Sunday, January 31, 2016

Russian class and lost cats

I took Russian in high school from an army intelligence officer who may or may not have been on the verge of losing his marbles at the time he was teaching me. He taught us out of the standard Russian textbook available at the time, Russian for Everybody.

We did 15 chapters that year and he told us that it would count for a semester of college Russian if we decided to continue.

During that year, I was a witness to a gang initiation and that Russian teacher encouraged me to testify and then me in my dorky Catholic high school uniform and bad Texas hair was in the newspaper. Oh and then there was the time he got mad at me and threw a chalk eraser at me. But he also gave me his captains bars when I graduated. It was a love hate thing. He was crazy.

So I got to college and didn't take Russian that first semester, needing to get some other pre-requisites down. I went to visit the head of the Russian department before I signed up for spring classes, bringing my Russian textbook.

"That's the one we use," he held up his teacher's edition. "What chapter are you on?"

"We finished chapter 15," I told him.

"Then you need to start in Russian IV," he decided. I took a test and he confirmed it. I did well, although he used to point out my accent problems to the class on occasion--never as something to humiliate me, but to show how the influence of a teacher's accent can change a student's. My shcha was never exactly right, and I did my unaccented /o/ differently--not wrong, just regionally affected.

I made it through Russian VI, which was simply sitting in the professor's office translating passages in an independent study. I wish I had focused more, but college is wasted on the young.

Time went by, and I became a teacher myself. I started teaching at my parish school and there was a young girl in my 7th grade math class. I knew her last name. I saw her father's name on her transcript. It was my Russian professor. This was confirmed at the first parent-teacher conference. It was good to see him. I fell in love with that student and her friends, telling Bixby that I hoped that if and when we had daughters, they would be like her and her geeky fun friendly friends.

Bixby's brothers, twins, went to the same university we did, and they became casual friends with that girl from my math class. We continued to go to church at our parish, where my Russian professor was a longtime member, an elder, perhaps, you could call him. I became friends with my math student's older sister, through knitting, and then through facebook. The math student friended me at some point and I've watched her grow up, get married, have a baby.

And then another one of her sisters lost her cat. I saw the posters on the phone poles first, fluffy orange cat missing. Then I saw the notifications on facebook--the sisters posting them, and then other people I know near our park.

Time went on and the posters faded. Then they were replaced, and the sister, Maire, started up a twitter account for her missing cat, "Matt the Cat". I drove through the neighborhood, eyes open for cats every time. Nothing. I was impressed with the hopefulness, but I didn't think it was going to work out for Maire and Matt the Cat.

The past few weeks, Maire posted as Matt the Cat, with great humor, keeping him on the minds of those living in the neighborhood. And then of course, amazingly, he was found one cold night in the next neighborhood over. I sat with the computer that evening with many other people in Tower Grove, waiting to see if his microchip scan was positive. It was, and he was celebrated all over the place.

The bar Bixby goes to on alternating Wednesdays named a drink for him. Matt the Cat got a day at a cat spa (?) and a photo shoot. The alderman passed a proclamation celebrating how this one lost cat brought together a neighborhood.

And then yesterday, Maire threw a party for Matt the Cat. But not just for the cat--for us, for the people around Tower Grove, for what neighbors are all about. I was reminded of the parable of the lost coin. She lost something that isn't that precious to anyone else--and when she found it, she invited all her neighbors in to celebrate it. It's actually all over the New Testament. Something is lost, and then it is found.

What does this have to do with a Russian class in high school and a Leningrad accent? Maybe just that life's path is never straight. When that army captain came to me and said, "I heard you wanted to learn Russian. If you can get 5 other students, I can justify it to the principal", I had no idea that saying, "I'm up for that" would mean I was going to wind up celebrating the return of a lost orange tabby 24 years later with my kids--who are turning out just like those 7th grade girls I so hoped they would.

I'm game for that.

I'm not too hard persuaded.

I'll say yes.

Who knows where that might lead?


  1. Perfect. It is these threads that never cease to amaze.

  2. Love that story! It really is a small world.