My parents stayed in New York, they were there on some business, so I was free to fly on home to San Antonio on my own where Jason would be waiting. I was excited now at the prospect of seeing him, I felt relief that I would finally be back on familiar ground. But I was not prepared for what was in store. He rushed me from the airport to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. Oh, this was something you could not get in Moscow! This was something I had missed. The tangy dips, the corn chips, guacamole, salsa sauce, nachos, and of course the salt-rimmed glasses of pale green Margarita. Once settled across from each other over plates piled high with spicy delicacies, he popped the question. He asked me to be his wife. Inwardly, my jaw dropped and I felt a vast void open in the pit of my stomach. NO! my inner voice screamed with all the force it could muster. This just could not be. I was not ready. My whole being rose up and repelled this possibility, the very thought threatened to tear out my heart. I did not know what registered on my face, but I told him quietly that my initial response was negative, that I needed time to think. He acquiesced and gave me the space I needed.
I thought about it for almost a month. Most of that time I spent in Houston at my parents’ house. And it was enough time to awaken feelings of longing and yearning, and come to the understanding that I was missing this man very much, that something was lacking in my life. The feeling I experienced before Moscow of my love opening like a budding rose returned. I once more felt the rippling of love for him in my heart. I asked him to come and visit. And in the pool in my parents’ back yard, I said I had changed my mind. The answer was “Yes.” It was the beginning of July 1981.
The wedding was simple, inexpensive, but very creative and tasteful. My mother made my dress of creamy silk and rainbow-colored chiffon bridesmaids’ dresses for my sisters. The cake and the flowers were the only things we ordered from professionals. We prepared the food ourselves. Nothing elaborate. For some reason I retained a vivid memory of the melon balls Jason’s sister scooped out using a special gadget. They were attractive and unusual. And the highlight was the cascarones—empty eggshells filled with confetti to be cracked on every unsuspecting head—a Mexican tradition. Jason and I spent a few weeks preparing them, carefully chipping the tops off the eggs, draining out the contents, washing and drying the shells, dying them, filling them with confetti, and closing the hole in the top with a colorful sticker. It was a fun joint task that kept us happy for hours and made for great amusement among the guests at the wedding reception.
On my wedding day I drank too much champagne and ran barefoot along the San Antonio River Walk after most of the guests had left. We did not leave on our honeymoon that day, we spent the night in the Four Seasons Hotel, an immense luxury. We arrived in the room after midnight and I called room service to order more champagne. I was told the bar was closed and liquor could not be served to the room after hours. I was very disappointed and quite affronted actually. What a cheek!
A week later, we loaded all our earthly belongings into a U-Haul trailer, hooked it onto the back of our rather ancient red Pinto, and set off for California where I was to continue my Russian studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
We eventually found an apartment to rent in Seaside—a cheap and rather tacky area of the Monterey Peninsula and at quite a distance from the institute. Well it definitely did not have the glamour of Pacific Grove with its beachside condominiums and homes with a view, and it was certainly not Carmel, that fairytale grotto for the rich and upwardly mobile. Nor was it Monterey proper that catered to the rather classy and moderately wealthy. Seaside was for the working class, for those who scraped by on the minimum wage, and for students like myself. It was not the best, but it would have to do. I acquired a bike and would cycle to class along the eucalyptus-lined roads, the trees filling the air with their tangy aroma every time it rained. And the beach was just a stone’s throw away. Jason and I jogged or walked there most days, the stretch from the Holiday Inn to the pier in Monterey affording invigorating room for maneuver.
MIIS proved a challenge. But then I rose to challenges; although not without a struggle and much heart-searching. The institute had been a breeze to get into. My Russian professor at Trinity in San Antonio, the one who had encouraged me to apply for the semester course in Russia, had an old catalogue. Her husband had once thought about applying to MIIS. There was an application form in the back which I tore out, filled in, and sent off. In return they sent me a more recent application form, and soon after that I received notice of my acceptance. So here I was attending classes. And the classes were small and taught by native speakers. But very soon my bubble of confidence deflated. Even after my “practical” experience in Moscow, I was faced with the sober realization that my Russian was abysmal. And one of my Russian teachers was a real battle-axe, very unforthcoming with her encouragement, and very severe. There were often times when I wished the floor would open up and swallow me as I struggled pathetically with my sight translations. I was ready to give up and leave.
