It was a day just like the day our younger son was born 26 years ago —the chill of winter coming, the sun still warm on our faces. Johan and I were walking together in Elektrostal, Russia, and we remarked how similar it was—yellow and brown leaves blowing down from the trees, while I waited out my early labor in a state park, reluctant to be incarcerated in a hospital maternity ward for a moment longer than absolutely necessary.
The day in Elektrostal was actually the day before my son’s birthday—it was actually 33 years to the day after my first niece was born. I remembered that day also because Johan and I had walked down Beacon Hill together in Boston and then bought my engagement ring. It was a just-starting-out, saving for-grad-school sort of ring—two tiny little diamonds on each side of a garnet. My grandmother’s wedding ring, E.B. to A.P. inscribed inside, would be my wedding ring.
I had treated buying the engagement ring like a guilty pleasure. I hid the ring in the top bureau drawer until we announced our engagement months later. It just didn’t quite seem possible that this wonderful funny brilliant gentle Norwegian guy would want to stick with the likes of me. The miracle of it all hasn’t worn off, 33 years later. I’m just more willing to accept that some things in life can’t be explained nor have to be deserved, fortunately.
Two childbirths, two grad schools and multiple moves later, I lost one of the tiny diamonds from the ring. Somewhere between the soccer field and the public library, as I was chauffeuring my now grade-school children around, the diamond fell out. I was amused to find that it only cost $25 to replace it. I even bragged about it, in a reverse-snobby, but still proud sort of way. When I lost the other one a few months ago, I was not concerned about the cost!
So here we were, making our way together through a main street in Elektrostal—off to buy a new thingy-deal for the tip of the faucet, an “aerator,” Johan tells me. It’s a much less elegant task than buying a ring together, but it did give us an opportunity to take a picture of an electronics store with a blow-up Martian sitting on its roof, comfortably clicking away on a laptop.
A few people we didn’t recognize said hello to us. We have some fame here as the only Americans in Elektrostal. Some people treat us like foreigners to be feared, others welcome us as local celebrities. I think it reflects Russians’ deep ambiguity about having suddenly rejoined a now more global world, after the isolation of the Soviet iron curtain.
We found our plumbing supply store—actually, more like a corner of a large hall, with partitions for a toy store, a kiosk to order kitchen cabinets, a travel desk for buying tours of the Black Sea and other places, and jewelry sales and repair. Johan, not surprisingly like my father, tends to ignore the physical world, most especially fabric stores or jewelry stores. So I was surprised when his eyes brightened and he said, “Look—jewelry!” The mystery was solved when he said, “You could get your ring repaired!”
I was hesitant, partly because it’s impossible to predict whether a clerk will greet you with the Soviet-style, “I might deign to give you the privilege of buying something from me today. But it’s not looking likely.” Or one is greeted by Russian generosity of spirit, and there is no way to predict this ahead of time.
The clerk at the window was a stitch—she was doing almost a stand-up comedy routine as we stood there, mulling over our choices. She doubted the remaining diamond in my ring was real. She put the prod of her little measuring device on the diamond, and the needle barely pushed over into green.
“It’s category B,” she said. “We can’t order one of that size in Category B.” I was not slighted by this; I was only beginning to panic at how much Category A would cost.
Three thousand rubles, or about 90 dollars, for a Category A diamond. On my own, I would have shopped all over E’stal for a Category B, but Johan stood there, beaming at me.
“It symbolizes our marriage!” Johan said, “Of course it should be category A!”
How could I resist such logic? I blushed, and agreed. A few days later we picked up the ring; the new diamond pushed the test level considerably farther to the green. The clerk laughed at how quickly I snatched the ring from her and put it back on my finger. “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” she added.
The new diamond sparkles more, and I love to move my hand so it catches the light. It even looks larger than the other one, although it is the same size. My friend Natasha laughed at me when she caught me admiring my own ring. “I never even noticed the diamonds before,” she said. The red garnet, yes, but the diamonds aren’t exactly big…I do like the red one.” Russian honesty, I thought, stilled by Natasha’s gentleness. This is good. But then it happened. I was once more admiring my new, larger looking diamond. I could buy a second Category A diamond and replace the old diamond. Then I would have two sparkling ones.
Ah, yes, I thought. A month ago I was content with my two itsy-bitsy dull ones. Now that I have a slightly better one, the remaining little diamond isn’t good enough! How did an improvement lead me to wanting yet more? I know more, and so I want more. Endless, this is. And crazy. I still have more to learn from Paul:
… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13, NIV).
Contributed by Judy Maurer, Friend Serving Abroad, Reedwood Friends