I had moved to Russia for a semester to volunteer as an English teacher. This move wasn't so much motivated by benevolent philanthropy as my desire to compete with my college peers who all seemed to have accrued impressive travel and foreign language notches under their belt, all in the name of Volunteer Work. And so I went to the city of Ufa, nestled in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, incredibly unprepared for the poverty and depressing concrete reality of post-communist Russia.
One weekend our small group of American English teachers was invited to take a country excursion to visit relatives of one of our students. We piled into a couple miniature, weather beaten cars that appeared to be relics from the 1950's, and set off into the country side. Paved roads soon became dirt roads, and after that we began periodically unloading to walk along side the cars as they plowed through knee-deep streams. When we arrived at the tiny country house where our hosts awaited us I looked around and thought, Where is the rest of the village? This is just a shack. In the middle of nowhere!
There are holes in my memory of how we passed that evening in the country, but there are a few details that remain etched in permanent ink. The old woman hosting us was hunched over and wrinkled, a long mostly-white braid down her back and rustic clothes that reminded me of a Native American. There were only three rooms in the tiny house, and when it was bedtime I craned my neck, wondering where six American guests, our drivers, and our host and hostess might sleep. Two at a time the Americans were directed toward the wrought-iron beds that had served as "couches" the moment before. The single mattress bowed in the middle like a hammock, so when my bed companion Georgina and I tucked in we laughed as we both slid down the mattress into one lump in the middle. We didn't mind. It was bitterly cold, and we were grateful for the quilts the old woman piled on us until we felt the weight of couch cushions insulating us from the frigid night air.
Once I was warm and ready for sleep, my heavy eyes traveled over the dark room to see where everyone else had landed. That's when I noticed the old woman holding her knees to her chest as she slept on top of a wooden trunk in the corner. No blanket. No pillow. Just her wizened old body curled into a scoop. I suddenly understood that Georgina and I were sleeping in her bed, and I eventually drifted off to a restless sleep, puzzling over the notion that sleeping on top of an old trunk was her only option. Didn't they have an air mattress? Wasn't there a nice neighbor who could have spared a few blankets?
The next morning I took my place at the rickety kitchen table, more than ready for a good breakfast after my troubled sleep. The old woman first served tea, and then she presented each of us with a hard boiled egg. I sniffed the air. Where were the blinis, or the steaming pots of rice pilaf that most of our Russian hosts usually served? Borscht? Sausage and cabbage? I had yet to leave a Russian home without feeling slightly ill from being overfed. But as time ticked by it became clear there weren't additional courses coming to us. Breakfast was tea and a hard boiled egg, and as understanding dawned my appetite faded. Don't you get it? I scolded myself. There isn't anything else. They are sharing everything they have to offer!
It feels appropriate that this memory should return to me at a time when I'm tempted to feel sorry for my lot, being grounded to the couch and all at 22 weeks. But I can't lament my own trials in light of that old woman's sacrifice. And I'm not comparing my soft couch to her trunk, or my pancakes and syrup to her hard boiled egg. I'm comparing her grace, selflessness, and dignity to my whining. Evidently it is still possible in this world to exhibit grace in the midst of hardship and want.