Pity Kulich

My husband and I stood on the porch under an umbrella, not quite out of the rain, ringing Evdokia’s doorbell. (Her name isn’t really Evdokia, of course.) We knew she was home — she was blind, elderly, and never went anywhere — but she refused to answer.

She knew why we were there.

We were getting damper and colder, despite the fact that it was Orthodox Easter Sunday. We were on a mission, delivering baskets to the shut-in’s, and you don’t get more shut-in than this. My husband dried his hand on his jacket, handed me the umbrella, and took out his phone.

“Evdokia Makarovna, eto ja, otets Giorgi!” “It’s me, Father George,” and he explained that he was here with a basket that the children had made for her. She doesn’t have to come downstairs, if she just buzzes the lock, he will bring it in.

Yes, she knew who he was and why he was there, and she didn’t want the basket. Give it, she said, to someone who DOES need it. And she hung up.

At this point both of our faces were dripping and my headscarf was soaked through. We looked at each other and laughed, and went to the diner alone together for coffee, our annual treat before we went home to finish celebrating the biggest feast of the year with our children.

The basket was small but had all the traditional Russian Easter foods — a hunk of kielbasa, a small cup of pascha cheese, a red egg, and some candy. We had driven all over the Greater Bridgeport area dropping them off, and Evdokia’s was the last stop.

There had actually been some controversy about the baskets. These were given to widows and to shut-ins, but many of the widows didn’t want one, because they could still bake for themselves and indeed, for everyone else. They brought large baskets to church to be blessed for their own families and handed out smaller parcels to others at church, including the fortunate clergy. These women could bake!

The parcels my husband distributed were a group effort. The Sisterhood made the foods, the children made cards and eggs, and we brought them to people. It wasn’t just the goodies that made them special, it was the idea that the church still remembers those who cannot get there often. Sometimes my husband would stay for tea, and catch up with the elderly, filling them in on current doings at church and learning more about the parish’s history.

Sometimes we missed someone — we didn’t know that someone was sick or in the hospital. Sometimes people didn’t want to be contacted. And sometimes a person requested a basket. “She might be a widow, but she still gets around and can cook!” one elderly woman said, while passing on her friend’s request. Well, if someone feels the need to have the priest show up with goodies and stay for tea mixed with sympathy, it’s a need. One more basket is not hard to make.

The baskets were distributed on Pascha and during Bright Week, just before the blessing of graves that takes place the following week. And so it was a time to verify who was buried where, and to gather names of the deceased, as well. Granted, it was also one more thing to do after the most exhausting and exhilarating time of the year. But it was an important ministry.

Some people declined a basket out of shyness. Others didn’t want to see the priest. And then there was the implication of receiving a basket. It’s makes a person part of a category that not everyone is ready to join. Evdokia, whom I never met in person, had been adamant about not needing a basket. Yes, she was blind. Yes, she was a widow. Yes, she couldn’t get to church. But she could still provide. The Sisterhood, whose members were all women who were younger than Evdokia, insisted that we bring her a basket. We were squished in the middle of an intergenerational war, and it seemed better to err by bringing Easter cheer than to risk offending people by not doing so.

It had a difficult Easter for me. I felt like less than a perfect hostess, because while I had made my cheese and dyed my eggs, I had not made kulich.

Kulich is the traditional Russian Easter bread, and it is baked in cylinders (coffee cans, special beakers, empty oatmeal boxes, according to your budget) and is frosted. It contains many of the things we give up for Lent — eggs, milk, butter — and provides a sturdy platform for large helpings of the pascha cheese. But this year I couldn’t knead the dough, because I’d sliced the side of my right hand.

Like most injuries, it was stupid. My children all made their own lunches, and the youngest had decided that “green bean juice on white bread tastes just like steak.” I didn’t see it, but as long as he also brought a protein and a fruit, I had no problem with him packing a baggie of green beans in his lunch. He didn’t need a full can of them, though. So one morning when I was cleaning up the post-exodus mess from four children making lunches to take to three schools, I saw there were a few lonely green beans left in the can. I stuck my hand in to liberate them (and eat them), and when I turned my hand, I sliced it on the edge. I didn’t bleed long, but I bled a lot, and I didn’t want to risk bleeding into dough made with six cups of milk, a dozen egg yolks, saffron, sugar, etc. I bought a tsoureki, instead, from the Greek church. News of my injury reached parishioners and friends, who gave me what my daughter termed “pity kulich,” most of it better than mine, and I bought a Potemkin kulich from the Russian store to grace our basket.

The next day, we were about to eat supper when the doorbell rang. It was Evdokia’s son-in-law. He was holding a large bag, and he looked very, very nervous. He apologized to my husband, held the bag as if it contained a decapitated head and said, “Mama said I need to come.”

