How Was Your Weekend?

The Question. It’s all over America.

And every region has its own. It’s the first thing people ask, right after saying hello. They can ask the same familiar folks day after day, or use it to establish a relationship with a person they’ve just met. James and Deborah Fallows give regional examples of The Question in their book Our Towns. (My favorite was “How’s your mama & them?” in parts of Louisiana where there is a chance that a new acquaintance might actually know your mother.) When I visited rural Maine, it was “Got family here?” In Kansas, church-going people have asked me “Where do you fellowship?” In Boston there was “How was the parking out there?” or “How ’bout them Sox?”

At our office, it’s “How Was Your Weekend?”
The point seems to be “We all made it back! F Troop all present and accounted for.” It’s a light friendly ritual.

Does anybody else have a hard time with this?
Me, on Monday morning I show up and log in — completely absorbed with plans for the day and week, spreadsheets and priority lists and process management procedures.

Then, someone with the best intentions asks “How was your weekend?”
My chain of thought snaps. Looking up from a spreadsheet, I give the questioner a perplexed look. Weekend? Which time interval from Friday evening to Monday before breakfast? How much detail would people like? In what amount of time? What level of factual or emotional honesty? What would they like to hear?

Etiquette says that all I have to do is smile. Say that it was nice and restful.
Except around here, “Fine, thank you,” is not enough of an answer.
The followup will be “Did you do something fun? Spend it with family?”
And in these parts, the questioner will share that he/she and his/her spouse went hiking, or rock climbing, or kayaking, or skiing. (It’s a big outdoorsy town. People run around excelling at sports I’ve never even heard of.)

And to be fair, on Mondays it is a blessing just to have a conducive job, with co-workers who are friendly and who greet me.
So to hold up my end of the dialogue, sometimes on Sunday I rehearse a news bit to offer. “Thank you; I updated my advance directive medical paperwork. And you?” Usually that sort of pastime earns a laugh and perhaps a concerned look. So sometimes I try asking The Question first. Then I can just take in the gladness in stories and photos of real people with real lives: the new baby, the family reunion, the overnight boat cruise and B&B with someone special, the movie with the grandkids. And even when their lives have troubles, everybody shares it together. It sounds like a good way to live.

I should have this ritual down pat by now.
But every Question brings another cold chill of sadness, and anxiety about not fitting in to office conversations. And my every smile and “Fine” reply feels like another layer of clear turtle-wax, burying over a personality that would like to be real. Some day if an actual potential let’s-do-everyday-life-including-weekends person ever shows up, how will he or she even know that under all this clear wax varnish there is me?

The other day, a super-bright enthusiastic new young colleague asked me. But this time, the high-gloss smile cracked under the weight of accumulated truth.
“Sad. Weekends are hard. I’m sorry; just trying to focus on Monday here.”
“Okay OKAY!” He hurried away, and I felt sorry for saying the wrong thing and making the office a little less bright because of it.

And now, by repeated popular demand, here is my weekend.

One new social gathering or more, to strike up conversations with new people and take an interest in them.
Chores: grocery shopping, cooking, ironing, balancing checkbook.
Long walk.
Getting ready for Monday.
Research emotional intelligence and social bonding, and how to get some.

Then, bedtime before the leaf sweeper truck passes by the window at 8:45 pm.
The leaf sweeper is a mournful sound. It marks the end of the weekend, and the end of one more chance to forge new permanent social connections. So the idea is to be in bed and halfway asleep before the leaf sweeper passes by.

Now there’s an answer: “It was great, thanks. This week I beat the leaf sweeper!”
How would that sound around the water cooler?

Update: After writing this I went to work early next day.
One of the top brass authority figures was there early too. He’s a military officer retired, tall imposing yet friendly guy who walks super fast leaning forward like he’s braving a head wind. He said “How was your weekend?”

For some reason, this time I actually answered the question, throwing my hands in the air and getting vehement about life and the meaning of it all.

He surprised me then. He stood there with wide eyes and listened to the whole outburst and said “That sounds very hard. I am so sorry.”
I went over and gave him a slappy patty shoulder hug.
He said “That was actually the idea I had in mind too. Everybody ought to get a hug sometimes.”
I thanked him for listening.
He said “My first reaction was ‘Gee, I better make sure I never ask her THAT again.’ But you know what? After talking to you, I will be here at the office on Monday mornings to ask that same question every week, just to check up on you and see how you are doing.”
He probably will, too.

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Comforts of Home: Women Who Neighbor Women

Beguine Women lived in Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium starting in about 1150; the last traditional Beguine was apparently Marcella Pattyn, who died in 2013. Beguines were single Christian women. Because there were far more single women than single men, and because convents required a high dowry, these women joined forces to neighbor in together. They built and maintained their own homes in walled communities. They were prosperous businesswomen, plying their skills in wool and linen and silk — carding and felting, spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, dying, embroidery. Beguines were highly respected pillars of the community. They supported the local regions with money and crops, nursing, herbal medicine, shelter, and handcrafts.

The women’s autonomy, their independent communal devotions, and their personal mysticism drew persecutions from the Catholic Church. Their affluent trade was shouldered aside and ended with the Industrial Revolution and with all-male craft guilds and monopolies on the textile markets.

But now, women in Germany have re-established a secular sisterhood model of their Beguine heritage. Inter-generational housing developments gather single women of all ages, pooling their resources to live together and care for one another.

Why can’t American women do this?

That question came to mind at a local church during Lent. I was helping the ladies at a local church serve a dinner before the Lenten service. We finished cooking, and sat down for a break before serving the congregation.

The kitchen brigade ladies are active independent retired Christian women. They have raised their families, cared for their husbands in their last illness, seen the children move away, and now live alone in roomy family homes. While we ate our soup, each woman confided how it feels, to manage a fixed income while watching property taxes soar, and to see their old neighborhood communities break up and disappear, replaced by mushrooming multi-story apartments for young high-tech workers.

The women exchanged heartfelt questions. What about repair expenses and heating? What about the new world of break-ins and car prowling and vandalism and empty houses with squatters, on streets that used to be safe, with neighbors who used to be friendly? How do they cope with living alone with no interaction but the internet and the cat? What if one of them fell on the cellar stairs, or got sick?

What a revelation for me. As a girl, I was programmed to find a prosperous husband, buy a home, and raise kids; the promise was that then a women would always be secure and cared for. Now as a single woman with single girlfriends, those of us Left Behind by the Rapture, who never landed husbands at all — we have the same conversations. We talk about our fear of being priced out of our little apartments. Or falling on the stairs. Or getting sick.

