Winters in Missouri are never like those I remember from my past life in Moscow. There, in January, we'd have two to three feet of snow on the ground. Here, in Missouri, snow is rare, and even if it comes, it melts in a day or two. This winter, we've had no snow at all.
This was going through my mind as I looked at the bare landscape on both sides of the highway leading to Jefferson City, Mo. We – my husband and I – were driving to the Missouri capitol building. The invitation, the result of our campaign contribution to a state assembly candidate, requested "the honor" of our presence on Jan. 9, 2009, at the inaugural parade, the swearing in of our 55th governor of Missouri, a reception at the governor's mansion, and more. "Are you interested?" my husband asked, showing me the invitation.
"Of course I am!" I said. "I'm excited about this election. I'm excited about the coming changes! And I've never been to an inaugural ball. Besides, you know, I'm a sucker for events that request 'the honor' of my presence."
"It's just a formality," my husband said.
I knew that. Still, during my 39 years in Moscow, no government official ever sent me an invitation. Summons, maybe: Demands to turn in my Soviet-era passport or to vacate my apartment – when I applied for an exit visa.
As for "the honor," we, ordinary citizens, were invisible. Our presence never counted. Our absence never disappointed.
The windows of the capitol building sparkled yellow and the dome glowed. We walked in. The grand march of the newly elected state officials was still in progress. One by one, they came down the marble stairs to the sound of music – men and women, old and young. Some walked with adult children and grandchildren, others walked with their own parents. Some had kids in tow, and others carried babies in their arms. There were men in tuxedos and women in formal dresses – all smiling and happy. Spectators were everywhere. They gathered in the capitol rotunda and filled the balconies circling the grand building. They, too, were festively dressed – talking animatedly, laughing, applauding, and snapping pictures.
For a while, we watched the procession, and then we wandered into the house chambers – large, with rows of chairs, marble columns, and stained-glass windows. The atmosphere was celebratory there, too. People walked in and out – to look around, to study the new seating chart, or to try out a chair. And the new state representatives and their families took pictures on the speaker's podium with the youngest member of the family raising a speaker's gavel.
The sound of the "Missouri Waltz" echoed from the rotunda. The ball started and the new governor and his wife slowly circled the floor.
"I heard he's been practicing," someone laughed.
Several more couples joined the governor, and suddenly the dance floor was full. We joined in, too.
Space was at a premium, but nobody complained. Older couples moved securely in each other's arms. Several teenagers danced in a close circle. A young man carefully led his elderly grandmother, a middle-aged couple was snuggled up in a happy kiss, and a soldier and his date, oblivious to the bustle, lost count of time in a tender embrace.
"We had the palace of congress in Moscow," I said to my husband. "But you could never see members of the government, let alone mingle with them. The palace was only open when the officials were not there. But here we're dancing among them, and nobody even asked for our invitations!"
"That's democracy," my husband laughed, spinning me around.
An hour later, we walked through a large wing of the building, where children – who had their formal shoes off – jumped around the floor in a wild dance. Then, we opened the door.
"Look, it's snowing!"
The snow came suddenly – large puffy flakes dancing in the air. As our car left the parking lot, snow flew toward our headlights. We drove once more around the capitol, watching the snow powder the glowing dome, cover the nearby trees, and turn the bare ground into a phosphorescent field. Change was in the air.