Facebook shared this memory with me. I forgot how good it felt to see my words in print. I share it because sometimes these things do not go as we would wish.
I waited a long time at Staples, in line behind someone who was coming up with what he wanted on a banner while I and increasingly more other people waited. “I do not wish to be an angry person, Lord. And yet here I am,” I prayed. “Help me to be patient, at least, even if I don’t feel that way.”
The lady at the counter continued to help the man ahead of me, but the man who had helped me two days ago came over from the self-serve copiers, where life was temporarily going as it should, and said, “May I help you?”
“Yes, thank you! I’m waiting for my two copies of my thesis?”
I spelled our name, and he tried three times and found it at last.
He ducked under the counter and stood up again.
“Here!” he said triumphantly, and handed me the folder with my original thesis. No box, no bag, no remaining paper. He beamed at me as if he wrote it himself. And at first I start to smile back. It is a lovely thesis. But there seemed to be too few pages.
“Wait. That’s my thesis.”
“Yes!” he said, happily.
I shuffled through the pages. Only one copy. *The* one copy that I dropped off.
I took a deep breath and didn’t let all of it out.
“I had asked that you make two copies on the paper that I bought? And I wanted the leftover paper?”
“Ah!” he said, and dug under the counter.
“Here!” he said, once again triumphant.
It was the work order and the leftover paper in a box with no lid.
I channeled the person I have to become to substitute for Kindergarten, where their intentions are always good, always, one tells oneself. Always.
“This is the extra paper, which is good, but I had wanted the thesis? Two copies? And could I have a box for this, please?”
“We took your lid for the paper box?”
“Yes, apparently, ” I said, with a regretful little nod, as if I were the one who lost it.
He looked around, and could not find the lid, so he took out another box for copies, giving me a look that bordered on reproachful
“Could we find the copies of the thesis?” At this point, it was a real question.
Once more he looked under the counter.
“Ah!” he said, and handed me two boxes.
With no small amount of trepidation, I opened them. Yes. Both had one copy each of “Words So Far from Roslindale.”
“Thank you!” I said, smiling at last.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and seemed genuinely pleased.
“And, could I have a bag?”
His face fell.
Apparently, I could not.
“We don’t have one the right size,” he said. “But wait! Would this do?”
“This” was a large box, somewhat crushed, one foot by two, maybe four inches tall, missing a flap.
It did do. Close enough. If I took the box and smiled, I could leave the store.
I took the box, thanked him, smiled, and left, oh, I got to leave, I left the store.
And now my thesis is handed in.
And glory be to God.
Writing prompt: The words don’t do anyone else any good while they are still in your head.
In the Orthodox Church, the first week of Great Lent is called “Clean Week,” and some people take this to heart, literally cleaning things in their homes the first week of the fast. A friend mends pillows, fixes hems, and makes those small repairs on things that upset her the rest of the year. People dust picture frames and wash walls, cull their clothes for charity donations and finally clean out the kitchen junk drawer. In anticipation, I have been gathering some things that need attention — my favorite dress, which has a tear, a flowered blouse that’s missing a button, and some other similar things. When I dug through my sewing box, in preparation, I remembered how I got it.
When we lived in Connecticut, I didn’t know the neighbors as well as I wish I did. One neighbor had sold her house and was moving to assisted living. She had a yard sale that was as good as an estate sale. A yard sale has things that people have decided they do not need any more. An estate sale has the things that people used every day, but which their loved ones don’t want or need. At a yard sale you can find interesting things. At an estate sale you can find essential things — seasoned baking sheets and well-worn cookbooks, real cotton bed linens and woolen blankets, toys that aren’t made any more and sturdy hand tools. My neighbor had all of these for sale, plus her sewing box.
It was a clear plastic box with several layers and she had it loaded with thread, elastic, extra buttons, pieces of trim, and some lace. When I went to pay for it, her hands lingered on it, and I realized that this was the essence of who she had been to her family. She had gone to this box to put patches on Boy Scout uniforms and to take in prom dresses, to move buttons and to fix hems. When she got rid of this, who would she be?
