This blog is a bit more personal than usual. For folks to understand life in Russia, however, I think some personal details are essential from time to time. There are some things about living in another country that you simply cannot prepare for. One main issue is being away from family and friends you love. I was reminded of this fact Thursday night (night here in Russia anyway). I made several phone calls back home. I called my brother because I had not talked to him in a couple of weeks and wanted to check on things. He is very busy because his business is going so well, and now, since we moved, he and his wife have been left with taking our mom to all her appointments, church, and events. She’s 86 and has lived by herself since dad died in 2014. She won’t hear of going to assisted living or “an old folks home” (her phrase). She’s healthy, but she doesn’t drive anymore. So my brother had a pile of work, but he had to take mom to the dentist. Then she needed groceries. Then she wanted to go out for supper. So I hung up feeling a bit guilty I’d left him with all that extra responsibility.
Then I called mom. I was going to suggest gently that maybe she could find other neighbors to help out. But she started telling me all about her life. She gets lonely. Her and dad were married over 65 years! She told me her neighbor had given her some pizza they had left over. Mom let it sit a couple of days in the fridge before eating it. She got food poisoning. So she had been up all night with diarrhea and vomiting. She said dad always took care of her when she would get sick. So, again, I had that terrible feeling. One light moment was after she said she was in such bad shape and was praying but still was sick. Then she said, “I know Baptists aren’t supposed to do this, but I was in such a mess that I called out to dad and said, ‘Clarence! Pray for me! Tell God I need some help!’” The thought of my “Baptist-to-the-bone” mother praying to the departed seemed strangely ironic and a bit funny to me–her now Eastern Orthodox son! I assured her there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. You’re just asking for intercession from them just like we ask our friends still living on earth to intercede for us.
Then I called my friend I taught with at North Greenville University for 13 years. We’ve known each other much longer than that. The university had a post on FB that it would announce the new president at 2:00 that afternoon. I called hoping to find some inside scoop. He didn’t know many details, but as he talked my mind went back to my days there. I’ve mentioned a couple of times in blogs I loved teaching there. I enjoyed my colleagues, my students, the courses I taught. The former president had been very good to my friend and me. I think he signed my friend and me to our contracts to teach there the same day. I know it was time for that president to leave, but as my friend talked on I realized how few people I knew there. Of the “old timers” still there, my friend is the only one with whom I can talk. There was much talk of the “new era” on the university’s web-site. I realized I no longer have connections to that place that was so much a part of my life.
After that I still had to call my oldest son. My second born son was having his gall bladder taken out that morning. I had talked to him the night before, and it was supposed to be laparoscopy, and they were not anticipating any problems. There is still anxiety when it is your child and especially when you live half way around the world! My older son told me he had received a text and apparently all was okay. But as we talked on and he told me about how things were going with him I felt that helplessness that comes from not being able to actually be with that person as you talk together. Nothing can take the place of actually being with a person when you talk about things. I went to bed with a very heavy and somewhat lonely heart that night.
Yesterday we got up and I saw we had a nice new blanket of snow. The sun was shining, which is an odd thing in northwest Russia in the winter. The weather was still well below freezing. That is perfect winter weather here. I hate it when it gets up to or just above freezing. The snow melts and mud and slush are everywhere. Andrei, a gentleman who had put in our internet when we moved in, came by. He is very involved in a church in a nearby village and collects toys, food, clothes, etc., for the poor. Oksana had seen on a Russian social network “vk.com” that he was taking up money for a family with four children who were about to have their power turned off. The wife is pregnant with the fifth child; the husband has a job but is poorly paid. Oksana called him and told him to come by and we could pay for it. I don’t say that to draw attention to us. I say that because there were times when we lived in America we went through some very hard financial times. We were the ones who needed help. We determined that if we ever got to the place where we could help others financially we would remember our times of distress. Even with a decent income you can still live under financial oppression in America with a mortgage, car payment, and credit card debts that seem to have become a part of life there. My income is much lower here, but we are now debt free and the cost of living is so much lower. Jesus said, “It is better to give than receive.” It really is! We are approaching Orthodox Lent. One main facet of Lent for Orthodox is to focus on helping the needy. We had prayed for that opportunity, and it came!
Then we went shopping. We had to walk almost from one end of Luga to the other. But the sun was bright, the air was cold and clean, and the snow was crunchy. It was just the two of us! We left Roman in charge of his little brother and sister. We could actually talk while we walked and carry on a full conversation without interruptions! (Every parent will understand the blessing that is!) My favorite part was, as always, the open market. We bought the last big dairy supply until after Lent. (Orthodox do not eat meat or dairy during the 7 weeks of Lent.) Chatting with the lady there who sells all this completely natural, organic, and local dairy is always pleasant. She always brightens up when she sees us, and we love chatting with her.
