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On an icy New Year's Eve, our cat, looking small and very frightened, flew from London into Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, accompanying the foreign correspondent who didn't want her and his wife and two children who refused to leave the United States without her.
Entering the Soviet Union, we confronted a potentially serious problem: on New Year's Day, The New York Times would begin publishing excerpts from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. My editors feared that once Solzhenitsyn's exposé of the Soviet penal system appeared, the Kremlin could retaliate by refusing to let me into the country. But if I was already sitting in the Times's Moscow bureau, the authorities would hesitate to throw me out, knowing that the American government would respond by expelling a Russian correspondent from Washington.
I worried that Henrietta would delay our arrival. To sneak in as inconspicuously as possible my incognito entourage included only a beautiful wife, two lively, towheaded, English-speaking children, a couple of dozen pieces of luggage, and the family cat we had chosen New Year's Eve, a holiday on which Russians are traditionally preoccupied with debauching themselves into collective oblivion.
The biting winter cold sent Henrietta into shivers as her travel cage was trundled past snowdrifts bordering the slick tarmac. Sheremetyevo's arrivals terminal reeked of wet woolen overcoats, chlorine disinfectant, coarse cigarettes, and other pungent odors. They warned her that this destination was neither familiar nor hospitable.
Suspicious border guards with bayonets fixed on their Kalashnikov assault rifles scrutinized the stream of passengers as we milled past. The customs officials watched Henrietta's travel cage being dumped on the grimy inspection counter. They resented having to work on New Year's Eve, which more fortunate Russians were celebrating with sentimental toasts, passionate gropings, and torrents of vodka.
A gray-jacketed customs officer looked us over and then saw the cat cage.
"Skoro budyet," he said. It will happen soon.
"What will be soon?" I asked.
"You brought an animal with you," he said. "The veterinary inspection will happen soon."
"Soon" turned out to be more than a half hour until the veterinarian on duty finally showed up. She was a stout woman wearing a long white lab coat and exhibiting the surliness of the Soviet bureaucracy. It was up to her to decide whether the trembling contents of Henrietta's cage deserved admittance to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or should be packed off to some quarantine confines with all the comforts of a Siberian salt mine.
The veterinarian frowned at the untranslated English of the cat's vaccination papers, which she obviously could not read. A nyet from her would leave us mired in the Soviet bureaucracy long after our window of opportunity had passed. I started to panic.
But as I silently reproached myself for putting my job in jeopardy by dragging a cat to my first foreign assignment, the vet pulled Henrietta out of her cage, but gently, and her official brusqueness melted away.
"Kakaya krasivaya Amerikanskaya koshka!" marveled the veterinarian. What a beautiful little American cat!
An American cat? The rest of attendant Soviet officialdom jostled in for a look. Peering up, Henrietta greeted them with a plaintive meow that seemed to plead, Will you get me out of here?
Laughter replaced the sullen silence as the officials took turns petting the American cat yes, my Henrietta.
"Koshka ustala." The cat must be tired traveling all the way from America, someone observed. In fact, we had stopped over in London, where Henrietta had had to spend a couple of nights in the quarantine facility near London's Heathrow International Airport. More likely, she desperately needed to find a litter box.
And the yawning American children, someone else said. "Malyshi ustali tozhe." The kids look tired, too.
For Henrietta's sake we were rushed through the remaining formalities faster than I've ever cleared a Russian airport on scores of flights. No longer was anyone concerned about how much money we were carrying or what kind of subversive literature we might have stashed in the linings of our suitcases. Whatever ideological distaste the Russian officials were obliged to display toward decadent Americans exempted Henrietta, a cat who would look at home on any Russian hearth.
Far from slowing us up, Henrietta had interceded to get us into the country. We were asleep, with the cat curled up on one of the children's beds in our new apartment overlooking Moscow's Ring Road, by the time Solzhenitsyn's denunciation of the country that had just admitted us appeared on the Times's front page.