Looking much like a nun who was asked to repeat a swear word, he gulped, and continued, “Mama says that she knows you hurt your hand.” He nodded at me briefly but would not make eye contact. “She said that she’s not the one who needs a kulich, you are. She said that even if she can’t see, she can still bake. And she said I should bring you this.”

My husband opened the bag, and pulled out one of the largest and most luscious kulichi I have ever seen. It was golden and smelled of yeast, eggs, and butter. The son-in-law looked like he wanted to sink under the floor boards, and my husband had not yet recovered his power of speech. So it was up to me.

God bless Evdokia. People tried to tell her she was one thing, she maintains she is not, and she decided to prove it in the tastiest way possible. “I am taking notes,” I thought. “This is how one refuses to go gently into the night.”

The son-in-law still stood before us, looking miserable. I had it in my power to fix one thing. I dried my hands on my apron and extended the right one for him to shake. “Please, please thank your mother-in-law for me!” I said. “I’m healing nicely,” I said, showing him the thin line on my hand, “but I was so disappointed that I couldn’t bake, and that looks absolutely delicious. I’m so grateful to you. I appreciate you bringing it to me.”

The son-in-law looked up with relief, and, still not making eye contact, shook my hand, got my husband’s blessing, and fled. It was a glorious kulich, and it lasted us many days. And the next year, and all the years after until she died, none of us ever dared try to bring Evdokia another basket again.

Alas, she never made me another pity kulich.

But I do have a recipe that’s good, I’ve had several more years practice now, and I am truly capable, once again, of making my own. I don’t always take the time to let them cool properly, they may break, but they fill the house with a yeasty miasma, they taste good, and the preparation makes me feel like part of a long line of women laboring to make the celebration palpable for the people around us. We are not Manicheans; the Church blesses Things — bread, water, eggs, cheese — because God’s creation is good, and He allows us to participate in the joy of creation by making things with our own hands to share, in love, in imitation of Him.

Evdokia knew this, and was not going to let anybody tell her that she’s out of the game.

Here’s the recipe for kulich. I quadruple it, but you might not have to.

Enjoy.

Kulich

One and a half cups scalded milk
1 envelope dry yeast (= 2 teaspoons)
4 egg yolks
1 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup grated lemon rind (I don’t use that much)
pinch saffron (I soak this in brandy or rum for more uniform color)
2 (46 ounce) juice cans, washed (remove labels!)
5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
1/4 cup warm water
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup chopped blanched almonds (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup seedless golden raisins (more or less — you decide)

Scald the milk. Let cool, remove the “skin.” In a large bowl, combine milk and 4 cups flour. Soften the yeast in the 1/4 cup of water; then stir into the flour and milk mixture. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).
(This gives you time to separate your eggs, melt your butter, etc.) In a small bowl, beat the yolks with sugar until light and thick. Add butter and blend well. Stir in nuts, lemon rind, salt, saffron, and raisins. Gradually stir in enough flour to make the dough firm enough to handle. Turn out onto a floured board and knead well (this is hard work!) until the dough is smooth and elastic, working in more flour as
needed.
(We discovered that it’s “enough” flour when your hands are no longer goopy with dough.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (The recipe says 370 but mine burn if I use that high a temp.) Divide the dough in half and place in cans. (Some people grease the cans with white shortening (Crisco-type stuff or even spray them with Pam) and line then with brown paper. I used to use grocery bags, but that’s not safe any more — some have pesticides — so I buy parchment paper. Other people use butcher paper. The paper should extend above the can. Be sure to cut out a circle for the bottom of the can also.) The cans should be half full. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. KEEP THEM OUT OF ANY BREEZES! I had a batch one year that looked gorgeous, but was raw in the middle.

Place cans of dough in a preheated oven. Bake about one hour and fifteen minutes, until golden brown.

Allow kulichi to stand for about five minutes. Take them out of the cans by tugging out the paper. Good cooks roll them back and forth so they are perfectly rounded. I don’t. Mine list, like friends who’ve been carousing, but it’s all good. Peel off the paper and wrap the kulichi each in its own clean towel to cool.
When cool, stand the kulichi up and cover them with lemon glaze (let it trickle down the sides).
Some people decorate the tops with “XB” in candied cherries. Others just use candy sprinkles. Our Ukrainian parishioners use a fresh rose, which is also pretty.
Lemon Glaze: In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar, 2 teaspoons hot tap water, and one teaspoon lemon juice. Start with less juice and use more only if needed. The frosting should be thick, like fondant.


You can make these in a variety of sizes by varying the cans you use. One quart juice cans, frozen juice concentrate cans, 11 oz. coffee cans, etc. all work.


Remember that smaller kulichi will take less time to bake, and larger will of course take longer. If the tops of the paper start burning, cut them off or ignore it, depending on the danger of them bursting into flame.


