Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: War and Peace (not about the book) (07/07/11)
TITLE: A Mother's Prayer
By Emily Gibson
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I was sixteen years old, taking second year high school Russian during the height of the Cold War, partly for the challenge, but mostly to understand better who our “enemy” was. Our teacher assigned us unusual homework one weekend: watch the 1959 Russian movie “Ballad of a Soldier” being broadcast on PBS in 1970. It had English subtitles, but the point of the assignment was to experience the sounds and inflections of native Russian speakers. Although the movie was a fictional story of a Russian soldier’s brief leave from the front during WWII, it complemented a concurrent assignment in our World History class, reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The unforgettable juxtaposition of these two works of art helped me appreciate, in the midst of the nightly news from Vietnam, the terrible cost of war to individuals and their families and the elusive nature of lasting peace.
Some forty years later, I watched this movie again. The tale is a classic “returning home from war” saga with the twist that young Alyosha is only on a brief leave granted by a compassionate general rewarding the front line soldier for an extraordinary act of bravery. In his plea to his commanding officer, Alyosha asks only to return to his home village to fix the leaking roof of his mother’s home. Given the extraordinary difficulties of war time travel in an economically struggling country, as well as the challenges and remarkable people he ends up meeting along the way, his time home ends up being only a few precious minutes before he has to turn around and return to the front. He only has enough time to hug his mother, and say goodbye one last time, never to return again. Peace will not come for Alyosha in this life.
Although the story focuses on one soldier son’s determination to get home to his mother, it also allows a view of war’s permanent damage to bodies and minds, as well as the toll of war time separation on relationships. There is little sense of hopeful future for the characters in this story, so the immediacy of what they experience takes on greater significance.
Alyosha meets a young woman on the train and their evolving connection offers a glimpse of a potential love that could transcend the ugliness of war. They part not even knowing how to find each other again, after having spent precious few hours in conversation. Acknowledging that lack of future hope is the most painful of all; there is no ability to make plans with confidence, no assurance of a long life stretching ahead like the dusty road leading from his village reaching endlessly to the horizon.
I remember sitting in my childhood home, watching this movie as a teenager with so little life experience at that point. Tears streamed down my face, as I was touched by the tender story of a Russian boy/man made too old by war and hardship for his young years and his simple desire to once again hug his mother. This did not feel like an enemy to me. This felt like someone I could easily love and hold on to–as a brother, someday as a cherished husband, eventually as a precious son.
Years later, as I watched again through moistening eyes, I could easily identify with Alyosha’s mother. I’ve watched my own children leave our home to head down that long endless road, thankfully not to fight a war. Yet so many mothers continue to bid their children goodbye as they head to war--mothers who pray daily for their childrens’ safety and for a peace that remains elusive on earth’s soil.
I’m still holding on to that precious hope for a lasting peace, forty years later, even as my own road shortens. I’ll not forget the enemy also has a mother waiting at home, praying for her child to come walking down that long road, if only for one hug.
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