San Diego to St. Petersburg with Grandma Kay
January 24, 2021. I read the headline in Yahoo News: “Ukrainians to Grapple with Warnings That Russian Invasion is Imminent.” Russia! Russia! Russia! Headlines getting worse.
Will Putin invade Ukraine? What does this imperious, unscrupulous dictator want? What does he need? How can a country with the GDP of Minnesota (according to the Borgen Non-Profit, an organization that addresses issues of hunger and poverty) “is one of the largest impoverished countries within a developed economy.” What if Russia decides to go to war?
Why would I be writing about Russia instead of taking another trip down memory lane with John and Helen St. John? Because Russia has a short, but a uniquely special place in my heart.
I’d like to give readers a snapshot of the Russia I experienced for a week in March 1999 when my mother and I lived in St. Petersburg. Our purpose was to view a collection of paintings stolen from Nazi Germany going on display at the State Hermitage Museum. Many of the paintings were world-renowned: Degas “Place de Concorde.” Van Gough “White House at Night.” Renoir “In the Garden and “Man on the Stair.” There were other works by Gauguin, Delacroix, Matisse, Monet, Pissarro and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Like many of my most exciting adventures, this one started with an early morning phone call. My mother’s voice brimmed with excitement. “What are you doing now? Right now?”
“What I always do in the morning, Mom. I’m writing.”
“Then put down your pen and start packing your suitcase,” she said. “We’re going to Russia.”
Russia? Why the hell go to Russia when we could go to Florence?
“What’s going on in Russia?” I asked. “What’s the rush? Are you on some new meds?”
A long silence, then, “Stop being silly. I’m serious. The Hermitage Museum is having a special exhibit of paintings stolen by Nazi Germany. Now is the time to go. The trouble is visitors only have one hour to see seventy-four paintings. That isn’t lots of time to see a painting.”
We’re going to travel halfway across the world to a cold, communist country to spend one hour in an art gallery to view stolen paintings? Sounds like the trip from hell. Why me?
“Where did you hear about this adventure?” I asked. “One of your teaching buddies?”
“I read an article in the New York Times,” she said. “And I’ve already got a place to stay.”
The last vacation our family had with Grandma Kay, she made reservations in a convent that had stricter rules than the Vatican. But the price was right. We had to be in by 10:00 pm. We washed our clothes in a bathtub. We heard Vespers and chanting all night. The day she took our teenage boys out for a day, they went bar hopping and fell in love with beer. Russia with GK?
“Where will we be staying?” I asked. “Not a Russian convent I hope.”
“To get the full flavor of the country, I made reservations with an unemployed Soviet engineer who needs the money and his unemployed, space scientist wife. They don’t have hot water or bathing facilities, but we’ll get the full experience of the Soviet Union.”
What could I say? Russia with Grandma Kay will be more than an adventure. If I survive.