The Russians have a tradition, or call it a superstition, that when you take possession of a new home, your cat should enter first to become acquainted with the domovoi, a kind of spirit inhabiting the house, somewhat like a hobgoblin or leprechaun but less intrusively quaint. It is up to the cat to befriend the spirit and make your stay more pleasant. We must have followed that sequence when we arrived from Sheremetyevo airport, though we weren't aware of the custom yet, because our immediate concern after completing a trip with Henrietta was to free her from the confines of her box as soon as possible.
I never actually met the domovoi living in our apartment at 12/24 Sadovo-Samotechnaya, though I imagined him to be a tiny wizened Cossack wearing a jaunty shapka, or fur hat, and stomping about in felt boots. But Henrietta evidently hit it off with him, because the cramped Moscow apartment came to feel like home for the next four years.
Having a domovoi wasn't scary and could even be useful, because whenever you lost or misplaced something, such as your passport or car keys, you left the house spirit a piece of candy in a corner of the kitchen and the missing item was bound to turn up, or so some of our Russian friends insisted. The candy wouldn't actually be consumed by the domovoi it was the gesture that mattered so you had to remember to throw it out before the mice or the cat got it.
From my Times predecessor, we inherited the five-room apartment on the ground floor of 12/24 Sadovo-Samotechnaya, a solid if shabby-looking building constructed by German prisoners of war during the final months of World War II. We lived longer in that apartment than anywhere else in my years as a foreign correspondent.
The courtyard of "SadSam," as its Western residents nicknamed our building, was bounded on one side by an L-shaped building with three separate entrances and on the other by a high yellow wall. Our apartment was in the east wing. The Times's Moscow bureau was on the third floor of the west wing, so it took only a few minutes for Henrietta to trot over and visit me, including her ascent of two flights of worn stairs. There was the usual Russian elevator, which Henrietta and the rest of us avoided using whenever possible because, like other Soviet-era elevators, it was used to going on strike between floors.
The only entrance from the street passed through a gate patrolled twenty-four hours a day by gray-uniformed sentinels from the Committee for State Security, better known by its Russian initials, KGB. The guards were there to keep out ordinary Russians and to phone in our movements to some central switchboard whenever we left the compound. But they showed no interest in tracking our cat.
Were I as poor a judge of news as I am of cats, I would have had to quit journalism long ago. Contrary to my expectation that Henrietta would be too timid to leave her new apartment in Moscow, the cat's first instinct was to satisfy an intense curiosity about her new surroundings.
We can only guess at what went through Henrietta's mind when she set out to inspect her new neighborhood. "The soul of another is darkness...," wrote the Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), borrowing word for word from a Russian proverb, "Chuzhaya dusha potemki." Or maybe the proverb was borrowed from Chekhov, because Russians are fond of quoting from their pantheon of great writers and poets.
But Chekhov was definitely referring here to the likes of Henrietta, for he added, "...and a cat's soul more than most."
He had in mind a kitten that had enraged his uncle Pyotr Demyanich by fleeing at the sight of a mouse in the kitchen.
"Unacquainted with real life, having no store of accumulated impressions, his mental processes could only be instinctive," Chekhov had assumed of the kitten earlier, "and he could only picture life in accordance with conceptions that he had inherited, together with his flesh and blood, from his ancestors, the tigers" in Darwinian fashion.
Henrietta would have thrilled cranky old Uncle Pyotr. Her atavistic instinct kicked in whenever she ventured into the old streets of northern Moscow's Bauminsky district. She reverted to her innate sense of smell and hunting instincts as naturally as a kitten first probes for signs of life beyond the warm security of its mother's litter.
It took just a few days for Henrietta to teach herself to exit our ground-floor kitchen by springing up on the table and scrambling out to the courtyard through her own private door. It was called the fortechka, a cat-sized ventilation pane set into the double-paned windows in Russia and usually left open for welcome fresh air on all but the coldest winter days.
Henrietta left dainty pawprints in the snow as she trotted past the KGB post. Sometimes the guards were busy with our son, Chris, who had brought a large stash of chewing gum from the United States and would trade some of it with our KGB sentries for tiny red-enameled Soviet badges, called znachki, and an occasional lesson in throwing snowballs.
