The day after my 66th birthday, I looked through the paperbacks on my bookshelf. It was time to decide which books I would donate to the Friends of the Library for resale.
One book caught my eye, as it did every year. It was Ivanhoe, the classic authored by Sir Walter Scott. Only the book wasn’t mine. It was lent to me 39 years earlier by John Doe (pseudonym to protect privacy).
We both participated in the 1979-80 USSR academic exchange sponsored by IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board), an international nonprofit organization specializing in global education and development.
My spouse and I befriended John and his partner in August 1979 when we all took a month-long crash course in Russian while living in the Moscow State University dormitory. Our small group of Americans shared more fears, hopes and dreams overseas than most Americans do at home with close friends over several years.
In September 1979, we traveled to our respective Soviet cities to do research. My spouse and I headed to Tbilisi, Georgia for six months, while John and his partner headed to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We vowed to visit each other at our exotic locations.
Sure enough, John and his partner were approved for a travel visa to Tbilisi during Thanksgiving week. Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Georgia, so we cooked chicken (no turkey there) and vegetables on the hot plate in our dormitory room and listened to Voice of America on our short-wave radio.
The Soviet authorities reluctantly granted us permission to travel to Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan in mid-December. We were delighted to share stories with our dear friends again and visited their small quarters. John grabbed Ivanhoe from his bookshelf and pressed it into my hands. “You must read this book! It is my favorite. Take your time and you can return it to me when you are done reading it,” John said excitedly.
I managed to tuck the book into my overstuffed luggage and brought it back to Tbilisi safely.
When we returned to Moscow at the end of our exchange, an American Embassy staff member quietly told us that John and his partner had left the academic exchange early to avoid problems with the KGB. (We were under KGB surveillance in Tbilisi as well; those details are best suited for another article.) For those of you who may remember, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent 1980 Summer Olympics boycott took place while I was in the USSR.
Meanwhile, I guarded Ivanhoe closely during subsequent moves to Chicago, New Haven, and Tampa. I was hesitant to locate John due to his close encounter with the KGB, so I continued to keep Ivanhoe safely on my bookshelf until the right time presented itself.
Thirty-nine years later, what harm could be caused by researching John Doe online? John’s last name was so uncommon that I discovered his business office address almost immediately.
It was time to return Ivanhoe to John. I addressed the padded envelope carefully, placed the book inside and included a handwritten note to remind John of who I was. I also included a photo of the four of us together on Thanksgiving Day in our Tbilisi dormitory room. I mailed the package certified mail and wondered if/when it would arrive.
A few days later, I received notification that the package had been delivered. Who opened the mail at John’s business office? Perhaps some secretary opened it and placed it in an overfilled inbox. Would the book be overlooked, forgotten, discarded?
I received my answer a month later. A handwritten thank-you note from John arrived in my mailbox. I couldn’t believe it. What would John say? “It’s about time”? “I don’t remember lending the book”? or worse yet, “I don’t remember you”?
My fears were alleviated when I read the first paragraph: ”Wow. That has to be the best and most surprising letter I have ever received. I just could not believe it. I must have shown your letter to at least 10 people. Ivanhoe is my favorite book and I was given that paperback when maybe I was eleven and it had nostalgia value.”
After including details of his life over the past four decades, he concluded, “I used your letter to open communication” with his former spouse, who had not communicated with him for over two decades. “It was like magic. You would have been delighted to see the results of your letter.”
It’s never too late to return a book.
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects.