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

In Memory of Elie Wiesel


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

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

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

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

“People of the world stand up a moment

Listen, listen. It buzzes from all sides

It can be heard in Buchenwald ringing off the bells

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

Victims are resurrected from the ashes …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

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

If not Now, When?


 

UntitledAs you know, I’ve been “Freshly Pressed” recently. This has been my closest brush with fame so far :), and the result of it surprised and amazed me. The surprise lasted for about a day. (Longer than Isaac Bashevis Singer’s when he received the announcement that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1978

His phone rang off the hook and everybody asked, “Are you surprised?” At first, Singer said, “Yes!” But soon, his response changed: “How long does surprise last? I heard the news 15 minutes ago!).

Yet I am still experiencing the amazement. Some 2000 people read my post Dreams (BTW, those who liked that post, may also like A Wrinkle in Time and Of Soil and Feathers), the number of my followers tripled (!), I received almost 150 comments, and 10 people bought my book. ( FYI, until October 4, a digital copy of my book is available from smashwords.com for $0.99 with a coupon CB32K.)

I am very grateful to everybody who took the time to read my humble ramblings.  As for your comments, if I haven’t answered them yet, I definitely will. (Well, someone asked if I like Windows 10; that I won’t answer – it’s between me and Microsoft :)).  One thing, though — with many people “following” me now, I feel the pressure of being worthy of so much attention, and I fear that I won’t be. For one thing, my posts are all different – sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, and sometimes reflective. So forgive me if I disappoint you. I am who I am, and I write about my feelings and experiences — which, this time, concern my recent vacation in Oregon.

If not Now, When?

The first thing my husband and I noticed while landing in Portland was how smoggy the city was. With the hottest summer on record and wild fires raging in Oregon, Washington, and California, that was hardly surprising. Yet we had no time to dwell on it. We rented a car and drove to Multnomah Falls, located about 30 miles away from Portland.

1-_MG_0920We humans are hardwired to be drawn to water, but waterfalls seem especially magical. Is it the sheer force of falling water? The cool glimmering beads that gently spray your face? The fresh smells and the haunting monotony of the sound? Who knows? All I know is that no picture can do justice to Multnomah Falls (at least not my picture:)). The falls are immense –the drop from the upper falls is 542 feet and from the lower 69 feet – and they attracts two million people visitors every year.

We spent hours admiring the scenery, had lunch at the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, and headed to our next destination — Mt. Hood.

To my disappointment, the Historic Columbia River Highway appeared hazy — the smoke of nearby fires washed out the dark greenery of Douglas firs and the rocky cliffs on the other side of the river. Even a bigger disappointment awaited us at Mt. Hood. The mountain, so photogenic on a clear day, was obscured by smoke. I gave up my idea of taking pictures, and we headed to Timberline Lodge, set at the tree line of the mountain.

If Mt. Hood is a monument to nature, then the lodge (built in the 1930s as a WPA project),with its carved railings, wrought iron fireplace, and an enormous chimney, is a monument to the past times.

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The only thing that reminds visitors about the 21st century is an overpriced restaurant where every dish is made of multiple ingredients and sorbet is served between courses to “clear your palette.” (Tip: if you ever visit there, eat at the bar, where you can have a great view of the mountains, good food, and reasonable prices:)).

Next day, though, the wind changed, and, as if in a theater, the smoke receded, the sky turned velvety blue, and the mountain appeared in all its glory. Well, in as much glory as the diminished amount of snow on its top allowed. To give you an idea, the first time we visited Mt. Hood together was April, 2010. Deep snow lay on the ground when we arrived, and when we woke up next morning, 33” (!) of fresh snow puffed up the already wintry scene, deep snowdrifts reached the windows of the third floor, and the chairlift (we came to ski) was hardly visible in the whiteout of falling snow.

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This time, we spent our days admiring distant views of Mt. Jefferson and Three Sisters, hiking on Mt. Hood, and walking in the deep Northern woods, where stately Douglas firs stand guard over cool mountain lakes that provide fun for kayakers, fishermen and sunbathers. Then we continued to Bagby Hot Springs, recommended to me by a library friend.

After an hour of driving, we stopped at a Forest Service office and asked for directions. A female staff member gave us a funny look and said, “Who told you about Bagby?”

“A colleague of mine,” I answered. “He said it’s a great place to visit.”

“If you’re into that kind of things, yes.” The woman said. “Where are you from?”

“Missouri,” I said, feeling somewhat uneasy.

“Missouri?!” The woman said. Then she hollered to someone in the other side of the office,

“Look, Mary, people from Missouri are asking about Bagby!”

Another woman got up and looked us up and down.

“Nudity is limited these days,” She finally said and sat down.58574c088c98b55b-_MG_20782

“Nudity!? He didn’t say anything about nudity!” I started, but the first woman interrupted me.

