Family warmth soothes Russia's cold

Sunday, January 20, 2002

For the New Year's holiday I was in Russia again, this time in a tiny village just inside the border with Ukraine. It was a fairy-tale place where transportation was as much by horse and sled as automobile. At night the full moon bathed the air in silver light, stars sparkled like cold diamonds and the snow glowed blue upon the hills.

Walking between distant houses, whose windows beckoned friendly in the frigid minus-30-degree temperatures, we marched single file, scarves pulled up to our noses, hats pulled tight below our ears. Only the crunch of snow beneath our boots broke the silence.

I was on a journey to meet my fiancee's grandparents. She is a student here in Cape Girardeau and is careful about her privacy. But her homeland is across the sea.

In the modern American world, we've become more comfortable with the conveniences of central heat, grocery stores and electric stoves. But the spiritual center is drawn with clearer boundaries here, and is thus more brittle.

In the land of my fiancee's Russian grandparents, everything is connected to everything else. Everyone depends on everyone else. Thus the kind of compartmentalization modernity esteems isn't possible.

As was repeated to me several times, "Everyone works so everyone eats." In English, the phrase can be spoken in different ways. Stress each word separately, and the sentence is still true.

As a guest I wasn't expected to work. But in small ways I did, carrying water in pails from the well with Zhenya, my fiancee's brother. The house had no running water, so water was preciously boiled and used in the water cabinet, mixed with tea or stored in the hillside kitchen for cooking.

Gathering the water was fun for me since I didn't have to do it each day of my life. After a brisk walk, a pole with a metal curlicue on the end was used to break the ice before affixing the pail and sweeping into the water.

Together, brother, grandfather and I sawed wood for the fire, then split the logs with an ax. In a token gesture, I fed the goat and a few of the other livestock.

The goat, named Katyusha, became a good friend of mine by the end of the week. With an American visiting, the family made a "tsar's chair" in the stable, to provide a warmer accommodation than the outhouse. Basically, grandfather sawed a hole in a chair and placed a pail beneath. While there, I sang to Katyusha to keep warm, and she gurgled and beeped gently back at me.

Maybe it is because life takes place mainly in one-room houses and around wood-burning stoves that the spirit of family blooms. Then again, maybe it's the vodka at breakfast, lunch and dinner that provides the cozy glow. But life is warm and deep there -- deeper than the snow outside.

Hospitality is bolder too, deeper, somehow more real. Instead of taking friends to a fancy restaurant, the cupboards are opened and all is served until almost nothing is left. It is a hospitality centered on the very stuff of life: food, warmth, endless kisses and hugs.

Everyone depends on everyone else. Everyone works.

On the first day, my fiancee's uncle and a neighbor killed a pig, then used a blowtorch to remove the bristles. It was special fare for New Year's celebration and a generous treat for the American visitor. Grandfather cut the meat into beautiful slabs, while mom and aunt worked the next three days making sausages from the remainder. At the end of the week, the meat was split into four portions, one for the grandparents and one each for the three children. It was explained to me that winter is the time for meat because of the natural refrigeration. Summer is for fruits and vegetables.

Since returning, I've been buried beneath a drift of mail and work. When the snow began to fall in Cape Girardeau on Thursday, however, I had to place aside those other things to tell you about the fairy tale land of heroic grandparents, tireless children and loving grandchildren. The land is no American dream, and living there would be hard. But it is an ethereal place to visit. And to those who live there, America stands a shining beacon of prosperity and justice, truth and compassion. We can learn much from each other.

Jon K. Rust is co-president of Rust Communications.

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