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.

About maryangelis

Hello Readers! (= Здравствуйте, Читатели!) The writer lives in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and the English and Russian languages, working in an archive by day and writing at night. Her walk in the world is normally one human being and one small detail after another. Then she goes home and types about it all until the soup is done.
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9 Responses to 11/27: The Thief of Charms

  1. Maggie Dale says:

    Dear Masha,
    I love this story, as well. What a great window into intercultural mishaps. So very happy to have found your blog again. Yes, everything that Robb said. Thank you for gracing us with your writing.

    • maryangelis says:

      Maggie, you’re back!
      What a treat to come in out of the rain and see your words shining in this corner.
      It makes me want to bring you some fish salad.
      I will go email you right now. Love, Masha

  2. Anonymous says:

    What a beautiful story, as usual.

  3. wendyrud says:

    I love your writing! You are a wonderful teller of stories. A wonderful gift you have–thank you for sharing it.


    • maryangelis says:

      Dear Wendy, thank you so much! It is nice to see you back again.
      In a way it’s the same story over and over: try to accomplish a simple task, fail spectacularly, then watch amazed as things turn out differently than you could have imagined.

      Kinda like everybody else I guess.
      Anyway, it is such a treat to log on and see your kind message. Happy holiday season to you!

  4. Anni says:

    “palming off fresh salmon while hoarding goldfish crackers all for myself”. I’m absolutely delighted by the notion!

    • maryangelis says:

      Considering my track record at the time… 🙂
      Hopefully Pepperidge Farm is owned by General Mills.

      Dear Anni, thank you for the nice comment. It is a colorful surprise-filled world, isn’t it?

  5. Robb says:

    What a beautiful and beautifully recounted story.
    I love the shift in perspective from the first to the
    second episode. And how warmly you were received
    when you brought sardine salads in the third episode.
    And the moral of the story. Thank you Masha.
    Thank you for continuing to write.

    • maryangelis says:

      Our Dear Robb,

      And thank you for continuing to read. Though you sure do a lot of writing, while also taking time to bring your attentive presence to the good qualities of everybody else!

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