The first stop on Henrietta's daily rounds was invariably the tall steel crane blocking off Yermolaya Street. A testimonial to the fervor of Soviet construction, the crane stood idle when we arrived and was still unused when we left Moscow four years later. Any newcomer to Moscow in those days marveled that so many cranes dominated the skyline, taking them for a sign of progress when in fact nothing of the sort was happening.
It did not take long for Henrietta to see through this Bolshevik disinformatsiya, which she astutely commented upon by pausing to tinkle in the snowdrift that was hardening against the crane's rusting foundations.
Henrietta continued south down Yermolaya Street, past our fragrant local bakery to the garbage cans sitting outside the Lebanese Embassy and a few other diplomatic missions. Here she engaged in a bit of scavenging before the KGB garbage truck arrived to cart away the diplomatic trash and sift through it for potential classified material.
Our Moscow neighbors took no notice of Henrietta because she looked pretty much like any local cat out on the town. In fact, Russian cats tend to look bushier because they are longer-haired than American cats. But as another proverb cited by Rita Polyakova, the Russian-born wife of my Times colleague David Stout, observes, "All cats are gray at night."
After a while, Henrietta turned eastward, meandering through back alleys to Tsentralny Rynok, or the informal Central Market. She hung about the cavernous shed cadging bits of fish and cabbage from collective farmers who had carted in produce raised on their private plots. Here tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, carrots, and cabbage, far more succulent than what you'd find in the state stores, were displayed by peasant women on the wooden counters like precious gems exhibited on a jeweler's black cloth.
It was at the Central Market that Henrietta was first introduced to vegetables. I know that cats are carnivores accustomed to eating meat and fish. I'm not suggesting that our cat was the sort to pass up a prime sirloin for the vegetarian special, arugula and all. But vegetables, cooked with fish or meat and a little rice, came to constitute part of her diet. I would love to set up a chain of gourmet pet-food shops called Henrietta's Secret, where cat lovers could choose from a nourishing range of exotic edibles, and not-so-edibles, that sustained our cat during her years abroad.
I monitored Henrietta's activities in Moscow when I caught sight of her from the window over my desk in the Times bureau. Or going out to drive the bureau car to an interview, I'd watch her sitting and staring at a potential mouse hole in some wall down the street, or maybe stalking the occasional bird. Or a neighbor in our compound would call out, "Say, wasn't that your cat I saw down at the Uzbekistan Restaurant? Don't you feed her enough?"
I had assumed that our cat was pretty much useless beyond its entertainment value for Celia and Chris. It did not take long for Henrietta to prove me wrong.
One evening, I came home from the Times bureau for dinner to find Jaqueline in an agitated state. "You've got to do something about Henrietta," she said.
I was tempted to say, "I'll book her on the next Aeroflot flight back to New York." But I held my tongue. My wife led me into the living room, where we encountered Henrietta suspended halfway to the ceiling like some levitating swami.
To be more accurate, the cat had clawed her way up the bright curtains and was dangling inches below a mysha a small Russian mouse whose palpable fear had overcome the natural forces of gravity. Before I could step in, Henrietta lunged upward to seize the mouse's tail in her teeth, executed an incredible back flip in midair, and landed four-footed on the carpet with her wriggling prey.
I was dazzled. Our clumsy New York kitten had just demonstrated her dexterity at a skill that would make her indispensible to our years abroad. And if the denouement of the chase turned somewhat bloody, well, Lenin had warned us that a cat wearing gloves catches no mice. Or was that Benjamin Franklin?
In the United States at least, no expense is spared in treating cats as ornamental and amusing. But they get fewer and fewer opportunities to be useful in the ways that they have been since the dawn of civilization. Our Henrietta was happy to earn her keep by harvesting mice, a chore that American cats are seldom called upon to perform.
I'm no longer awestruck when people tell me what cute tricks their cat has been taught, because there isn't that much worthwhile you can teach a cat that it doesn't already know. It would be helpful if your cat learned to program the videocassette recorder or could surf the Internet or sort out the intricacies of hedge funds in the world of high finance, especially if it earned enough to cover the cost of niblets and litter.
