The ladies were coming to tea.
My new neighbors were highly educated cultured women 70 years of age or so, with eventful lives and wonderful stories to tell. Lydia was from New England. Aliona came from Moscow. Both were staunch parishioners at my new church, both residents at Senior Home across the alley, and both eager to view and housewarm my new studio room.
The new studio was ready, scrubbed to a minimalist gleam. In the clutter and ruckus of the city, I desperately needed this sensory refuge, calming and clear with the fewest possible belongings, and everything in its place. I loved the Shaker simplicity of the wood floor, bare windows open to every ray of winter light, tiny bathroom with its buckled floor of six-sided black and white tiles, kitchenette alcove with its neat clear counter and the little open shelves (two bowls, two spoons, cooking knives, matching Mason jars). From the dumpster there were sturdy wood apple crates, well scrubbed in boiling water and Bronner’s soap. One upended crate was set for our tea. The other was a little corner altar with pine boughs and icons.
Over in the kitchenette, supper was ready. There was hearty Russian borscht, deep ruby with beets and studded with root vegetables, fresh parsley and green onions and dill. There was potato salad with mushrooms, and savory corn muffins. There was stewed fruit kompót, roasted nuts and seeds with cheese and black olives, and homemade halvah to go with our tea.
The ladies arrived to a fanfare of welcome. It was a joyful occasion to see these devout loving womenfolk in my pretty room. I sat them down on the bed with apple crates, paper towel napkins, and spoons. In a row of Mason jars I dished up borscht, tea bags and hot water, honey, lemon, and stewed fruit. It was a beautiful meal with the afternoon sunshine glowing on the clean windows, plain plaster walls, and wood floor. Setting sunlight illuminated the glass jars, kindling the gem tones of borscht and fruit.
Aliona had a lifetime of experience administering art museums, curating exhibits of traditional art, and creating painted and textile handicrafts. She was a deeply astute observer with a keen eye and heart for beauty. She stood still, taking in windows, walls, floor, and tea things.
“It was quite a surprise for Aliona,” Lydia explained, “to find an American apartment building four stories tall — with no elevator.”
“Ah, izviníte — zdánie stároe. Sorry! Building’s old,” I apologized ruefully.
Aliona was busy catching her breath and eyeing the Mason jars. She glanced down at the bed, delicately probed the heft of the mattress and yarnwork of the afghan. Then she stepped into the open bathroom door and sat down on top of the closed toilet seat, bolt upright with gracefully folded hands and a tactful neutral expression, staring straight ahead. I rushed to bring a jar of tea to her bathroom perch. But she graciously declined tea, borscht, dinner, and conversation. For twenty minutes, Lydia and I tried to lighten the moment by making pleasant small talk while I included Aliona by paraphrasing from English to Russian and back. Lydia and I exchanged our favorable impressions of the clear weather, Sunday’s Liturgy, and an upcoming winter social at Senior Home.
Aliona stood up and walked with restrained dignity straight to the door. She thanked me for my hospitality. She adamantly refused my Russian-style insistence on accompanying her to the street. Lydia hastily cleared her barely-tasted tea to the kitchen before rushing after Aliona, calling a hurried goodbye to me before closing the door behind them.
I sank to the bed, dismayed. Why did my guests run away in 20 minutes flat? Aliona was upset, but why? What could have done it?
Hm. Was it the borscht? Perhaps one glance told her that there was something amateurish and inauthentic about my staple soup recipe.
Maybe it was the tea. Tea played a crucial role in Russian socializing. The ladies at church prized their various Chinese blends, poured piping hot and super strong (with real twigs swirling at the bottom) from a real tea pot to real tea glasses with silver handled holders. They certainly didn’t use cardboard boxes of tea bags with this and that herb thrown in.
Maybe the muffins? Mine were made with corn. And say — in Russia, corn was traditionally a rock-hard toothlike forage kernel fed only to pigs. Hm.
Or the icons! According to some sincere outspoken members of our own congregation, Catholics as heretics were not even authorized to own icons. A devout believer was supposed to hang up icons in a permanent prayer corner, icons blessed by an Orthodox priest who had dedicated the room in a special house ceremony. My paper printout icons with little dumpster frames must have struck Aliona as a flagrant cultural appropriation. Perhaps I should have wrapped them reverently in towels and hidden them for her visit? And oh goodness — my Virgin of the bathroom! I always kept a little Mary over the sink in there for company. Would that strike Aliona as disrespectful and irreverent?
Too late, I remembered that cultured Russians of Aliona’s age (she confirmed this for me later) do not sit on beds! I thought back on the hotel staff member in the Soviet Union who reacted with horror when we Americans sat down right on our bedspreads and beds. She rushed into the room with shouted warnings that sitting on a bed caused uneven wear and tear on the State-issued mattresses and box springs entrusted to her care. And to make everything worse, what if Aliona thought this seating arrangement gave even the appearance of some improper exotic American tryst?
At that thought I burst into tears.
It took a good cry before I could hoist my heavy discouraged heart to the kitchen and clear away the untouched women’s fellowship feast. It looked as if I’d have to find a new church, if my new friends were so upset that they couldn’t even stay in the same room with me.
In the long term, Lydia and I visited back and forth for years. She finally moved to a lovely little town to be with her relatives and a wonderful new church family. (First she joined the Peace Corps at age 88 and had the time of her life on the other side of the world.)
