I promised quite a long time ago to share this story, so here it finally is. The following was adapted from a newsletter written in January, 2004. Hope you enjoy it!
Some gifts just keep giving. They make memories and they liven up both your life and your home. In December of 2003, I was given such a gift.
A dear Russian babushka, whom I had been visiting for a long time, found out in November of that year that I was going to have a birthday. She began planning and scheming, trying to come up with the “appropriate” gift. I assured her it was not necessary, but she insisted she would find something. After some time she made her decision. On her kitchen wall hung two large, pottery platters. One was decorated with rather nice green flowers; the other bore a painting of a young couple in traditional Russian dress. They were both quite nice. She decided the latter would be the perfect gift.
I wasn’t so sure. After all, where was I going to put a platter that was a good 18 inches across! It would take up an entire wall in my little room. I had a lot to carry that day as it was, so I thanked her profusely and told her I would take it some other time. I was hoping she would forget all about it. But she didn’t. The next visit the issue did not come up, and I did not bring it up, my room was not getting any bigger after all. But I could not avoid it forever, and before I knew what was happening I was caught with no way of escape.
It was late December. Two friends and I had gone to visit this dear lady and help her do some cleaning and sorting. The woman’s grandson was there that day, so she took the opportunity to declare and enforce her decision that the plate was going home with me—that day. She directed him to take the plate off the wall and to put it with our things. I was cleaning the living room while this conversation was taking place in the kitchen. I heard her grandson grunt as he strained to reach for the platter, which hung above the refrigerator. The grunting was followed by an exorbitant amount of snickering and the exact words I had hoped would NOT follow: “Grandma, it has roaches! You’re giving Rachel a gift with roaches in it!”
The grandson found this quite amusing. The grandmother couldn’t quite comprehend how it could be possible. I was beginning to feel a bit nauseous.
There was no way around it. The plate was going home with me, so how do you deal with inhabited gifts!
In Moscow, the hot water is supplied by the city. It is very hot, almost boiling. This gave me some hope. As we were getting ready to leave, I took the plate to the sink to wash it off. It barely fit in the sink, but I managed to wedge it in facedown. The plate, made specifically for hanging, had been designed with two holes in the back. Several strands of nylon fishing line had been drawn through these holes and knotted into a very nice hanger. Because of this design, the plate was hollow thus providing the perfect home for little brown creatures.
I put the faucet into one hole and turned the water on full blast. Within moments, hot water and steam were pouring out the other hole as the water filled the bottom of the plate and spilled out. I was relieved when little carcasses began to slip out along with the other dirt that had gathered in the bottom of the plate over the years. When the flow seemed to be bug-free, I turned off the hot water, emptied the plate, turned it around, and did it all over again; this time with the water flowing through the second hole. I hoped this would be sufficient.
We girls gathered our things—which included at least one back pack, a large purse, a trash bag full of dirty rags, a box of beads that the grandmother wished to donate to the children, and the enormous plate—and began our walk home.
Now, to understand what happened next you must remember that these events are taking place only a week or so after some young women detonated a bomb in downtown Moscow; that we, like those women, are all wearing long skirts, that our arms are loaded down with this stranger menagerie of stuff, and that it is now dark.
We were less than two minutes from home and were about to cross a side street when I saw a car slowing beside us and then quickly swinging into the side street and stopping abruptly. As the doors opened, the dome light lit up the interior of the car revealing three militiamen. Two of the men got out and came toward us. Of the three, one was attired in street clothing. He moved quickly, asking to see our documents. I told the girls to get out their visa/passport copies and began to pull out my own. My heart was at peace; I knew our documents were in order. At least I thought our documents were in order.
We each gave them our photocopies. This puzzled them. I explained that replacing the originals was very difficult and expensive (not to mention the legal problems that could ensue) and therefore we did not carry the originals. This did not satisfy them. They asked why the girls could not speak Russia. I explain that one of the girls had just arrived in Moscow. Apparently, one of the men thought I meant JUST because he asked to see her airplane tickets. This is understandable considering the odd assortment of things we were carrying, however, at the time, the request struck me as so strange that I nearly started laughing. Who would actually carry their ticket around with them!
The two men went to the car to speak to their superior. They talked for a while, looking over the documents. Then the uniformed officer returned to us. He handed me my documents and said that the girls would need to come over to the car.
“They do not speak Russian.” I reminded him.
“Then you come with them.”
We went to the car where the superior officer began his interview.
“Why don’t you have the originals?”
“We don’t want them to get lost or stolen, so we carry copies.”
“Don’t you know Moscow is a city under a regime!” he bellowed. “You should carry the originals. The copies are not right.”
“May I see them?”
He held the papers up to the light and showed me that the registration stamp was not there.