I, too, hesitated. “Perhaps you shouldn’t sell it,” I said. “You may need it, or your family might need something in it.”
“No,” she said, and looked directly into my eyes. “Take it. You need it. I see how many kids you have, all of them running and falling and growing. You need it. And that part of my life is over.”
Sewing boxes are repositories of secrets.
Your sewing box is where you keep things that you don’t want the children to mess with, things that you don’t want your husband to find. It holds extra snap closures and bra strap buckles, thread to match the outfits you tear most often. My whole soprano section, two elderly sisters, died one year, and each of their sons gave me his mother’s sewing box. In each box I found the Christmas ornaments I had given the choir members over the years.
Sewing in Literature
In Susan Glaspell’s story “A Jury of Her Peers,” a group of neighbors gather clothing for a woman, Minnie, who had been arrested after her husband’s death. The men are trying to determine if she killed her husband or if someone else had. The story is well worth reading as the women discover things about Minnie’s married life and reach conclusions. One of the more important developments is when they dig into her sewing box to see what she planned to do to finish a quilt in progress.
In “The First Circle,” Solzhenitsyn tells of the prison life of Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician who is not in one of the labor camps — the lower depths of hell — but “only” in a research prison, the first circle of hell, where he is assigned to determine which of three men made a damning phone call which was treasonous, and which had been secretly recorded. He decides to say he cannot say which man it was, to spare one from arrest, but to his horror, all three men are arrested, instead.
Having shown us daily life in the prison, Solzhenitsyn uses the arrest of one innocent man to show what arrest is like in general — the confusion, the removal from friends and family, the need to begin life afresh in these strange and unpleasant conditions. The newly arrested man loses buttons when he is detained, and when he complains, the prison guard hands the man a needle and thread so that he can sew the buttons back on. This, the man has never done. And so Solzhenitsyn describes how the man learns how to do this, figures it out, invents sewing, as he will re-invent and freshly discover so many other parts of daily life.
Different cultures sew differently. In WWII, the United States bought clothes from refugees to help the spies who were sent abroad to work undercover. Women working for the spy agencies learned that American sew their four-hole buttons in an X, while in Europe buttons were sewn on in two straight parallel lines.
Writing Prompt: Work sewing into your writing. You could write about the first time you sewed something, or the first garment anyone ever sewed for you. Characters who need to talk in a work of fiction can go shopping together to buy sewing supplies, and their preferences — fabrics, colors, quality of threads — can further underscore their differences.
If you don’t sew, never sewed, never want to sew, and don’t know a thing about sewing, that’s okay. (It’s also essay worthy — why? Who sews for you? Do they recognize the things they made when you wear them?) There is a first and a last time to use everything. Think (and write) about the thing that you would part with last — handing over your work badge after clocking out for the last time, giving your adult children your favorite skillet, or maybe handing your car key to a stranger. There are things that we don’t know we are using for the last time — the last hospice visitor’s pass, the last sanitary napkin, the last time you eat off the family china. Things can stand for who we are, what we do, what we did. They are the milestones we don’t notice until they are behind us. Look around. Think about the things that are essential to your daily life, and that some day will not be needed.
When I was a student, we listened to the radio for Jess Cain on WHDH to call no school for Boston, as part of a long list of public, private, and parochial schools who cancelled classes for the day. (The S’s were long, because of all the saints.) Snow days meant shoveling snow first and then playing in it. Other times when school was cancelled, as for the Teacher’s Strike, my parents created assignments for us, forcing my younger brother and me to learn a song in Spanish from an album they checked out from the Boston Public Library. My high school cancelled classes for only ten days during the Great Blizzard of ’78, and then only because the T, Boston’s subway system, was not running. When the trains were running again we were back in class.
