Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Remembering Evanescent Vanessa

About ten years ago, I received an IM on AOL from an unknown person, wanting to know the name of the newspaper published in Salts where we were living at the time. After messaging back and forth for a few minutes, I learned that she was the mother of three young children whose husband had abandoned her in her ninth month of pregnancy with her last child, saying that he did not want to have anything to do with her because she was "too lazy to work." She had moved back in with her mother in northern California, borne the child, and then admirably went into training to be a prison guard. Talk about gumption! Now she had been offered a job at Soledad State Prison near us. She planned to leave the children with her mother until she could find an apartment large enough for them all and in the interim stay at a cheap hotel, which is why she needed to find out the name of the newspaper: to check out the classifieds. (No internet-based newspapers back then.) As we messaged, an idea entered my head, and I asked her to get off the computer and call me on the phone.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, Shane and Lemony who had lived with us when they were first married, had moved out. We had given them the master bedroom suite, which had a separate bath and separate entrance. It would be ideal for Vanessa. We still needed to clean it up, re-paint it, and that sort of thing, but, as it turned out, the job did not start for a couple of weeks. Living with us would allow her to build up funds for a deposit and related costs for the apartment she would end up with. We charged her a nominal rent to cover our increased costs for having her there, and, because I am such a poor painter, Vanessa arrived to a mess, finishing up the job really well, and we gave her the first month's rent free in exchange for that labor.

Actually, I am totally incompetent at anything related to housekeeping, which is why having seven children was great -- they, too, hated my housekeeping and cooking and pitched in without being asked, even and especially as teenagers, to clean up the house and make the meals so that they did not have to deal with the results of my incompetent attempts at these things. Vanessa quickly discovered what all my children knew, and soon she was offering to make dinner, rather than eat what I prepared. That worked out well, too.

It took a while for Vanessa to reach the point that she had enough money for an apartment. In the interim, she really missed her children. We had a lot of empty rooms since all the children, being approximately the same age, left at once, leaving us suddenly empty nesters. So, Vanessa brought the children down. I remember the youngest being so excited at meeting Donnie, who is a portly person with a white beard and mustache. She climbed up on his lap, patted his stomach, and said, "I want a Barbie!" The next day I caught her skipping around the room, singing "I live with Santy Clause, I live with Santy Clause." (So much for Donnie's self-esteem! Actually, he thought it was funny!)

Day care would have been expensive but at precisely that time, I had an extended consulting contract with a company that preferred that I work at home. One child during the day and three after school was very little work. (I know, I is all relative, but after seven, three is easy.) So, I babysat them for her until Vanessa could find a place.

With the meals and babysitting, we soon got to know Vanessa well, and she was like another one of our children. She would share with us her concerns at work, the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father (Sheesh! Did anyone grow up in a good home?), and her worries about her children and just plain stuff related to daily living. We missed her when she moved out, especially because she was almost immediately after that trasnferred to a prison farther south. The move was fine; she was now able to stand on her own two feet: emotionally, career-wise, and financially. We were proud of her and happy for her.

Vanessa kept in touch for years, but then, as with Ksenya, given all the concurrent moves by all members of the family, we lost track of her and she of us. That, in a way, is sad, but perhaps it is how life is supposed to be. We are given some of God's children to take care of for important spans of time, and if we do it well then the reward is in knowing that we made a difference. It is not in having anyone feel beholden to us, return favors, or even keep in touch. We simply provided one of the way stations in their lives.

And that is the way it is with the Mahlou clan. God keeps putting people, mainly young ones, in our path. We keep taking them in and caring for them in until they are ready to move on to their next intersection in this world. We love them, but we know that first and foremost they belong to God, not to us. We are simply God's laborers in these cases, and He pays us extravagantly for our services in blessings.

Monday, September 21, 2009

From the Siberian Taiga to the California Coast Flew Wunderkind Shura

I have done a few posts already on Shura, the last arrival into our family (well, the last child arrivee). So, I will point you to those posts and summarize here. (The whole story is so complex that it took me 2/3 of a book to tell it; it is one of the two framework stories for Blest Atheist. I have included a short excerpt from the book on my Mahlou Musings site: "Siberia on Easter Morning".)

I don't know why I was so attracted to Siberia, but I was from the very beginning of my Russian studies in the 1970s. I finally made it to Siberia in 1984-1985, taking Lizzie with me, where I studied the dialects of Russian spoken there. In Siberian dialect, there is an expression, "the mink whistles at me." This expression means that one is attracted to something for some compelling reason, does not know why, and cannot resist. When it came to Siberia, the mink whistled at me.

