Walking home in the darkening slush of a winter afternoon, from the house of my Neighbor – a Total Stranger earlier that morning – I thought about all the questions I could have asked – and didn’t.
After 6 years of silently, facelessly, living two houses over, I had taken that first breathless step across her door – but did not find it in me to cross the cordial, awkward distance formed between us by her kitchen table.
Why didn’t I ask her about her favorite books when she shared her love of reading? I thought. I had allowed myself to be silenced, I realized, by the heavy sense of politeness and un-clarity between us. I had forgotten that the point of my Quest was not the sharing of gifts (in this case, a blank journal representing my love of writing), or the taming of my inner terror, but the search for the divine sparks among those with whom I share my world.
And then, feeling my throat fill with sadness, I was carried back to another slushy winter, the last one I spent with my grandmother Ester (known to all as Babe).
It was 1993, not long since the Soviet collapse, and I was visiting my grandparents in Latvia after more than 10 yrs of separation by the iron curtain.
Grandma Babe, her bones too wracked by osteoporosis to move beyond her bed, and her face puffed with Prednisone, entertained me with stories about my colorful Latvian cousins, whispery renditions of half-forgotten childhood songs, and reactions to my tales of “life in America” (toilet paper in public stalls! 5 kinds of apple in every corner grocery! 60 hr work weeks?).
A part of me, watching the bubbly cadence of our conversations, always meant to veer the topic to deeper waters, to ask her about the past.
- Tell me more about your “musical” brothers and sisters. Were they kind of like the Von Trapp family?
- What were you doing in the Bolshevik underground as a teenage girl?
- How did your love for grandpa survive the Gulag labor camp when you were sent away as newlyweds?
- Is it true that before you gave birth to mom, you lost a baby boy to a drunk Siberian midwife with dirty hands?
- What was it like to return home after Stalin’s death – to find your whole family had been killed by the Nazis?
- How is it that your former 5th grade students, grown men and women, still visit you so many years later?
Yet, somehow, in those quiet evenings in the Riga flat, I never made room for the vital questions, the ones that now seem to matter most.
The danger of Unasked Questions, I thought, is that time is not an ever-winding ribbon, spooling out into the distance for us to retrace its path whenever we make up our minds.
The danger of Unasked Questions is that sometimes Now is the chance we are given.
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.