So at this church supper team, I asked the women some questions of my own. What if each of these home owners takes in a mature single woman (say, me) to rent the basement? We can all pool our incomes, talent, companionship, life experience, housekeeping, hospitality skills and nurturing. Then, since a bunch of these houses are near the church, we can form neighborhood networks. If one homeowner has a grandchild who needs that basement, then the renter can just move to another house within the network. Someone like me with virtually no belongings, I could move four times a year; then the homeowners could have an interesting guest for 90 days, make some cash, and then have their house back in three months. And all the while we could all visit one another to lend a hand or just a little company where it is needed, day or night.

That’s what I said to the church women at the table.
They just stared at me. No reply. Nothing.
They looked scared. Was I going to show up at the door with a bindle swag?

“But Mary,” people tell me, “there are internet services for this.”
Yes there are. We can pay a nationwide agency to collect all our personal data in The Cloud, and sell it to heaven knows whom, and choose our companion for us.

Or, we can do it ourselves. We women can organize and choose our own households, based on existing friendships.
But to do that, we women have to take other women seriously.
And to do that, we women have to take ourselves seriously as well.
After a lifetime of mothering children and husbands and bosses and dogs and yes our local congregations, we older single women are absolutely terrible at paying true deep engaged attention to our women friends and their thoughts and feelings and wishes and gifts. Or our own.

Just now for cheering inspiration I looked up OWL, the Older Women’s League, to see what they are doing about this. Well, the national (and our local chapter) are now out of business. Has the country run out of older women?

Maybe it’s time to visit Germany. Hm…
Sisterhoods, Germany

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September ’17: Woman at the Well

Watering our little patch takes about 90 minutes.

That’s every evening; we have a three month dry spell going on. Here is the picture for September 5, at    The red triangles indicate areas where the air quality is a danger due to nearby fires.

9.5.17 at 9 pm

At 6:00 when the sun tucks down behind the rooftops, I pick up the bucket and head outside, saying the Jesus Prayer. But after a day of checking the fire maps and packing a bag in case we have to leave, tonight the prayer stitches together over and over. It flows at its own rhythm step by step with the sloshing bucket of dishwater toted down four floors, over the rocks and roots and pavement cracks to the fragile patch of leafy greenage. The ballast from the water and the prayer opens a calm and central space, letting in impressions of other small things.

Here is a curious wasp. Every time I step outside with a bucket, a wasp is right there. How can a wasp tell so fast that there is water on the way? They have a place to drink of their own in the garden patch; every night I fill a shallow little water dish with a broad edge where the insects can drink safely, clinging with their feet instead of falling in.
Here is the holler and squeak of kidlets in the swimming pool.
Here is beige dust of dry and crumbled pine needles, edging like splinters into my socks.
Here is the sound of fine crushed glass as my shoes cut across the baked grass.
Here is the disturbing smell of smoke coming from everywhere, and haze across the red ball sun.
Here is the nice smell of pasta sauce bubbling on someone’s stove.
Here are the crows coming home to roost, but instead of rivering high up in a silent graceful flow they shoot past bunched like a fist, just high enough to clear the trees; the security guard at the bank says the birds are staying out of the smoke by hiding in the thickest bushes all day, and that he saw one crow leave a roost and fly up and die in midair, and hit the ground.

Up stairs and down, one bucket of dishwater at a time.
It’s like the women in Samaria (the proper ones, formally married, drawing water at the decent hour of early morning). But the women brought their water home, and I carry mine away and out to the yard.

The proper women with their early habits missed seeing Jesus show up at the well. And, so did the rest of the town.
A more efficient preacher would have known that. A more efficient preacher would have gone straight to the city gate where the men of importance hang out, and would have talked to them. But instead even with no bucket to draw water he went right to the well. Not only that, he picked the very hour that no proper woman would be there to draw him a drink. That is how he came across the one woman who wasn’t much welcome in the town and who showed up during siesta hour at noon to avoid the comments of the other women.

So Jesus has a talk with her about spiritual water, and how by showing up and offering a drink to him, she could find a drink for her own soul and even become a woman that her townspeople will respect and follow. By being open minded and hospitable to a Jewish stranger, she gains something that all her neighbors will want too.

“Where are we supposed to worship?” the woman at the well asks. “Jerusalem?”
But Jesus tells her to just worship in spirit and truth, and then anywhere is fine.

Finally it’s the last bucketful. We’re done.
The yard is silent; not a bird song anywhere.
The sky is soft and rosy from the closest forest fire, east over the mountains.
A breeze is coming up.

Jesus never got his drink that day.
But the wasp has his fill, sipping at the dish edge, tipping forward on little feet.
The leafy greens are safe for one more day, amen.

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4/14/2017: Good Friday

This is a deep holiday, for inner silence and reflection on the Passion of Our Lord.

At least, that’s how it was meant to work.
One Orthodox friend from Ethiopia fasts from all animal foods for 50 days before, and takes only one small meal at noon and a little bread and tea at night, and no food or water from Thursday through Saturday midnight.
Orthodox friends from everywhere else spend Holy Week at church every night. On Friday they’ll show up early to clean the church to a shine, fill it with flowers, and lay out the bier and embroidered tapestry for the candlelight procession all around the block.
The Catholic friends fast after 3:00, pray Stations of the Cross, and attend Tenebrae and Tre Ore service. Then they remove the flowers, drape the altar and crucifix in black, put out all the candles, and go home in silence.

I spent my Good Friday in a parking lot, sharing a pound of roast beef and a rotisserie chicken.
It started out with me, on the way to church like everybody else.
And there in the parking lot of Family Grocery was a frail looking elderly man. He was weeping hopelessly in the darkness, and cried out to me asking for a little food, anything with protein in it.
I ran in to the deli for a package of sliced roast beef.
Another woman leaving the store just ahead of me handed him a rotisserie chicken wrapped in foil.

The man was sobbing over his lost childhood on the farm in Nebraska, and grieving that people here in the city were so cold and uncaring. It took a good half hour for him to calm down enough to ask a few questions. He didn’t really have a narrative that we could figure out, except that his home was a basement of a house a couple of miles away.

The woman turned to me. “I can drive him home,” she said quietly. “But I’d rather not go alone. Will you come too?”
So we drove him and his little plastic bag of meat back to his basement. By then he was singing with happiness at being home with some roast beef and chicken to eat. We wanted to knock on the door and ask the owners of the house to check on him, but he wanted us to just drop him off and go leave him be.

Church was over by then. I set out for home.
At Family Grocery, they were just closing up shop for the night. The manager was in the parking lot rounding up some shopping carts. He said “I hope that old gent doesn’t end up sick. He’s been here three times today. People bought him roast beef, three rotisserie chickens, Italian hot sausage, and a side of ribs.”

But that was last year.
This year I was all ready to keep a devout Good Friday night at home, by reading Orthodox services and an Akathist prayer before bedtime. By 10:00 I’d finished all the pre-Sabbath chores. There was only the compost bin to take out of the freezer and carry outside.
10:00 is late for taking out compost. Because at that hour, the raccoons are running around outside. They are smart enough to catch on any day now that Mary + punchbowl = Home Delivery! Still, the anticipation of a really tidy kitchen for Easter weekend sent me out the door with a heap of trimmings.

