Very rarely am I nostalgic for my life in the former Soviet Union. And when I am (like on this misty, cool evening in early May), I recall certain scenes and long to relive them. Tonight I remember old Russian “babushkas,” elderly women I'd seen on the early morning suburban train heading to Leningrad carrying big baskets full of beautiful fresh lily-of-the-valley. If you were lucky to have a babushka in your railway carriage, the heavy, crowded air of working folks beginning their day’s routine (before deodorant found its way into the soviet reality), was replaced by something irresistible, fresh and delicate.
Let me tell you what happened to me during my first visit to St. Petersburg, after my family and I immigrated to the United States. It was 1998… The Soviet Union had already collapsed. I was on a business trip and found old Leningrad to be dirty, poor, and confused with the dynamics of the new era. Monetary reform was just launched, and the new banknotes were put into circulation. It was certainly a time of struggle for Russia.
One morning I was on my way to the conference. I saw a babushka with customary white kerchif on her head. She was sitting by the metro entrance and selling bouquets of landishi (lily-of-the-valley). I could not resist– I bought three and dipped my face into their fresh aroma. I do not remember how much they were, but the bunch cost less than $1. I paid in the new Russian currency. I was almost at the subway door when I hear someone calling me: “Dochenka, dochenka (daughter, daughter).” I turned. She was running towards me, the kerchief displaced, face red. She showed me the money I had just paid her, opening her sweaty, old, calloused hand. “I do not understand this new money,” she told me, “but I think you overpaid me. Please take it back.” My heart broke. I assured her I intended to pay extra because I love landishi so much and can’t get them where I live now. She kissed me on the cheek and we parted, both sorry for each other. She was sorry for me, deprived of life’s simple pleasures in the distant land (“Ne na Rodine” she nodded sadly to me (“not your Motherland”). I was sad for her, old and tired and forced to earn her living with hard labor.
Now I grow lily-of-the-valley on the farm. I order and plant different varieties (yes, there are many). I read about this flower as much as I can, and I pick them every spring. As I arrange them in the vase, I always think about this old woman. From this distant, and generally landishi-deprived reality, I wish her well. We are still connected somehow by this short encounter many years ago– as the Lily of the Valley signifies the return of happiness.