Aliona did not visit me again, and resolved never to climb four floors for me or anybody else. But at least when I apologized for scandalizing her with my bedsitter seating, she only rolled her eyes and waved away my baroque American scruples. And until Aliona passed away years later, may her bright memory be eternal, she invited me to her apartment instead. There at least once a week she shared real tea and real china, prayer, art books, classical music on Russian radio, and wonderful stories. Her thrifty room was perfectly appointed. Before moving or adding any piece of furniture, she would sit with floor plans drawn on graph paper and labeled to scale; she would move paper furniture models like chess pieces to preview and choose the most harmonious final arrangement. She knitted matching slipcovers and pillow covers for her own sofa. She unraveled old cashmere sweaters to crochet soft wall hangings. She embroidered linen towel frames for her lovely old icons. She fished wooden spoons and cutting boards and scraps from the trash, painted them with Palekh-style fairytale motifs, and hung them on the walls. She braided area rugs, and crocheted lacy window treatments. And soon we were close enough that she could give me a piece of her mind, since my mind was clearly lacking in pieces of its own. “What were you thinking, living in that kennel? You’re an educated American, for the love of God! Buy a chair! Buy cups! Get some curtains and floor rugs! Hang up a painting!”
But that night, Aliona struggled down those four floors to the street. As Lydia told me later, Aliona sank to a low wall and doubled over, wailing in dismay. “So sad,” she wept. “I did not see such poor even in village! I think, Americans have the money, all goods and best style. But no, NO! Mary’s is nothing. Not chair, plate, lamp. Nothing for window and floor. Nothing for LIFE!” She made a twisting lid motion to indicate my Mason jars. (In the American South, a Mason jar is considered a charming homelike touch for serving tea. But Aliona explained that drinking out of a pickling jar goes along with drinking pickle brine straight up, a hangover remedy among alcoholics.) Sitting on that wall, Aliona gripped her aching heart and wept. “No wonder she is single! What man wants to come home to that?” (To be fair, I had not set up my room to serve as home for a man. I believed that a man was out there preparing a home for me and our future kids instead, and would marry and bring me there.)
But even as she sat on that low wall, Aliona was making plans for me.
Next day, small white-haired dignified Aliona buttonholed dozens of good folk at the church and Senior Home. She called in a battalion of Russian elders within a radius of twenty miles. They ransacked their homes, their children’s homes, garage sales, and rummage basements (Russian word tolkúchka, from “to push,” as in jabbing through a crowd with one’s elbows).
Two weeks later, after Liturgy, the women in the parish hall unveiled a surprise for me: a carload of merchandise, ready for delivery to my home. Someone’s strapping taciturn grandsons drove it around the corner, and unloaded cartons and bundles outside my walkup room. Once it was locked inside, they hurried me back to church for supper.
Later that afternoon, I got to go home and peek at the cartons and unpack. The Russians had rustled up metal chairs, a folding card table, and six sturdy boxes of utensils and decorations. There were floor mats, place mats, potholders, tablecloths, vases, a macrame wall hanging, doorstop dachshunds stuffed with sand to keep out drafts, dishes and glasses galore, more galores of cutlery, a melon ball scooper, Bambi salt and pepper shakers, a boiled-egg slicer, toucan wall clock, shish-kebab skewers, corncob grippy holders, a Carmen Miranda cookie jar with fruit hat lid, and a knitted clown tea cosie.
I spent one year in that studio. It took all that time to gently smuggle all that loot out the door. Obviously it wouldn’t do, to tote it on the subway to the various thrift stores. Chances were 11 out of 10 that some member of the bargain battalion would feel hurt by the reappearance of Carmen or Cosie the Clown, and word would get out all over the grapevine. Whenever my American friends planned a car trip out of town, I would plead with them to take a box along and drop it off at some good cause. Otherwise, my daily household chores meant moving cartons out of my way and then back again, shoving and stacking them along the wall and shelves, stowing them in the bathroom and kitchenette. All year, people at the church would ask “How are those lobster tongs working for you? I may need to borrow them some time.” All year, things with smiley faces or sharp edges fell on my head from upper shelves or tripped me at night. All year I carried this dark secret from the church, not inviting anyone to visit, afraid someone would show up to see the new furnishings. That’s what a caring community can be: people to shower you with support and help, and also to say (as so many guests have said over the years) “What a dump! Do you call this living? Let us show you how to fill your space like a real grownup.”
But on Trousseau Day, back in the parish hall, the women demanded that I pay Aliona on the spot: seventy five cents in exact change for a large carload of goods. “Because of the silverware,” they explained. “Three knives, three quarters.” The women supported their argument and enlightened my bewilderment by citing President Putin as an example on his visit to an artisan foundry. As broadcast on Russian TV, the artists gifted the President with a commemorative knife. He dutifully fished out and handed over his coin. That’s where I learned that when a Russian gives you a knife as a gift, you have to fork over the equivalent legal tender of twenty five cents. Otherwise the energy of the knife might cut the energy of the friendship, resulting in a quarrel. The token payment will even that out and keep the peace.
Of course I paid right up, three quarters for Aliona.
Aliona pocketed the offering. Then she passed me a civilized dinner plate, and a broad smile.
Father led the prayers. The church sat down to eat.