We had one snow day when I was at Wellesley. I was supposed to meet with a visiting professor, the ever-memorable Dimitri Obolensky who I only later learned was also a prince and, later, a knight. I was taking two classes, through the Religion Department; “The Making of Eastern Europe, 800 – 1100 AD” and a three hundred level course, “The Mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.” The meeting was to discuss my paper on the Bogomils. But the snow changed all that.
We had a beautiful, empty day in front of us. I was one of 54 freshmen in Shafer Hall, and we were something of a giddy pack. about to run in five directions. Some students were going to go “traying,” sliding down the hill near Severance. Others were gathering in the rec room with its orange couch to watch television. Some were gathering in the more formal living room, with its good couches, framed paintings, and shelves of books. A group of Hawaiians were going to build their first snowman. I was contemplating having Constant Comment Tea and reading something non-academic, and both thoughts were delicious.
However, I was thwarted. Boston, where my family lived, of course cancelled school. The town of Stoughton, where my father taught high school English, had also cancelled. Dad called to make sure that the dorm had electricity and food — I am pretty sure he would have brought me home otherwise, storm or no. I assured him that I was fine and told him that I guess that means I wouldn’t be meeting with my professor.
Dad exploded. He knew that Professor Obolensky had translated the much beloved “Penguin Book of Russian Verse” which both he and I had both worn out with much reading, and that the professor was visiting from Oxford. “That man,” Dad said, “is a professional. He will not care how much snow there is. He will find a way to get there and you had jolly well better be waiting there when he comes!”
I doubted it, but I knew my father was serious. I grabbed my research materials and bundled up and trudged to the Religion Department, which was empty. But there were cups and tea bags and a means of heating water. I took off my snowy clothes and boots and made a cup of tea, settling into a couch in my stocking feet, when the doorway was blocked by a tall, snowy being. Professor Obolensky had somehow borrowed a pair of snowshoes from another professor, because our meeting was that important to him. He was dressed, as Russians are, appropriately for the weather, with a huge hat, a muffler, gloves, and an appropriate overcoat, all covered with snow. “I am rather proud,” he said, “that I only fell three times.”
I jumped to attention, offered him tea, and scrambled to put my thoughts in order. Later I did write the paper. It turns out that the best book on the Bogomils was written by Prof. Obolensky himself, which made quoting him problematic. Do I write, “As Obolensky writes,” as I would of any other author? That seemed presumptuous. Do I write “As you write?” That would be brown nosing. After much tea, prayer, and thought, I wrote, “As one author puts it,” and put the name of the author and the book in the footnotes. Professor Obolensky returned my paper to me with a good grade and a wry smile.
I got married, had children, moved to Texas, and had more children, and no snow days, although a few days were lost to the after-effect of hurricanes. By then we watched the television for storm coverage, so there was no waiting by the radio. But when we moved to Boston, my children were thrilled with three new discoveries: delayed openings, Jewish holidays off from school, and snow days. I didn’t need to listen to the radio or watch the names of school districts scroll across the television screen. I could lie in bed and listen to the cheers or moans from upstairs.
Then I became a substitute teacher, and I listened to Jerry Kristafer on WELI and then Tony Reno on WICC with the keen interest that I had in Jess Cain’s list. Whatever children were home and I shouted when “Stratford” was read from the list, whether for delayed opening or no school at all. There is no age at which it is not wonderful to be given the unexpected boon of a free day. When everyone was finally launched and we moved to Ohio, I thought those days were behind me.
However, I was supposed to have an operation for cataracts on Thursday, and I spent most of Wednesday going through the pre-op physical, blood work, etc. that surgery entails. I understand that the operation is for the best, that it is a blessing that we live in a place where I can have it done, and that I will be so much happier after it is over. But that is then, and this is now. Now I just try not to think of Locutus of Borg.
But as I drove around from the hospital to the pharmacy to the gas station to the grocery store, signs on the road warned of bad storms ahead. The radio announced that the Governor asked everyone to stay off the road tomorrow. It rained Wednesday. It is supposed to snow, extensively, on Thursday, melt a little on Friday and then re-freeze. Good weather for reading at home.
