Last week I met Cynthia Ozick, stood within (almost) spitting distance of Meryl Streep, and received a surprise package from Russia. First of all, I would never, ever spit at Meryl Streep. She is amazing. Since I first saw her decades ago in The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Silkwood or The Deer Hunter—all outstanding performances—I have been in awe. While The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia may be lighter fare, she remains a goddess not only of screen, but of thinking, doing women everywhere. The poise! The intelligence! My youthful ardor was only reinforced by the wonderful experience of hearing her speak and read at my alma mater’s sesquicentennial celebration in midtown Manhattan, the night after hearing Cynthia Ozick downtown.
I’m afraid this gives a rather deceptive view of my social and cultural life. This was an unusual luminary-filled week, and by week’s end, I was beyond exhausted. The kids don’t really care if I’ve been out late living the NY cultural dream. If anything, they are more inclined to wake early. They miss mom. Meryl Streep was one of the few presenters or alumnae the other night who made reference to her role as mother. Perhaps because her external achievements are amply evident to the public eye, she did so with grace and ease, and it took nothing away from the public person we know her as. Instead, it gave a peak into her private life. “Mommy, tell me a story,” she recounted her kids telling her when they were young. “And make it about me.” What the kids want, and still what the moms sometimes want too.
Back to the subject of missing. (And a nod to my little guys for pushing me forward on the path of thinking about the different kinds of missing we do.) So, I’ve been doing some missing of a different sort. Cultural longing, you might say. This unreasonably snow- and ice-filled winter in New York (and elsewhere) has had me remembering being young and in love in Moscow—and learning how to walk like an old woman.
There I went, age twenty, stealthily picking up one boot, setting it down, then picking up the other, bulky coat, fur hat pushed low on my forehead and ears, eyes pointed down. I don’t remember the precise instructions I received, but I was made to understand not to look people in the eye, perhaps men, but women too I think, for someone might take offense—at the scrutiny, the challenge, the foreign gaze—or the young woman’s look might be misconstrued as sexual advance. In any case, I yearned to fit in, had been practicing it in various ways, and in different environments, since I was a child. Not always the most admirable trait, to avoid attention, to want to seem like others, but in foreign circumstances I look upon it a little more forgivingly. I wanted to learn what it was like to be someone else. And, yes, I wanted to be someone else. And I was! Midwestern girl transplanted to…Moscow! I was nervous, and I was thrilled. Thus the downturned eyes, the Moscow ice-walk. It must be that younger women, of necessity, practiced this cautious, yet sometimes still fast-paced, tread across slippery sidewalks, gaze averted, though I now associate it with those further on in years. Blend in I did, more often mistaken for a central or eastern European than American. For the first sentence or two anyway. I remember buying a bottle of limonaya vodka at an outdoor kiosk, I think spring was trying to push its way through, the days were getting longer, the air warmer, and being asked if I was Bulgarian.
Strange what memories affix themselves into the necklace of our experience. Sometimes we miss what we’re used to having all the time (a briefly absent family member, even a cup of coffee), a kind of knee-jerk reaction, a habit, a love for what helps and comforts us. Sometimes we miss more ephemeral things, a feeling or sensation, a sound or experience, whether brief or enduring. What we remember, the specificities of our own memories, is important not just for the details or facts they convey to someone else, but for the accompanying sensations they bring to ourselves. We long for what was never had, or for what we no longer have. This is how I feel about Russia, it is something I had, and something I never had. My brain turns wistful when I hear the endearing sounds of the language, the mouth more concise, the tongue muscle working while the cheeks and lips pull more tightly around the sounds. I think I must have associated the sounds, the alien amalgams of new consonants and vowels, with longing even before I knew the language.
I remember a fantastic memoir I read during high school, In My Mother’s House, by Kim Chernin, holed up in my overly pink bedroom. I can pinpoint the time as my senior year, since we had just moved the summer before, and my new room provided me with a pink carpet, outdoing my pre-existing pink duvet and curtains. (Feminist child of the seventies and eighties, I had a brief period of girlish, domesticity-laced rebellion. Cynthia Ozick confesses to a similar pink phase, as a child, in conversation with Robert Birnbaum at themorningnews.org. Now, like Ozick, I eschew pink in favor of darker hues.)
In her memoir, Kim Chernin was learning about, and remembering, her mother’s Russia, trying better to understand her mother’s American communism and their relationship. The book was deeply personal, a cultural exploration, and yet probed the politics of the Cold War with feeling and insight. During those years of nuclear fear, I kept returning to the question of people. How could the Russians be so different from us? Why was Russia so vilified? In middle-America, in my small, rather conservative town in Ohio, this was all the more evident. People’s views were solid, intractable. The Soviet Union was the evil empire. And then only a year later, the Berlin Wall fell.
Obviously, thinking has changed in the two decades since. Yet Russia still feels so far away. I have not been back since my semester living and studying there in 1992. That seemed completely impossible while I was still in college. Of course, I would return! The experience, the skills gained, were so important to me (are still, though in different, and less practical ways) that I could not fathom becoming estranged or distanced from them. I was in love. With Russia, but also with the sense of possibility that lies before us in our early twenties. Anything is possible—everything is possible. Until we learn that life is a series of choices. One important thing recedes, another takes its place (rent, a place to live, security, adventures in different hues). Our needs and activities change as we age, and yet the essences of those formative experiences (whether playing in a band or performing on stage; even the mood of a particular story or lesson that captivated us) stay with us.
And so it was with added pleasure that I received a package in the mail last week, wrapped in brown paper, tied with brown twine, covered in Russian stamps. The package was from the daughter of a woman I knew briefly a few years ago. But, as I slid off the twine and unfolded the paper, it was also from the dear friends in Moscow with whom I had lost touch, from the kind strangers who helped me grow into who I am, and from myself, years ago, calling forth. Inside were two children’s books—for my children to learn Russian. A stranger, a young woman studying to be a doctor in Siberia, who I know only from a mother’s praises and fairytale photos of her wedding, knew what I needed before I did.
Will my children learn Russian? Perhaps not. There will be those in our family who would justifiably feel they should learn the Polish of their more immediate ancestors and living relatives first. But who knows? Their future is open; and I can open the books to peer a little further into my past. Other gifts of memory, or of unforeseen futures, might yet reveal themselves: my children’s dreams, their stories, or my own. Memory and imagination are great friends.