The curious thing is, I would say we are very close and I wouldn’t say this just to flatter myself- I believe it. We talk often, by e-mail, phone or in person. Rich and I laugh when she leaves a phone message; one of the most memorable went like this: Maaaaaaaammmmmyyyyy! (and then she sings, “dun, duh, dun, dun!”) The cable man is coming tomorrow to hitch up my high speed! (and then she sings, “dun, duh, dun, dun!”). He needs 88.00 before he leaves. (“dun, duh, dun, dun!”) Click. When I call back, I get voice mail and ask her if she needs 88.00 and then I don’t hear from her for a couple days and when I do she doesn’t need anything, life is fine and she’s busy writing her finals with her new high speed connection. When we are in Florida for the winter we delight in her visits; she’s most always like a bounce of sunshine and good for a laugh.
I don’t think she hides much from me but I’ve come to realize that she plays her hand close to the vest if she isn’t sure of her direction yet. That may be because the direction she is often leaning is the one I wouldn’t endorse. Taking a year off from high school (I mean college maybe, but high school?) Shearing off a decade’s worth of luscious thick blond hair so she can glue up the blunt ends into dreadlocks. Cliff diving. Jumping into a blue hole that is so deep there’s no life save a couple blind albino fish. And so, while she shares all the day-to-day news and feels perfectly comfortable asking my recommendation on the best treatment for a yeast infection, while she crashes in for a meal or to borrow a pair of black pants for work during our winters in Florida, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the sharing of her heart with a young man would be news to me.
It was as simple as this: She thought she might be falling in love two years ago. He was visiting from Russia for the semester, working on his degree in English. He thought he might be falling in love with her. When his student visa ran out at the end of the semester he returned to Russia, his family, his University and they wrote back and forth every day. Abby learned some Russian and had a Russian e-mail account. Misha applied for the last visa that his government would give him, merely as a tourist, and back he came. When that visa was about to expire last September they had a choice to make and they decided to get married.
Abby summed it up this way: “I know I’m still very young, too young to get married. But I think he might be the person I want to be with forever and if he goes back, I’ll never know.” I’m not certain if she told me that on the phone before or after she married him, but at some point, after I implored her to come north to discuss it, after I said I was on my way down to meet this person, after I cried, “Abby! This isn’t the way a person should make a lifelong decision!” she called to tell me what classes she was taking last Fall, and, by the way, she and Misha were married.
I cried and she said sweetly, “Mom! Why are you crying? Why aren’t you happy for me?” (Here, I’m reminded that she’s an excellent candidate for law school- or leading a cult.) I said to her that this was not what mothers thought of when they thought about their daughter’s marriage, not to mention wedding. Abby then said two things: And what did your mother think when you married your high school sweetheart because his parents were threatening to stop paying his tuition if he continued to “live in sin”?” (Oh dear, score one for Abby.) And: “Mom. This was a pragmatic decision on a temporary basis. (Arrrggghh! Temporary! Kill me now!) I think sometime I will marry Misha (but, but, you’re already MARRIED!) and when I do, we can plan a wedding and you can have a shower with all the bookclub ladies and it will be wonderful. Just be happy for us for now.”
Part of the dilemma was this: Not only would Misha have to return to Russia but he would also be picked up at customs and sent directly into the Russian army, where “dedovshchina” is the norm. This is a systematic hazing process that results in widespread torture, death and suicide. Frequently, recruits are half starved as food provisions are sold on the black market by officers. Two years of military service is mandatory and there is no civilian alternative to service. Mothers in Russia would rather say goodbye to their sons forever than have them go in the Russian army. Here is Amnesty International’s report on military service in Russia. Brace yourself.
(Okay. Here you should insert, oh, maybe 20-30 angst ridden posts, discussions with Rich, sleepless nights, nail chewing and skin scratching, and many many hours spent in thinking about how to think about all of this. Tears, fussing, phone calls, daughter reassuring mother.)
They were married sometime last September. Within a week of her telling me I flew down to meet this young man. When I arrived at Abby’s (and Misha’s) neat and tidy apartment, they were sitting anxiously side by side on the sofa, which was labeled with sticky notes: SOFA and софа. The television said TV and телевидение. REFRIGERATOR and холодильник. She looked like my teenager wanting me to approve of her date to the movies. Not that she ever sought my approval on that front. Misha (Mikhail) shook my hand and politely answered my questions in English. It took me very little time to progress from, “Hello. It’s nice to meet you.” to “Who is your lawyer and how soon can we meet with him?”
After an awkward and short visit, Abby walked me down to the car and leaned in the window to ask with shy eagerness, “Do you like him? Isn’t he smart? Doesn’t he speak English well? Isn’t he handsome? So, do you like him?”
The next day we went off to meet with the immigration lawyer, a kind and legitimate man who doesn’t advertise in the yellow pages (brazenly, I asked him where he went to law school and how long he had been in practice). He offered reassuring answers about the legalities of their marriage and made himself available for questions at any time. When we left, I went to get my checkbook and Misha said, “No. I pay.” And the lawyer said, “No. There’s no charge.”
Because Abby and I do speak frankly with each other right up until there’s screaming and we stop speaking for a few days, I asked her if there was any question that Misha was using her to escape his circumstances in Russia. Abby responded that if he was, what was the problem with that? He was, at the very least, her friend and her love and the very least she could do for him was this marriage. Besides, she reassured me that was not the case. As much as you can know someone after six months, in my case, or two years in hers and as much as they can know themselves, I think she is correct. I’ve talked with Misha about his intentions and he is straight forward: He intends to be with Abby. He intends to finish his degree next semester at USF. He intends to become a citizen and sponsor his parents and brother in America.
There’s a lot more to tell and I will, along the way. Judge how you will, but they are wonderful with each other- caring and gentle and funny and patient, with a maturity that transcends about ninety percent of the marriages I witness. On Sundays, they go down to the wireless cafe by the bay and call his parents on Abby’s laptop. They put their heads together and peer into the online camera and speak, Misha quickly and Abby haltingly, to an assortment of his family. His parents at the kitchen table (I’ve been introduced. They are from a small town where she is a school teacher and he is a chef), his brother, aunts and uncles and neighbors who come by to see what is happening with their young man in America.
He works two jobs, as much as 80 hours a week and she works and goes to school full time. Well, except right now she is in Mexico, studying and cliff diving and that too, is encouraging because it means she is not to be derailed from her plans to go to graduate school and see the world. They ask nothing material of us.
For now, they speak the language of love in post-it notes, translating their lives for each other. Over the winter I witnessed them becoming increasingly fluent.