It was windy, and cold. There were stars, and a bright planet. Venus or something.
With a careful look around (raccoons?) I stepped in to the little chain-link cage with the garbage bins inside.

I was tossing in scraps when somehow the light shifted. I looked up.
Right behind me, blocking the enclosure door, was the silhouette of a tall strong looking man watching me in silence.
“Why HELLO there!” I sang out in a hearty voice.
“They oughta have a light in here.” His voice sounded uneasy. “A person could fall down, and get hurt.”
“You are so right. Look! It’s brighter out there. Let’s step outside.” I ushered him out to the main driveway.
“The light burned out over our stairs. It was dark. I fell down, and got hurt. They put me in the hospital. Tomorrow they are moving me away.”

Luckily, that clues me in. Now I know exactly who this man is. Word is, our neighbor’s dear Uncle Adam had a bad fall on the dark steps. While he was in the hospital, the family found him a nice assisted living apartment nearby, all on one floor. He has wonderful relatives who will see him every day. He’ll be fine.

I walked him home on the other side of the complex.
At the top of the stairs outside his door, in the light of the new bulb, he talked in a shy but determined way.
He laid out for me all the moving plans. He outlined in conscientious detail the type of nuts and bolts holding his bookshelf together; he removed the bolts and set them aside safely in one place, because you really can’t re-assemble a bookshelf unless you have all the bolts. He described all the different storage containers, their shapes and sizes, how he had organized each one and selected which items to fit in where.
“That’s spatial intelligence,” I said. “You can probably look at a car trunk and picture exactly how things will fit in. I can’t do that. I certainly can’t assemble a bookshelf with a lot of nuts and bolts.”
“Over the years, I have moved many people over the years,” he explained. “Furniture, and all kinds of other belongings.”
But now tomorrow would be something new: he’d stand back and watch while other people moved his things instead.

Listening to him, at one point I wanted to say “Gosh, nice to meet you but it’s late and I’m freezing with this metal punch bowl in my arms.” But, I didn’t. Because this was witnessing a massive shift in a human history. That shift will happen to me one day, and sooner than I might expect: from living in one’s own home independently, to a new and totally different chapter of life. It was important to listen to Uncle Adam. He was setting a good example on how to make that transition in an organized, determined, dignified way.

Outside his door he shook hands with me. “I am going to leave you here, and go bring you a present. I want you to have it. It’s brand new, never been opened. From the Angel of the Winds.”
I stood out in the cold as the minutes went by, wondering when to assume that Uncle Adam had many more pressing matters to tend to than some stranger he found at night in the garbage cage.
Finally he opened the door, and gave me a white gift box. “It’s brand new, never been opened. I was a winner. I won. It’s a gift, from the Angel of the Winds.”

He went inside, for his last night in his home, and closed the door.
I walked back to my studio, washed the bowl, and put it away.

Now I was too cold and too tired to read my favorite Akathists. Once again, I really hadn’t kept the feast.
I changed into warm clothes, and sat down with a little tea and sobering thoughts about the seasons of our lives, and the changes that they bring. Sometimes suddenly, and for reasons as small as a light bulb.

But wait, what about the gift?
The box felt heavy. I opened the flaps and took out a seamed styrofoam block.
I eased the seams apart, then untaped a lot of bubble wrap. Then tissue paper.

It was a glass globe. A crystal ball, but full of water and glittering confetti. The glittery bits splash up and sparkle when you tip it. Like a Christmas paperweight with Baby Jesus and family living inside, but instead there was a miniature replica of a grand looking building and a sign: “Angel of the Winds: World’s Friendliest Casino.”

To honor Uncle Adam, I gave it a sparkly shakeup and set it on the kitchen table, for the planet and stars to shine on.

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4/5/15 Easter Sunday: Behind the Door

Calvary daffodils

After church, everybody flocked to Father K.

Priests at our Priory didn’t vanish in the sacristy after serving Mass. Each one would stand at the main door and wait for every last person who wanted to come shake his hand and bend his ear.

It took a while. Sunday noon was always full; church seats 400. The custom was nice, but I always ducked out the garden door instead, to stay off the celebrant’s reception line. It puzzled me that people pick the busiest hour in a priest’s life, when he’s fasting on his feet all day. That’s when they want his message for their distant kin, or signature on this petition, or appearance at that charity lunch, or blessing on their picture of the Pope.

The priests stood at that door though, for as long as anyone was waiting. For Father K., that meant students and teens, people coming for marriage preparation, newlyweds, new parents with infants. The parish had posted him to youth ministry; over on campus he held daily Mass and study groups and socials. He booked evenings at a frat-row pizza parlor, handing out dinner and lively doctrinal discussions. Even off duty he’d stake out beaches and malls, bringing his guitar and hymns. Kids noticed his tall strapping tanned good looks and thatch of dark wavy hair and flash smile. They’d stop to hassle him, and then find themselves attending church.

Among the Legions of Father K., I never got a word in edgewise.
People said “What! Don’t you join the line after church on Sundays? Stay after; go up to him and say hello!” So, on three different Sundays I gave it a try. I picked moments when no one else was queueing up, when he wasn’t off full-tilt with vestments flying to assist at the next Mass, when he wasn’t managing some fund-raiser in the parish hall. Three times I offered him a handshake and hello. His hand might have given mine a shake, his smile might have burned an extra watt or two; but he didn’t see me. Like paramedics at ground zero or blue heelers on a station ranch, Father was always scanning the landscape for any special needs jockeying for his attention. So three times he looked past my shoulder and kept moving, off to give a cheering word or quip or touch or sketched cross or attention. (“Of course I’ll pray for her; what is her name please?”).

Just today, typing this, it occurred to me: to talk to Father K. all I had to do was make an appointment for Confession. But that didn’t dawn on me then. Instead, I cooked up a big story to explain to myself why Father K. didn’t see me standing there. My story was that church was a place that celebrated people who were young or loved or had a vocation to religious orders or were going to be converts. The community life of the church had sacraments for all those people, but didn’t have a ceremony to celebrate the fact that women like me were over 50 and still single. So I went back to slipping out the garden door, and then faded out of church and didn’t show up much on Sundays any more.

It was months later, in November, before I ventured back again. At that particular noon service, the celebrant was Father Pastor. After Mass, Pastor announced that Father K. had decided not to seek any further rounds of medical treatment for his diagnosis, and that he wished to remain here at the Priory in the care of the priests.

One glance at the congregation showed that to them the news was sobering, but no surprise. Apparently they’d known something of the kind all along. On my way out the garden door, I felt sad and repentant for my way of withdrawing from people who looked happier than I felt. Here our handsome enthused Padre, as people called him, looked like a man in radiant fields of public acclaim, when all along he was a man in a private war.