“You see how this paper is stapled into the passport,” I explained, “they have begun putting the stamp under this paper and whoever made the copy didn’t know that. I am sure that if we looked at the original we would find that the stamp is there. We are very close to home. You see we live in that orphanage right over there.” I pointed down the street in the direction of the children’s home. “If you like we can go there right now and look at them.” I paused, waiting for his response.
The man simply looked at the papers.
“It’s only about a two minute walk from here.”
He remained silent, flipping the papers over in his hands.
“Or, if you would be more comfortable, you could drive us over there and our director could show you everything.”
“I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully.
“Or, if you have the means we could call our director, and he could bring the originals here. It wouldn’t take long.”
With that, he seemed content that we were neither illegal nor ready to pay a bribe.
“Well, never mind, go on.” He handed the papers back to me and waved us on.
“You mean we can go?”
“Da. Go on.”
I took the papers and handed them to the other girls. As I did so, the uniformed officer that had called us over to the car kept looking at us in dissatisfaction. He seemed to doubt that we were truly American citizens and that we were just on our way home. At last he spoke.
“What’s in the box?”
“Beads.” I answered, moving toward my friend who carried the box.
“Beads? Not a bomb?”
There it was. The word I knew he had been thinking all along.
“Yes, beads. Here let me show you.” As I said in another blog, I’m not sure why he didn’t pull a gun and demand that I stop at that very moment, but he didn’t. I opened the box and pulled out a handful of the tiny red and blue beads. They sparkled in the streetlights.
The man looked at them, but still did not seem convinced. Finally, he grunted and with a wave of his hand said, “Fine. Go on.”
I thanked him for doing his job, trying to be as pleasant as I could under the circumstances, then we were on our way.
And so my gift gave me my first memory…but it wasn’t done yet.
That first night, I just couldn’t bring myself to let that bug infested plate into my room. It sat in the hallway for quite a while, but I knew that it might get broken if I left it there long. At last, I brought it into the room and leaned it facedown against the spare bed. I was soon ready to call it a night and took up my usual “quiet time spot” on the floor next to my bed.
I tried to read my Bible as I sat there, but those two foreboding holes kept staring at me out of the back of that plate. I repeatedly caught myself watching the plate to make sure that nothing was coming out of it. Then I would force my attention back to my reading, only to find myself distracted again and again. At last, I was somewhat convinced that nothing was going to come out and went, very timidly, to bed.
The days went on, and then the weeks. The plate still sat beside the spare bed since I had yet to decided where and how to hang it. I’d done another “hot water treatment” on it, and so far nothing had appeared. I was pretty convinced that the victory over the little critters had been won—and then it happened.
I had just finished up my evening quiet time and was gathering my notes when I saw it. There, under my notebook, was a little bug in the carpet. I gasped. Surely it wasn’t…It couldn’t be…It was! A baby cockroach! I immediately killed it and looked at the plate. To my horror I saw two more. One of them was just coming out of the hole, its long wispy antennas waving at me as it emerged.
“NO!” I cried, killing the invaders and looking all around me to see if I had gotten them all. I couldn’t find any more at the moment, but I knew they were small and that only meant one thing…The plate had hatched!
The thought of hundreds of little bugs crawling all over my room was not a comforting one, especially at bedtime; but after searching I couldn’t find any more of my new little roommates, and I knew I had no choice but to go to bed, roaches and all.
The next morning, I awoke to find a little brown critter crawling on my sink and another floating in the little bit of tea that had been left in my cup. I groaned. That settled it, mine was now the outnumbered species in my room. I felt sick. The plate had to go, but where? How? How do you dispose of a gift in a way that won’t offend the giver?
I told our director’s wife about my dilemma. She suggested that I hang the plate in our new coatroom on the backside of one of the buildings. Since it was unheated, she thought perhaps it would be cold enough that any remaining eggs would freeze and the bugs would die off. Since we also felt it would be an appropriate decoration there, we left the plate in the entryway until we could get someone to hang it for us.
I went out that afternoon and got back just before dinner. As I walked through the main lobby to sign back in, I was horrified at the sight that met my eyes. There, neatly positioned against the door of our director’s office with great poise and prominence, was the plate.
“NO!” I thought. “How did it end up here?” In my mind, I could see thousands of little bugs running all over the lobby and having an absolute heyday in our director’s desk drawers.
“How did that get here!” I exclaimed. I dropped all of my belongings, scooped up the plate by its hanger and headed off to somewhere, anywhere, to dispose of it. Not knowing what else to do, I quietly slipped into the courtyard and set the plate in a little-seen corner where, sadly, it met its untimely demise under a foot and a half of snow.
It took nearly two months of waging war on my little friends, but eventually the victory was won. And so now, like all good missionaries, I have my bug story. But at least I haven’t had to eat any of them.
Oh, what a wonderful place I once called home; where nothing was ever dull, where friends were never far, and where plates “hatch”.