The clerks at my US post office carefully searched their large book of regulations and then checked with the postmaster just to make sure. They came back with the good news that, as far as they could see, Russia had no objections to my sending pumpkin seeds to Vetoshkino.
Vetoshkino is a village about two hours south of Kirov. It's set in the midst of endless fields that make islands of such villages. Yet in all those fields there was not a single pumpkin patch. In fact, none of my Russian friends knew what pumpkins were. They grow all kinds of squash, but no one had ever seen anything like the plump, orange ones common in the US.
Their discovery of "American pumpkins" started with a photo album I sent to my friend Tatyana and her husband, Mikhail.
Russians love photo albums. One of the first things you do when you go visiting is sit and look at photos.
I had no idea, however, that the photo of a pumpkin patch would cause such a stir. Tatyana and Mikhail pulled out the album and showed the picture to everyone who came to visit. What would happen, I thought, if they saw the real thing?
The point, of course, was more than having pumpkin patches sprouting in Russian villages. In my experience, few things create more of a feeling of closeness between people of different countries and cultures than sharing everyday life. It gives us faces, so to speak, and breaks through stereotypes.
So I bought 12 seed packages from Bradley's Hardware and sent them off one day at the beginning of March a couple of years ago.
Tatyana started the seeds in little containers she set on the windowsills. That's when I began a second photo album. This one contained pictures of carved pumpkins collected from old magazines.
By the end of the summer, Tatyana said, people were coming from all corners of the village, and even from surrounding villages, to see the pumpkin patch.
Their pumpkins grew larger and larger, and my collection of jack-o'-lantern pictures thicker and thicker. I smiled to think of the delight the village children would have carving their first pumpkins.
If all went well, Tatyana and Mikhail would have enough to give one to each family.
But when I called Tatyana in August, she asked me why I hadn't sent her pumpkin recipes. "You want to eat them?" I asked in amazement.
Her response, after listening to my explanation, was as astonished as mine: "You carve faces in them?"
Over the phone, I was getting nowhere. I finally agreed to send recipes. Tatyana then suggested that the next time I was in the village, I show them what a carved pumpkin was.
That first year they had a bumper crop. Tatyana and Babushka (Grandmother) made pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread, pumpkin with rice, and even blini (Russian pancakes) from pumpkin.
What they couldn't use, they shared with their neighbors, along with the recipes.
The rest of the pumpkins were cut up, boiled slightly, and fed to the cows, which loved them.
I sighed, however, to think that not a single pumpkin was carved.
When I arrived in the village the following fall, nearly half the villagers had pumpkin patches. My first night in Vetoshkino, we pulled a midsize pumpkin out from under Babushka's bed. Tatyana, Mikhail, and Babushka looked on curiously as I carved away. We found a candle, shut off the lights, and lit up the face. The eyes sparkled, and the grin glowed as if the pumpkin were trying to laugh out loud.
Mikhail smiled ever so slightly, but Babushka only shook her head. "It was a perfectly good pumpkin," she said.
It took me a while to understand, but finally I realized that for her it was no different than carving a face in a pumpkin pie and never eating it. A waste.
Nonetheless, Babushka later kindly told me that it had a "very American face."
"How so?" I asked.
"Because it has such a big smile."
All along I thought I would be sharing a bit of America through the eyes of a carved pumpkin. But the pumpkins didn't need faces for the villagers to see something more of America than they had seen before.
"There's a little bit of America growing in Vetoshkino," the villagers began to say. It was more than pumpkins, of course. It was a feeling of warmth. Even without carving the pumpkins, the thick green vines had tied people together who live far apart.