At home that night, a bitter wind rocked the fir trees and my conscience.
Tossing and turning in my sleep, I realized “Here I thought he didn’t see me. But I’m the one who didn’t see him at all. How is he really doing?” In dreamtime mind I sat up, pulled back the covers, and stood on the bed. Passing through the frozen panes and up to the eaves, I stepped from the fir tops to the roof of the Priory and through its brick wall to the back cloister. There I picked a bedroom door and peered in.

Father K. was in white vestments, kneeling at an altar. It held a cruciform monstrance with a gold cross holding a glass disk, where the host of bread was placed for the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Father was so caught up in his devotions that the intensity of his prayer began to melt the molding of the white plaster wall. The wall wore thin as the shell of an egg, letting a haze of light glow in to the room. The ceiling began to fade, giving way to a stainless blue morning sky with faint light clouds. Sunlight streamed in; cherry blossoms budded out and opened into bloom. I took a breath of fragrance and reached out to touch them. But, “This is not your spring,” a voice from somewhere admonished me, and I sat up startled in my own bed.

In January I dropped by at another noon Mass. Father Pastor was our celebrant again. After his thoughts on the Gospel he stayed in the pulpit. He told a hushed church that next door at the Priory, the priests and Hospice nurses took all measures to keep Father K. free from pain. Father K. was resting as comfortably as possible, and was expected to remain deeply asleep until —

Father Pastor looked up and stopped.
With all eyes on the pulpit, we hadn’t seen the side door open. The Priory always had visiting priests; I’d somehow left my distance glasses at home and didn’t recognize this new one. This Father had a very slight thin figure with fine white hair combed straight back, and a pale complexion. With courtesy he waited, leaning in the doorway, catching his breath, listening to the announcement. Then he straightened up and climbed the altar steps, where Father Pastor stepped out of the way and turned over the altar and the Mass.

An hour earlier, after days of deepening sleep, Father K. had sat up and astonished the Priory with the words “Time for Mass.” Now he stood at the altar supported by one of the younger priests and the choir director. In sips of breath, in a scorched whisper, he called upon God’s blessings for Benedict our Pope, for…

He paused.
His Pastor concelebrant, the men supporting his arms, the congregation — any of them could have shouted out the name of our current Bishop. But nobody stirred.
The microphone registered a painstaking inhale as he recalled the name, and calmly forged ahead.

At Communion there were several priests and several Eucharistic ministers distributing the consecrated hosts and wine on several lines. But most people saw and converged on only one.
To me it felt very wrong to cost even a moment’s breath and attention on the longest line of all. So I walked to a Eucharistic minister line and on out to the sleeping winter garden. Then, leaving the true congregation to spend this last meeting all together with their Padre, I walked away.

But not too far, and not for long.
A strange impulse stopped and turned me back. Those driving glasses! How did I manage to forget them? With glasses, I could have seen Father K. one last time, from a discreet distance well away from the press of his parishioners. With one glimpse I could have wished him well and left for home. What was the point of staying? I already knew what he looked like. We weren’t acquainted. The sooner the man was left in peace and safely taken back to bed, the better.

All these arguments agreed in mind while my steps set out for home, then circled the building, then stopped at the garden door closest to the Priory. The garden gave me an idea: I could stand just to the side of the path, in the shrubbery, and have a glimpse as the men walked him past. Like Zacchaeus in his legendary Fig-Sycomore, I picked an ornamental vantage point and waited. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Twenty-five in the damp January chill. Mass had to be long over, but the building was silent; not a soul was leaving.

I tiptoed up the steps and through the side vestibule, peered in, and gasped.
Father K. was finally finished with Communion. Now he was just heading down the center aisle, back to his old post on the receiving line at the street door.

I ran down the cloister walk along the roseless garden to the front. The massive wood doors were propped all the way open. A flash of inspiration sent me diving behind one of the doors to be close by yet out of sight, with a perfect view out between the hinges.

The people who filled a church that seats 400 came out in silence. For one more hour they eddied around three men in white holding fast to one another at the top of the stone stairs.

Father K., with his singed whisper and labored breaths, had open hands for every one of them; infants suspended in outstretched arms, elders who pulled his head down to whisper in his ear, rosaries thrust at him for his blessing. Behind the door I fumed at all these hangers-on. I wished they’d go away with their pathos and their endless little needs, and let Father rest.

But then my squinting unglassed eyes shifted wavelengths and blinked at a different kind of vision. With that, people’s gestures and urgent words, the abject distraught touches and sounds and weeping, were luminous tendrils and silks stringing together. The parishioners were not weighing down their priest; instead they were weaving the final meaning of his life, a web of light to bear him up for the day that he left them behind and stepped out alone.

When the hour was over and everyone went sorrowing away, Father K. asked the priests to take him on a short drive, to enjoy a last little view of the city that he loved. Then he went back to sleep for the next ten days.

There were three memorial services in three other cities, at previous parishes who begged to see their Padre once again. But the main vigil was at our church. A full company of priests turned out in black and white. It was all candles and baskets of hand-woven rosaries and boxes of tissues in all the pews. When the service was over, the priests opened the Parish Hall and served coffee and food to a line of mourners so long that they had to keep the church open until the funeral next day.

I came to church very early and picked a corner to the side and out of sight, well out of the way of the family and closest friends. But the open coffin was carried to that corner and set down right in front of me. Gazing at Father K. was a gentle kind familiar experience, like seeing a perfect sepia photograph of his own cherished grandfather. Sitting right up close in the shadows with the banks of flickering tea-light candles was in its austere way a beautiful experience.

But meanwhile, on that last Sunday, at the top of the steps at the end of the line, one last petite elder wrapped up her long story of personal distress. Father bowed down to see her eye to eye. “Of course I will do that. And… apologies, but — remind me of your name?”
When she made her way down the stairs, Father’s supporters circled his back with their arms and turned him toward the Priory.

“Hard to believe this is the end,” he confided to them in pure open wonder. “But I guess it is.” He gave a worried look in toward the vestibule, and murmured a question.
“No no,” the men told him. “Church is empty. We’re just locking up.”
“But someone else…” he ventured.
“That’s everyone,” they assured him. “You’ve talked to everyone today. Let’s go back to the Priory. They’ve all gone home.”
“One more,” he said, anxious, dogged, scanning around. “One more, last of all.”

In murmurs and arm clasps, his care team gently guided him to come along.
But “Somebody’s out there,” he whispered. “Somebody. Somebody…”
Behind the door, I finally poked my head out of hiding.
The men blinked at me. “Would you like to come out of there,” one of them asked, “and say goodbye to Father?”

Father K. shook off the men supporting him, and turned to me. Each precarious step took all his concentration; each step rocked his frame. But in the grip of some enormous force he kept on walking, on his own, reaching out with both arms. His alabaster complexion and the fine silver of his hair set off his eyes: dark, enormous, pupils dilated from morphine into absolute black.