“And you’ll have to bring several buckets of water from the creek to cool off the spring water.”

“We’re renting a car,” I said. “It didn’t come with a bucket!”

“Exactly,” the second woman said. “And the baths aren’t in good shape. They’re made of wood. Deteriorated.”

At that point, I pulled my husband to the exit, and we headed to Silver Falls State Park instead. The park, a nine-mile-loop that begins with the 177-foot-high South Falls and snakes through a densely wooded landscape connecting 10 waterfalls, is an example of park-design-ingenuity. Of course, the unusually dry summer affected it, too, turning several waterfalls into trickles. Yet we enjoyed the park anyway, especially since two waterfalls allowed visitors to walk behind the cascading water and see the other side of the fluid curtain.

_MG_1772-001Next day we drove to the Oregon coast. The famous Pacific Northwest coastline was smoggy, and, once again, I put away my camera and waited for a food stop. The small town of Tillamook proved to be just that. A busy restaurant /gift shop offered local cheeses and wine/dips/spices-and-you-name-it tasting, while a next-door art gallery provided food for the visual sense.

Having fulfilled our tourist duties, we continued to the town of Seaside. A fancier place to stay would’ve been Canon Beach, but a librarian (me) and a retired professor (my husband) cannot afford to be fancy:). We had no regrets, though. Seaside is a cute town with a grand, 1.5 mile-long promenade, wide sandy beaches, an aquarium, and the best pancake restaurant I’ve encountered — Pig ‘N Pancake (Tip: sourdough pancakes are to die for!).

Unfortunately, the town was veiled in smoke, too, but our luck held — the wind soon changed and the Pacific Ocean appeared before our eyes, mighty and austere. _MG_2437We spent our time walking along the promenade, hiking in the woods, and watching windsurfers at Ecola State Park (surfing there is not for the faint of heart — the peak temperature is 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit).

Even if you don’t stay in Canon Beach, you owe it to yourself to see its shoreline. The 235-foot-high Haystack Rock rises from the bottom of the ocean as a reminder of prehistoric times. (At low tide, visitors can walk up to it and see starfish and other tide-pool creatures.) Several other large monoliths next to Haystack courageously defy the crashing of ocean waves. And wide beaches offer enough space for sunbathers (swimmers are rare, but they can be easily pinpointed by their loud screams when they splash in the cold water), sandcastle builders, windsurfers, tricyclists, dog walkers, and kite runners. (Tip: bring some warm clothes, preferably a hoodie — the wind there is strong and cool)._MG_2605

Time flew, and soon we were driving back to Portland to take a plane home. The return, always anticlimactic, was also marked by low visibility, and I began to pay more attention to the scenery close to the highway: small, rundown houses and glaring spots in the forests covered the nearby rocky landscape – a result of merciless logging. On the radio, the announcers were talking about the alarming air quality in Portland.

In the airport, while waiting for our flight, I scrolled through my photos – a barely-covered-with-snow Mt. Hood, hazy landscapes along the Columbia River, diminished waterfalls, and my thoughts turned to the environment. We, the older generation, are lucky to have seen amazing landscapes and jungle-like forests, to have skied in deep snow and enjoyed clear horizons. But what about our grandchildren? Will they ski on Mt. Hood, walk in the deep woods or swim in the lakes and rivers? Will they inhale clean air and observe clear views?

It’s about time we understood that we cannot afford to be careless and oblivious to the changes that are happening in our time. Otherwise, we’ll go the way of Easter Islanders who deforested their island, ruined its ecosystem, and, eventually, caused their civilization to collapse. Let’s do something to prevent this, and do it soon — despite the inertia and political squabbles that poison our souls and our environment.

If not now, when?_MG_2569

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” ~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Interview with Paul Pepper, KBIA

Dear friends,

Before you read my new post, take a look at this YouTube video — my interview with Paul Pepper (a KBIA show “Radio Friends with Paul Pepper“).

Also,

A digital-only version of  my memoir, The Education of a Traitor, will be also released at smashwords.com (it’s already at Amazon) on July 19 — for Apple iBooks, iTunes, Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Sony, and PDF.  It is available to pre-order at Barnes and Noble, and it will be free at smashwords.com July 19-25th with a coupon PZ85H.

And now,

“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw”

“It’s raining cats and dogs,” my husband said.

“It sure is,” I said, still – after all my 25 years in America — trying to envision what raining animals would look like.

Pouring rain is common in Missouri, and some years, mowing a lawn once a week no longer cuts it (excuse my pun :)). Yet this summer the grass hasn’t seemed to grow like crazy, while the rest of our plants have.

One day, after work, I walked around the house and realized that our property has turned into a jungle: the trees have spread their branches as if trying to swallow our house, the plants beside our walk have oozed onto it for about a foot, and our deck appears much shadier than I ever remembered it.

