Temporary Address

Temporary Address

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Am From - The Longer Version

I am from Eugenia and Lewis who skated on the Sungari River in Harbin Manchuria. I am from Lewis, who fell in love with a model to Bangkok, and from Eugenia, who stayed home and raised me.

And I am from Nictopolean, the iron man and Irene and Alexandra, my sisters.

I am from San Francisco hills and Golden Gate Park. I am from Burke’s private school for young ladies. Oh well!

I am from dark solemn churches with icons, lots of icons, illuminated by votive candles. I am from incense and smoke. I am from standing butt-high behind the man in front of me. “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord.” I am from bushy beards, pectoral crosses, and thick brocaded albs and stoles. And batushki coming to our house in the week after Easter. “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord.” – I am from hoping that the neighbors don’t hear.

I am from outside, not knowing the words and the games.

I am from salmon roe sandwiches, boiled tongue and boiled chicken. I am not from bologna and PB and J. But I am also from piroshky, and stroganoff, and blini, and from pasha and kulich after Easter when the batushki have finished praying.

And I am from midnight snacks and paper dolls, and rolling down the San Francisco hills on a broom perched on top of a roller skate.

I am from Eugenia and Lewis (My mom and Dad). Like other refugees from the Russian Revolution their families gathered in a Russian colony in Harbin, Manchuria – in the northern part of China. Mom and Dad met and were married there.

Then during World War II, the situation in China became unstable and they fled to the United States.

My Dad served in the United States army and Mom followed him around the bases while he did his training. According to a letter I found, I was conceived in St. Paul Minnesota. My Dad was part of the reconstruction effort in Japan after the war.

I am from Lewis who fell in love with Vera, a glamorous model. Mom must have been devastated. She was a proud woman and very much a “what would the neighbors think” kind of person. Back then, no one got divorced, but she did. When she found out about the affair, she ended the marriage. In her mind my Dad was the bad person in the divorce, and Mom made sure to protect me from him. I was about two when they divorced and I didn’t see him again until I was about twelve, but I fantasized about him, and, since he was a fantasy and not a real human, he was perfect. I remember imagining him coming to the front door in an army uniform and telling me, “Hello, I am your father.” I used to write him letters, but I never heard back, and once I found a letter I had written a month earlier in Mom’s dresser drawer. No, it wasn’t a mistake. She never mailed my letters to him.

I am from Nictopolean, the iron man and Irene and Alexandra, my sisters.

Mom married Nictopolean when I was five. I think he was actually a better match for Mom than Lewis ever was. Lewis and Vera were adventurous. They ran off to Bangkok and created The Star of Siam – a silk manufacturing company. My Dad ran the production end – manufacturing the silk, and Vera designed clothes. They were glamorous types, while Nictopolean and Eugenia were more grounded. Or maybe it just seemed that way because Nictopolean and Eugenia raised us kids.

Sometimes, I’d get presents from Thailand, exotic presents. I was fascinated by the Tai silk when I first saw it.The silk had a lot of texture – bumps and ridges – very different from the smooth shininess of Japanese silk. .
I called Nictopolean “Iron Man” because he was the man of the family and the king of the house, as most fathers were back then. I had to call him “Daddy” and I had to accept him as my father, and I had to be happy and act like I loved him. I wasn’t one for rebellion, at least not on the outside. I never admitted to being sad or angry. And if I ever looked sad or angry, I’d be laughed at. So I kept very quiet and kept my feeling in check. But I didn’t outgrow teenage rebellion until my thirties.

Alexandra was the youngest of the family, the child of my Mom and Daddy. She was a sunny, happy little girl. We nick named her “Tata” when she was six months old. We’d go out to dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf, and, at three, she was so cute that she could mooch cookies from the other diners.

I am from dark, solemn churches, Russian Orthodox churches. The first thing you notice inside an Orthodox church is the wonderful odor of incense. The priest carries a censer which is a golden dish suspended from a golden chain, and inside the dish is some burning incense. The priest waves the censer, directing the smoke towards the icons and towards the people, making the church all smoky and smelling wonderful.

The walls are covered with icons, and most of the icons are illuminated by votive candles. And throughout the church, there are stands with metal candle holders – imagine upside down thimbles - where worshippers place lighted candles as a sign of devotion. I remember the churches as dark places, and, writing this I’m wondering how that can be with all the candles. When we had to go to church, I liked to put out the candles that had burned down low before they could make a waxy mess inside the holders.

