Summer 2005, the final summer of my old life in Washington, is obscured by a mist as thick as a humid July day. I remember the facts and how the summer began and ended, but the details and the feelings are behind a misty veil.
I know that I finished my work on the Russia Desk on a Friday and began attending classes at the Foreign Service Institute the following Monday. My first overseas tour for the State Department was to be in the Consular Section at Embassy Moscow, and for two months I went through a training program that might best be described as Consular Boot Camp or Visas 101. We covered all the laws and regulations, learned how to use the software systems and take fingerprints, and practiced doing visa interviews.
At the same time I had to prepare to split my life off from that of my family. My year and my success on the Desk had not made me any more popular at home. I rented a storage locker and began moving into it clothes, papers, kitchenware, books, bicycle, a computer, and everything else I thought I would need to begin a single life for the first time in over twenty years. My spouse was bearing a heavy load of caring for her sick sister and aunt, and I knew she would not be able to accompany me. "Surely you will visit?" I asked, still hoping we might rebuild something long gone.
I spent many hours in thrift stores, buying those things I could not take out of the house. I visited clothing stores to get ready for Moscow winters. I did it on my own. More than once I looked towards the women's section, but thoughts of hidden cameras in Moscow kept me away. . . . My thrift store treasure trove was added to the rest of my storage locker life.
When I think of summer 2005, it's not trainings, thrift stores, or storage lockers that come to my mind. It's my mother and the time I spent with her. This is what cuts through the misty veil.
Saturdays and Sundays usually saw me with Ma at her home in Annapolis. I would arrive and show off my treasure haul from the latest thrift store I had visited. I remember how Ma took a coffee percolator I had found for a dollar and polished it up like new, leaving the Faberware label pristine as though the pot was to go back on sale at an upscale retail store. I still make my morning coffee with this percolator today and think of my mother as I add the water and coffee.
Ma had turned 90 that spring, and my four sisters and all the grandchildren, nephews, and nieces had come from around the country to celebrate the day. Like any child, I found it hard to recognize or accept my mother's age. She was so strong and so clear of mind. Surely she was not 90 but some thirty or forty years younger as I had always known her? We would work together in the kitchen on those summer weekend afternoons to prepare our dinner for two. All the old, often recited stories would fill the air of how Ma and Dad met, of the years before I was born, and of my own childhood. The stories continued over dinner and afterward as we retired to her deck to feel the summer breeze that faintly rustled the leaves of a Maryland summer.
Now and again we would come to my childhood cross dressing. We both skirted the deep conversation, but each time, just as she had in 1990, Ma would say quietly, "I had no idea how hard it was for you. . . ." Then we would move on. With the sun setting behind the trees, I would kiss my mother goodnight and start for home.
I am blessed by not remembering our final goodbye that summer as my departure date came closer and closer and life became ever more hectic. Surely there would be many more such summer weekend afternoons to come?
Finally the day came. A moving truck arrived at my storage locker. It took two men only two hours to pack everything that was to be my material life for the next two years. It is still the core of what I have today.
I said my goodbyes at home, hugged my son and spouse, and headed for the door. Suddenly, perhaps also feeling that there was something significant, something final in this departure, my spouse grabbed the car keys and drove me to the Greyhound depot to catch the bus that would take me to New York City for two days of consultations before flying to Moscow. I would not need a taxi after all. My spouse and son waved goodbye as my bus pulled back. Soon I was looking at downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, as it slipped away. "When will I come home?" I wondered. "Will I ever call this home again?" To my own surprise, I felt relieved, and a wave of guilt washed over me that I should feel this way.
Then I turned, looked forward, and slowly began to smile as guilt faded. "Moscow!" I pinched myself and began quietly humming a popular Russian song, Поворот (Povorot - A Turn) by the group Машина времени (Time Machine) --
Мы себе давали слово,
Не сходить с пути прямого
Но так уж суждено . . .
И уж если откровенно
Всех пугают перемены,
Но тут уж все равно.
Вот новый поворот!
И мотор ревет.
Что он нам несет?
Пропасть или взлет?
Омут или брод?
Ты не разберешьПока не повернешь.
И пугаться нет причины если вы еще мужчины,
Вы кое в чем сильны.
Выезжайте за ворота и не бойтесь поворота.
Пусть добрым будет путь.
We all gave our word
Not to stray from the path that's true,
But fate has intervened . . .
And to be frank
Everyone is afraid of change,
But here it is all the same.
A new bend in the road lies ahead!
Hear the motor rev.
What will it bring?
An abyss or an ascent?
A whirlpool or a ford?
You won't knowUntil you round the bend.
And there is no reason to be afraid
Because as people
We have a strength within.
Drive out past the gates
and don't be afraid to turn.
May the path you find be smooth and kind
I landed in Moscow three days later. The driver who met me took my two suitcases and held the door. "Добро пожаловать в Москву! Welcome to Moscow!" he said. Then he turned on the radio. The same song was playing.
The early 1990s was a time of profound change in Russia. Time Machine captured the spirit when it sang Povorot on Red Square in 1994.
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