Kulichi can be frozen in thick zip lock bags. To serve, cut off the top, then slice the cylinder. Serve the round pieces first, always putting the top back on like a cookie jar lid so the bottom slices don’t dry out. Serve with Pascha cheese.

Next year, you can order good kulich from here!

“Tree at My Window”

(In honor of National Poetry Month)


Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.


Robert Frost

Don’t Write People Off; Draw Them in.

There is no age at which it doesn’t hurt to be left out. On a mothering group, the question came up when someone’s child was not invited to his friend’s birthday party. In adult life, this comes up when coffee klatches, outings, work parties, PTA planning sessions, or Girls’ Night Out happen without us.

When I was in Kindergarten, I sobbed, broken hearted, when a child told me she was having a birthday party and X and Y were invited and I was not. My teacher gave me paradigm shift. She said that not everyone has enough space or money to invite everyone, and some people can have only a small party with one or two people. Sometimes that’s true.


Other times, people are being exclusionary and even mean. That stinks, and it stinks worse the older the “kids” are.


But we cannot assume the worst, because it makes us look at people funny, and our faces will freeze like that. Elder Thaddeus would say that they will know what we are thinking. So it’s better to assume that it’s economics or space.


That said, I think part of the way that many are saved by childbearing (1 Tim 2:15) is that it gives us a chance to tackle whatever issues we didn’t handle when we were younger. When someone excludes us, we are hurt. When someone excludes our child, we are furious. But sometimes people only want what, or whom, they want. The secret, then, is to find a way to be happy without them.

For parents, redirection is the key. We can give our children something good to think about so they don’t dwell on what they’re missing. Mom used to take my brother to a museum if there was something at school she didn’t want him doing. The St. Herman Conferences began because a bunch of us were not celebrating Christmas yet and some seminarians thought it would be nice if we did something fun and useful during that time. Stay friendly, or friendly enough, with the excluders, and then look for more people to love.


My youngest invited his whole class to his birthday party in our back yard, in fifth grade, and most couldn’t come because they were on sports teams. But all the minority kids came, and said it was the first party they’d been invited to since Kindergarten, when the whole class had to be invited or your couldn’t bring the invitations to school.


There are other people out there whose children also don’t get invited. There are women who don’t get invited. There are men with no family, older people whose kids are grown, new families in the area.

Someone needs to include them. And look, God made you!

My younger brother’s teacher taught his class a poem that stayed with us all.


“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

Edwin Markham


Sometimes, the only thing to do is to draw more circles.

That Friend

My late father told us a joke about the simple country preacher who counseled his flock to answer the door in their BVD’s if they didn’t know the person knocking. Why, we asked. “Because many have entertained angels in their unnerwears,” was Dad’s response.

We didn’t get it. Dad had to explain that it refers to Hebrews 13:2 “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” One Orthodox rendition of the Holy Trinity is also called “The Hospitality of Abraham,” and shows the three angels that he and Sarah hosted, who shared with them good news.

This hospitality to strangers is an essential part of most cultures. In ancient Ireland you were required to offer the stranger at the door the best food in the house. This was also the rule of the desert. It is a Christian duty. But it’s not always easy.

On social media, a mother asked what to do if your child brings home a friend whom you cannot stand. She’d called the child who just visited “bossy, obnoxious, loud, and rude.” The post was removed, and wisely so (it’s a small town), but, the problem is real. I had written a response, and thought that I may as well use it, because sometimes it helps to have a plan.

Here’s what I had written:

Many children have never been to someone else’s house alone before, and children simply have no filter. When I started subbing, I would become upset with students who broke rules. At some point, though, it dawned on me that the children did not know that there was a rule, or why it existed. And so what you can do is help the child learn the rules of a new place. “Our house is small, so you have to use a soft indoor voice.” You can say, “Here, instead of ‘I hate it,’ we say, ‘No thank you, I don’t care for any.'” You get the idea.


You are the Designated Adult, and so it has become your job, while the child is in your house, to gently guide her the way you would want someone to speak to your child.


I think every child has a friend whom the parents would rather were not in the circle of friends. But that child fills a need. The outspoken help the reticent. The athletic help the home bodies. I took each of my children’s friend as a gift that God sent, sometimes for reasons that I couldn’t fathom, but that were sent by God and needed to be honored as guests and treated like beloved family.


You can ask yourself, before saying anything, “What is the kindest way to help the child make better choices?”
Of course if a visiting child hurts your child in word or deed, you need to call the parents and cut the visit short. But second chances, after explanations, are important.


A wise mother also taught me her trick. She keeps small presents, like birthday party favors, on hand and calls them “going home presents.” You don’t get them till you’re leaving. If a child truly gets on your last nerve, you can mention or point out the going home present without actually mentioning that you’d like the child to leave.


Entertaining strangers is a Christian duty. But like most Christian duties, it isn’t always comfortable or easy. The important things seldom are.

