Also, where were the first five compositons? Nothing else in the room had a number assigned to it. Confused, I looked at the vent-like object #6 more carefully. It could have been acrylic, I thought. As for the appearance, who knows, this could be what modern art is all about — ordinary things in their everyday environment.  After all, didn’t Andy Warhol’s paint a can of Campbell’s soup?

Now I looked at the vent with considerable respect and admiration. Who was to say that this vent would not be a beginning of something new in art? I turned around to share my musings with my husband, and spotted him tree yards to my left – carefully examining a middle-sized platter with something mushy in the middle.

“Did you see the composition #6?” I said, approaching him.

“I’m looking at it right now.” He replied.

“What do you mean?” I said. “It’s right there!” And I pointed to the spot where I spent the last five minutes.

“No, that’s just the sign.” My husband said. “I first thought so, too, but then I realized that they must’ve moved the work but forgot about the sign. That thing is just an air vent.”

I stared at the platter. It was acrylic. It was gray, too — dark gray, I’d say. As for its mushy content, I didn’t want to think about that. Besides, what was the point? My husband was obviously right. There it was, “Acrylic Composition In Gray #6.” The first five, I decided, must’ve had different mushy stuff that needed to be changed every day. So tomorrow it could be called “Composition #7” or something like that.

I turned back to the air vent. Another woman was carefully looking it over, up and down. At first, she didn’t look very impressed, but as her observations continued, she began looking more and more thoughtful – just like me several minutes before.

“Should we tell her where the composition actually is?” I said to my husband.

“No.” He winked, “Everybody has his own vision or art.”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

After the Funeral


1-IMG_8428Several month ago, my husband’s aunt died, and we drove to Kentucky to attend the funeral.  It was a cool but sunny November day – not sad enough for the occasion but also not too depressing to make one feel that life is meaningless.  Aunt Anne would’ve liked it, too; she used to enjoy spending time outside — playing golf or going out on a pontoon boat.  She was from the category about which people say, “they don’t make them like that anymore:” tall, active, with a decisive expression and an equally decisive mind – a piece of which she never hesitated to share with you.  She was also a long-standing Democrat (who knew there are Democrats in Kentucky?!), and in fact, she voted by absentee ballot from her hospital bed several days before her death.

There were many people at the funeral, and a Baptist minister, a middle-aged stocky man, gave a nice eulogy, obviously designed to make those left behind feel better.  (Well, he did say that God grieves when a Christian dies, which made me, a Jew, wonder about my situation.)  Afterwards, women from the church provided a potluck lunch, giving the grieving family a chance to talk with people they don’t see often and reminisce about the past.  Not having seen the Kentucky relatives for a while, I couldn’t help notice that those I remembered as early middle-aged looked quite a bit older, and those I remembered as kids looked mature – some of them already parents on their own, and it was good to see this never-ending renewal, as it was sad to think about the never-ending departure.  After the service, the minister continued his vigil, cheering teary-eyed family members and greeting out-of-town relatives.  He had the mild manners of a good Southerner and the soft touch of a person who officiates at baptisms and weddings as well as funerals.  At the end, he approached us, too — asked for our names and where we came from, and then said, “What church do you go to?”

Being the only non-Christian there, I felt slightly uncomfortable with this question, so I mumbled under my breath, “Well, I’m Jewish,” hoping to end the conversation.  But, to my amazement, my husband suddenly said, “We go to a synagogue.”

We do?! – I almost said loudly but stopped myself just in time.  The thing is that I go to synagogue on the High Holidays only, which amounts to one or two visits a year — depending on my willingness to suffer through the long sermons the main topic of which is trying to shame those in the audience for not coming more often.  As for my husband (who is not Jewish!), he joins me only if I threaten him with passing all that suffering on to him — which usually works once a year.  In any case, after I got over my husband’s surprising statement, I started inconspicuously pulling him by the sleeve, for the only thing I expected next was an attempt to save us by immediate conversion, so a quick retreat was in order.  Yet I was wrong.  Instead of proselytizing or banishing us from the holy grounds, the minister, without missing a beat, broke into a monologue about his days in divinity school and his experiences with learning Hebrew and Greek.

On our way home, I kept thinking about Aunt Anne, what a strong person she was, and how she always knew what she wanted — even for her funeral.  Then my thoughts shifted to my eventual departure.  At first, I contemplated whether I want to be buried in the ground, according to the Jewish tradition, or cremated.  Then I realized that I have a bigger problem on my hands – where would my funeral take place?  In America?  I have only one close relative here – my husband.  In Israel?  My parents and sister live there, but a Jewish burial has to take place within hours, which, logistically, would not be possible.  Also, the last time I talked to my mother about this subject, she said that she wants to be buried in Moscow, next to her parents!  And if my mother is not buried in Israel, why would I go there?  As for Russia, that is the last place on earth where I want to rest.  It was bad enough to live there for 39 years; there’s no way I’d go back dead or alive!  Now, I had just one option left – London, which my daughter made her home.  Yet I quickly discarded that idea, too, for my daughter has enough things to do while working, going to school, and raising my two grandchildren.

Not finding any solution, I gradually dozed off — still searching even in my dreams.  When I woke up, the sky was turning dark and we were already in Illinois — yet another place I would cross without leaving a trace.  I straightened up in my seat, looked at the rapidly disappearing lights, and, suddenly, it came to me – what does it matter what happens afterward?  As long as I live a good and honest life.

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

 

Lost In the Details


Nature in Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do they lift their beaks for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Forward


Forward: an Essay in  Pictures.

1-SKMBT_50112051409450

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Home


My Home is Where You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valentine

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

A Sense of Snow


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

 

Sounds of Music


 A Concert in Kansas City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Twain and I


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

“Tom!”

No answer.

“Tom!”

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was That Holiday in November?


Dear friends,

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

“I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanksgiving? What’s that?”

“A holiday.”

“What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What holiday was it, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choices


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Elections 2012


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

Thank goodness for democracy!

I sighed. “Another sweepstakes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much?” the invisible Masha hollered back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Happy Halloween!


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

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

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

A Sweet Welcome to America

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

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

“Hi,” I echoed apprehensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Candy, no?” I asked warily.

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

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

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

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

P.S.  Picture courtesy of  Transguyjay

Happy Halloween!
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Welcome to my blog!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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