27: Forgiveness Tastes Sweet

27: Forgiveness Tastes Sweet

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

Forgiveness Tastes Sweet

In the prewar Soviet Union, few Russians would openly call themselves Christians. People disappeared for lesser slips of the tongue.

In their crowded communal apartment in Leningrad, only my grandmother’s children could occasionally hear her whispering prayers early in the morning behind closed doors. The state would take away her children and place them in an orphanage if her “religious influence” on them became known. It was in her best interests, and her children’s, to keep her faith to herself.

That’s why the prewar census worried my grandmother. Everybody was told to report to census centers organized at schools, hospitals and other public places. Many dressed up for such a festive occasion; few people knew that the state used the information collected to prosecute its own citizens.

Grandmother watched her neighbors standing in line, answering the census clerks’ questions. Piles of completed questionnaires towered on the desk. Age, education, place of birth, native tongue — religion? “Atheist,” people answered without fail. Few of them were truly atheists, and some even ventured to church, making sure no one saw them enter. But they all chose the safe answer.

Finally, my grandmother faced the census clerk. Breathless, she could feel her heart beating in her ears. His questions seemed to last for an hour. She prepared to lie, for her children’s sake.

“Religion?”

She looked at the other people in the room. All the census officials needed from her was a statistic, a figure to add to others. God knew the truth — so she wasn’t really telling a lie, was she?

“Atheist,” she said.

After that, her life changed. Once a cheerful young mother of three, she grew depressed and quiet. In her disturbed mind, she kept asking herself whether she still had a right to pray to God, and whether she still belonged to Him.

World War II started. In September 1941, the Germans surrounded Leningrad and bombed the city’s food stores. The 900-day siege of Leningrad had begun. By December, the townspeople’s daily rations consisted of four ounces of smelly bread made of bran, starch and sawdust. The winter temperatures fell to a record 40 degrees below zero. City plumbing collapsed and frozen sewage covered apartment floors. There was no water, no food, no heat. People died by the thousands — daily. They passed away in their beds, on the street, in offices and factories. They all quietly shared one silent resolve: not to let the enemy enter their city.

One December evening, as her children fell asleep fully dressed under layers of quilts, my grandmother knew her time had run out, too. She was going to die before morning. By that time, all people had learned the signs of approaching death from starvation — a sudden bout of appetite, bloody diarrhea, lethargy. Grandmother wanted to spare her children the horror of waking up next to their mother’s dead body. She desperately needed to survive until the morning. And she knew of only one power capable of stopping death. She prayed.

She didn’t think she had a right to ask for God’s help. But a mother will do anything to save her children, even face God’s wrath. That night, my grandmother screamed her heart out, begging God to let her live until the morning. As she finished praying, she remembered one thing that was said to delay death from starvation: movement. She looked around the room. They had already burned most of the furniture for fuel, but a few pieces remained — a nineteenth-century carved oak bed and mahogany bookcases weighing hundreds of pounds. Now a dying, emaciated woman was going to push and pull them around in a desperate attempt to prolong her life with exercise.

Afraid of waking the kids, my grandmother started with the kitchen. She felt her way through the dark apartment and forced an oak table away from the kitchen window. She barely moved the buffet from the corner. Sacrificing a match, she investigated the floor behind the buffet. Not a crumb of bread. Not even a dead mouse — the townspeople had eaten the mouse population a long time ago.

As the flame was dying out, she noticed something in the corner by the wall. She squeezed her frail body into the crack to check it. She lit another match to see what it was. A brown bag sat in the corner, covered with cobwebs, lost and forgotten since the happy prewar days. She took it out and placed the heavy pack on the kitchen table.

Sugar.

In the morning, she woke her children and gave each a see-through slice of heavy, moist bread sprinkled with strange white powder.

“What’s that, Mom?”

“Eat it. It’s cake.”

The elder daughter doubted the answer as she remembered fancy cream cakes in the prewar shop windows. But this one tasted a hundred times better.

Their mother laughed with them now, as happy and beautiful as she was before the siege.

Two pounds of sugar can save quite a few people. My grandmother didn’t die that winter, and neither did her children, nor most of her family and neighbors. Sometimes, she said, it seemed the brown bag had no bottom at all.

Yet, my grandmother forever grieved that, just like Peter, she’d had to answer the question about whether she knew Christ or not. And she’d answered, “I do not know him.”

Grandmother never forgave herself — but she knew God did.

~Elaine Freeland Galaktionova
Chicken Soup for the Christian Woman’s Soul

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