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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

A Stitch in Time

Cross-stitching has become a craze of sorts among our children. First it was the girls, then the boys. Cross-stitching is a craft woven deep within their Russian souls, helping us to teach life lessons along the way.

Sashenka got her cat kit when she turned nine in October. Then Pasha oohed and aahed over hers until he was granted one on his thirteenth birthday in November. We sit cross-legged on my big bed, the three of us unravelling the embroidery threads and figuring out how many ply are needed for each stitch. Pasha catches on and sails through his frog in no time, while Sashenka is unable to do much at all on her own.

As December approaches, Mashenka wants her own kit for the holidays, a wish that is granted. The genie then concludes that she must have been in an altered state to acquiesce to such a request. The kits cause more and more headaches for yours truly.

“Can’t do it,” concludes 11-1/2 year old Mashenka, insisting that I do her project for her. An unwilling surrogate, I repeatedly review the basics with her. Teach a man to fish….

“If you begin with Cinderella’s hair, you need to count how many stitches are in each row,” I point out. “See, there are five here, and three and a half here….”

She refuses to listen, making x’s one after another. Cinderella eventually has a blond brick on top of her head.

“Etah nee pra’velnah,” (It’s not correct) I try again. “Why is her hair in a square?”

“She is a couch,” Mashenka declares.

“A couch?”

“Koro’vah,” she clarifies in Russian.

“A cow?”

“Her hair is square, like a cow!” she laments, wanting me to make it all better.

I decide that it’s time to stop rescuing her and start enabling her to stitch her own life story.

“Is it Cinderella’s fault? She’s looking to you to make her beautiful. You need to count the stitches.”

At the same time, little Sashenka, the embroidery beggar, shuttles between myself and Pasha, pleading with us to give her a handout of one or two paltry stitches. Petya, our oldest son, whom we believed to be too old and masculine for such pursuits, also asks for an embroidery set of his own. We pick up some post-holiday deals and he follows Pasha as a close second in skill.

Now mind you, the girls were the ones who claimed to be cross-stitch experts. They demonstrate that they know nothing of the most basic stiches: cross-stitch, lazy-daisy, back-stitch, satin-stitch, and French knot. I show them over and over, but they return five minutes later, asking me to complete the row, while they have no interest in lifting a finger.

Pasha, the stitchery savant, has his own stumblingblocks. Finding it difficult to read in English, he looks at the picture and tries to take it from there.

“Let’s separate the threads first. How many ply are in one thread?” I quiz him.


“So if we want to have three threads, we divide it into how many groups?”

“Two,” he sighs, much preferring to fly by the seat of his pants.

I remind him that if he uses up all of his embroidery thread at once, there will be none left to complete the project, since some stiches use 1, 2, or 3-ply. It helps to tell him that he’s been referring to the Spanish section of instructions:  Ola! No wonder he’s having problems. At the same time, Petya has so many languages on his instruction sheet, we’re surprised to find Russian, naturally available for the one child who has no problem with English at this point. Preparation, planning ahead, patience: these were the unavoidable life lessons that are woven into our sewing circle.

Remembering my own childhood, I can’t recall any specific projects that I completed. I must have been all of six or seven when I sat with my mom, happily sewing loop after loop of the lazy-daisy petals, finishing off with a few French knots in the middle of the flower. Before we proceeded with any major project, practice was needed, a unique concept in this day and age. If memory serves me correctly (and that’s a big stretch for anyone who has four kids), I believe my mother was working on embroidered pillow-cases. Why she didn’t just go out and buy 100% Egyptian cotton, 200 thread count Frette linens is beyond me. At the same time, she would keep me occupied with iron-on patterns of flowers and other simple outlines. I was totally satisfied for the immediate gratification of a finished petite fleur. I learned to work quietly and methodically, deep snows falling outside and chai simmering inside. Oh, to develop care, and concentration, and creativity in those coming after me.

Yet, even without metaphors or life lessons, the cross-stitches proved challenging enough. Today, I struggled with a nine-year-old who could not master the simple back-stitch.

“Okay,” I counsel her, “look: we come up at one, go in at two, underneath to four, and back to three….”

“Mama, can I do my turdle?” she wheedles, side-stepping any issue of learning, wanting to head straight for the proverbial, imagined greener pastures.

“Until we finish the kitty-cat, there’s really no sense in moving on to the turtle, right? Let’s learn these simple stitches and how to count each square, and then we can go to the next project….” I hold the carrot out, forgetting that carrots hold little appeal in a fast-food society.

These projects were nothing like the red and black cross-stitch of my grandmother’s generation, intricate and elaborate designs found on dresser top scarves and side table doilies. These true works of art could still be found in higher-end, exclusive Russian folk art stores.

As they gained experience, maybe the kids might gravitate toward sewing up a few of the the traditional “rush’niki”. No one with any tangential Slavic ancestry could avoid the long, white linen towels striped with red patterns near the ends and associated with every event from cradling at birth, to weddings, to welcoming guests with bread and salt, to death. As a matter of fact, the more I considered it, my children were perfectly suited for embroidery, which technically means “to embellish”. One could not find better embellishers than these four, whether placing several small junk pins on an elegant suit jacket, or the numerous and dubious details added when story-telling. Gee, I wonder who they got that from….

It was becoming evident that the pink, purple, red, yellow, green, and black threads were a metaphor for life in the adoptive family. We were being woven together with quite a bit of effort, sticking ourselves and drawing figurative blood upon occasion, experiencing no little frustration at times, and often not understanding the big picture. The popular saying, “A stitch in time, saves nine” might have referred to fixing a rip before it became any worse, but it could also refer to much of the everyday-life background that our children lacked. The building blocks of knowledge, and common sense, and civility, were sorely lacking in the beginning. It was like skipping every other stitch where the blah, blank, beige canvas showed through the otherwise beautiful pattern. Many stitches had not yet been sewn on the material of their lives, and other stitches were there that needed to be ripped out. Where the stitches of family life, and education, and compassion had been neglected, we had nine times the work facing us now.

Maybe it was more of a lesson for me, than for them: Follow the Master plan and the picture will become clear.

Happy New Year.



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