Our hands met and gripped together.
Father gazed and gazed, searching my face as if I were the last living being in the world. Laboring for his next breath he delivered a message, as if he’d saved it all this time, and all for me:

“I am sorry. But. I. Have. To. Go.”

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1/17: Chute-ing Star

First, take stock.

Grab an expired SALE price tag and a golf pencil. Jot down whatever’s running low: cranberries, pomegranates, bananas, green beans, satsumas. Get the handcart. Wrench open the door on the walk-in cooler. In through the clear heavy plastic insulating sheet, slit into clacking slices that slap you in the face and drag themselves over your clothes. Pull the string for the 40 watt light bulb. Step from wood slat to wood slat in the shadows, reading the waxy cartons: Golden Girl, Tru-Blu, VitaBee. If new cartons of stock got stacked on the older squashed cartons of the same item, you move the new shipment to one side, load the old shipment on to the handcart, move the new stock back to the floor, shove your shoulder into the door, duck through the clacky slats, and hang on to the handcart while it eases down the ramp. Watch you don’t tip the whole caboodle at the corner where the linoleum wore off the floor. Customers and their kids will stand right in front of the cart and won’t see you, no matter how much you say “Scuse me!” But if you sing it makes them nervous and they’ll move. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” works fine. Put the handcart back for Jasper in Bulk.

Rake those green beans to one side and pour the new cold beans on to that green astroturf base, then pile the older beans on top. In the snow pea bin, pick out the green beans that strayed over, and put them back where they belong. Same drill with the other stock. When the cartons are empty, flatten them out for the loading dock.

Stack up the satsumas in a pyramid. Of course, when you’ve got the pyramid mounded all nice, that is when everybody wants to buy a satsuma. Then you’ll have to pile up more because everybody wants fruit from the freshly made pyramid, not the same exact fruit from a bin running low. If you’re too busy to pile the pyramid again, stand with your back to everyone and wave your hands over the bin. Same thing happens; customers will come right over to whatever bin you just paid attention to.

But that’s too much like fooling people. So just go get more satsumas.

Okay. Stocked up.
Now take the water bottle and spritz the leafy greens. Get some crushed ice from Mac the Knife in Butcher, and sprinkle it around the medium-fragile things like broccoli and peppers. Make sure the plastic bag dispensers have enough bags. Empty the garbage. Take out your box cutter and trim those brussels sprouts when you have a minute. Check the tubers and roots, because they get limp when they dry out. Tote them to the back room and drop them in the soak sinks until they perk up and you can put them out again.

Then, start all over. Take stock. Get the cart again from Jasper in Bulk.

At closing time, dunk the burlap cloths in the soak sink and load them in the bins and take them out front; tuck the burlap in all over the roots so they stay fresh until tomorrow. Then haul the delicate leaves and whatnot into the bins and stack them in the walk-in cooler. On the aisle, sweep off the rubber mats. Roll the mats out of the way. Push-broom the floor. Unroll the mats. Empty the drainage pans into the utility sink and scrub the slime out of them. Put the pans back under. Scatter some more crushed ice. Drag out and unroll the plastic drop cloths to cover the display bins, and you’re done.

General tip: Loose clothes in layers, because you’ll get too overheated and also too cold. Rubber gloves slow you down and get full of water anyway, but galoshes are good over shoes what with all the water from the soak sinks. These surplus khaki drawstring pants and khaki turtleneck are from Kenmore Army Navy, they’re $5. Calcutta Quality Wear has these long black tunic dresses full of pockets for box cutter, price cards, and pencils. The pushcart guy at the farmers’ market has these big thin white cotton shawls; I keep this one wrapped around my head and neck like Lawrence of Arabia so when you take cartons to the dumpster you can bite the edge and keep your teeth out of the wind chill.

Most of all, pay attention to the people. There’s all kinds, and they have stories going on in their lives and heads, and often all they want is a little attention.

Especially on a holiday like this. So thank you for lending a hand in Produce.


That was how I planned to talk to my assistant, in case I ever got one. I pictured somebody right alongside, helping out. Like the angels who helped St. Isidore with plowing, only instead of fields in Spain we had our basement with low ceiling and blinky fluorescents and a long staircase with the sparkly tarpaper treads coming loose and a street door going ka-slammo every ninety seconds.

This was a big night, full of shoppers. They weren’t your brisk serious cooks who showed up at opening time with shopping lists; those all came and went the week or two before. Tonight it was students and young couples and kids, and people of all ages who like me enjoyed having a place to go on a holiday. Shoppers were drifting around discussing what to eat, standing in separate aisles calling and waving merchandise (“Howzis?”), giving each other rides in shopping carts, helping themselves to seedless grapes. Sometimes couples joked to me about his terrible taste in food, or her using up every pot and pan in the house. These little foraging and nesting displays were fun to watch; but I did feel the contrast between them and my status of having nobody to forage with myself. That’s why I was working Christmas Eve, hoping to cheer up by serving each person who came my way.

At the next counter, sturdy Mack the Knife from Butcher with his long hair and sleek black bandana was coaching Peter from Dairy, our gentle bespectacled lacto-vegetarian.

Mack the Kn: Now to carve this here beef hunk…. Anything I need to know about you, Boy, before I hand you my sharpest cleaver?

Peter: Mm… you do kind of remind me of my stepdad.

Mack: I remind you of him? (Thoughtful pause) You’re getting this dull spoon instead. Now WHAT is that racket?

A customer seemed to be shouting for help.
I dropped the Brussels sprouts, closed the box cutter, dropped it in my pocket, and ran to the front. At the top of the stairs, our only passageway in or out of the store, there was a petite elderly lady in an old fur-trimmed coat and knitted leggings. “Is GRECH NAUGHT?” she called to us, gripping the bannister in the freezing wind. “GRRRECH NAAAUGHT.”

Mack got there first, wiping his hands on his apron. “The hell she say?! ‘Grape Nuts’?”
I stared at her, chafing my hands to get some feeling back. My brain ticked helpfully like a gambling machine in an old cartoon with fruit pictures spinning in the windows, until a row of linguistic lemons spelled a jackpot. “Greek,” I realized. “It’s Anglicized Russian. Grecheskie orekhi?” I hollered back at her. In Russian it means Greek Nuts. That’s “walnuts” to us.

“Grecheskie, grecheskie,” she sang out joyfully, waving her little knitted handbag as if her cruise ship were coming in to port. I ran up the stairs and stood a step beneath, letting her lean on my shoulder. It was a long painful walk down for her, step by gasping step on the loose sparkly stair treads. But she nestled into the circle of my arm, pouring out in Russian her relief and happiness at finding herself understood and in friendly company. I walked her across the store, steering around the missing linoleum, way over to Bulk. Jasper was on cigarette break (at least his combat boots were, pacing outside the cellar window), so I got her a plastic bag and a bin sticker for the cashier. She asked me to pour out exactly one single handful of walnuts and close the bag with a twisty-tie and price.

