Words to Remember (4)

               A true story



AS the billowy [big, soft, round] white clouds slipped under the wings of the airplane, the Russian countryside slipped farther and farther away. The afternoon sun slid off the tops of the Ural Mountains and turned the fields golden.  The small villages looked like cats curled up, sleeping.

     Village life, however, is not as quiet or gentle as it looks from a plane. The work is endless. But there are rewards. There is the peace of days without the sound, sight, or smell of traffic. Village people are close and care for one another. They have time to sit and talk—and think. But, the custom [tradition] of saying exactly what you think—even if it hurts someone—is one aspect of Russian life a stranger does not find easy to understand. For years, my heart filled with fear every time angry words flew back and forth between family or friends. Five minutes later, I’d look again to see everyone laughing. Only slowly did I come to understand the Russian saying, “If you can’t say what you think to a friend, then to whom?” It makes for relationships that are true and strong, even if they are not polite.

     It was Andrei who taught me the secret of not getting hurt by the words of others. The secret is quite simple: you must only remember the words that are worth remembering—and forget the ones that aren’t. It’s no more complicated than throwing out corn husks [leaves] after you clean the sweet ears of corn. After dinner, whoever talks about the husks?

friends forever

     The first time I met Andrei, I was quick to judge him. I thought he was poor, even when he continued to teach me the meaning of generosity [someone who freely helps others and gives to others]. He accepted me in the village more than anyone else. His kindness came from the simple idea that someone far from home needs care. I soon became very close to him and to his wife, Katya. For many years, they treated me like family and not like a guest. 

     One year, when there were many of us all together one night having dinner, everyone started to talk about America. It was a time when Russia and America were having strong political disagreements.  Still, I never thought I would hear my friends voice such unkind words about my country. The comment that hurt the most made everyone stop and look down. The voice was Andrei’s, but the unkind words were really not his.  They were just words he heard over and over again on the news or read in newspapers. Other than the stories Andrei heard on television, he knew nothing about America and never saw it for himself. It was clear that Andrei did not like what he thought was America. If he knew the real thing, I knew he would love it.

     On my last day in the village, all my friends came for tea and to see me off. Everyone was talking at once. Babushka [grandmother] Zoya asked if I remembered to pack the piroshki [jam-filled rolls] she made that morning in case I got hungry on my long journey home. She then gave me a freshly ironed handkerchief.  “You can’t go on a journey without a handkerchief!” said Anatoly, not knowing what to say.  Saying goodbye always made him sad.

     “Next fall, we’ll go mushroom picking. I’ll get you your own basket,” added Vladimir.

     There was a pause in the conversation as we looked at the clock. It was time to go. In the silence, Andrei said, “Come back more often.” Everyone smiled and nodded. He said the words he wanted us to remember. Later, on the plane, I remembered them as I got out my piroshki.  The stewardess looked at the sweet jam rolls as she handed me some juice. “I see you’ve been well cared for,” she said.

     “Very well cared for,” I smiled and replied.

    My friends and I choose to hold on to the best things about each other, even when we know the worst. Remembering the words that matter [that are important] and letting go of the ones that hurt is the sunshine after the storm. Or maybe it is the rainbow.   

—Story adapted for InterestEng. Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor

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