On March 8, 1978, the morning after my husband's uncle picked us up from JFK Airport in Brooklyn, New York; we stood on the corner of 65th Drive and 108th Street in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, ready to explore our new surroundings. The night before, as the Soviet refugees claiming religious discrimination and clearing customs, we legally entered the United States of America.
Afterward, we got into my husband's uncle's car and drove to his apartment. The falling snow was a distraction. I couldn't stop staring through the car's window as I watched the large, heavy snowflakes hit the ground. By the time we reached our destination, the streets of New York City were covered in a majestically woven, sparklingly white winter blanket. As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, the illusion of a make-believe world enveloped me. Everywhere I looked, the scenery was virginal. It made me feel magical. The tall apartment buildings had transformed their ordinary looks into delightful castles. The surrounding atmosphere looked cheerful with the help of the streetlight. I instantly fell in love with America, the country which so generously welcomed me.
In the Soviet Union, winter was one of the seasons I enjoyed, especially when it snowed. I disliked the melted snow because it put the citizens' lives in danger when the sleet turned into ice, and the otherwise safe sidewalks became ice-skating rinks. I also was not a big fan of watching the melting snow turn the fairy tale landscapes into something drab and menacing-looking.
It is what happened during the night of March 7, 1978, precisely. The warmer temperature caused the snow to melt, then turned the beautiful white I saw upon arrival into a translucent layer of slippery ice when it dropped again.
The day my husband and I ventured outside the apartment building was our first day in the land of the free. The two of us, standing on the corner of the street, contemplated the treacherously unreliable sidewalks and the slippery driveways as we watched the vehicles' owners slowly pull out of their parking spots with the intent of driving to work in the early rush hours.
I am not sure why we were up so early. Probably, due to jetlag, and the excitement of starting a new life in a country with endless possibilities, we were unable to sleep.
"Do you still want to go for a walk?' I asked.
"I do. Let's explore. There is nothing for us to do inside. Everyone is still asleep."
As he said that, my husband shivered. He was underdressed for the bone-chilling, nippy weather. His faux fur parka and a pair of Italian leather shoes with thin soles didn't help. He couldn't stand still. He kept knocking his feet together and wrapping his hands around his body.
On that cold winter morning, standing next to my husband, I thanked Mama for making me listen. I felt warm in the winter coat, which Mama beautifully sewed for me back in the USSR right before we left. On my feet, I wore fur-lined leather boots. I almost left them behind, but she insisted I wear them to America. I only took them with me because I didn't want to upset Mama.
"Where do you want to go," I asked my husband.
"I'd like to see a supermarket."
His request puzzled me because we didn't know where it could be or in which direction we had to go to find it.
"How are we going to get there?"
"Can you ask someone, please? You were the one who studied English in school."
I look at him with horror. Asking someone for directions seemed painfully frightening, despite my extensive vocabulary. I did not feel comfortable posing a question to a stranger, and conversing in English made me insecure. I did not have enough practice.
My husband challenged me as he jumped from one foot to another. "I bet you don't even know how to ask a question about the location of a store?" he said.
"Don't insult my intelligence. Of course, I do!"
I felt hurt by his remark and was about to ask a passerby, "where is the shop?" when something stopped me from opening my mouth.
"Sorry, I cannot do it," I said to my husband. I saw a few more people go by, but I could not find the courage to do it.
I was the product of the strict restrictions of the socialist society, which still held its grip on me that morning. My inaction greatly annoyed my spouse. He was freezing, and I couldn't blame him for being mad and impatient with me. But at twenty-three, I was timid and petrified of talking to strangers.
Many people who went by, most likely, wondered why these two foreigners who spoke in a strange tongue bickered as they stood at the end of the street. But my story didn't end there.
At some point during our heated discussion, we noticed an old lady walking slowly toward us. She gingerly took tiny steps to protect her bent-over body from falling on the slippery ice as she leaned heavily into her cane for support.
She, too, was about to pass us by when suddenly, my spouse reached out his hand and gently tapped her on the shoulder. She stopped, lifted her head, and looked at us with curiosity.
Meantime, my husband cupped the fingers of his right hand and brought them to his mouth. He moved his lips as if he had eaten something. The old lady did not know how to respond. She mumbled some words in English, which he couldn't understand. The look on her face was priceless. She seemed in shock and thought my husband was a beggar.
When the old lady realized her words didn't register, out of frustration, she swept one of her hands in half a circle and lifted one of her shoulders in a hopeless gesture to show us that she didn't have any food to share. All the while, she held on with her other hand to the cane for balance and stability.
I watched the quick exchange of the hands in silence and fascination, mesmerized by it all. I could tell my husband's disappointment by the look on his face. Upset that his message went misunderstood, he tried again. All at once, he grabbed both of his shoulders with the palms of his hands and flapped up and down the imaginary wings in rapid succession; he pronounced several "Ko," Ko," and "Ko" sounds to imitate a chicken.
Embarrassed by his odd behavior, I did not know if I wanted to laugh or cry. In that instant, I wished to disappear from the face of the earth. I expected the old lady to bring her finger to her head to indicate that my husband was crazy, but instead, I only saw compassion in the withered by-age face. I looked again and realized that she must have been Jewish.
Excited, I thought I could help with this situation. In my memory, I searched for a Yiddish word for chicken, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to escape me, and the only word that popped into my head was galena/chicken in Italian. I almost missed the grand finale of the hands exchange looking for the right word.
Suddenly, I no longer saw the hands move as the air around me filled with stillness. The two adversaries stood facing each other when out of nowhere, the old lady figured it out. With the confusion gone, the tiny woman sighed with relief and relaxed her torso. A moment of clarity appeared on her face when she turned her body halfway toward 65th Drive and pointed her gnarly finger at a large store on the other side of the street. Her eyes winked, and the wrinkled face broke into a beautiful smile.
Yefim and I laughed when we realized we were just a few steps away from the supermarket. We bowed our heads and gently patted the old lady's bent back out of respect before crossing the street. Gratitude does not require words.