I wish now that I’d bagged the nuts and beelined to the cashier to buy them for her as a Christmas gift. But it didn’t occur to me; my wallet and knapsack were locked in the Manager’s office, the Manager with her office keys was on a ladder changing the blinkiest of the fluorescents, the line at all cash registers was 20 shoppers deep, and I was AWOL from my Brussels sprouts and frantic to get back to my post. So I handed her the nuts and wished her a good evening.

But wait: My Russian visitor could not quite see the bin label. How much were these nuts per pound? I read her the price.

“SKOL’KO? HOW much?” she cried. “For a handful of GREEKS? Why, Gristedes Neighbormart sells Greeks for 11 cents a pound LESS! You made me walk down all these stairs! You lured me in to trick me with outrageous prices. I could have broken my neck! And on a holiday!” In tears of vexation she slapped my hand from her elbow, threw the walnut packet on the counter, and charged up the stairs.

I beat a retreat to my peaceful cooler to sop and dredge the burlap.
By then, like the tubers and roots in need of soaking, my spirits and energy were starting to flag. A spontaneous single person’s prayer came to mind:

“Dear God,
this Christmas,
could You please let me not be
the loneliest person in this whole store.
Thank you Amen.”

Then with the burlap bins I got back to the floor.
Couples still frolicked with wagons of food and flowers and wine.
Our Manager screwed in the new light bulb, climbed down some shaky portable aluminum steps, and walked away with the ladder on her shoulder. Peter and Mack were still at their male bonding banter. Jasper and his combats boots flashed down the stairs and loped back to the bulk bins. Tinsel still glittered and waved on the acoustic ceiling tiles. Children scampered by gripping headless marshmallow Santas in red tin foil. The store DJ, Krista in Whole Body, changed the music CD to a hit from The Pogues.

“The boys of the NYPD choir /
Still singing ‘Galway Bay…'”

I scooped up the tubers and roots, bedded them on crushed ice, and wrapped them in wet burlap. I straightened my tunic, hitched up my belt, stretched out my spine, and blew on my hands and clamped them up under my arms to get some feeling back.

“Fashion accessory?” said a soft pleasant voice behind me. It was a tall fair handsome cleancut young man with bright eyes and a shy friendly smile. He was eyeing my belt; my brown wooden rosary had slipped out of my pocket and was hanging looped by its cross on the belt. “Punk rock style,” he explained.

“Not this rosary,” I laughed. “Strictly functional.”

“I’m glad,” he smiled. “So is mine.”

And so we talked, one of us with an armful of plastic bags of nuts and berries, and the other in galoshes dripping on the floor. We reminisced about Catholic things that made us happy as children: his first time as an altar boy serving at consecration, my happiness on each third week of Advent when the priest and the sanctuary are decked in pink, his Sodality of Mary boys’ club in Jesuit boarding school, my rare chance when the church was under renovation to come peek into the sacristy where girls don’t get to go.

Then in all quiet earnest he confided something. “Our Blessed Mother appeared to me.”

“She did?” I had a lifetime of practice being a courteous listener for perfect strangers who walked up and told me their life stories. I was also raised to see any and all attention from a man as a compliment. Besides, traditional Catholics will take at least a second look at even primitive naive reports of saintly apparitions. This man’s approach was unusual, but his story seemed quaint and nostalgic, and his behavior seemed friendly and polite.

“She appeared to me last night,” he assured me. “In a dream. She said she was sending me a godly modest wife this very day, for the feast of her Son. She said ‘You’ll recognize my handmaid because –‘”

“Mary in Produce. Come in, Mary in Produce,” Mack yelled over the loudspeaker. “Git yer crushed ice now afore I lock this joint up. Over & out.”

“Mack in Butcher — right away!” I hollered.

“Wait — your name is Mary?” asked my visitor.

“Yes, nice to meet you. Gosh, got to run and close up my aisle.”

“You take your time,” he said. “No rush. I’ll be waiting up front.”

At the utility sink I was scraping slime from the drainage pans when our Manager walked in after putting away the ladder. She was a willowy poised young woman with a radiant smile. She ran the coop with assurance and ease; like all good leaders she circulated among us, zeroing in on our problems and lending the right hand at the right time.

Standing at the utility sink, I told her half in humor and half in shyness about the Catholic shopper and his dream. Back then, I’d never heard of a man walking up to a strange woman and saying “Divine intervention has chosen you as my mate.” (Gavin de Becker writes books about overtures like this, and the safety precautions women can take in response.) I was sure that the Manager would laugh as part of our shop-closing banter.

But she dropped her smile and stood very still. “You say you’ve never seen this man before. But he’s waiting out there now, saying that you are his ideal spouse? Because of a dream?”

“About the Virgin Mary, yes. He’s at the front stairs. Tall, denim coat.”

She took a glance out the round porthole windows on the swinging doors. “Stay here. Right where you are.” She arrowed out and came back with Dairy Peter and Butcher Mack. “Mary and Peter. Out the dock. On the double.” She threw her van keys at Peter’s chest, and tossed me my knapsack and sweatshirt. “Take her straight home; see her in the door of her house. I’ll close up Produce tonight. Mack, you’re coming up front with me.”

Peter hustled me out of the cooler and back to the dock. Behind us, up front at our only customer door, there was a murmured voice of reason interrupted by a primal howl of panic. “My wife! Bring ME MY WIFE! She’s taking me home to her room tonight!”

“I’m doing what?” I whispered to Peter.
Peter was busy unlocking the loading dock. In one upsy-daisy he swung me on to the dark empty ramp. On the steep incline, with its rows of loose wheels set on edge like belly-dancer cymbals, I gripped the edges and hoisted myself along. With admirable strength and agility Peter flung himself up over the side of the chute, and shoved my ample frame up and away toward the planet surface. I emerged on my elbows, on to frozen pavement and cheeseburger wrappers and previously owned bubble gum. Peter stayed behind to padlock the dock after me, sprinted out the front and around the block with the van, saw me home and in my front door, and rushed back to Dairy.

At home, my sweet contemplative accountant roommate was back from visiting his fiancee and her family. Lying comfortably next to the radiator chewing spruce gum, he glanced up from his book, took a look at me, adjusted his glasses, took a second look, and said “Wha hoppened? Wash up; dry clothes. This is a job for COCOA.”

He bundled me in his car with two thermoses of hot chocolate, popcorn, and blankets. Scraping the windshield and turning on the heater he hit the road, singing Cindy Kallet’s “Marblehead Neck” at the top of his fine tenor voice. At a sheltered lakeside cove he parked the car. In our blankets we tapped ice bubbles with our shoes and listened to hissing phragmites and migrating voices crossing the midnight sky. He skipped flat rocks on the ice to chime and chime and chime in migratory voices of their own.