There are no pews in a Russian Orthodox Church. You stand. There are a few chairs off in the corners for sick or elderly parishioners, but most people stand throughout the services which last a couple of hours. The Russian Orthodox religion is not for the faint of heart or weak of leg.

We didn’t go to church all that often, and when we did, it was usually to Vesper services, which start at six p.m. and are considerably shorter than Sunday morning services. We’d each hold a lighted candle throughout the service, and the candle would be stuck through a flower-shaped piece of cardboard to catch the dripping wax. I liked to play with the melted wax, catching the drips with a finger nail and pushing them back up into the flame.

The litany was in Slavonic back then, and it was close enough to Russian that I could understand bits and pieces but not everything that was going on. There was a lot of repetition in the service. Prayers were chanted by the priest, and the singing had a lot of monotone in it. It had the feel of a Taize service.

I was short, standing about butt-high to the person in front of my, and back then the churches were usually crowded, so my view was limited. Another think about being short – carbon dioxide, the product of people breathing and candles burning, is heavier than oxygen and sinks in the air. As a kid, I used to get dizzy and sometimes even faint in church. I liked this because it meant I got to go outside and sit on the steps until I felt better, and, if I actually fainted, I got to cause a little commotion.

As a kid, I didn’t like going to church with one exception. I loved the service on Easter Eve. You got to church at about 11:30. The church was dark – only a few candles lit – and the singing was minor key and melancholy, mourning Christ’s death. We stood holding candles that were not lit. Then at midnight, all the lights in the church went on. We lit our candles, passing the flame from one person to another. The priests would yell “Christ is Risen” at the congregation, and we would reply “He is Risen Indeed” (in Russian, of course). They’d say it three times, and we’d answer three times. There were several priests, so there was quite a bit of joyful shouting. The singing shifted to a major key. One song got sung over and over –“Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tomb bestowing light.” Back then the churches were packed and often, for Easter Eve service, we couldn’t get inside the church but had to stand on the steps outside.

Our family never observed the Orthodox lent, which is a vegan diet for seven weeks with a fast on the Saturday before Easter. Instead, we gave up meat and watching television on the first fourth and seventh weeks of lent. After Easter Eve services, you’d go home and break the fast, and that tradition we did observe. The table would be covered with food. There would be at least five kinds of meat – roast turkey, ham, duck, smoked chicken, roast beef – and side dishes – Russian potato salad, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pickled fruits, and the traditional Easter dessert – Kulich and pasha (pronounced pas-ha). Pasha is like cheesecake without any crust, and it’s delicious, but you can’t eat very much of it. Kulich is a very rich, sweet bread studded with candied fruit and nuts, similar to panetoni, only more buttery. It takes about twenty hours to make because of all the times you have to knead it and let it rise. My aunt Maria used to call up my Mom each year and cry because her Kulich didn’t rise properly.

For the week after Easter, the priests – the batushki – came around visiting every Russian Orthodox family. There were about six churches, so we got about six visits during that week. They’d perform a service in our house, and then we’d all eat the ham, turkey, Kulich, etc. Most Russian Orthodox priests were chubby.

I was embarrassed by the priests’ visits. They wore black cassocks with brocade stoles. They did not shave or cut their hair. (Remember, this was in the days before hippies. All men were clean-shaven with short hair.) When they performed the service, they sang and chanted in Slavonic. I remember one time when Mom wanted to take a nap and told us not to let the batushki in, so, when the doorbell rang, Tata and I hid under the dining room table and giggled.

I am from outside, not knowing the words or the games. When I was three, my grandmother came to live with us, and, since she didn’t speak any English, we all spoke Russian and so Russian was my first language. They sent me to kindergarten when I was four years old. I was the youngest one in the class, and I didn’t speak any English when I got there, and I understood that I was different from the other kids. Burkes was a private school. The other kids came from rich families. I didn’t. When Mom and my Dad got divorced, she asked for a huge settlement, which he gave her. (Guilt, I think.) And she used it to send me to Burkes school for girls. Burkes was all white, back then, and mostly WASP with a few Jewish girls. So, as a Russian kid, I was the minority – at least that’s how I felt.

You could get lunch at the cafeteria, but I always got a brown paper bag with a sandwich and celery or carrot sticks, and a thermos filled with milk. The sandwich had either salami or ham, or salmon roe, or smoked salmon or boiled tongue. Mom usually buttered the bread with cold butter which ended up in chunks and sometimes tore the bread. A lot of my lunch ended up in the garbage, and I was a skinny little kid. After we finished eating, the kids could play until the bell rang, but I usually just watched.