But the primal compact only requires cats to earn their keep by exterminating mice, and it amazes me how well they continue to keep their side of the bargain when given half a chance.
And for Henrietta our apartment building in Moscow was a cat's paradise because it abounded in rodents, thanks largely to the old garbage chute outside our kitchen. The building's eight stories' worth of trash splattered down into dirty metal bins in the basement. The bins were carted off, I'm told, to a recycling center where KGB gnomes recycled the contents, sorting through the containers for telltale scraps of paper that might reveal what nefarious plots the building's residents, all foreign diplomats and journalists, were hatching against the Kremlin.
In the four years that we lived at 12/24 Sadovo-Samotechnaya, I cannot recall that the chute was ever cleaned of the crusty, oozing accumulation of rotting borscht and other garbage. This meant that our cat never lacked for opportunities to track down and eviscerate whatever rodents had infiltrated the premises.
Occasionally, I carried Henrietta over to the Times news bureau at the other end of the courtyard and put her to work sniffing for mice around the holes and cracks in the office walls, like a city inspector tracing a gas leak.
Confronted with limitless opportunities to hone her skills, Henrietta became a diligent mouser. Once, when Jaqueline intervened to rescue a mouse and tossed it outside, Henrietta wailed the night away at the loss of her prize.
She enjoyed the chase as much as the capture, though her hunting prowess proved something of an embarrassment one evening when we hosted an elegant diplomatic dinner party for wall-to-wall ambassadors who had squeezed into our snug apartment.
Our guest of honor, the ambassador of Pakistan, was chatting with the ambassador of Tunisia about some nuance of Soviet policy in the Middle East, while I eavesdropped for any morsel of information that might justify an article.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Henrietta triumphantly trotting into the living room. A mouse, somewhat larger than Henrietta's usual catches, dangled from her clamped jaws.
Their assembled excellencies paused in midconversation and stared down. So did everyone else in the room. Silence fell. I looked at Jaqueline, who was equally chagrined, for some signal as to how we would get Henrietta out of there.
Fortunately, the ambassador of Pakistan was nothing if not a consummate diplomat. A gentleman of elegance, he did not recoil.
"What a clever cat you must be!" he graciously complimented Henrietta. "You want to show us the mouse you have caught."
He patted her and resumed his conversation with the Tunisian ambassador, diplomatically ignoring the dying rodent that Henrietta had dropped beside his polished black shoe.
There was a round of nervous applause for Henrietta's catch, though more than a few of our guests were looking about for higher ground in case the cat, motivated by the Pakistani ambassador's compliment, returned with more trophies to present.
I murmured apologies all around and, rather than desert the party to rummage for a whisk broom and dustpan, hoisted the defunct mouse by the tail and removed it as delicately as I could to the kitchen's garbage chute. Henrietta followed me, unable to understand what all the fuss was about.
Beyond competing for her share of leftovers at the Central Market, Henrietta did not hang about with local Russian cats. Small though she was, she was never reticent about defending her new turf. You can take the cat out of New York City, but you can't take New York City out of the cat.
I never saw her actually get into a fight until after we left Moscow. But the shaggier Russian cats tended to stay clear of her, the sole exception being our neighborhood nemesis, Rasputin. He was a disheveled black tomcat who had been adopted by a disheveled French correspondent.
I would love to tell you about Henrietta's passionate romance with Rasputin. But the fact is, we had had her spayed before leaving New York, which simplified things all around. Rasputin wouldn't have been an appropriate swain in any case, because she had better taste. Henrietta's initial curiosity about the Russian tomcat developed into an unmitigated loathing, and quite understandably.
Had Rasputin been a Russian teenager instead of a cat, he would have belonged to the Komsomol, or Young Communist League his manners were that deplorable.
What is the most treacherous act that you can conceive of one cat committing against another? That's right. And that vile brute Rasputin did it to our tender little Henrietta, and right in the sanctity of her own home.
It happened one spring evening. I had just returned home for dinner and was alerted to the betrayal by Celia's screams.
"Rasputin's eating Henrietta's food!" she cried.
