What a great birthday! We started celebrating on Friday and now (Sunday) I still have homemade cake to look forward to!

Yesterday morning Louise and I headed up to Sisters, a 3½ hour drive from Portland. Friends of ours bought a place there a few months ago and they invited us and another couple for the weekend. It was actually a belated birthday celebration for our friend Susan and just happened to be my birthday, too.

Before we left, I checked my email one last time (leaving my laptop behind for the weekend was kind of a big deal). How surprised I was to find a message from a cousin in Israel – someone I met once as a child many years ago. Harold’s grandmother Eva and my grandfather Leo were siblings, making the two of us second cousins. Harold said he is working on his family tree and had some questions about Leo’s branch of the family. I have an extensive diagram of my mom’s side of the family (not my doing), but don’t know nearly as much about the Ginsberg side.

I love this stuff, so I got pretty excited. As I’ve said before, I adored my dad. I not only adored him, I adored everyone who was related to him: my two aunts, my cousins and, especially, my grandmother.

Grandma Mollie, my Aunts Julia and Evelyn, Grandpa Leo, Dad

My dad’s dad died of cancer a couple of months after I was born, so I never got to know him. But my grandmother, Mollie, was a shining light in my life. She was quite the contrast to Oma, my mother’s icy German mother. The story went that Oma had gotten sick with typhoid on the ship over from Europe and had almost died. All her hair fell out and she henceforth wore a series of bizarre and frightening wigs. Her thick ankles were always tightly bound in elastic stockings and stuffed into highly sensible shoes. In most of my memories, she is chain-smoking and playing solitaire.

Oma (Elizabeth Herrmanns)

Grandma Molly, on the other hand, was fit and she wore pants. While she tended to be somewhat glum, I found my grandmother endlessly entertaining and would do anything to make her laugh. As soon as I was old enough to visit her on my own, I went wherever she was and spent as much time with her as I could. It was never enough.

1980, me with Grandma and my Aunt Julia

I was hungry for stories from the old country, but Grandma wasn’t so great in this arena. I knew she had come to the US from Ukraine as a young child. She told me she was born in Kiev but couldn’t give any more details. As we were driving up to Sisters, I was thinking about the email and whether I could help fill in some of  the blanks.

The drive over the mountains was beautiful and I’m pretty sure it was the first time I saw snow on my birthday. The highlight of our visit was to be a five-course meal at a wonderful little restaurant in Sisters. Dressed in our finery, the six of us arrived a little early and our table wasn’t ready. The place is tiny and there isn’t anywhere to wait, so we decided to go out for a little walk.

It was cold and windy and we really weren’t dressed for the outdoors. Some of us were wearing fancy shoes. We made it a couple of blocks up the street, where there was a cluster of shops. Inside the first window was a glorious display of cowboy boots in every color of the rainbow. “Ooooh, are they open??” I squealed, grabbing the door handle and giving it a hopeful shake. Then I saw the sign. They had closed at 5 and weren’t open on Sundays. Darn. I hadn’t even known I wanted cowboy boots.

There was a kind of covered area leading to the other shops and we stepped inside. We thought we were all alone and were loudly carrying on and laughing.  Suddenly a small voice called out, “I am here! Come! Come!”

The voice was coming from the shop next door. The lights were on and we could see shelf after shelf of colorful items: painted boxes, jewelry, tapestries, and cheerful babushka nesting dolls.

A couple of us stepped into the shop and were greeted by a small woman with piercing dark eyes, long blond braids and a disarming smile. “I am open! Please! Come in!” she welcomed us. She was a whirlwind of energy, spinning around like one of her tops. She gave us a tour of her wares, describing the different items in rapid-fire and heavily accented English. “So special! So beautiful! All from Russia! Look thees! Look thees!”

I was quite taken by the woman and the breath-taking display of items. “My grandmother came from Kiev,” I told her. “Oh!” she exclaimed, stopping to get a closer look at me. She asked more about my grandmother and then said somberly, “That would have been a very difficult immigration at that time. Very difficult.”

The woman told us her shop is open seven days a week and she also owns the deli next door. “I send money home to my family,” she explained with a shrug. We followed her across the hall and she read to us at lightning speed from the chalkboard deli menu. “We have soup – either meatball, chicken noodle, vegetable – and half sandwich for eight fifty. And panini. Dessert. All we make here! I cook!”

More of her story came tumbling out. The woman said she had been married for twenty years in Russia, to a submarine captain. He treated her poorly and she started thinking about how to get a better life for herself. At 42 she responded to an ad on an internet dating site. An American man was looking for a wife. He had three children and was a vegetarian, which in her mind explained why he had trouble finding a woman. They’ve now been married five years and she couldn’t be happier. He’s a good man and they don’t fight.

Orisya

“You have to stay positif, always positif,” she advised. “Even when hard! Some people don’t like Russians here. Not so easy. But I stay positif.”

My friends were gradually trickling out the door but I found myself unable to pull away. Finally the two of us were alone and the woman told me her name: Orisya. She was looking at me intently. “You look intelligent,” she decided. “What work you do?” When I told her I was a doctor, she gave a little yelp. “I knew it! I told you! I was pharmacist in Ukraine!”

I told Orisya that I was celebrating my birthday and wanted her to do something for me. “What eez it?” she asked. “Please,” I said, handing her a hundred dollar bill, “Send this to your family in Ukraine. It would mean so much to me.”

“NO!” she cried. “NO! I canNOT take money! No!” She started spinning around the shop again, grabbing first one thing then another. “Here! Look thees! Look how beautiful!”

I told her I wanted her to have the money as a gift and she finally slowed down, coming to a stop behind the counter. “That is a beautiful thing,” she said. “People in America are selfish. But you, Doctor –  you are a giver!” She was bustling around again, doing something back there that I couldn’t quite see.

I said there are very many good and giving people everywhere, and especially in America. She listened quietly and somewhat skeptically. Finally, she gently pushed me to the door and waved me away. “Go!” she said, pointing me in the proper direction. “Go there! Your friends are waiting! Happy Beerthday!” She gave me a hug and pressed a cardboard box into my hands as she gave me a little shove. I started crossing the street and turned back to wave. “I am so proud of you, Doctor!” she shouted after me.

When I got to the restaurant everyone had already been seated. I slid into my chair and put the box onto the table. My friends leaned forward in their chairs. “What happened?” they all wanted to know. I let the story flow as I opened the package.

Inside was a music box. I wound it up. The restaurant was all abuzz and we were about to have an amazing dinner. Above the chatter and the laughter I could just make out a simple, cheerful tune.

Or was that Grandma Mollie, singing me a birthday lullaby?

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to From Russia, With Love

  1. DJan says:

    More tears. I loved this story, it is so “positif” and heartwarming. You know, your birthday seems to have the effect of warming many people’s hearts. Do you think you might manage to make it last for a few more months? 🙂

    Thanks again for the great story!

  2. andrea gehrke says:

    Another amazing cosmic connection! What a lovely, timely gift. Your Grandmother Mollie was surely smiling down upon you. My late grandparents were from Ukraine too. My mother and grandmother spoke Ukrainian and I so wish I had learned the language. I know three words/phrases: naz-da-roll-ya, which is a drinking toast; dobrey, which means good; and my mother’s woe be tide warning to us – dom-da-bee-pastrachi :)))

  3. Douglas says:

    awesome.

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