I had my phone’s ringer off and I try not to check it when I drive. When I got home and looked at the phone, I had a message — surgery is postponed because of the weather. Internally, I did the Happy Snow Day Dance. Externally, I made supper. But I smiled while making it.
Thursday I get to sleep in, eat breakfast, wash my hair, get water in my eyes, and, yes, help dig out the cars. The surgery will be rescheduled and then I will enjoy the benefits that come from no longer having cloudy vision. But I can hear the rain outside my window getting ready to transition. The thermostat is dropping. By the time the sun is up, I can sit inside and watch the flakes fall out there, where I will not be. It is a huge inconvenience and a big disruption. But it is a glorious boon.
Writing Prompt: Write about a snow day in your past. You could write a poem, like “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, set in a time when the snow plows were pulled by oxen. You could write prose for children, like “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Use detail. What did you wear in the snow? Mittens or gloves? Or unmatched socks on your hands, because you had no gloves? Were you allowed to frolic or forced to stay inside — or did you have to shovel?
Did you shovel for money? What did you do when you came in? Did you miss school or were you glad for one day of respite?
Use details, colors, textures, smells.
If you have never seen snow, you could write about what you imagine doing.
“Please Lord, don’t let this kill me,” I prayed, silently, as I stepped in.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just spontaneously jump into the water, in January, in Ohio, just after it had stopped snowing.
I planned this, and prepared, and prayed.
I got a blessing first from one priest, then from another.
And I went to work figuring out how to make it work.
Let me go back a little….
I knew this year, 2021, was going to be difficult. And yet I was also grateful. We had survived 2020.
The pandemic did not hit our parish as hard as it hit others, for which mercy I am grateful. But like the rest of the world, we went through a huge upheaval. Church changed, not the structure of the services but the attire and the gatherings. We had masks, sanitizing, spacing, and even set up a livestream candle counter for those who needed to be home to be able to put up candles for their loved ones. It was Different and even off-putting but it was much better than no church at all. We, as a jurisdiction have a history of setting up storefront parishes and small missions wherever we have enough people gathered to pray; these have grown into cathedrals, schools and monasteries. And so from our history we know that we can survive, grow, and thrive if we are faithful in the small things for the duration. It just was a setback, which led to more changes.
My husband and I had settled into our “semi-retired” life somewhat before the pandemic hit. We had a townhouse apartment that held our books, half the windows looked out onto trees, with good internet access to streaming services when it wasn’t our turn to be at church. It felt a little like we were sitting out WWII in Switzerland, in that we didn’t have children home and we had already established the home offices from which we do our work. And while we weren’t praying together as a parish in one place, there were more services rather than fewer. Our parish took a maximalist approach to having services — if we had x people and were allowed y people per service, we had x/y services each week. It was a lot of church, sometimes four liturgies per week, which is a blessing, but hard work.
I had been pressed back into service. When we moved here, I joked that I was the Princess Eugenie of our choir — so many capable people were ahead of me in line to conduct the choir should the need arise that I could go put my tuning fork away and just sing alto, contentedly. I had been sight reading the new-to-me settings and translations of church music for a year, and had begun to learn our parish’s ways. But most of those people ahead of me to conduct were related and had forged what one person calls a “germ pod,” singing together with one priest while the deacon or I sang when my husband served, to cut down on the change of cross contamination should anyone be sick. God was merciful and nobody from among our singers or servers came down with COVID. But my husband and our rector did what I called the “Bruce Wayne and Batman” thing, not coming to the same services and having different altar servers, which was lonely because we like each other. We saw only so many people from church at a time, whether on the screen from the livestream or in person in church. The absence was disquieting.
