I Never Learned To Speak Russian

My wife is Russian, she’s from Turkmenistan – a country from the former Soviet Union. It’s next to Kazakhstan, which I only know because of the movie, “Borat”. Well, from the movie and also from my wife saying “oh, Kazakhstan’s right next to my country!” So really, I guess, I learned it from my wife – which is nothing rare. I’ve learned more from my wife than any single person alive. She’s patient, she’s kind, she’s strong, she’s smart, she’s funny. She’s most things.

When we first met, I loved  Irina’s accent. I loved listening to her talk. She would say things very bluntly because she didn’t know all the slang or correct context, or she’d say something silly because the translation didn’t make sense. My wife, then girlfriend, would begrudgingly teach me how to say all the bad words – Huy means “dick”, suchka means “bitch”. She also taught me that dogs say, “guff guff” not “bark bark”. We would lay in bed at night for hours making animal noises in our respective languages and she would teach me how to say all the different kinds of animals too. Sabaka is “dog”, Abeezianka is monkey and loshidt is “horse”.

I somehow thought I was prepared to meet her family armed with those words alone.

Irina’s family is the kind of Russian that you watch in movies, strong and stoic. The thing that surprised me the most was how open they were to a capitalist pig like myself. Another thing that struck me about them was how funny they were. They weren’t funny like my comedian friends, they didn’t do endless bits or compete to make people laugh. They just said the perfectly honest thing at the perfectly honest moment when it needed to be perfectly said the most.

Every joke had to be translated to me because unless we were talking specifically about what animal said what i had no idea what was going on. If they wanted to take a deep dive down what animal “skazal guff guff” then I was their Amerikanski..

When I met her mom for the first time I asked for a “piset” to write with. Pishet is pen. Piset means to urinate. I asked her mom if I could “urinate on a piece of paper”. Her mom looked confused for a few moments and then it dawned on her what I was trying to say. She laughed like I had farted in an elevator.

Maybe thats a bad analogy.

I feel like a lot of Valentina’s (Irina’s mom) and my relationship got lost in translation but it never kept us from trying to communicate. One thing I know for sure was that we liked each other. We chatted so much that Irina would get tired of being our language liaison, constantly telling me “she said that she likes Bernie Sanders” and then telling her “he said that he likes Bernie too”. We’d go on like that talking about politics, or Chekov, or Siberia (which was her hometown) or any old thing that I thought would be interesting to hear her take on.

One year for my birthday I said I wanted to learn Russian “for real” so that I could talk to her mom and brother. She bought me Rosetta Stone and I studied every night for months. It was hard. It’s not just a new language, it’s a new alphabet and a new culture. I got to the point where I could get the gist of conversations but I couldn’t participate. I gave up after time, always saying I’ll pick it up again someday. I tried here and there for years but I just never had the patience and I guess I wasn’t smart enough.

I never learned to speak Russian.

When I married Irina, her mom came and stayed with us for 3 months. They planted a garden in our new house. 10 or so fruit trees, plants everywhere and sixty five rose bushes. SIXTY FIVE. They were Valentina’s favorite and my wife likes them a lot too. I mean really though, who doesn’t like roses? Assholes, maybe? Assholes probably don’t like roses.

Over that 3 months, I got to know my mother in law very well. She was patient, she was kind, she was strong, she was smart, she was funny. She was most things. Irina got who she was from her mother. The day I married Irina was one of the best days of my life and in a sense I got a lot of who I am from her mother too. She spent her entire life raising the perfect women, giving everything to make sure that she was a good, beautiful person. Valentina put in all the hard work and I get to enjoy the fruits of her labor. She planted the garden and I get to look at the roses.

But I never learned to speak Russian.

I wish I could say that “now I’m changing my life so that I can experience her mother in her native language”. I wish I could say that “I made that plunge and now we talk about Stalin or the sadness of the Russian family post World War 2 or how she thinks that Lincoln, Nebraska (my home town) and Siberia are very similar”.

But I can’t say that because Valentina passed away. I watched my wife’s heart break right in front of my eyes after a 4 a.m. phone call and there was nothing I could do or say to help. I could just sit there and hope she knew that I was there for her through the good times and the bad times – that I will be here all the time.

It’s been a few weeks now and my wife is back in her country dealing with everything that she’s dealing with and It’s my job to take care of the garden while she’s gone. I pick peppers some days, and others I pick tomatoes. I enjoy watering the roses the most. It’s fall so their petals are falling and lying like teardrops on our storybook lawn. The prettiest tear drops I have ever seen, but teardrops nonetheless. From doing this I’ve realized that the beauty you put into something is the same beauty you get out. The tough part is that sometimes you have get to make beauty for others to see and you never get to watch how amazing the thing you created will become. Whether it’s roses or fruit trees or daughters. My final wish for Valentina, and really for anyone, is that they find a peace in the creating. Creation is the closest thing to being gods that man can ever feel.

If there’s something I hope can be learned from this it’s that sometimes shit happens. Life isn’t always profound. Some days are just fucking terrible and some days are fucking awesome – I mean some days are just rad as fuck. But some days – people aren’t there anymore and they never will be again. Those days hurt and they hurt for a long time. It’s sad but it’s a guarantee. We should never let the sad days become the days that define us but they should become the reason we learn to speak Russian.

2 Comments. Leave new

Jeff McFarland
October 22, 2017 1:47 pm

So sorry for your loss but so happy for what you’ve gained through the process. Thanks for sharing your story.


This is really great. Thank you for writing this, Ryan.


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