I told Jason about this half way through the first quarter as we took our daily jog and walk on the beach. “It’s no good, I’m way over my head,” I complained. “Let’s think of something else.” He was taken by surprise and the last thing he wanted to do was uproot and go somewhere else (where could they go at this late stage in the game?), but he gave a good show of trying to be calm and logical. With his patient and steady reasoning he was able to change the wind in my sails. He told me that he supported me and would stay with me no matter what I might decide, but he felt we should not give up quite so easily, why not keep trying? And I agreed.
The solution came when I faced the truth that I would never be an interpreter. Oral translation, simultaneous interpretation, even consecutive interpretation were not for me. I would never sit in a booth strapped to earphones in the United Nations. But I loved to write, I had a knack for writing, I loved the written word, and if I had the time to ponder over word choices, look things up in the dictionary, think calmly and unhurriedly, I could produce something worthwhile. Of course, I needed to understand the original first, but I discovered that my main asset was my love of my native language and my ability to express myself in it. I vividly remembered a general assembly in the institute’s main auditorium. The director was giving us a pep talk. To be a good translator, he told us, you have to love your native language in every way. If you have never written long letters home, if you have never kept a diary and done a lot of writing, translation is probably not for you. He was describing me to a tee. I remembered the pages and pages of letters I used to write home to my parents, especially when I was in Moscow. My father complained he had to get out a magnifying glass to read the small cramped print that would not all fit on the sheet of paper or postcard I was filling and would spread out into the margins at the top and bottom and up the sides of the page. I could not write enough. And I was an avid reader, there were so many books I had read and enjoyed, so many different authors and genres I admired and felt an affinity with that I would not count or list them all. So what if I dropped interpretation, picked up German again, and concentrated on written translation with two foreign languages? That was the solution.
After that things were wonderful. I had a talent, I could do it. I didn’t feel like disappearing through the floor anymore. And even though that one professor was still rather harsh and scanty with her encouragement, I rose to the occasion and decided that instead of letting this woman crush my spirit I would show her just what I was made of. And I did.
Interlude: Vienna, Austria
Some entries from my diary show the various stages of transition I went through and how Vienna was a city that never really captured a place in my heart.
5 October, 1983
“Cold and damp. I am planning on going to class today, although I don’t know what to expect or where to go. I have to wait until F. (Jason’s brother) sends whatever the university sent me (hopefully an acceptance) before I can register. At least I know that much, but it’s like drawing blood from a stone trying to find out anything around here, and the university building looms impressively but impersonally. Each day feels like a marathon, it is exhausting and sucks the energy out of you. We pound the streets, swallow the cold, damp air, despair and sigh. The city is so alien and narrow, clamping tightly shut the edges of its life, closing its doors to strangers, looking inward upon its own mold and death. To draw a smile or some warmth is like trying to curl up and sleep after the covers have been wrenched aside and the morning air crisply takes hold of your toes – the only warmth left is what is inside you. Everything takes so much effort, nothing is laid at your feet – you can’t expect this, but couldn’t it be a little easier? My sensitive heart stares aghast at this world, and wilts and cringes under its icy fingers. No one wants us, no one cares – all are too busy with their narrow concerns, their heads in the sand, the dull drudgery of their lives wrinkling their skin and bending their backs lower against the biting wind. The people plod in dreary colors through their frosty lives and never think that a smile or kind word could lighten the burden of their days. Sternly they look at the world through blind, stone eyes and turn their heads to the past where ghosts dance in eveningwear and silently applaud the final act. Alive, keen minds are lost, the vital sap of life may run thickly in other lands, but here the beauty and vibrancy of lost centuries is only a tarnished luster, the brightness of their bygone youth. No bright knowledge opens doors to the warmth of its heart – the great oak doors are closed on damp mustiness where the smell of the grave turns the alert, questing mind away. Dead brown leaves clog the rushing waters of life and leave a stagnant dormant pool.”
