Whenever my ears detect an accent foreign to my own, I try to determine the speaker's native country, and then, in a curious and friendly way, ask the individual to see if I am right. Not long ago – at a meeting in St. Louis – I was.
Natasha is a young woman from Ukraine, the country from which my paternal ancestors emigrated at the turn of the 20th century.
She works as an aesthetician, having recently passed her qualifying exams here. She is also certified for this position in her native country. But scoring well on these tests in English was no small achievement. She didn't speak many words of English when she arrived on US shores 18 months ago.
Soon after we met, I eagerly shared with her details of my Ukrainian pilgrimage five years ago. I described how, in the small village of Dovbysh (about 124 miles from Kiev), I was pelted with sleet as I walked on the gravelly, potholed street where my grandmother had lived with her siblings and their parents.
Nearby was the china factory (built in 1823) where my great-grandfather had been foreman. Walking around the supply yards in back, I touched the rough, raw clay and smelled the fumes from the smokestacks. Inside the building, the heat generated from big kilns made the workrooms toasty. The noisy machines hummed incessantly.
It didn't appear as if much had changed in the production at the factory during the past hundred years. But there was one exception – artists no longer painted the designs on the china by hand but stuck on decals instead.
I watched one woman smooth the edges of pitchers and initial them to identify her work. Supervisors were still using abacuses to calculate each worker's productivity. This worker completed about 10 pitchers an hour or about 70 per day – six days a week – earning between 100 and 200 hryvnia (the equivalent of $20 to $40) a month.
I told my story slowly so my new friend could understand. I explained that had my family stayed in Ukraine, they would have been killed in the slaughter of Jews there in 1941.
I was the first of my relatives to return to this village. There on the street where members of my family had lived, I felt compelled to speak aloud my heartfelt gratitude for my grandparents' courage to travel to a faraway country and begin a new life with their two daughters.
Natasha didn't leave Ukraine out of fear or terror, and her parents and in-laws – as well as her siblings and cousins – still live there. In other ways, too, her experience differs from that of my ancestors. In some ways, it's similar.
When my grandparents and two aunts first arrived in the Midwest, they lived in an apartment. About a century later, when Natasha (along with her husband, Pavel, and daughter, Victoria) immigrated to the same area, they rented an apartment – and still live there – although they are hoping to purchase their first house soon. My grandparents did not have a car. A truck is provided for Pavel, who works as a locksmith. My relatives were glad to leave Ukraine and never wanted to return. Although Natasha and her husband are happy and grateful to be living in the US – so that their daughter has a brighter future – they miss their parents and other relatives and want to return often to visit them.
It wasn't long before Natasha and I discovered that our immediate Ukrainian bond was not the only connection we had. We also share a mutual love of classical music. In fact, she is quite a proficient pianist. But she could not yet afford to have even an upright instrument in her apartment.
When we met again, she was beaming and ecstatic, and she told me why: A few days earlier, upon opening the door to her room at work, she discovered a large package on the floor. Inside she found an electronic keyboard. She cried. A woman in her office had given it to her.
I was almost as touched as she was. I immediately remembered a "music box" stored in my basement.
Natasha now has another present: the easiest pieces in my music box, my collection of music, which she can use to teach her 8-year-old to play the piano. There is no need for her to purchase any new music. My "old" music – from when I began taking piano lessons in 1948 – will be just right for young fingers to play on the keyboard.
And when Victoria returns from visiting her grandparents in Ukraine, she will bring home her mother's old music, which is more advanced than mine. I look forward to hearing these mother-daughter duets.
In the meantime, I plan to search in my basement for more potential "treasures." You never know when I might detect the origin of another foreign accent ... and make another friend.