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The thing about living in a place with four seasons — bear with me, I spent about 80 percent of my life in California — is that the beginning of spring is inevitably frantic. As the trees bloom, all your rationales for putting off home improvements start to wilt. And so, at the Senik household, there’s been a parade of contractors, plumbers, handymen, and the like ascending the hill in recent days.
After awhile, they become virtually indistinguishable from one another. Each explains, with the thinly-veiled contempt of a teacher that should have retired years ago, highly technical concepts in impenetrable jargon that bounces off my skull like a bird flying into a window. Each next proceeds to request an amount of money that would imply they’ve taken one of my family members hostage. Each then dutifully gets paid because…well, I’m a writer. The odds are pretty good that my death will be premature, but I’ll be damned if it’s going to happen on my roof.
‘Viktor’ was different. Him I’ll remember.
As we sat on my front porch discussing the cost of some electrical work (short version: it’d be cheaper for me to figure out how to produce my own lightning), we discovered that we had attended the same college. Because I’m congenitally miserable at small talk — and because his actual name was much more unmistakably Russian than the one I’ve given him here — I followed up by asking where he was from originally.
What followed was a story of a Cold War migration from Siberia to the nation of Georgia to Estonia to West Germany to Middle Tennessee. A story of homes abandoned and belongings forsaken. A story of underground churches using handwritten bibles and trying to avoid government scrutiny. A story of the fear that came from living in the shadow of communism.
“You never knew when there’d be a knock at the door and someone would get dragged out by their hair never to be seen again,” he said. He added, almost as an afterthought,“That’s what happened to my grandfather.” He said that with no drama whatsoever. Without even a moment’s pause before the next thought. Imagine that: having someone you love disappear into a totalitarian abyss and being able to mention it as a dispassionate footnote.
That’s Viktor in a nutshell. Not a note of self-pity or despair. A wide smile and an easy laugh. He’ll tell you how America was his salvation. How we went from being persecuted for his faith in the Soviet Union to touring the United States with a Christian rock band. How he’s settled down now with an American wife…and six American kids (“some people would say that’s a curse, I say it’s a blessing”). How America’s critics have it wrong (in a brief aside about our perpetual “national conversation” about race: “After what I’ve seen, I don’t know how anybody could call anything in this country oppression.”)
I don’t wish Viktor’s experiences on anyone — but I wish everyone had that perspective. I wish that everyone who prattled on about the intrinsically oppressive character of this nation was forced to defend their convictions against the three most important words in the English language — “compared to what?” I wish more of us had as much love for what we’ve inherited as Viktor has for what he had to fight for. Tom Paine had it right: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
As he was leaving, Viktor told me about a trip he had taken to California years ago when one of his sons was young. Never having been to the West Coast, he and his five-year-old headed down to the beach. As they stood in the waters of the Pacific, Viktor pointed to the horizon and told his boy, “I used to live on the other side of the water.” His son asked him if it was different over there. Viktor recounted his answer to me with a pregnant pause and half a wink: “It’s better here.”