Then we came back and quickly got ready to go to Oksana’s parents. Thursday was “Defender of the Fatherland” day in Russia. It was originally started to honor those who fought in the Red Army against the Whites. Over time it really became a day to honor all “potential” defenders of the family and the Fatherland, which is any male. Even I got gifts! It is a great day for Oksana’s dad, since he is retired military. But he had worked Thursday so we celebrated on Friday. (The kids were out of school Thursday and Friday.) We got there, and Oksana’s mom had prepared a full table, of course. It was really pretty.
We began with her toasting her husband, but as she began bragging about how his commanding officers would always say what a great soldier he was, he waved her off. He said, “We aren’t together to talk about me. We are here to toast our wonderful Russian-American family being together!” Wow. He actually said our “Russian-American family” with pride! It was a great meal, and as we were concluding it they brought out some old pics from Oksana’s childhood. (Okay, full disclosure, I had a little trouble “concluding the meal” with conviction because Sveta brought out this big plate of homemade cream puffs she had prepared. “Just one more” went on many more times than it should have!) The pics were primarily of Oksana and awards she received back in grade school. Most of them had a picture of the stern looking Vladimir Lenin looking down with approval. They recognized her academic accomplishments as well as her citizenship as a good littleCommunist. I was not familiar with the injunction until last night, “Proletariats of all countries–Unite!”
The television was on, and the program was about a Russian who was an expert at finding and disarming old mines. I wasn’t paying much attention, but as the ladies were in the kitchen cleaning up, Ivan (my father-in-law) and I started paying more attention. The mine expert went to Angola on a big and important mission. Apparently there were still dangerous mines in the ocean near there. Somehow, as best as I could understand, he joined up with an American, and the two of them worked together to disable many of the mines. He said he could not have done it without having such great help. They became friends and would call his mother back in Russia. The American could only speak English, but he would assure “mama” that her son was safe and they were taking every precaution to remain safe. After the mission was over the American went to Russia to see his friend again and to take flowers to the mother with whom he had spoken by phone. It ended with the Russians and the American reaffirming their friendship. What a great and surprising program to see on a weekend devoted to remembering the Russian military. Ivan looked over at me as the program concluded. Neither of us said anything. But we didn’t have to. It was a powerful scene watching the Russian and the American embrace.
As I said in the opening to this blog, living away from family and friends is tough. The phone calls reminded me that living separated from your past is also painful—those people, that job, or that special place. I am fortunate that my family in America, while not glad to see us go, were supportive of us and continue to be. “Supportive” means more than just wishing us “good luck.” Supportive means they understand and accept the fact we are here. There is no resentment from them. That makes my guilt trips a little shorter! I am thankful for their support and understanding.
The events of that next day, however, reminded me that I also have some of my family here! I still get to see the my little ones play at “Babushka’s.” I see them growing in a country that is not filled with the animosity and division that seems to be choking America. I miss being able to impact the lives of students like I sensed when I was teaching in America. But “that was then, and this is now” has to be my attitude. The people here see me, know I’m American, and form impressions based on how I live here. They see the hypocrisy of Lindsey Graham and John McCain shouting to Ukrainian soldiers that they must “go on the offensive against the Russians in 2017,” then US politicians lecture the Russians on how they must honor the Minsk cease fire/peace agreement. So the Russians must honor, but American senators can go there to encourage and support war? They watch American politicians work with our media to blame Russia for just about anything and everything that happens that they do not like. The former U.N. Ambassador, Samantha Power, who was no friend of Russia, tweeted a message about the Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who died suddenly recently. She called him a “diplomatic maestro and a deeply caring man who did all he could to bridge US-RUS relations.” She was ravaged by many Americans for her kind comments about her recently deceased former colleague. That is what Russians see on TV as “America.” At least in my “little world” I get to show them a different “face,” a different attitude. That is the impact I can and must have. We were laughing about me getting presents on Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland,” but someone quipped that they had read my blog and felt I was defending the Fatherland. I greatly appreciated the compliment! I am not an ex-pat; I am a cultural refugee and see myself as an ambassador minus the political influence. It entails the heartache of missing some joys of family and friends back in the States. But this is my home now. I should live as faithfully as possible to the reasons God put us here.