The result looks spooky, reminding me of a book I read some time ago–The World Without Us–which postulates that plants could cover all traces of human existence within about a hundred years or so. Continue reading

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

A Wrinkle in Time


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

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

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

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

_MG_7882

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

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

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

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

Dreams


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

As Good as It Gets or Happy Valentine’s Day!


1-IMG_1657-002We got married on Valentine’s Day.  My husband thought that it was romantic. (Well, he also figured that it would help him remember our future anniversaries). I thought it was cute and also special, since there was no Valentine’s in my home country, Russia. Yet whatever our ideas about the joys and responsibilities of marriage were, our Valentine’s wedding turned out to be a true commitment.

I’m not talking about the everyday challenges of married life: suppressing your true feelings about endless football, basketball, and what-ever-ball games, picking up things lying around the house (like his size-large gloves on our dining table), suffering through Chinese meals he loves so much, and patiently repeating questions that he cannot hear because he’s watching some bloody thriller on TV. You expect these things after you say, “I do.”  I’m talking about difficulties that are outside our control, like every year we want to celebrate our anniversary, we have to beat a whole slew of people who go out on Valentine’s Day just for fun. Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: New


Henry Clay,      1777-1852

There are several things about Missouri that are quite predictable: for one, politics — almost always conservative — for another, brilliant fall colors. As for the weather around here, it is as unpredictable as life itself. Take me, for example. Who would predict that a timid girl from Moscow would land in the American Midwest? Or that I — a person whose ancestry goes back to the Diaspora Jews and, more recently, to the Ukrainian small farmers who were sent to exile by the Stalin regime and died of hunger — would marry an American man whose great-great-great uncle was Henry Clay, a US senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State who ran for president four times? (No, my husband is not in politics, he’s in linguistics; no family can withstand the tide of time :). Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure!


IMG_1657-003What can be more adventurous than venturing into the world of magic? My first introduction to this world took place when my parents gave me a book “Starik Hottabych” (Old Man Hottabych). This book (also made into a movie) featured a twelve-year old Soviet Pioneer Volka who accidentally found an ancient bottle at the bottom of a river. Being an energetic and curious boy, Volka opened the bottle, and a genie named Hassan Abdul-rahman ibn Khattab emerged, loudly proclaiming that he was ready to fulfill Volka’s every wish.

It was a great and funny story, since the Young Pioneer, who suddenly found himself empowered by the old genie, kept getting into all kinds of trouble — mostly because of differences between the life style and the morals of the ancient world and those of Soviet Russia. It was also a variation on the tale of Aladdin and his magical lamp (a fact I discovered much later, when I got my hands on a copy of The Arabian Nights). Not only did the story entertain me, but it also motivated me to learn how to swim — for I, too, wanted to find an ancient vessel on the bottom of a river.  (Regrettably, that never happened, although not for lack of trying:).) Continue reading

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

Living on the Edge: Musings On Life and Gardening


IMG_1657-003I am not an adventurous person. I have never been on safari or even to Alaska. Despite the fact that I immigrated to America from Russia, I do not like changes. Yet, moving beyond the city limits was my idea.

Our new house sat on the edge of a woody bluff, and a creek ran below our property, dividing us from the city where we had lived before. As soon as we finished arranging furniture, I turned my energy to the yard. I started by reading gardening books, then I attended a short landscape design course, and soon after that a strange metamorphosis took place in my life. The only subject that interested me now was gardening, and I spent most of my free time in the yard – digging, mulching, and watering.

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

Valentine’s Day


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

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

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

Just Wondering


IMG_1657-003“Slow down!” I screamed at my husband when a gust of wind threw another clump of snow at our front window, obscuring the world outside our car. We were driving through a blizzard, 6072 hdrand my rhetorical question “Are we there, yet?” no longer reflected boredom but acquired a true urgency. Yet – finally! – our Subaru, loaded with ski clothes and equipment, and electronic gadgets (just the number of chargers is unbelievable!) reached Rabbit Ears Pass and began descending to Yampa Valley — the town of Steamboat Springs within it.  

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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

Nature Has No Bad Weather


IMG_1657-003At the beginning was the word. Or, rather, a paragraph I read in a blog — about Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk.  For those who don’t know about Scott Kelby, he is a photographer and an author, whom I discovered when I was still a library selector. Don’t know what that means? Well, it used to be that librarians ordered books for their libraries — each for her selection area. Mine was the arts, and photography was included there.

I said “used to be” because I no longer do that. These days, selecting materials in my library is done by just four people, and I am not one of them. So, I now do de-selecting or “weeding.” Not a garden variety, mind you, but important nevertheless.  I discard books that have been chewed by dogs or torn by toddlers, history that nobody wants to remember, classics that are no longer revered, that kind of stuff.

