Friday, September 24, 2010

Going With Them

Day three of the kids’ visit, my little band lacks the ambition of the first day and the urgency of the last. While I am gung-ho to show them more of the city, yesterday was a gumption-robbing scorcher, and today is a carbon copy. The families opt to stay in climate-controlled comfort with the kids, but after our late laugh last night, we Americans arrive at the kids’ flat almost an hour later than planned.

We’re throwing a party, and since it’s no one’s birthday, we pretend it’s everyone’s. In a departure-eve tradition at my house, my Russian son measures out streamers twice the length of our playroom and rolls them up as I finalize my packing. He enjoys surprising me with the color, and it lets him do something to help “the Russian kids,” as he calls them. Russian ceilings tower, and hanging my son’s streamers high enough always proves challenging. The festivity gauge rises sharply when I give the kids balloons; soon some joust with inflatable swords, some decorate the flat, and others fashion gaudy headwear for the partygoers.

Svetlana, the chaperone, is polite, but not exactly jovial. She’s claimed several times this week the kids aren’t interested in things they’re yanking my arms for, ensured the television drones endlessly, and made clear that on this, her inaugural visit to Moscow, the only thing she cares if she sees is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When she accepts and dons a hat designed by one of our budding haberdashers, I extend shocked and silent kudos, as it would hurt my heart to see an orphan’s generosity rebuffed.

As the festive melee unfolds, I pour over two bird’s milk cakes. I expect to write “Happy Birthday” and the kids’ names in Cyrillic, but the tubes of frosting I’ve brought are almost pathologically uncooperative. Before I get to the end of “Happy Birthday,” I’m lamenting the beautiful vision in my mind is destined to remain only that, until Zulya comes to look, hugs me, and proclaims it beautiful. I recognize her word in Russian, and the delivery is so genuine I can tell she means it. I think it strange that her single word agitates a flurry of emotions within me. I cherish her encouragement, but find it sad commentary that my eyesore of a cake is lovely to her. It highlights why we have a party when it’s no one’s birthday, and even why we run these trips: the kids have been denied most things we assume are birthrights of childhood.

I plant Hanukkah candles on the cake. They were on clearance, and I can’t resist a bargain. As a bonus, they’re more substantive than ordinary birthday candles. We always sing “Happy Birthday” several times for our videos, and shoot enough photos to shame paparazzi; ordinary candles cannot withstand such delay. As the candles burn brightly through all the pictures and songs, no one suspects that they’re not officially birthday candles.

During my first Russian party, I learned to set aside one cake for the kids to blow on and eat, reserving another cake for those favoring dessert unsullied by spittle. After English and marginal Russian renditions of the birthday song, the candles are extinguished by eight kids blowing in near-unison, and the cake is cut. Each child’s piece sports a candle, which we relight to their jubilation. As some kids eat around the flame with shaky hands, and others wield theirs, I wonder what we’d be charged for burning down the flat.

After cake, it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey time. The kids haven’t played it before, though you’d never know by the skill with which they cheat: only two don’t grope the wall before committing their tails. Even the translator and chaperone feel around. For a low-stakes party game without a prize, the depth of my indignation surprises me. At the end, having no photo, I pick Alexandra, a non-cheater, to reenact the game. She now pats the wall, too, having modified her strategy while watching the others. We Americans play afterward, demonstrating how it’s done. None of us cheat, and the kids laugh like we’re the greenhorns.

A boulevard outside the flat offers a tree-lined walk down the center, with a playground near one end. After the party and lunch, we lug a watermelon and freezer pops to the playground, availing ourselves of a thousand photo ops the kids create. Oleg bats as Jeff pitches him a baseball, Alexandra sits on a slide with Barrie and Joyce, Sergei and Andrei look at pictures, and Zulya and Lora throw a Frisbee. A man and his tiny daughter walk by. The little one is fascinated by the Frisbee, so Zulya squats down, shows her the disc, tries to help her throw it, and speaks gently to her. For a child on the receiving end of so little nurture in her life, it is heartwarming to see how naturally Zulya doles it out.

At the park, translator Irina summons Alexandra; Barrie and Joyce want to talk with her. As she sits beside them on a bench, they tell her she’s beautiful, they love her, and they want her to be their daughter. They flip together through an album with pictures of their family, home, and their son Trevor with a boy he’s adopting from our March trip. Presenting her a necklace with a cross pendant, Joyce shows Alexandra a similar necklace she received from her mom. Alexandra says she likes Barrie and Joyce, but isn’t sure about adoption. That’s okay, they counsel. They want her to consider it, to be sure.

As the rest of the kids play on, oblivious to the momentous discussion near them, I slice the watermelon with a knife I thought twice about carrying down the street. Russians are proud of the watermelons they call “ar-BOOSE.” Since this is my first summer trip, it’s my first taste. Their pride is justifiable, and the watermelon is a most apt treat on this sweltering, but gloriously smoke-free, afternoon.

At night, when I’m unwinding back in my room, Barrie and Joyce knock on my bag door, wanting to talk. They have been trip stalwarts, unfailingly upbeat whether or not circumstances warrant. Having them along has been unmitigated pleasure. They touch me by opening with effusive thanks, then one-up themselves with the tale of their conversation with Alexandra at the park. Later at the flat, Irina tells Joyce Alexandra wants to join their family, but is too shy to tell them. Weeping, Joyce invites Barrie to meet his new daughter. It’s impossible to contain his emotion as he promises Alexandra his lifelong love and protection. He adds, just to me, that he was warned adoption was pricey.  He understands, but invoking the "you can't take it with you" expression, counters that they can take their kids with them someday.

So in a humble room, behind a makeshift trash bag door, I learn the joyous tidings that Alexandra, the first orphan I ever interviewed, has a family, and one I esteem (Mission: Never Accomplished, 2/10/10). As Barrie and Joyce thank me again for helping them find their daughter, it’s worth a hug and a tear. Or two.

Alexandra is going with them.