And my mother-in-law, who reposed a month and a half ago, was suffering once more from the sarcoidosis that had plagued her for over thirty years and from two bad falls. She lived alone and only needed sporadic help, but it was clear that her condition was worsening and things could turn sour quickly. She had spent her previous birthday alone because of Michigan’s restrictions, although we came to celebrate as soon as visiting was allowed. (I will always be grateful to the people from Village Kitchen, in Ann Arbor, who brought lunch to her porch from another restaurant because they were not yet reopened. Beautiful people, wonderful food — worth a trip if you are out that way!) My mother-in-law was a trooper and an inspiration, keeping in touch by phone and through cards. But we lived under the shadow of the threat of unpleasant change.
I was grateful that things had not been worse and wanted strength for when things were no longer better. I wanted to do something inconvenient and beautiful for God. I wanted to be strengthened for whatever was to come. And I wanted to revel in the goodness of God and the mercy He had shown, so far. And an opportunity arose.
After Leaving the Water
I had often seen the videos that others shared of people in Russia dunking themselves three times in the freshly blessed outdoor water on Theophany, and my response was always, “Yeah, that’s something I never will do.” Then we moved to Ohio, and our parish had the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Little Miami River and three men from the parish plunged in. In January.
“Can girls do that, too?” one of the parish children asked, and the answer was, “Of course!” I started to think.
Our parish would be together again for the blessing of the water. Only one of the three men who had taken the plunge in 2020 were planning to do it this year. My aunts have a very strict rule: “Never go into the water alone. And don’t let your friends swim alone, either.” I couldn’t let our friend V. go into the water alone. After all, he could be swept away, and who would be able to get to him on time? But if the current took him, I could slow him down till help arrived.
And so a few months before January, I approached our rector and said, as casually as I could, “If one were to want to go into the water at the river on Theophany, theoretically, hypothetically, what would one wear?”
Fr. Daniel is hard to shock, and after a second to process the question he said, promptly, “Clothes. Clothes as opposed to a bathing suit, because it’s still church, and also because it’s cold. The water is cold and after you go in you will be wet and it will still be cold outside the water. So you will want a thick robe to put on immediately after, and towels.”
When I talked to his wife, later, she added, “We did this in Russia at one of St. Seraphim’s pools there. When you first go in, it’s so cold that it takes your breath away. So you will have to remember to wait and catch your breath before you go under again.”
I did online research about how to prepare. I read about cold water swimming, and learned the belly fat that I keep fighting may, in this case, be my friend. It would protect my organs. The Canadian Red Cross had some advice, as well. They said not to plunge in, but to wade. Well, our river is shallow on the edge, so that wouldn’t be a problem. They report, “Wear socks, aqua boots, neoprene surf boots or running shoes to stop your feet from sticking to the snowy or icy shore and prevent cuts and scrapes from the frozen ground.” I had water shoes, and decided to pair them with fuzzy socks.
I read about how a scuba suit works, and decided to wear nylon, and lots of it. I chose a dress that I could wear both to church and into the water. Then I took a cold shower while wearing it, and looked in the mirror, alone, to check for wardrobe malfunction.
I was going to need more undergarments.
I chose underwear: a synthetic girdle that would dry fast and hold things in when I was wet; something thicker than a sports bra, for the same reason; a half slip to keep the skirt from clinging; leggings (but I accidentally wore yoga pants instead) to keep my legs warm; my fuzzy socks; and water shoes to keep the rocks from tearing up my feet.
My husband and I discussed the matter more than once. He reluctantly blessed me to do this, if I really wanted to, but also blessed me to change my mind at the last minute. He said that I shouldn’t tell a lot of people that I planned to do this, so I could back out graciously if need be. But he agreed I would need allies, or, as I called them, co-conspirators. So I told my goddaughter and her mother. They agreed to hold my robe and coat and towels. And they would take pictures.
We also brought a hot water bottle, which I filled at church at coffee hour, and my leg cramp medicine, in case I needed them.
The great day came. Our parish chose the Sunday after Theophany for the blessing of the river, because the feast itself was midweek. It was snowing when we left church, raining as we drove in caravan to the river, and by the time we parked the sun was out, though the shore was lined with ice and snow. We approached the river.
