Some years ago, I read in a book that even after you're 40 it is still possible to fall in love with someone across a room. The only problem, as I saw it, is that at that point, the room is no longer full of people. The book came from the library where I worked as a shelver, and it was packed with every kind of advice a single, middle-aged woman could ever need.
My English was rather limited then – my native language is Russian – so I could not fully appreciate the book's wisdom, although I understood the "room" metaphor. Of course, it was written for the average American woman and not for a 40-year-old immigrant living in a small Midwestern town. For me, I believed, the room was always going to be empty.
Several years later, I walked into a room packed with mostly young people celebrating a junior colleague's birthday – a synonym for an empty room, as far as I was concerned.
But as I looked across the floor, a rich, soft baritone voice sounded somewhere above my head. As I looked up into light-blue eyes and a kind, open face set off by a strawberry-blond cloud of curly hair, my heart started to race.
Having come to Missouri from cold places – I from Moscow, he from Madison, Wis. – we both believed that snow, which rarely graced our town, was an occasion for rejoicing. We shared political views and the conviction that Bach and Mozart were geniuses. We revered Shakespeare and Tolstoy and, as my English improved and I got a degree in library science, we often talked about books. In short, we were meant for each other.
The first conflict that surfaced after we got married was over food. My new husband disliked Russian cooking. ("Did you ever hear anybody talk about Russian 'cuisine' the way people talk about French cuisine?" he asked).
I, on the other hand, didn't care for Mexican or Chinese, his favorites. ("They just top everything with beans or drown it in soy sauce!" I wailed.)
Later, I discovered that he liked backpacking, while I relished the comfort of my new American home. He wanted to go bird-watching, but I, raised in a city inhabited by sparrows and pigeons, could not understand what there was to watch.
A true Midwesterner whose ancestry went back to England, he believed in keeping "a stiff upper lip." Having read Dostoevski at an early age, I believed in revealing my every negative emotion.
He expressed happiness and planned for the future without fear. I, raised in old Russian traditions, superstitiously knocked on wood and spit over my left shoulder every time he said something optimistic.
Then there were communication matters: I asked for help in a direct Russian manner – "Give me that!" He said I was "ordering him around." According to him, I should say "Would you?" "Could you?" or some other pleasantry unnatural in my native language.
In short, we were, well ... different, and if our marriage was to survive, something had to change.
We started by compiling a menu we both could enjoy. Borscht, the crown jewel of Russian cooking, was thrown out. Stuffed cabbage and pelmeni (the Russian version of meat dumplings) stayed. Soy sauce and beans were allowed in the kitchen, but to be used only sparingly.
We agreed that our vacations should combine guided tours in civilized places, as well as camping in state and national parks. Also, I would work on controlling my emotions, and he on expressing his true feelings.
To top it all off, I brought home from the library copies of Deborah Tannen's "I Only Say This Because I Love You," as well as books on bird-watching and stargazing.
Some months later, I woke up in a tent – cold, stiff, and filled with self-pity, mentally complaining to my friends back home, "Can you believe it? There were no showers at that campground, bear warnings were posted everywhere, and we had to lock our food in a bear-proof box!"
For a time I watched my peacefully sleeping husband, and then I put on a jacket and left the tent.
It was still dark and a distant howling sound added an air of mystery to the black silence of the night. There was no moon, but the sky was aglow – studded with myriad stars glimmering above our lakeside campground and the silhouettes of mountains across the lake.
Everything was still, and so was I, enchanted by the night's beauty, lost in its calm vastness.
"Incredible, isn't it?" said my husband, who appeared suddenly behind me.
"Yes, it is," I whispered as I leaned against him, feeling secure in his warm embrace. "I've never seen so many stars!"
"I'm glad you like it," he said. "And I'm glad we're here together."
Several years have passed since then. We are still different: I prefer gardening, he – bird-watching. But we've planted trees together, and I've learned the names of the birds that we both enjoy watching in our backyard.
And if you ask me what I think about Tolstoy's famous claim that "Happy families are all alike...." Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that you don't have to be alike to be happy.