I rushed to the kitchen to catch Rasputin, who had jumped through the open window and muscled his way past Henrietta. Callously ignoring her wails and hisses, Rasputin had taken possession of her bowl of cat food, the contents of which had been imported from Helsinki at no small expense. And the hirsute scoundrel was greedily devouring it all.
I scooped up Rasputin and propelled him out the window with as much force as he had used to invade our kitchen. He smelled pretty ripe to me, so you can imagine Henrietta's revulsion. She demanded a clean bowl before we presented her with more food, which had to be from Finland.
This might be a good time to relate how our cat would walk down Petrovka Street past the imposing eight-columned
Bolshoi Theater to Red Square and Lenin's Mausoleum, and enter the Kremlin under its dramatic Spassky Tower to slip unnoticed into a closed meeting of the ruling politburo, returning in time to brief me as to which old man among the Soviet Union's geriatric leadership was likeliest to be demoted to supervising some hydroelectric power station off in Central Asia.
But you would only scoff, knowing as well as I do that even a cat from New York City could not have undertaken such a journey to the Kremlin, given the hazards of getting run over or asphyxiated in Moscow's boisterous smoke-belching traffic.
This did not prevent me from shamelessly exploiting Henrietta to gather my news, though I didn't go so far as to carry her over to Red Square and describe her as a source close to the Kremlin.
One European diplomat I knew was destined for a career ambassadorship and couldn't admit to sharing confidences with the press. But he was willing to sit in our living room with Henrietta in his lap, stroking her while he discussed the significance of the latest power shift within the Kremlin and I took notes from an adjacent armchair.
From time to time, my knowledgeable diplomatic source would pause and ask, "Isn't that right, Henrietta?" (or, if you prefer, "N'est-ce pas, Henriette?").
At the time, The New York Times had two correspondents, and sometimes just one, in Moscow to cover everything happening in the fifteen republics that then constituted the Soviet Union. And because Moscow time is eight hours ahead of New York (seven in summer), I got into the habit, common among foreign correspondents, of reporting a story during the day and not sitting down to write it until the evening.
This meant that I tended to leave the Times bureau after midnight. Jaqueline would be asleep; she had to rise early to send Celia and Chris off to the Anglo-American School, which was run by the English-speaking embassies in Moscow. So I would return home to be greeted by Henrietta, if she wasn't already curled up on one of the children's beds or off tracking mice.
One night as I was finishing up some reading in the living room, Henrietta's hunting growl alerted me to a curious commotion on the Ring Road outside our apartment. I followed the cat to the windowsill, where she crouched, ears alert, whiskers twitching, tail flapping to and fro. She seemed mesmerized by what she had seen.
An enormous bat was making its way down the nearly deserted eight-lane highway.
At least Henrietta appeared to think that it was a bat. A bat-wing MiG jet fighter was being towed from an undisclosed factory on one side of Moscow to some equally mysterious airfield on the other side. Leading the caravan was a police car whose loudspeaker squawked at the few cars still out at such a late hour to get out of the way.
"Henrietta," I told her, "try to catch a MiG, and we'll both get expelled."
In time, the postmidnight spectacle became commonplace enough that neither Henrietta nor I would have reacted unless the entire Soviet Air Force had been trundled past our apartment en route to the Western front.
When it came to other cats, though, Henrietta's curiosity was replete with jealousy. On one trip, I traveled through Siberia to the Russian Far East, where, after reporting some stories in Khabarovsk and Nakhodka, I caught a small steamer bound for the Japanese port of Yokahama. By the time I reached Japan, it was easier to continue eastward than to turn back through the Soviet Union, so I flew on to New York for a meeting with the foreign editor.
Before finally leaving for Moscow, I spent a night in New York with Jack, a friend with whom I'd started out in journalism some years earlier. His cat took an inordinate interest in my open bag. Whether the cat was attracted by the scent of Henrietta or mice in the succession of Siberian hotels where I had stayed, it added its contribution by spraying a scent of urine on the contents, which by then consisted mostly of dirty laundry.
