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A story: Giving Changes Everything

Giving Changes Everything 

A story by Nancy Richards, sister of John Richards and president-elect of UUs of Transylvania County in Brevard, NC

Estonia.  Fall of 1990.  I was a member of a delegation of ordinary folks from New Hampshire who were paired with host families in Estonia for a homestay under the auspices of a group called US-USSR Bridges for Peace.  The idea was for real people to meet and listen to each other across the lines of language, politics, and nation. 

Our hosts were welcoming and charming.  They showed us around and took us to schools, businesses and markets.  Estonia was under the thumb of the Soviet Union, and young soldiers were everywhere on the streets, heavily armed.  Economic times were hard and people waited in line, sometimes for hours, for a chance to buy food, clothing, and necessities, but often the shelves in the markets were empty.

After we had been in Estonia for a few days, our hosts organized a reception for our whole group and our host families.  They prepared some refreshments that included one precious item that someone had managed to procure.  It was a small orange, sliced into paper-thin pieces.  I remember how several of the Estonians gathered around to see this piece of fruit, exclaiming over it because they hadnt seen anything like it in a long, long time.  They carried this treasure around the room and urged each guest to take a piece.  Although they looked at it with wonder, not one of the hosts took even a sliver.  It was very clear that this amazing treat was only for us, the honored guests.

I was young then, but the irony and poignancy of this moment did not escape me.  Here I was, a privileged American who could find and afford to buy all the oranges I could ever want at home, being offered a rare delicacy that my hosts could almost never find and had undoubtedly sacrificed to afford. Clearly, their great desire was to welcome us, to honor us, to offer the most hospitality they could manage, to extend a message of love.  I realized that taking a little slice of that orange and thanking them for it was the deepest way I could thank them.

When our visit ended, we were surprised to find that our flight home on one of the big US airlines, had been unexpectedly canceled, so we were re-routed onto a flight on Aeroflot, the Soviet airline.  We were crowded onto a plane and spread around among many Russian passengers, many of whom were chain-smoking during much of the flight.  On our way home, the plane stopped to refuel in Ireland, and we were allowed to briefly go into the terminal while we were waiting to continue our journey. 

At the snack bar inside the airport, there was a pyramid of large, beautiful oranges arranged on the countertop.  A few of us noticed that our Russian seatmates were staring at those oranges in amazement.  At the last minute before we got back onboard, our group decided to buy up every one of those oranges, and we each took some and gave them to the Russians sitting next to us. 

I dont think that anyone peeled and ate one of those lovely fruits. Most of our companions sat holding the oranges gently, as if they were newborn babies, and gazing at them all the way to New York.

Giving changes everything, doesnt it?