When They’re Ready

This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.

I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.

However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.

My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.

And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.

I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.

Where else could we want them to be?

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!

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.

Acquiring the Spirit of Peace

Today is the Feast of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

I volunteer, each summer, in the kitchen of a camp for Orthodox Christian youth named for the Saint.

We recently had a spate of sad events and bad news.

It has been helpful to reflect and remind myself of some of the Saint’s words.

You can find his life by clicking on the word “life.

His most famous saying is, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”

I wish you all peace on this day.

A Different Kind of Summer

On this first day of summer, I find myself in a different place and setting than I’d envisioned.

We live in coastal Connecticut, and I write and edit, teach and conduct a choir.  My life between weekends is a wild card — I substitute teach, and I am never sure which age or subject I will teach from day to day. But in summer, I plant my garden, grow my flowers, and watch for the progression of plants that I knew as a child but lost, briefly, as an adult in Texas. In Connecticut and in my native Boston, Spring starts white and yellow and green. Forsythia and crocus, tulips and the first dandelion start the season. This year was cold in Connecticut. My lilacs bloomed only for a week, likewise my lily of the valley. But at least they bloomed.

Spring had been stolen, but I staked my claim for summer. I put in a garden — the “three sisters” at the back near the fence, four six packs of tomatoes (black Krim for novelty, Roma for canning, grape tomatoes for instant gratification, and Early Girl for slicing) in pots and cages. I awaited the usual signs of summer — the end of school, the opening of the Farmer’s Market, the first good beach day, the blossoming hydrangeas, the Apostles Fast where we eat vegan and the first ice cream after it ends. We had just set up a new computer, and transferred all my documents onto it. I thought I would divide my time between words, plants, sorting things (we have six people’s things and three people at home just now), cooking, and church, with forays to the beach and to my siblings’ homes to play with their kids.

Instead, I am roughly seven hundred miles from home. My mother-in-law had an injury from which she is recovering, and my father-in-law, the vibrant author and architect, successfully underwent planned surgery. I planned to come while they both recuperated the rest of the way at home. But several days after my father-in-law’s surgery, he unexpectedly died, peacefully, not quite three weeks ago. Of all the people in the family constellation, I was the one most available to help at this time. And I am glad to be able to do it. My mother-in-law came to help us every time I had a baby, for each of my husband’s ordinations, for the children’s graduations and major concerts, for our parish jubilees. It is a joy to be able to help her, instead, even if at this point she is doing so well that she doesn’t let me do much.

Before she was home, though, from post-surgical care, my first job was to prepare for all the relatives who came for the funeral. I made beds and cooked, not for the mercy meal but for the arriving people — my husband and his brothers, one sister-in-law and a bunch of nephews and kids.  My m-i-l came home the day before the funeral, and everything took shape from there. Then, one by one, the relatives went home. And now it’s a quiet life with just the two of us, as my mother-in-law masters doing her usual household tasks using the hot pink walker that the grandkids surprised her with and I reach the things that require climbing or stairs. She lets me drive. I go shopping and to church services. But mostly it’s a quiet life at home.

When we moved to Houston, the plants were different, and I went into mourning. I don’t want to do that again. Here, too, the plants are different, but I am working on learning them and celebrating. It helps that my ships were burned at the harbor; when I called home, I learned that critters devoured my garden some time between the last two rain storms, every tender talk and spindly vine gone. It’s a loss, but it’s also one less thing to worry about. I can buy vegetables later. Now, I am learning Michigan plants and enjoying what is. The white dander that floats into the garage is not milkweed, it’s cottonwood. And it’s everywhere. My hearty bushes of Andromeda and blue hydrangea are back home, but here I have delicate clematis and carnations in deep purple and vibrant pink. Both places have chipmunks, squirrels, and the sporadic rabbit, but here they have hummingbirds, which we entice to visit with a feeder and a hanging basket of red flowers.

I miss my husband, but he is everywhere here, in the photos and books, in the stories friends tell and in email and cell phone. I miss the ocean, but I hear tell it will still be there when I come home. I miss my local, church, and writing friends, but I brought my editing with me, on a flash drive. And time alone with this brave, beautiful, and intelligent woman is an incalculable gift. I am learning the wisdom that women pass to each other through osmosis — stain removal hints, habits of virtue and industry like cleaning the stove after each meal, putting the dishwashing liquid in a hand soap dispenser so there’s nothing ugly by the sink, which pan to use for what and why. I am learning to wear shoes while at home, to avoid injury, and new ways to set out a nice tea. I’m meeting the neighbors, who come with zucchini bread, banana bread, dinner, stories, love.

This isn’t the summer I planned, but Tolstoy’s three questions come to mind. This is the most important thing I can do now. And it is a joy and an honor to be able to do it.