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Scott Kelby

Anyway, in the golden days of selecting, I came across Kelby’s works, and they literally changed my life. The thing is I’m obsessive. Every time I develop a new passion, I throw all my time and energy into it — until I find something else to obsess about. Anyway, the first thing I did when I entered my Scott-Kelby-inspired photography stage was to buy a camera. For most of my life, I knew little about cameras, lenses, flashes, and things like that. But when I opened Kelby’s books, I began craving expensive equipment as if my life depended on it. Of course, being a librarian married to an academic, I couldn’t really afford it. I had to settle for reading. So, today, if you let me, I’ll tell you everything I know about full-frame and cropped sensor cameras,  good glass (that’s how photographers refer to good – and very expensive — lenses), flashes, task-sharp images (something I am still working on), and other things like that.

Unfortunately, none of my loved ones understands the importance of photography in my life. When I ask my husband to pose for me (I like taking pictures with a “human” element), he immediately assumes an expression described by a Russian proverb as,IMG_0358-001 “Virazhaet to lizo chem sadyatsa on krilzo” or “He wears an expression that makes his face look like his butt.” As for my grandchildren, one of them begins rubbing his eyes with his fists and the other rolls her eyes or sticks out her tongue.

I persevere anyway, and the reason that I am still unknown to the world of photography is that I don’t have a high-end camera/lenses/etc. Another thing that holds me back is that I’m self-taught. I’ve never taken any photography classes, and, in fact, I don’t have anybody in my life with whom I could discuss f-stops, shutter speed, HDR photography, and other fascinating subjects like that. This is why I got excited about the Scott Kelby Photography Walk. It was going to be a turning point in my photographic career.

The walk was set for October 6, which was great, since October is the best time of the year in our area. Yet when I woke up that morning, monotonous streaks of rain were hitting our bedroom windows, and the outside world appeared depressingly gray. For fifteen minutes or so, I debated with myself whether I should go. Who takes pictures in the rain? IMG_4124-001My camera will get wet. Of course, I can carry an umbrella, but how am I going to hold my camera steady with one hand? Then it occurred to me that somebody else may want to take my place but I couldn’t think of anybody. Finally, I got myself together and drove along damp and empty streets to the gathering place.

A crowd of 15 or so people huddling underneath their umbrellas2013-group-s-150x150 in the middle of a small park looked somewhat misplaced. Several of them were young, several had gray hair, and all carried bulky cameras. The leader gave us his last instructions and a map of our photo walk, and let us loose on the town. In two-and-a-half hours we would meet for lunch.

The park and its surroundings appeared dull and lifeless. The only bright spots were umbrellas of my fellow photographers, many of whom had already sprung into action – some snapping pictures of a nearby creek and the bridge over it, and some bending over wet bushes.

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What’s the point? – I thought to myself. — On a day like this, nothing is going to look pretty. Then I lowered my gaze and, as things came into focus, I suddenly spotted little red berries on the bushes growing along the creek, drops of rain glistening on the leaves, and the freshly green blades of grass. I was wrong. Even in the rain, the world was full of colors. In fact, they became as vivid as ever, and even simple objects, like benches, bikes chained to a rack, and the railing of a bridge looked interesting. And the air! It was fresh and energizing. I wasn’t wasting my time by coming here. I was encountering a different world. And I turned my camera on and began taking pictures.

True, operating a camera in the rain was … let’s say, challenging. But I welcomed the challenge, for it made me look, really look, and notice things I usually miss: patterns of puddles on the street, sidewalk paintings, reflections in shops’ windows, and, of course, people, some of whom hurried along hidden under their umbrellas, and some paid no attention to the rain. I couldn’t stop pressing the shutter, as if I could see better through the small opening of my lens than I could with my eyes.

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Time speeded up, and soon, I found myself at the end of our route. Now I needed to hook up with the rest of the group.

“I’m not going to lunch with them. I don’t feel comfortable with strangers.” I had said to my husband before I left home. But there I was, at the table with people talking passionately about resolution (without referring to the American government shutdownJ), lenses (What’s the sweet spot for this one?), and flashes (“You need one master and, at least, two slaves”). I was participating, too—if not by talking then by listening. I was learning about the art of photography, but, most importantly, I was learning about how differently we see the world. For we all walked the same streets, squares, and alleys. We saw the same people and buildings. Yet what we documented with our cameras was different. None of us caught everything, but together, we could compile a picture of our town – things that were beautiful about it but also things that were mundane and ugly.

As I was driving back home, I kept going over my morning. Did it improve my technical proficiency?  Not by much. That would require more time and effort. But, it improved my understanding of how we – if we want to — can fit our individual pieces into a larger whole. As for the rain, as one Russian song goes, “There is no bad weather in nature. Whatever happens has its time and purpose. And we should be grateful for all of it.”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

In Search of Paradise


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

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

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

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