17 November, 1983:
“It was night in Vienna. I looked down on the city from the Stadtbahn and saw how gentle the whole scene was. Soft rays from headlights and street lamps bathed the streets and the buildings in a subdued glow. People bustled about, trams clanged by, and everything had the warm, cozy atmosphere of people doing last-minute shopping before Christmas. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see snowflakes, it was the scene from a book, a children’s book about a city, a book about the safe coziness of ordinary people’s lives. The stations we stopped at were old and dimly lit, as if the Stadtbahn were Vienna’s oldest and first form of public transportation. I could have been on a train traveling across Siberia, stopping at the tiny, rundown stations, sitting on the floor of the bare carriages with the peasants and their bundles. It felt so remote, so strange, so dreamlike, as if I were in another land, at another time … I feel as though Vienna is slowly working its way under my skin, into my heart and soul and changing me. All of a sudden classes and my academic progress here do not seem as important. I am battling against the tide anyway, translating German into Russian, I am attempting an impossible task, so why not just accept it and flow with it. Just being here is better than if we had never come. Whatever happens, I will leave here richer and more fulfilled than if we had never set off on this adventure. … Reality is much more confining and restricting than dreams – one would have to be a person of unlimited physical energy and strength and be in possession of endless time (in other words superhuman, supernatural) to be able to accomplish all the tasks you set yourself in dreams. A simple mortal cannot perform the impossible. I should be content with my lucky lot in life, count my lucky, beautiful, shining stars, and smile on a world which is not so lucky.”
“Vienna is snowbound. Snow on rooftops and trees, snow slushy and soft in the streets, snow brown and ugly trampled by cars. We have made three trips in the snow, each time it was deeper, denser, more permanent. It reminds me of childhood winters, as taken for granted as rain or shine, just something to be put up with, exciting at first with snowmen and snowballs, then dreary and damp with soaked Wellingtons and wet clothes. Something to watch and admire from afar, but not so charming in everyday life with cold toes and gray skies. Its melting was like a sigh of relief because spring peeked through those crystal drops and sunshine made the white turn clear. Our walk today was beautiful in the silent woods, nothing can create an atmosphere like snow, but it is also sinister and deathly, penetrating and overpowering. It clings and will not leave. I try desperately to see beneath, to capture life and breathe warmth. It penetrated my brain and boots, making me want to laugh hysterically at its volume, its sheer volume, weight and oppressiveness – it was everywhere and just would not leave. Vienna cloaked in snow removes itself even further from my heart, like an ice princess, so beautiful, but deadly. I cannot love Vienna in the snow for she is too cold and cruel, too barren of feeling and vitality to ever be endearing. Our walks in Vienna’s snowy suburbs were magnificent and grand, but my heart ached and yearned all the more for sun and warmth and freedom. Snowbound Vienna is sobering and stealthy, sealing any charm behind shuttered windows and locked doors.
Aside from loving and hating the snow, our expeditions have been most enjoyable. Wintry ruins in Baden with pine woods and slanting sun on creamy snow – a dipping winter’s sun creates unusual light effects which lend themselves well to romantic dreams. A children’s play park in Bisemberg with a view across the Danube to Leopoldsberg, Kohlenberg, and Klosterneuberg. Shadows on the snow from the hazy sun – walks in wintry woods do have their charm.”
We also traveled further a-field, into the Eastern bloc, to Budapest and Prague.
In my diary I wrote on 2 November, 1983: “We are on the train back to Vienna after a five-day stay in Budapest. … Budapest was a frenzied hub of people against a background of smoky skies, a slow, heaving river and the solid stone of an ancient and noble history. The grime and spittle of the much trodden streets of Pest contrasted with the majestic solidity of Castle Hill, Liberation Monument, and St. Gellert to symbolize the stifled drudgery of life under communism and the proud and stubborn spirit of the Hungarian people. For Jason and I the most lasting memories were our walks along the Danube after dark. Budapest was not electrified by a single neon bulb at night, but glimmered in the waning yellow glow of a candle, like the moon past its prime. One night the Parliament, Castle Hill and the Chain Bridge were lit up, not brightly and garishly, but subtly like lights glowing faintly in the fog or viewed through a fine gauze, like the yellowing of old lace, the dull luster of burnished bronze, the mellow richness of autumn. It gave an air of mystery and romance like that evoked by old brown photographs of times gone by. The plenty in the stores and the ‘fashionableness’ of the Hungarian people surprised me after my experiences in Moscow. It seemed as though the people did not want for anything materially. It could have been Austria had someone not known better. To me, however, the mark of socialism was all too evident. A gray, spirit-destroying pall seemed to pervade the air, it could be seen in the people’s haunted expressions, the specter of communism and Russia’s iron grip caught in people’s eyes, it weighed on their shoulders and made them stoop against its oppression. The carefree joy, the jaunty step, the bold expression so common in the West were all painfully missing. The crippling drudgery of life under socialism, the frustration of desires, the crushing of aspirations for a better life were all to be blatantly read on the people’s faces, in their demeanor and stance.”
