I once spent some time with a middle-aged Russian woman. We never conversed, and I don’t recall her name. I’d been assigned to work on a project for two weeks in a remote village in Russia, five hours from Moscow. The village of 20,000 in the middle of Russian farmland didn’t have a hotel or restaurant, though we did eat at the local disco one evening (a whole other story). We stayed at the company’s “guest house” (do NOT think plush Swedish villa), and the Russian woman was our cook, laundress, and house cleaner.
I have three memories of her. She was always there with breakfast ready when we awoke in the morning, and again with dinner underway when we arrived back at the house, after we finished our work for the day. Every day but one, dinner was some version of “mystery pork.” Most were fairly tasty if basic, but the other picky eater in the group and I became the “canaries”, carefully testing a small bite before signaling the all clear. Breakfast was generally safer, but I was still really grateful to have 2-3 choices (though also basic) in the plant cafeteria at lunch. I’ve wondered if she always served pork because that was the cheapest choice on an allowance she was given, or if that was simply her only choice at all. By the end of the two weeks, several of my teammates came to believe that she only pretended to speak just Russian, that she really understood some English after all, as she hovered in the kitchen while we ate. We’ll never know for sure.
Though we never spoke, midway through the trip, one event made me decide I liked her. Given the utter lack of entertainment in the village, we hired a driver to take us to Moscow for the weekend. Ahh, to eat something other than pork, and to sleep in a real hotel bed that didn’t resemble a cot, with a heater adequate to keep out the March cold! Before we left for the city, we were told to leave any laundry we needed done on our bed, along with money to pay her to do it. How much money, we asked? Our teammate gave us a rough idea, but it was all pretty ambiguous. I took my best guess, rounded up, and hoped I’d been fair. When we returned Sunday night, my clothes were clean and neatly folded on my cot. Most of the team’s were. But two of our colleagues’ beds were empty. As we compared notes over the next couple of days, we discovered the pattern: those us us who’d received our clothes immediately had paid her the most, either relative to the amount of our laundry or in total. One of our delayed colleagues, who’d left a respectable sum but also a mountain of clothes, got his back Monday night. She made the last guy sweat it out until Tuesday night, when he was down to his last clean clothes. I like my colleagues, but it was amusing to watch her school us all with a very clear and simple lesson.
But my starkest memory occurred in my last 15 minutes with her. I’d cleared my stuff out of my room, hauling it into the foyer to wait for the driver to take us the long drive back to Sheremetyevo Airport. When I unexpectedly went back into my room, I realized she’d already been there. While the room hadn’t yet been cleaned, I noticed she’d already taken the trash out. Well, some of the trash. What was missing were two unopened foil packages of crumbly Pop Tarts and half of a large chocolate bar I’d purchased in Moscow, still in the wrapper, displaced by my Moscow souvenirs.
She took my used food.
From the trash.
Items of literally zero value to me were worth taking from the trash to her. It was a jolt reminder of how much I take for granted in my very comfortable life. We’d struggled sometimes when I was a kid, but I never went hungry. I’ve never taken food out of someone else’s trash. In that instant, she gifted me with an even bigger lesson, one I’ve not forgotten in the years since. I’m so very blessed. I pray that she and her family are as well.
“Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into.” –Wayne Dyer