At first all I felt, other than cold, was that Christmas creche-to-crash letdown, the sense that one has Missed Out on the holiday that everybody else is celebrating. But at least my spontaneous prayer had been answered: clearly, I was not the loneliest person in the store that night. Besides, I had a boss and two trusty macho sidekicks on my side, plus a roommate who gave up a warm radiator and “Prairie Home Companion” to forge out in the cold and give me a nice drive. That was a lot to appreciate while munching the soft squeak of popcorn on molars snf hopping up and down in a blankie.

In rosary terms. Christmas is called a Joyful mystery, but not called a Happy one. Mary and Cousin Elizabeth expect miraculous babies, and Mary sings a Magnificat over it. They don’t know their babies will be arrested and put to death. They don’t know about Herod and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt, or Simeon’s prophecy about the sword in Mary’s heart. There’s her bridegroom who wants to “put her away privately” (where??), the unhappy people wandering around for taxes and censuses, the innkeeper overrun with customers, the tired donkey. It’s a disaster.

So in all that context of away in a manger, this up a down chute was a pretty traditional holiday after all. Maybe the Christmas story is all about people thrown together with their dreams and flaws, wandering to implausible places of strange appearances and stranger gifts. One soul journeys down to Hades, evades Greek-bearing giftors, and rises in triumph from Gristedes Neighbormart with nut bargain in hand. One awakens from his dreams to find his Virgin’s virgin. One sings along a beachfront (“… Marblehead Neck, by the ocean we’d go…”), chiming skip-rocks to ring on ice. One with visions of companionship strives with sackcloth and roots, and disappears out the cat door.

Night for marvels. Divinity in a child; bells in a thrown lake stone.

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11/27: The Thief of Charms

Part 1.

Food Bank’s open at the church, first Saturday each month.
Bring all of your net bags. Get out the folding shopping cart. Bundle up: the parking lot gets icy, and it’s windy out there.
Doors open at 9:00, but we should show up more like 7:30. It hasn’t happened yet, but you never know: if we get there right at 9:00 and the line is long, maybe all the food will be gone and we won’t get any.

Now here’s the church ladies pulling up in their cars. Won’t be long now.
Okay, they’re opening for business. Now we can go in and get warm. Watch your step on that doormat.

There are the ladies all smiles. That’s their priest waving from the kitchen with his apron on, boiling water for coffee and tea. Look at all the long tables! Yes, it’s all for us. You don’t need any English, either. Just point and nod, and they’ll bag it up. That table there is canned tuna and hash. That one’s for green beans and little onions in jars. That table is for cereal and pasta and rice and sticky buns. On and on. And on!

Then we can walk it all back across the street here to Senior Home. Up the elevator and in the door we go, don’t let the cat out. On the pantry shelf behind the ironing board, those packages and cans with Roman letters are a cheerful display. You can sit and look at them mornings when you have your tea. You can look out the window at the church parking lot, point it out to your guests, and say “There is our ‘bank’ for foods; this kind of bank never runs out.”

Bank food is for special times.
When something’s happening at Senior Home — a birthday, a memorial anniversary, bad news from the doctor, a new green card — people all up and down the hall drop by. Then it’s time to open up the tiny headless fish in cans with twisty keys, olives with bright pimiento eyes, plump canned peaches with syrup and no pits, Jujubes and candy corn. That goes double when family stops by. That’s because, as everybody knows, Food Bank is really for the grandchildren.

When the grandkids come over after school to wait for doctor Mom or computer Dad to get home, they’ll turn on English language television and then between shows help themselves to their favorite American treats. The best way to tell them how precious they are, how much you want them in your life, how much you wish you could speak their language, how much you want them back, is to make sure the kitchen shelf has all the same snacks that they see on TV.

And if that’s what they want and what we can give them, then waiting in a parking lot is no trouble at all.

Part 2.

My instructions were to meet Lilia at the front church door. She discreetly looked both ways with a whispered hello, and whisked me inside. In the basement, the volunteer team called “Mary! So glad you could make it!”

Everyone was busy. Linda was talking about her certified-kitchen foodhandlers course, and was rearranging the cabinets. Debbie fixed the doormat so the guests could drag their little carts in easily. Nancy brought warm socks and mittens for everybody’s shopping bags. They lined up those long heavy tables, and piled up the food in nice displays. Father in the kitchen, with an apron on over his long black cassock and cross, heated cocoa and rolls for the team as they joked with him over the open serving counter. Everyone thanked me over and over for accepting their invitation to come be the new Food Bank interpreter. Now with me around, the volunteers could converse with the guests in their own language! “You will love our babushki, our grandmas,” they assured me. “Dearest little sweethearts. So happy, so grateful. And today they’ll have a wonderful surprise: someone to greet them in Russian! We can not wait to see their faces.”

Show Time!
Linda threw open the doors. The eager clients practically fell in, peering around with hopeful and appraising looks, shopping carts gripped in one hand and shopping bags clutched to their hearts. They bustled across the room to my half of the first table, Cereal Central.

I was ready. In that hour of preparation I’d rummaged through the floor cartons to choose and arrange the most traditionally prized Russian foods at the front and center. I’d also rehearsed my welcoming speech. Drawing on two college summers in the USSR, marched around on endless Sputnik Guide tours, I aimed for a creditable imitation of an official visitors’ welcome speech. “Uvazhaemye Gosti! Respected Guests! Today our Breakfast Food department presents rolled oats, rye porridge, brown rice –”

At the sound of my voice, our babushki froze in shock. But not for long.

“Who let THAT one in?” one woman gasped. “What is she doing in our bank?”
“Is SHE giving orders here now?” another said.
“‘Cereal’ indeed! So SHE says.”
“The GOOD cereal!” one demanded, rapping her cane on the floor. “What did you do with it?”

Their reaction bewildered me. Good cereal??
“But it’s all here,” I reasoned. “Look! Here is mannaia kasha,” (a favorite similar to Cream o’ Wheat). “Here are whole oat groats. And look — Ladies! We have buckwheat!” I waved a packet of buckwheat for all to see. In my study abroad days, buckwheat was the gold standard, prized as the very Tsarina of grain products. When the church storeroom turned up a dozen packages, I knew we’d hit the consumer appeal jackpot.

“Buckwheat?” another guest objected. “You think you can deceive us just because we are refugees and senior citizens. For shame. It’s discrimination! It’s elder abuse! You’re giving us food that Americans don’t want.”

I gaped at the women as they converged on my table, shouting to each other.
“She cheated us with this village fodder, and hid the healthy cereal.”
“She knows nothing about raising children. Probably doesn’t have any.”
“Oh no — you bet she has children. She’s feeding our cereal to them.”
“I think she takes it home and sells it.”
“Of course she sells it; that’s why she volunteered.”
“‘Buckwheat’ she says, and right to our faces. Ha, I’ll show you buckwheat!” One woman shook her fist. “Our little ones deserve nutritious food just like your children do.”
“Nutritious?” I looked from one woman to another. “But what cereal are you looking for?”