A year later, I successfully completed the course at the Monterey Institute, then spent another two years writing my thesis, a translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Notes on the Cuff into English. I found a publisher in Ann Arbor, Michigan that specialized in translation from Russian into English. I wrote to them and asked if I could translate something for them that they would then publish if they found it worthy. I would not be paid for it, but I would be in print. I dreamed in those days of becoming a literary translator, but no author or publisher would take a beginning translator fresh out of school seriously if they had no published works to show. Ardis accepted my conditions and after I completed my translation, they published it. In 1986, I received my Master of Arts degree in Russian and German Translation.
After I passed the professional exams at the end of the course work but had still not begun my thesis work, another long-cherished dream came true. I became pregnant. My beautiful and wise daughter made her entry into the world on 6 March, 1985, just four days after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU and later President of the Soviet Union. Perestroika was about to begin. Later, this always seemed symbolic and significant to me. It marked the beginning of major changes in the Soviet Union. A country so long ensconced behind the Iron Curtain began to open its doors to the outside world. And yes, my newborn daughter was indeed a wise being. I recognized this almost instantly. I remembered vividly the thoughts that came into my head when I first set eyes on her. “This child is going to teach me more than I can ever teach her.” And so it came to pass. We named her Ursula, prompted many years ago when I read D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow while still in school in England. The description of Ursula as a young girl in that book had struck such a chord in my heart that I told myself then, “if I ever have a daughter I will name her Ursula.”
While he had long been far from my mind, Ivan began to consume my thoughts again. After we returned from Vienna, we found an apartment in a more respectable and comfortable part of the Peninsula. It was in Pacific Grove, just down the hill from the Defense Language Institute and just up the hill from Cannery Row. Later the Monterey Bay Aquarium appeared at the foot of the hill and I spent many a happy hour there with Ursula watching the fish. The beach there was cozier too. Small secluded seaweed-strewn inlets among the rocks where I would take my baby to play and sit in the sand. I loved watching the otters smash mollusks against the rocks on their chests as they swam on their backs. And there were plenty of seals too. It was here that my mind filled again with thoughts of Ivan and I began to recall in detail our time together in Moscow. My dreams and yearning were triggered by reading back over old diaries I had kept during that time. It all seemed so illusive, beautiful, a whole other dream world that beckoned and lured. Such sweet memories. I even began writing him a letter as I sat there on the beach, but it never made it as far as the post office. I had sent him letters and even photos soon after my return in the summer of 1981. But I had never received a reply. He had most likely forgotten me and was living his own life. I did not seriously think I would see him again and did not strive for that. I was just happy that I had those memories, that he lived in a small corner of my heart, and was grateful for the time we had shared together.
On 24 May, 1986, I wrote in my diary: “I still think of Ivan, but have not written and the burning desire to do so has subsided. I am still consumed by going to Moscow though. Perhaps it is just the elusiveness that attracts me, but I cannot deny the adventure and uncertainty I yearn from life, I don’t want our lives to be predictable, I want spontaneity and wonder. I feel we can have it if we remain flexible and young at heart. Our daughter seems to respond to change and new environments, we should take advantage. I wonder if we will ever get to Moscow. Perhaps the only solution is to have another child to curb these adventurous feelings, since they still threaten to tear me apart.”
In the summer of 1986, we packed up a U-Haul again with all our earthly belongings, hooked it onto the back of our Pinto and headed back across country from California to Florida, stopping on the way to visit all the national parks and sights we could fit into their itinerary.
