On the island of Acadia, Maine, my family lived in the state park the summer I was fifteen. My father was ‘checking points’ (cartography term) on another survey team’s data. There, I met a college boy from Ukraine.
Borys Stopnyski was studying geopolitics at Oswego U. Dad kept a close eye on me and I was never without my brother and sister. We spent most of our time swimming that summer but also doing the twist in The Shack, a place that sold coca-colas and lobster rolls. My sister Kathi and I shunned lobster. We felt sorry for them.
We had a lot of fun, going to park ranger talks about celestial phenomena and local geography, studying tide pool creatures with a marine biologist, plus dancing and swimming. None of us liked the moldy smell of Dad’s surplus US Army tent but we were only in it for sleeping. As if Dad and I ever slept!
Borys and I almost kissed up at the bathhouses one night, but my father was onto us. He leapt out from behind a tree and shouted, “She’s only fifteen!”
My sister had told Borys she was fifteen and I was seventeen and I didn’t correct her. Caught in a lie! But he forgave me, and we exchanged addresses on that sad day when my family packed up to go back to Great Falls, Virginia. It was a long drive made fun by my brother Bob, who had taken numerous Polaroid photographs of our two month stay in Heaven.
Borys and I wrote each other weekly. His were long letters about college classes, politics of the day, and how much he adored me. Mine were laments about horribly difficult assignments in my AP classes, my father being so strict and mean, me feeling ugly compared to gorgeous Lady Langley girls.
When I went to see “Dr. Zhivago” in DC with my father and sister (Bob was busy playing ball or something and Mom wanted a break from the kids, especially ‘hyperactive Dixie’) I was immediately in love with Mother Russia and Boris Pasternak. (Boris!)
My next letter to my college beau was full of the imagery of that film. “I identify most with Strelnikov,” I wrote. “He was a good guy, marching for food and eq uality and peace like I’ve been doing after taking seminars at Georgetown and Catholic U on non-violent protest. But Pasha went crazy after the Cossacks (??) slaughtered all those people in the street. That’s when he turned into Strelnikov. Who do you identify with in that book/movie? I know you are way more familiar with Russia than me, since your family emigrated from there.”
His answer was Furious: “UKRAINE IS NOT PART OF RUSSIA!! Read a history book! Not a romance novel. Russia is ALL STRELNIKOVS after 1917. You are utterly Ignorant!”
After pretending to cry over this (I was never a crier but thought that letter required tears), I asked Dad to drive me to the library so I could get some books on Russian history, Ukraine, Lenin, Stalin and all that stuff. I read and read, ignoring the World Civ’ AP history and English syllabi for sophomore year.
My sister helped, as always, her knowledge (at age eleven) far beyond mine. We discussed Yurovsky Bolsheviks killing the entire royal family, the decision to ban the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (whose words I had been reading, imagining Borys was Russian–what a fool! But she was a Great Writer!!! Maybe someday, I could be like her!) pogroms against Jews (Kathi kept saying ‘why is it always the Jews?’) Then we sat down at my neat-as-a-pin desk. (“You are such a weird teenager” Mom would tell me, “No teen girl is this neat!” like that was a bad thing). We composed a letter to Borys.
Dear Borys, Thank you for telling me off! I’m not mad, it made me study up on all this stuff. Ukraine declared independence in 1918 so that’s cool. And my sister and I are reading lots of poetry by writers banned by the Bolshevics (sp). We love Anna Akhmatova even tho’ she is Russian, but she was banned so she was probably on the side of Ukraine. It is evil how many people Stalin killed to form ‘a perfect atheist state.’ My father is an atheist, but he only killed people in WWII. I hope you are doing Ok and that classes are not too hard. Love Dixie”
He wrote back to tell me he’d be in Great Falls on December 24 so we could make love (was he crazy? I’m only sixteen after my Libra birthday. I’m waiting until marriage or age 21. Or did he mean ‘make love’ like in those old 1920s songs my godmother the former flapper played for us–kissing and stuff???)
I ran to the phone, dialed his dorm number. No answer. It was December 22, and we were leaving next morning for the long drive to Grandma’s in Hinesville, Georgia to celebrate with our five cousins, Miz’ Bonnie (Grandma), Aunt Inez (the Cherokee) and Uncle Jack (Dad’s youngest brother who tried to adopt me after my father was real mean to me one day.)
“Dad!” I shouted, “I can’t go to Georgia. Borys is hitch-hiking here, and he’ll be bummed out if he knocks on the door and no one’s home.” I waved the letter at my father, who was slamming cards down onto the Formica kitchen table, playing solitaire.
“Jesus H. Christ. These idiotic boys. It’s his own fault for writing instead of calling. Like hell I’ll let you stay here alone with him.”
“Oh my Gosh!” careful not to take The Lord’s Name in Vain (my atheist father was still influenced by his acrobat-horseback-minister-father’s rules), “This is SO UNFAIR!!!”
“When you’re eighteen, you can elope with him,” Mom said as she scrubbed potatoes for dinner.
“Hell, no, she can’t. College first.”
“We need her out of this house, she’s driving me batty.”
I retreated to my room and wrote a note which I taped up on the front door:
DEAR BORYS, I GOT YOUR LETTER AND TRIED TO CALL BUT NO ANSWER DAD WON’T LET ME STAY HERE ALONE. SORRY! I WISH YOU WOULD’VE CALLED. PLEASE WRITE ME (BIG RED CRAYON HEART) DIXIE
We got home after a fun Christmas, running around in the palmetto-oak forest, acting out plays using Spanish moss as witches’ hair and men’s beards, eating tons of Southern fried everything and pecan and sweet potato pie. There was a letter in the mailbox from Borys.
“Dixie, even your penmanship has changed. You are printing now. Is that some form of rebuke? (No, my AP English teacher, Mrs. Single, told me ‘We’re all too old to read your ornate, Victorian, pretty writing, Please, Miss Elder, print from now on.”)
Borys’s letter went on to say, “I spent three days hitch hiking from upstate New York to see you. Do not write me back. We are through.”
Kathi read the letter with me in my bedroom. Ever practical, she said “Well, Wayne will always love you.”
I went downstairs, picked up the murder weapon heavy black telephone receiver and called my Irish Catholic Herndon High school beau, “Dad says we can go out again.” My father never let me go steady. He’d always make me calls Langley or university guys for dates so Wayne and I wouldn’t get “too het up.”
“OK Mama-San,” and he hitched over to see me. We danced in the den with Kathi and Bob to the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and the Animals until Dad came downstairs.
“You honyocks need some real music,” he said.
Then we all danced to his theremin LP. Laughing as we did freaky arm movements to match the odd sounds.
50 years later, I met Peter F. Johnson in Boulder, Colorado. Like me, he was a traveler. He’d hitch-hiked from France to Iran. Lived nearly two years in India. And he took up theremin to play along with my flute.
I hope Borys is somewhere beautiful, teaching government to students who need to understand the difference between Russia and Ukraine.