After school, I had to wait in the office for Mom to pick me up – another example of being different from the other kids. One day, I felt lonely because I was so different and didn’t have any friends. I was picking up English, and wanted to tell the principal about this, but I didn’t have enough language to explain what I was feeling. I did the best I could. “You know, Miss Catherine, I don’t like your school.” That’s what I told her. She looked at me. And she said some things, but I couldn’t understand them. So I just stared. She kept on talking. “That makes Miss Catherine very cross,” she said. Her voice sounded as if she cared about me. I assumed that “cross” meant sad. I liked that she cared about what I was feeling. “Oh, I’m glad,” I told her. Then she said some more things. She said many more things. I didn’t understand them, but I learned that “cross” didn’t mean sad. It meant angry. Finally I said, “I’m sorry,” because I knew that was something you could say when people were angry at you. Later, Mom told me that I was in big trouble, and that they were going to kick me out of school because I was rude and arrogant. (Mom always misused the word “arrogant”.) I think Mom was exaggerating to make sure I’d behave myself. Mom was always telling me “stop bothering these people,” and “look, that lady is staring at you,” and, “what’s wrong with you? Are you crazy or something?” So I was scared to say anything, and usually just kept quiet.

Growing up, I had a few friends, and even some close friends. But I always knew that I was different. From an adult’s perspective, I think that most kids sometimes go through those feelings of being an outsider – even popular kids have some insecurities, I think. But at the time, I figured that I was the only one who felt that way.

Mom was usually more proper than loving, but I have three memories of her letting her hair down and of us just enjoying each other:

When I was little, Mom used to grab me by one hand and one foot and swing me around until I was dizzy.

We weren’t allowed to eat in our rooms, but once in a while, after we went to bed, Mom would sneak up some food to us. We called them midnight snacks, although they were more like 8:30 snacks. I think she really did sneak them up, and Daddy didn’t know about them. And we’d giggle, and eat the snacks and tell stories and secrets, and it was a sharing time.

I always wanted a flexi flyer, but since I was a girl, I never got one. So I invented broom skating. We lived on a fairly steep hill, and one day I got the idea of putting a roller skate under the straw end of a broom, and sitting on the straw and rolling down the hill using the broom handle to steer. It worked. You had to stick your legs out in front of you, and your feet acted as brakes. You wore out the heels of your shoes really fast. And here’s the best part of broom skating – to come to a complete stop, you pull up on the handle until the skate comes out from under you, and you’re sitting on the straw, and the broom comes to a complete stop. One day, my very proper mother, who never did anything unconventional tried broom skating. She had no problems with it. Broom skating is very safe, and I loved that she did it.

I am from… all these things. So what does it mean? Examining the memories and putting away childish things, I see people doing the best they can with what they have. And I see that, as a kid, I missed a lot of subtleties.

Most of the time, Mom was the parent and very intent on preserving her image. So the times when we could goof around and just enjoy each other’s company were very special. I wish we had more of them, and I think Mom wished the same thing. But here’s the revelation. I could have made us have more good times if I’d just loved Mom without a chip on my shoulder. That’s what she wanted. As an immigrant, she’d left everything familiar and had to start all over. She even had to start with a new language. She was also an outsider looking in, not knowing the rules.

As a kid, I imagined God as a whiskery old man with a clipboard. And He’d check off the things I’d done wrong – “talked back to mother”, “didn’t make her bed”, “squirmed too much in church”, “was mean to her sister”, etc. I never got goodie points for doing good things, only demerits. It wasn’t way into my adulthood that I experienced God as loving, and forgiving. I’m trying to find words for the beauty of the Russian Orthodox religion, the beauty I’d missed growing up. But as an adult, when I’d strayed from God – and I mean really strayed – that church was there to forgive me and welcome me back. I remember the smell of incense wafting through the doors as I walked in and I knew I’d come home again. There is something about the Orthodox Church that makes you aware of God’s greatness in a way that’s different from any other experience.

Reading this, I wish I’d loved more, forgiven sooner, appreciated more and judged less.

I rejected Mom’s “what would the neighbors say!” mentality, and I rejected Mom’s love of style and decorum in favor of the informal. I wish I’d taken just some of that in. Sometimes being proper is a good thing. I wonder what Mom and Daddy would have said if they’d read my blog. Hmmm…..