Soon after we settled into Jason’s parents’ house with his elderly parents in tow, I did get pregnant again, and on 23 July, 1987, my second beautiful daughter was born. I had immediately found a support group of women with children the same age when I came to Ocala. I attended a play group and had met some wonderful women with like-minded ideas about bringing up children. Through one of my new friends I found the Birth Center in Gainesville run by midwives who were advocates of natural childbirth. Right up my alley. Jason and I attended childbirth classes there. My pregnancy was a time of budding spirituality and awakening to the callings of my soul. I made so many discoveries and had so many insights during this time. I did a lot of reading and was very in touch with the growing presence inside my. I meditated, exercised, nurtured my body and mind, and prepared myself consciously for this birth. I had done this the first time too, when I was waiting for Ursula to come, but the first time is always so different. A time when there is no past experience to rely on. The second time, I was determined to do it all naturally and did not want a hospital birth. So the Birth Center in Gainesville had been like manna from heaven.
I wrote in my diary on 2 August, 1987, about a week after the birth.
“We didn’t realize it, but Claire means Light, and this is what she is, a ray of pure light, filled with light, and lighting our lives. My spiritual awakening during the pregnancy made me more aware of her soul and my presence as a conscious, feeling being within me. Sometimes I was overcome with the feeling of how special she is, an exceptional being whose soul had chosen us as channels to incarnate through. My decision to go to the Birth Center in Gainesville was somehow the first step along the path to the greater spiritual awareness which unfolded during this pregnancy. The fears I had about giving birth in a homelike setting soon abated and I became convinced that this was the right thing for me and that everything would go well. The power of positive thinking really worked, there was never a shadow of doubt in my mind that things would go perfectly.”
And indeed they did. A more perfect birth I could not have wished for. At 6.30 in the morning as the sun spilled into the cozy room at the Gainesville Birth Center, Claire came into the world. A few hours later we were all back home again in Ocala, our small family of three now expanded to four. And the delight and love were immense. This was the answer. My feeling that having another child would quench my yearning for Russia had indeed been perspicacious.
In the meantime I had been in touch with my student friends from the Pushkin Institute days; the girls I had gallivanted with. Through one of them I found out that Lucy, the head of our student group, had married a Russian and was living in Moscow. After making a few phone calls and by a piece of sheer luck really (that sort of information was not normally given out over the phone), I tracked down Lucy. She was delighted to hear from me and said she would be more than happy to have her husband issue me an invitation to come for a private visit. This was possible since Gorbachev had taken the helm. So the wheels started turning, the process was underway. But naturally it did not go as quickly as I would have hoped and liked. It was a frustrating time. I thought we would be able to leave by the summer of 1989, but in November we were still in Ocala and the invitation had still not arrived. Then there were holiday delays and other intervening circumstances. Finally, Lucy sent the invitation for the beginning of 1990. So it would be later rather than sooner. This gave them more time to pack up and sort out all the loose ends in the States, so it was really for the best.
On 18 November, 1989, I had a dream about Ivan. I was in Moscow again and he saw me in the street and recognized me because I was wearing that same fur coat. We explored a hotel together hand in hand, so happy to be together. Then some helicopters flew over and a huge ladder fell down from which descended some strange men, they had come to destroy. Ivan and managed to find somewhere safe. In a meditation later, I was in a dark tunnel and Ivan came toward my and said it would all be alright, and we passed through a crack in the wall into a beautiful garden. This all had rather an upsetting effect on me, I denied the fact that I wanted to return to Moscow because of Ivan. Was I subconsciously seeking a reunion with him and still actually thinking of having a life with him? The thought appalled me. If this were so, then I would do better to stay at home. But I told myself that this was not my motive. I just had a strong attraction for Moscow, I wanted to return there to work and live in a Russian environment. And anyway any real thoughts about a life with Ivan were pretty ridiculous at this point, after all I had had no contact with him for nine years, how could I count on anything? How did I know I would even see him again, let alone share a life with him even if I did? Anything could have happened in the interim. But what good were these kind of thoughts? So I pushed them aside and concentrated on the overwhelming task of reducing our worldly belongings to what I considered the bare minimum. They filled ten suitcases.