Photo by patchattack on Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Departures and Arrivals

In January, 1993, we lived in Texas, and had done so for four years, long enough to know people. My friend Sue had heard from a friend that the Presidential helicopter landing at Ellington Airforce Base would be open to the public. President Bush had not wanted anyone to make a fuss, but members of his family wanted someone to be there.

“I’m going,” she said, “and so should you. This is history. And it’s right down the road.”

The President was someone I had found off-putting, though I prayed for him as I have for the rest of them before and since. But I had felt, at the time, that Barbara Bush and I lived in somewhat parallel universes. We both had attended women’s colleges, and we were both married to men who couldn’t tell us everything by virtue of their jobs. Her husband had headed the CIA before becoming President. Mine worked in aerospace with a security clearance before becoming a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. We both were expected to be well dressed and diplomatic in our choice of words, and both of us struggled with it. Well, and I wanted my children to see a President, and this might be our only chance, and frankly, they would be just as excited by the chance to leave school early and see a helicopter.

We were not supposed to mention to the school where we were going, because political events were not excused absences, and this was considered political. I did not consider it so. I considered it humanitarian. The man had lost an election in front of God and everyone, and he was coming home changed. Attention must be paid. So I had sent in a note saying the older children had an “appointment,” and the secretary smiled, as she signed us out from Kindergarten and First Grade. “Lots of families signing out. Are you going where I think?” she asked. I smiled and raised my eyebrows. “Wave for me, too,” she said.

Secrets live about as long as ice cream, down in Texas.

You have to drive down Highway Three to get to the airport.  One side of the highway was railroad tracks. The other side were the sort of businesses I had never seen in Boston — bait and gun shops, pawn shops, and the sporadic bodega, which in Boston would have been called a “spa.” There was nothing along the road to indicate that anything special was happening, as befits a former head of a spy agency returning home on a day that is not his. But when we turned into the parking lot, there were people with signs, buttons, and flags. Our children were given some, which I kept for twenty or more years before losing them in a decluttering binge.

I was so homesick during those years. I had thought of Barbara Bush alone with her family in Midland, as I was far from our relatives in Michigan and Boston. I had seen the family photos of Kennebunkport, and thought, “Barbara Bush lived in Texas and did what she was supposed to and was able to move to New England,” and thought perhaps I might to do the same. But in the end, Texas had become home to them. I went to a meeting, years later, in the “hotel” they called home, and it reminded me of the older Wellesley dorms, with nicely appointed common rooms lined with books. “If you don’t have family when you move to Houston, you make family,” my brother-in-law had told me when we moved there in 1989.  He was right. My generous sister-in-law had shared their friends with me, I met mothers through Mothers Day Out and school, we had parishioners and neighbors. People were smart, kind, funny, generous, helpful, and welcoming. I was busy and had a life. I even wrote, and had sold an article to a magazine in California. But sometimes I sniffed the air for a salt breeze, and there was none. I missed lilacs and lily-of-the-valley, and I wanted more than anything to have tea with milk with my grandmother. And I wondered if Mrs. Bush had done the same.

I held my son on my shoulder and people moved so my daughter could see. The first people to emerge from the helicopter were the secret service officers, all impeccably dressed in crisp black suits with matching sun glasses. They had wires in their ears and were communicating to each other. The former President’s tall sons stepped out, looking young and dazed. More relatives emerged, then Mrs. Bush, then George Herbert Walker. Someone had set up a microphone, and President Bush was led to it.

“Well, now I know how little influence I have!” he said, “I said I didn’t want anyone to come, and now I see how well y’all listen!” But his smile was both warm and grateful, and I was glad the children had seen it. He was a wartime president, and my children had been folded into the war effort. My daughter had been sending care packages to the soldiers she’s met through the “any soldier” program, now defunct. She felt very much a part of the effort as she set aside artwork and chose bags of candy to send them. Both children had learned the words to “I’m Proud to Be an American” at school, and yellow ribbons and American flags had been a large part of the backdrop of their childhood. He had engaged the public, and had hired a speech writer, Peggy Noonan, whose style I had admired even before she coined the phrase “kinder, gentler.” I felt that even Clinton’s victory had been a result of the empowerment and involvement of the individual that had been part of the culture of that presidency.

I wanted, too, for my children to see how to lose gracefully, how to walk away from something knowing that you were walking to something else. The newspapers reported the President had bought a fishing license while he was home on election day. He had been away for twelve years. He looked relieved to have landed.

“I didn’t want anyone to come,” he continued, “but I am touched and grateful that you did. Thank you, and God bless America.”

There were cheers, and handshakes, politically connected people greeting each other and the rest of us starting to walk toward our cars.

It was a departure.

It was an arrival.

And so was today.

Rest in peace, Mister President.

Someone has been waiting for you.