The winter of 1984-1985 was cold in more ways than just the deep snow across which Lizzie, I, and our Siberian friends cross-country skied, one of the few leisure activities available in the wooded steppe when all was frozen over. The Cold War between the US and USSR was still in its below-zero stages, so it was somewhat of a surprise that the mink's whistle was strong enough to force the hand of the Foreign Student Office at the University of Moscow to allow Lizzie and me to go to Siberia, against its desires. No one had gone there to do research since the Cold War started. (My trip there with Lizzie opened the door to other scholars.) One of the most instrumental people in getting the university to change its mind was Dr. Alexandr Ilich Fedorov, the head of the Institute of Philology at the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Akademgorodok, where I did my research. Alexandr Ilich called the University of Moscow, after learning of my interest from my advisor there, and said that he had prepared everything for me to come to Siberia. Reluctantly, the university let us go.

So there were Lizzie and I, two lone Americans, conducting research, learning to ski, and interacting with the locals in a variety of ways. What most people in that era knew first-hand of Americans came from us, and we were aware of the importance of that.

Aleksandr Ilich, whose dictionaries were key to my research (oni mne kak zoloto, I told him, meaning that they are like gold to me -- this pleased him mightily), became my consultant, friend, guide, and Siberian father. Years later, he was quite pleased when he learned that I had befriended a Siberian boy, Shura, who was dying at the time. But, I get ahead of myself with the story.

Many years passed between my research days in Siberia and my contact with Shura. One day in 1993, when I was conducting training in Krasnoyarsk, I learned in talking to the head of a delegation of teachers from Akademgorodok (Novosibirsk) that Aleksandr Ilich had been her graduate advisor at the university. When I asked her to take him an answer to his last letter and news about Noelle's recent surgery related to her spina bifida, I discovered that her godson, a talented child artist, was dying from spina bifida. We hatched a plan to save him.

A year later, with the help of Noelle's neurosurgeon, I had pried a visa for Shura out of the US Embassy in Moscow, and he was living with me. With no money for his medical care, I had miraculously (seriously) found a billionaire who gave the University of Virginia Hospital (he insisted on UVA Hospital) a half-million dollars for Shura's care and then doubled it when the cost of care ran over. There were so many miracles associated with Shura's surgeries and health that I have chronicled them in multiple posts (click on "posts about Shura" below).

Shura stayed in the USA for 15 years. Initially, he lived with me, but when the trips from California to Virginia for follow-up care became burdensome, the nurse who headed the spina bifida clinic at UVA Hospital offered to take him into her home, and there he stayed until he took some college courses, began an art career (supported by work as a chef), married, and then divorced. He returned to Russia this past January to be with his aging parents. Medical care in Russia, especially the availability of antibiotics, has significantly improved since the days when the doctors were unable to treat him in Siberia. It also helps that his parents and most of his siblings have since moved to Moscow.

posts about Shura

Shura's drawings

House of Scientists (Shura had art exibits here as a child, an extraordinary and unique achievement)

Morskoy Prospekt (Sea Prospect, the main street in Akademgorodok)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Russia with Love and (Atti)tude: Ksenya, Our Beloved and Talented Muscovite Armenian Tatar

The telephone call took me completely by surprise. I had been puttering around the house that morning. All the kids were at school, and for some reason I had a day off. Around noon, the phone rang, and at that point my day shifted into high gear.

"Bethie," said the voice on the other end amidst crackles and hums, "How far do you live from the San Francisco Airport?"

"About two hours," I answered my friend, Zina, who lived in Moscow. "Why do you ask?"

"Because Ksenya is on the plane. It lands in two hours. She is going to live with you now."

"Uh, okay, I gotta go. I don't want a teenager who speaks no English wandering around San Francisco by herself. I'll call you as soon as I can get through the telephone trunklines once we return."

And that is how Ksenya ended up as our sixth child. The daughter of an Armenian mother and a Tatar father, now divorced and living separately in Moscow, Ksenya would have had almost no career options in either Moscow or Armenia where discrimination against such mixed ethnic and non-local ethnic individuals at that time (and to some extent still) ran rampant. America, then, looked like a land of opportunity to Zina and to Ksenya herself, and so they made the brave decision for Ksenya to come live with her "Aunt Beth" in the USA and hope for the best to come from that. (Of course, it might have been a little easier on me had "Aunt Beth" known about this decision more than two hours in advance!)

I had known Ksenya since she was four years old. When Lizzie and I lived in Moscow, where I was doing my dissertation research in the winter of 1984-1985, Ksenya was a first grader and Lizzie, four years older but already in the 7th grade, babysat her on many evenings when Zina and I had things we wanted or had to do. Zina, like me, was a graduate student at the time, and we both took classes at the University of Moscow. The fact that Zina felt that she could just put her child on a plane and expect me to scoop her up at the other end and finish raising her testified to the strength of our remarkable Russian-American friendship that had survived the test of the Cold War, including the need to stay under the KGB radar, which we did not always do perfectly, there being stool pigeons among the graduate students. So, our friendship had withstood some difficult political moments. That, I suppose, is what made Zina confident that I would simply take Ksenya into our family without discussion, which I did.

