I cautiously opened the door and there they were—a smiling blue-eyed woman in worn-out jeans and a bulky sweat shirt, and a little girl dressed in a long red gown and a black star-speckled cloak. A tall peaked hat crowned her curly blond hair.
“Hi,” the woman said amicably, and her smile widened until it couldn’t get any bigger or more sincere. Her eyes seemed to fix on me conspiratorially.
“Hi,” I echoed apprehensively.
Suddenly, the girl stepped forward and blurted out something short and rhythmical. I stepped backward. She spoke English, but I had no way of deciphering her words. My only translator, my teenage daughter, was not at home.
“Do you need help?” I asked, carefully pronouncing one of the few phrases I, a former Russian engineer, had learned in the Midwestern retirement home where I currently worked as a nurse’s aide.
The shape of the woman’s mouth changed from a crescent to a straight line. The girl turned to her mother and then again to me. She gave me a demanding look and forcefully repeated her mysterious chant.
A knot of panic formed in my stomach. The visitors did not look like criminals, although you never know.
There were beggars in Moscow who went from house to house asking for money, carrying their crying children dressed in rags. Also, Gypsies occasionally came and offered palm reading. In fact, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine had her palm read by a Gypsy who told her that she would embark on a long trip overseas in about 20 years. Of course, the last I heard of that friend, she was still in Moscow. It was I who found herself overseas anxiously gawking at two strangers.
Well, everything here in my new home was strange. The temperature fluctuated between 85 and 105 degrees for the first two months after we arrived in July. Accustomed to Moscow’s mild summers, we found the heat unbearable.
In September, we experienced our first tornado. Tornadoes are unheard of in Moscow, and, at the time, I never listened to the radio. (What would be the point for me? It’s all in English). So, despite the screaming of sirens, I headed for a grocery store. It was about 1 p.m., but as soon as I got into my beat-up Buick, the sky darkened as though it was night, and the wind started wailing so ominously that only a clueless foreigner such as I would venture outside. Fortunately, the traffic lights saved me. Blinking yellow in all directions, they confused me—a driver with only two weeks’ experience—so I turned back home. There, a good-hearted neighbor dragged me into our apartment building’s basement while I tried to persuade her in my broken English that I had better things to do.
Two weeks later, the town started preparing for an earthquake, and I was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my decision to emigrate to the United States. We had plenty of problems back in Russia, but we never had earthquakes! The disaster was expected to strike in 10 days, so people and businesses prepared for the worst, storing canned food, bottled water and other imperishable necessities. Because we lived in a small apartment, I stocked things under the kitchen table, where they stayed for a month after the anticipated date had passed and, to my relief, no earthquake struck.
And now this unexpected visit.
Slowly, I tried to close the door, but the girl’s lips started to twist and the mother burst into a long tirade in which I recognized “give” and “candy.”
Did they want candy? I eyed the visitors and noticed a small basket in the girl’s hand half-full of candy. If this was a robbery, it was a “sweet” kind, although this might have been just the beginning. Suddenly, a warning penetrated my brain: “If you’re being robbed, never argue, just give them what they want.”
Nervously, I rushed to the pantry, snatched two bags of Hershey’s Kisses and a bag of peanut clusters, and handed everything to the robbers. This time, the girl stepped back, and the mother fanned the air with her hand in a rejecting motion.
“Candy, no?” I asked warily.
The woman gave me a look overflowing with pity and grabbed one of the bags. She tore it open, and then turned to her daughter and whispered something encouraging. Immediately, the girl’s fingers dived into the open bag and came out with three pieces of chocolate. The mother shoved the rest of the bag into my hands, smiled brightly, and said, “Welcome to this country!”
Several minutes after they left, I was still in the doorway, vacantly watching chocolates spilling from the open bag.
That was my first American Halloween—as new to me as garbage disposals, garage-door openers and all the other American conveniences. Since then, Halloween has become a mark of my immigrant’s progress. On my fourth Halloween, I moved into my first house; on my seventh Halloween I got engaged to an American man; and on my 14th my grown-up daughter had her first child—my first grandson.
When little Alex is old enough, I hope we’ll go out together on Halloween night. He’ll say “Trick or treat!” while I stand behind him, smiling. And if someone answers the door who knows nothing about Halloween, we, too, can say, “Welcome to this country!”