Thursday, November 7, 2013

Which historical figures, past or present, would you most want to have dinner with?

You know that meme, right? The one where you list the people with whom you'd most want to sit down at the dinner table, and you're supposed to say "Gandhi and Doestoyevskii," or something smart like that?

I've been thinking about that recently, and it occurs to me that I have 4 historical figures I want to hang with right about now. You might never have heard of these people, because they belong to my history, but likely not yours. But if you did know them, if you'd had a chance to meet them, your life would be so much better right now. And so I'm going to tell you about these four historical figures of mine.

Moscow: 1999. It was our first overseas post together, and my husband was low man on the totem pole - a brand new assistant regional security officer, first time out. He had a boss, who had a boss, who had a boss, who also had a boss, and so on up the food chain. The head RSO at the time was a guy named John. His wife was Paula. The two of them might have been the kindest people on the planet. John was probably the best boss my husband could have hoped for his first time out. He was smart, hard-working, a linguist and a diplomat - and he never asked anyone to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. I think he probably taught my husband most of what he knows about how-to-be-an-RSO.

And Paula let me be her sidekick - she'd take me shopping at the Ramstore, or we'd hang out at the rynok together. We had a lot of laughs together, Paula and I. But she was serious about the lifestyle - you FS spouses know what I'm saying here. She didn't complain about the hardships. She didn't whine about her husband's long hours at work. She didn't gossip about the things she heard him discussing over the phone. And she was always ready to step in and help someone in need. Once, Bart got seriously ill just after we'd returned from R&R. We had baby Shay by then, but he was just a few months old - still barely on solid foods. I got a call from the medical unit telling me they were loading Bart on an ambulance, and if I wanted to go to the hospital, where he'd be having surgery, I needed to get there in five minutes. I had no babysitter. I had no diapers. I had no food. I had no idea what was happening. But Paula took my house keys and took my baby and told me to run.

I ran.

While I sat with Bart at the hospital for hours and hours and hours, she bought diapers and found baby food and entertained my tiny baby until late in the night so I wouldn't have to worry. She and John (and their kids) were our angels that night, and every day throughout our tour.

And not just our angels. There was a crazy Russian lady who used to sit every day in the perekhod, the underpass near the Embassy - a filthy drunk who was missing her legs. She sat there and swore at anyone who happened by if they didn't give her money. She was mean and terrifying - and did I mention filthy and drunk? Whenever I passed her, I scooted to the other side of the perekhod, out of reach of her crutches, scurrying on by while her curses rang in my ears.

One day, though, Paula called me with an amazing story. Their teenaged daughter wandered into the perekhod one morning and found the dirty drunk lady crying. Their daughter - this young girl - did what I wouldn't have had the courage to do. She stopped to try and figure out what was wrong. It seems someone had stolen the woman's crutches, and without them she was stuck in the underpass. Laurie wasn't sure what to do, but she knew who would know. And so she called her dad - one of the busiest, most important people at the Embassy - and asked him to come help.

He stopped what he was doing, listened to her story, and ran to the perekhod. And then he called Paula to come help, too.

Next thing you know, the whole family carried this woman, this dirt-streaked, legless woman, out of the underpass and into their car. They brought her to a homeless shelter at which they'd been volunteering and convinced the nuns at the shelter to take this woman in.

Paula was calling me because she wanted to go check on the woman, and she was hoping I could help translate. I went with her, across town, more curious than anything. There was the woman, all cleaned up, hair shining silver in the sun from the window, wearing faded pajamas, sitting in a small bed next to a vase of flowers. I didn't recognize her. She cried as she clutched Paula's hand and thanked her, over and over, in Russian.

Still, to this day, I am amazed at their daughter, who stopped to help, and the parents, who also came to the rescue, when most anyone else would have walked right past. John was so busy, that day and every day. The simple thing to do would've been to tell his daughter to come home, to forget all about it. But instead they changed that woman's life. They changed mine, too. They taught me something about compassion and hard work and friendship. Every day they taught me. John taught Bart how to be a fantastic RSO. And Paula taught me how to support him without losing myself. She taught me how to be a mom, too, just as I was starting out. And she taught me how to be the best kind of foreign service friend. I still don't reach their level - nowhere close. But I see where I'm supposed to be, thanks to them.

There was another guy named John there, too. He was the #2 guy at the Embassy - one of the biggest and most complicated Embassies in the world. Now, normally, in such a huge, important Embassy, there is no way that the new ARSO would have more than a passing acquaintance with the DCM. Not a chance - there are just too many layers between them. But for reasons I still don't quite understand - maybe he saw a spark of something in my husband? - John took Bart under his wing. And his wife, Maryjo, took care of me. Maryjo would take baby Shay off my hands and hold him for a bit, just to give me a break. She always knew just the perfect "new mom" story to tell when I was frustrated. And she was just always so happy to see me! She made me feel special, even though I was nobody in the hierarchy, and she was one seriously important woman. There is a hierarchy at a post like Moscow: there are senior diplomats' wives and oil tycoon wives and businesswomen. I can't count how many times I'd meet someone new, but when I told them who my husband was, their eyes would sort of glaze over and they'd scan the room for someone better to chat with. He was nobody special, and by extension, neither was I. Maryjo wasn't like this. If she liked you, she liked YOU - not your position. She was honest in everything - she never pretended her job was easy, but she didn't whine, either, about her role as entertainer, mom, wife of important man.