I arrived home in Moscow, where Henrietta trotted out, tail high, to greet me. When she sniffed the open bag, she looked up at me with the distress of a woman who has just discovered lipstick smudging her husband's shirt collar. Henrietta foraged through my laundry for further signs of infidelity and added her own scent to ward off other cats: "Sorry, this one's taken." Thereafter whenever I returned from a reporting trip, Henrietta carefully checked out my luggage.
I was learning a fundamental difference between cats and dogs. When you introduce a couple of dogs, they will likely as not strike up an immediate friendship. After sniffing each other fore and aft, one dog will propose, "Wanna go chase some cars?" or "My owner planted a garden you wanna help me dig it up?" and they'll romp off together as though they had been buddies since puppyhood.
But place two cats within sight or smell of each other, and the result is a staring or hissing contest if the claws aren't out already.
At one point, Jaqueline decided that what Henrietta really needed was a feline companion. Moscow's unofficial pet market had lots of kittens for sale, peeking out adorably from baskets or the folds of the vendor's overcoat. I didn't want another cat and thought that Henrietta would be threatened by its arrival.
I was proven right when the French Embassy's doctor was reassigned to a new posting and Jaqueline agreed to take in his elegant Siamese. When the interloper, all fur and flash, arrived in our apartment, Henrietta wanted nothing to do with it. She hissed and caterwauled so long and loud that the cowed Siamese was returned to sender the next day.
Henrietta preferred to select her own chums. I will concede that she had excellent taste. Her best friends in Moscow became the attractive young couple living in the apartment next door.
Valerio Astraldi, an Italian diplomat, was volubly amusing as well as politically savvy. His pretty Finnish wife, Marit, was a superb cook who has since published some best-selling cookbooks in Finland on Italian cuisine. Rather than sully her dishes with the inferior Russian pasta, Marit prepared linguine and spaghetti from scratch.
Needless to say, whenever the Astraldis invited us to dinner, we canceled any prior diplomatic engagements to accept, though I suspect that the invitation was made primarily for Henrietta's sake. While we dined on Marit's freshly made fettuccine with homemade pesto, Henrietta was spoiled with prosciutto or Parma ham that the Astraldis had brought back from Rome.
During the day, I sometimes encountered our cat stretched on a green wooden bench in the courtyard outside our apartment with our neighbor. Marit would be stroking Henrietta with one slender hand while the other balanced a book that she was reading in one of the half-dozen languages in which she was fluent.
Henrietta took to keeping vigil over the children's beds whenever they were suffering from one of the strains of colds or fevers that swept Moscow every winter. She was so reliable that Jaqueline nicknamed her the "gray nurse."
This did not amuse our grandmotherly Russian housekeeper, Tamara Mikhailovna, who was convinced that suffocation and death would result if Henrietta were permitted so close to the sleeping children. Tamara was hardly timid, having served in the Red Army as a teenage corporal against the Nazi invaders during World War II. When I looked into the origin of her folk wisdom, I found that such fears of cats were hardly confined to Russia.
You could go back four centuries to Edward Topsell and his authoritative (at the time) book The History of Four Footed Beasts. The English naturalist warned his readers "that the breath and savor of cats consume their radical humor and destroy the lungs, and they who keep the cats with them in their beds have the air corrupted and fall into hectics and consumptions."
Our children thrived on Henrietta's bedtime companionship, and we indulged our cat in ways that appalled some of our Russian friends. It is not startling news that an American pet manages to eat better than many people around the world, but this sobering truth never sunk in until we found ourselves living abroad.
When we first arrived in Moscow, I made the mistake of introducing Henrietta to some Russian caviar, the good stuff that gets exported for resale at obscene prices. Henrietta lapped up every last one of the tiny black fish eggs and demanded more. I envisioned her cultivating an extravagant palate that we couldn't afford, because even in Russia those little black eggs don't come cheap. Besides, feeding caviar to one's cat evoked the kind of gilded decadence associated with the aristocrats whose appalling excesses had made the Russian Revolution seem like not such a bad idea back in 1917.