Ksenya was a remarkable child. Very talented. Once we got past the evenings when she would curl up on the couch, lay her head on my lap, and tell me in Russian how much she missed Moscow, Ksenya took charge of her own dreams. She wanted to be an actress. I told her that people don't emigrate to the USA and waltz into Hollywood, but that is exactly what she did. She auditioned for the Child Actors' Studio and got a full scholarship. Lizzie checked out the authenticity and quality of the studio. It was taught by many of the American well-known actors and actresses, particularly those from sitcoms and soap operas. She graduated at the top of the class, then stunned and pleased me with the announcement that she no longer wanted to be an actress because she did not want to live the lifestyle that most actors lived. She felt that if she were living and working in that environment, her social life and morals would be influenced by it. Instead, she decided to go back to school, to a music institute, in order to become a singer. (Now, I am not quite sure how or why there is a difference in lifestyle of singers and actors, but at least for her there seems to have been.)

About this time, Ksenya's mother showed up in Salts. Lizzie said that when she received the phone call from Zina, saying that she was at the bus station in Salts and to please come pick her up, she was certain that she had forgotten Russian because she knew that "Aunt Zina" was really in Moscow. Just in case, she drove to the station, and there was Zina.

Zina lived with us for six months or so. During that time, she attended English language classes at the local adult school, where she met and fell in love with Rob, a Vietnam War veteran. To oversimplify and significantly shorten a very complex story, they married, moved into their own place, and purchased a business, which they ran until Rob experienced a relapse of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and attacked Zina with a carving knife, wanting to "kill the damn commies." The police locked up Rob, the veteran administration determined that he would likely be subject to such relapses indefinitely, and Zina put him on a plane back to his parents in New England. Then, she left for Moscow, to confer with her mother and family there and try to put her life back together.

While Zina was still in the USA, Ksenya graduated from the music institute and started her career with a bang. She landed her own show at an LA Club. Johnny Angel visited one of her shows and reviewed it on the front page of the LA Weekly under the title of "From Russia with 'Tude," concluding that Ksenya was "a star if there ever was one."

Then she met the man, Arlen, who was to become her husband. He was handsome and rich. About the time of their Las Vegas wedding, Ksenya was deciding that her Russian-American sound needed to change to a purely American sound. They moved to Arlen's family's property so that Ksenya could develop a new sound and cut demo records.

And that is where we lost Ksenya. Although she had not given us her coordinates after the wedding, not knowing them at the time, with much still being up in the air, she could have contacted us once she learned them. After all, she knew where we were, right? Wrong! During this same period of time, every single member of our family moved: Donnie and I moved for a short period of time to a river in the woods, Lizzie moved from San Diego to Illinois for graduate school, and with her went Blaine. That brought Noelle back from San Diego to Salts, and Doah spent a year with his uncle in Ohio. This was also the time that Zina returned to Moscow, and, unfortunately, in our move I lost my address book with Zina's Moscow phone number.

During this period, Ksenya disappeared from our lives. We had no idea where she was, and she had no idea where we were. No previous addresses or phone numbers for any of us would have worked. As for Zina, she returned to the USA and tracked down our phone in our woods two months after we had moved to Jordan, leaving our phones and furniture until I could return in the spring to disconnect everything and put the furniture in storage. I heard Zina's message that she was living with Ksenya and Arlen and would like me to call her, but she did not leave a phone number. She probably assumed that we had Ksenya's, but we did not.

And that is, unfortunately, the end of the story of Ksenya as the sixth Mahlou child. I have taken a few days to put this post together because I have not really known how to tell Ksenya's story since I have been privileged to know only a small part of it. It has been five years now, and we have had no insights into how to find her. We do not know if she is trying to find us. We do know that she is with her real mother and with her husband is likely starting a family of her own since she has not showed up on the Hollywood scene after leaving LA. While it would be wonderful to know for sure what is happening in her life, perhaps it was only ever meant that we should be there to help her when she needed an American family. For whatever we could do for her, we were blessed to be a critical part of her life at a critical stage of her development, and we thank God for that. We know that He is watching over her because he brought her safely to me at the San Francisco Airport and because He always watches over the Mahlou clan -- and whether or not we know where she is, whether or not we ever see her again, Ksenya will always be a member of the Mahlou clan.

[pics later]

PS. If God ever grants us the possibility to tell "more later," I will be certain to add it here!

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