Finally one of the women clued me in.
“We want the good kind from other weeks,” she insisted. “Last week there was REAL cereal here. They mix in all different vitamins; there are pink heart vitamins, yellow moons, orange stars, and green leaf candies.”
“That old-style hot cereal doesn’t work,” another sang out. “If we put that old stuff on the table, our grandchildren WILL NEVER VISIT US AGAIN.”

With that battle cry of anguish, our frail-looking neighbors charged the barricades. We volunteers threw ourselves on the tables to keep bottles and jars from cascading to the floor as the women rushed to grab whatever they could. One ducked right under the plastic tablecloths to snatch up random packages from the storage bins — candied birthday cake florets, tartar sauce packages, colored sprinkles, cupcake papers, Chiclets. Another darted behind a table and pounced on a large pocketbook; she pulled out a baguette and a bottle of sparkling cider before the owner she was intercepted by a volunteer , and setting off a cry of “Wait, wait! Please, I need that!” She was about to leave for a christening, but our visitors opened her large purse and made off with the gifts — a lemon Bundt cake and a bottle of sparkling cider.

Volunteers rushed me out the door to the parking lot, handing me my knapsack and coat. They thanked me for coming, and rushed back to restore order and calm to their panicked clients.

The heavy parish hall doors fell closed and locked.
I stood blinking a moment, thinking what a successful ad campaign General Mills could have made from an incident like this one: “Lucky Charms — worth fighting for.” But meanwhile I picked my way over the ice, up the drive, across the street, past Senior Home, along the adjoining alleyway and upstairs to my little studio. Out the windows across the street, there was the church. Against the leaden sky under dim winter light stood its cross, its main onion dome, and just beneath that the little upper windows, shaped like high risen loaves of bread. It all looked so peaceful; not a sign of the little human drama right downstairs.

At the window I curled up with my blankie in my rocking chair for a little cry.
Here at church the volunteers invited me for weeks and weeks, assuring me I’d be a big welcome help. Here I finally ventured over, got out of the house to use all that Russian study to welcome some frail hungry people and make some friends. And came to find they didn’t want me around.

Then, as if Father were right here talking to me, I remembered one of his lessons.
One day when Father was not serving Liturgy or slaving over a hot stove in the parish hall, he spent a free hour polishing beeswax off the candle stands while telling me a story. Apparently one of the early Church Fathers Macarius the Great of Egypt had an overly sensitive disciple. Abba Macarius ordered his student to go to the cemetery and curse the deceased all night. Then he ordered the disciple to return to the cemetery for a second night, and this time praise the deceased to the skies. Then Elder Macarius asked his bewildered and sleep-deprived disciple something like this: “What effect did your curses have on the deceased? Did it make them more deceased than they were before? And, what good did your praises do for them? Did it raise anyone from the dead? You found no difference at all? Good.” Father too encouraged me to get over my shyness, and to “Go forth likewise! Be free and unmoved by both the curses of men, and their honors.”

Meanwhile I cooked up some millet with rice milk, sweet butter, and raisins. (Millet was a proud staple of the Red Army; as a Moscow friend once explained, “Served each day in a cold cube in two flavors: lard, and sand.”) Eating my porridge I rocked some more, and thought about the lives led by those Russian and Ukrainian women. Back at home they would put up a crop in the barn or queue up for hours for a liter of milk. Then, some bureaucrat, some black marketeer, some foreign invader, some partisan, some hooligan gang would muscle in and make off with everything. And now here in America they saw some stranger pop up in the middle of their food bank and talk like any state cashier, the kind who used to snap at them for wanting to buy more than one stick of butter per family.

Years of Russian study was all well and good. But unless I’d lived through the collectivization of the family farm, or a blockade or a genocide or a famine or a prison term, unless I’d ever made soup out of wallpaper glue and shoe soles, we were not speaking the same language.

Part 3.

Weeks later, on a cold snow-paved New Year’s Eve, the telephone rang.
One of the church volunteers was on the line, with exciting Food Bank news.
A local grocer had just dropped off a whole crate of expensive whitefish salad in little tubs. The whitefish was still perfectly good, but the sell-by date was January 1. That would be days before the next Food Bank. Someone needed to deal with all these whitefish salads, by walking them over to Senior Home and handing them out to the residents. The church ladies were all busy for the night with their holiday dinners and guests. Besides, they needed someone with language skills to explain to each resident exactly what this food was, and that it had to be eaten right away.

By then, the Great Breakfast Cereal Donnybrook was only a bruised memory. But I had my heart set on an early church service across the street, and an early bedtime. I was not eager to try my hand again at facing our senior neighbors. If my presence at Food Bank frightened and upset them, how would they feel about my tracking them down at home?

With reluctance and a heavy heart I traipsed next door to Senior Home, armed with several dozen salads and a of Russian-speaking client apartment numbers. I knocked on doors and hollered fishmonger tidings, holding the tubs up to the security peepholes. That way the inhabitants could hear the Russian for ”Food Bank sent me,” and see the goods before opening the door.

And open they did.
At every door there were wary faces, lined with a lifetime of cold and privation and labor. Some stared at the whitefish with trembling lips. Some gripped their heads or covered their eyes. Some overflowed with silent tears. Some threw their hands skyward or around my neck. They stroked my hair, kissed my face, kissed my hands. Perhaps this time, I didn’t look like the bureaucrat controlling the rations. Perhaps now I was seen in a familiar cherished social role: the best friend or relative who stands in a queue for hours to snap up the precious oranges or mascara or typewriter ribbon, then distributes the wealth to all her friends. And fresh whitefish! Something nice to impress the kids!

Every one of them tugged me, their new Little Daughter, their Sweetness, their Angel, their Bear-Paw, their Goldilocks, their Dovey-Dove, inside (don’t let the cat out!) for glasses of tea.
First I had to finish my rounds, to promise everyone I’d come back after the fish was delivered and safely in refrigeration. But once my box was empty, the evening was a blur of animated conversation, with whitefish-wielding neighbors calling joyful tidings up and down the halls. It was room after room of photograph albums from doily-covered TVs, interested parakeets looking on, and treats of authentic Food Bank bagel crisps, licorice, and gold fishie crackers.

I got home just before midnight.
Outside, a rising wind lashed the bare trees and phone wires. Gray and lowering snow clouds sped past the church, like the varied cast of characters that show up at the church doors, all of us with different stories and hopes and reasons for making our way there. Tonight its gold cross and main cupola and were lit from the inside. In the wild winter sky it looked like both a beacon and a ship, beckoning the traveler and carrying them home.

The little bread-loaf light gleamed softly, shining in the New Year.

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