My parents came to visit once. In the days before they arrived, I mentioned to Maryjo that I didn't think my parents quite understood what my husband did. Security? What's that, exactly? (It's a problem lots of DS folks have, explaining what they do. People either picture them with a nightstick and a flashlight guarding a parking garage somewhere, or they think of James Bond. Neither is true. But how to explain what it means, to be in charge of security for an Embassy?) I casually mentioned to Maryjo that I hoped my parents would see, when they got to Moscow, what a big job my husband was doing.

Next thing I knew, we got a formal invitation in the mail, on fancy letterhead. The Deputy Chief of Mission and his wife were inviting us, along with my parents, to lunch at their house. John came home from work at lunchtime to meet my parents, and the six of us sat down to the fanciest lunch you can imagine, with waiters and fancy silverware and a special vegetarian meal for my husband. The two of them charmed the heck out of my parents - in fact, my dad later said it was his favorite thing that he did in his whole visit.

They didn't have to do that. They had so much to do, both of them, and yet they took the time to make my parents - and me - feel special. They did so much for us, throughout our tour. When we had to leave in a hurry after one particularly scary night, DS didn't want us to go back - too risky. But Bart wanted to go back, and I wanted to go back, so John moved mountains to make it happen. When we got kicked out for good by the Russians after our two governments got in a little spat, John helped Bart get an onward assignment. Coincidentally, a few months after we got there, John became the Ambassador there. And so we had a chance to serve together again. And one more time after that.

I ran into our Ambassador to Jordan today at the airport. He mentioned that he'd just seen Ambassador John at a work conference for super important people in the Foreign Service, and my name had come up. It made me smile, knowing that he's still looking out for us, all these years later, putting in a good word for us where he can.

John and Paula have retired from the Foreign Service, but some of their kids have since joined up. Those kids who played with my baby all those years ago in Moscow have babies of their own now. Bart is getting ready to return to Moscow, to move into John's old job in the RSO shop. And don't I have big shoes to fill, too?

That's my history, then. John and John and Paula and Maryjo. Those are the people I'd most like to sit with today, if I could. They smoothed the path for us, showed us a way forward. They were always my example of the best of the Foreign Service. I think absolutely everything would have been different for us if these four people hadn't shown an interest in us all those years ago, and I still feel so fortunate to have met them when I did. They supported me and my family, made us feel special, important, needed. They showed me what the Foreign Service is supposed to be about: hard work, brains, laughter and compassion.

Everyone needs people like these in their history, don't you think?

I miss them still.


MaryjoO said... [Reply]

Thank you, and love you all very much. You and Bart are the backbone of the Foreign Service -- don't sell yourself short on what YOU contribute. But I also had many mentors "coming up," so I feel lucky that the Foreign Service truly is made up of wonderful people who make other people matter.

I had forgotten about the dinner with your parents, but now that I remember it I remember the fun we had trying to pronounce your maiden name:)

You all had "eventful" postings, as I guess we all did. But my fondest memories of you all are really of Shay as an infant and how independent he was. And I still tell people what his first "spoken" word was -- not Mamma or Daddy but ... машина :)

MaryjoO said... [Reply]

And of course I meant lunch with your parents ... "Retirement" turns your brain to mush but I'm having a lot of fun "not doing much :)

PaulaRose said... [Reply]

I am humbled by your kindness and grateful for your friendship. You and Bart will always be a very special couple in our hearts. We recognized you both as the "crème de la crème" from our earliest meeting in Moscow '99! Even back then, it was easy to foretell you guys filling our shoes someday. Congratulations on your assignment; I am sure you will touch many lives in such a positive way there, as I know you have at all of your posts!
Hugs to you, Bart and the kiddies,

Deborah said... [Reply]

So much love in your writing and the comments. Happy tears! :-)

Kate said... [Reply]

Donna you are so sweet! I have so many wonderful memories of Moscow thanks to you and your family. It was amazing to see your dedication to the Foreign Service, something that still inspires me today. The gatherings you hosted at your house were the always the best! All the best to you, Bart and the kids.

Popster said... [Reply]

You could not have picked 4 better people. They all surely belong to the super-mentor group. I think that I could never forget them. I've only had contact with one of them since Moscow and that was a very pleasant e-mail exchange with Maryjo.

Now it's your turn to mentor.

Si Hua Deng said... [Reply]

I just recently started reading your blog, and I am interested in becoming a FS officer. I am doing a research paper for one of my high school courses regarding this occupation. It would be amazing if I could ask you a couple of questions related to this career. Is there any possible way I could reach you outside of this comment box if I were to interview you? Thank you so much!

Please. Write your own stuff.