So we weaned Henrietta onto a more affordable diet of canned salmon and sturgeon. Even these Russian-made staples were in short supply in ordinary Moscow stores. We had to import them from Helsinki, with their original "Made in the USSR" labels, or we had to procure them at the beryozka, a foreigners-only shop that demanded hard currency in the form of special coupons not available to ordinary Russians.
Tamara Mikhailovna was upset to see Henrietta being fed fancier food than most Muscovites could buy.
"Est odni lish' delikatessi," Tamara fumed. The cat eats only luxury foods.
To save face all around, we had to postpone feeding Henrietta her favorite salmon and sturgeon until evening, after Tamara had gone home.
It was not our only extravagance on Henrietta's behalf. Because the Russian milk sold in Moscow was unpasteurized at the time and rumored to come from tubercular cows, we imported our children's milk by rail from Finland. And invariably we ordered an extra liter for our cat.
We had to import stranger things from Stockmann's department store in Helsinki, down to Russian-made auto parts for the office Volga sedan. Auto parts were so scarce in the Soviet Union that when I parked on the street, I followed the example of every car-owning Muscovite: I removed the windshield wipers and locked them inside my car.
When we first arrived in Moscow, Celia and Chris turned on the black-and-white television set in our apartment. They were disappointed to find the programming dominated by harvest successes in Kazakhstan and coverage of Leonid Brezhnev, who was well on his way to becoming immortalized as the Soviet Communist Party's most tedious leader, notwithstanding stiff competition from other tired old men in the ruling politburo.
A popular riddle circulating while we lived in Moscow asked, "What has four legs, two long ears, and Brezhnev in the middle?" The answer: a television set.
So where is Leonid Brezhnev now that America's parents really need him? Defunct, alas. Because given the opportunity to watch Brezhnev on television at almost any hour, our children took to reading so voraciously that by the time Celia reached the seventh grade, she tested at the reading level of a high school senior. Chris, while several years younger, was devouring books at a similarly rapid rate.
Celia and Chris also spent their time after school staging plays with the other children at Sadovo-Samotechnaya. When Henrietta wandered in, she found herself launched on a fleeting thespian career as a costumed walk-on in their rainy-day repertory.
I returned home one day from my daily jog around Red Army Park to find Henrietta escaping the children's bedroom, which surprised me because she enjoyed napping there. Our cat trailed a gauzy white train, looking like a terrified bride fleeing her vows at the altar.
"What's happened to the cat?" I asked Celia, who was in pursuit of Henrietta.
"She's joined our cast of The Littlest Angel," Celia said, "and left rehearsal without the director's permission."
The show, adapted very loosely from a children's book, premiered on schedule with sundry mothers and kids from Sadovo-Samotechnaya in attendance, but not Henrietta, who learned to make herself scarce whenever the costumes were pulled out.
Sadly, the performance unraveled after Chris got stage fright and balked at playing the title role in which Celia had cast him, objecting that the cardboard angel wings and bedsheet made him look like a sissy to his soccer-playing chums.
Instead, Chris set up a food concession, selling delicious milk shakes made with Russian ice cream, Jaqueline's chocolate sauce, and our limited supply of milk from Helsinki. At the ruble equivalent of twenty-two cents for a shake, Chris did such brisk business with the other children that we ran out of milk. I later calculated that I had lost a dollar on each milk shake. I never finished mine after learning that it had been tested on Henrietta.
To an outsider, our home life must sound cloyingly cute, but it illustrates how closely our family, Henrietta included, pulled together in the absence of the extraneous distractions, from television cartoons to shopping malls, that have come to dominate childhood in the United States.
We look back wistfully on those evenings in Moscow when the family's high spots became Jaqueline's homemade hot-fudge sundaes and the Sunday afternoons that we spent skiing together among the snow-shrouded birch trees along the Moscow River.
And we miss our periodic "breathers" to see the bright lights of Helsinki, sharing a snug four-passenger compartment on the midnight train that rolled across the dark expanse of northern Russia to the Finnish frontier, where we breakfasted on fresh doughnuts and hot coffee or cocoa while the train crews changed locomotives.
Copyright © 2001 by Christopher S. Wren