I kept my headscarf and coat on but left my eyeglasses and purse in the car. The hot water bottle was in a thermal bag. My husband opened my door and said, “Still doing this?” I nodded. He smiled resolutely. We’ve been married a long time. My co-conspirators caught up with me and took all my accoutrements, God bless them.
The place where we bless the water is off the main drag by a little and we had to walk down-hill over not yet dry rocks. We formed clumps of people, walking down, and some friends made note of my footgear. “Oh! Matushka is prepared! Look at her shoes!”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going in.”
“Wait. Really? In the water? All the way?”
V. the other person who planned to go in, and his wife and daughters gasped and then beamed. “Really?”
“Yes!” I said, and showed them how my goddaughter’s mom was carrying most of my gear. My goddaughter beamed and said, “I’m going to hold her coat!” Word spread as the service began.
It was a glorious day. The air was fresh from the rain and snow, the ground clean, the sky blue and open. The children scattered down the shore, the girls gathering pretty stones and the toddler boys digging in the stony sand with sticks. There was still ice on the surface around the edge of the river, but in the middle, the water flowed.
The men of the parish held banner and icons, backs to the water, and our rector and my husband blessed the water using long poles with a cross on them.
“Okay,” said Fr. Daniel, “now it’s time, if anyone wants to go in.”
V. bravely drew near the water and I stood next to him. His wife explained the situation to him quickly. “Matushka! You are going in, too?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay! We will go in together!” And he held my hand and we started to wade. I made my cross, prayed silently, and we took one cautious step after another over the slippery stones.
I grew up in New England, and that water was cold, yes, but it wasn’t that much worse than Powder Point Beach, where I had spent most summers. My brother and I watched each other, in those years, and knew it was time to get out of the water when the other one’s lips turned blue.
We walked. My feet were wet, my ankles were wet, my calves, and then there was a sudden drop off, and I found myself gasping while standing in thigh-high water. V. made sure I was okay and took a few more steps, further out, so we would each have space.
“Okay!” he said, and he in Slavonic and I in English said, “In the name of the Father!”
And we dunked.
I tried to stand up and I couldn’t. I was floating, and hanging on, with my toes, to the nearest underwater rocks before the drop off. “And of the Son!” I dunked my head and tried to lower my backside, as well, but I was swimming rather than standing. “And of the Holy Spirit! Amen!” And we were done and V. walked over to me. I tried to stand but my feet could find no purchase, and a current started to carry me, slowly but steadfastly, away. I was in the very situation that I had hoped to keep V. from facing.
V. took it all in quickly, took two big steps, and grabbed my arm and tugged. I floated back toward him. He helped me stand and we walked out together, where we were greeted with hugs and shouts and towels and robes.
I was baptized when I was eleven. The monastery used an oil drum, cleaned up and painted blue. On days when my courage fails me and melancholy threatens, I remember the sensation of the cold water on my skin that day, and I am refreshed.
And this? This was a booster shot.
I smiled all the way home. There was going to be a wedding at three, to which we were invited. Fr. Daniel needed to set up the church and greet people, so we drove his son home. He had held a banner on a metal pole for the whole service while not wearing gloves; I let him defrost his hands against the hot water bottle. I didn’t need it. I didn’t need the leg cramp medicine. I only shivered a little. My endorphin level must have been off the charts.
My husband dropped me at home so I could change clothes for the wedding while he drove Fr. Daniel’s son home. “You’ll probably want to take a hot shower!” he said.
“No, I don’t think so! The water has been blessed. I think I will just let it dry.”
My bravodo did not last. When I entered the house, the cold set in. Once more I showered fully clothed, this time in the hottest water I could stand, and I let the sodden clothes fall one layer at a time to the bottom of the tub. I changed into wedding clothes, the warmest I could find of my nicer dresses, and bundled back up again. We were only a little late for the wedding, which was beautiful even if I shivered through the whole thing. It was a day of grace and blessings.If you start the year by jumping into near-freezing water, it changes your perspective. You come to see that everything else, also, won’t be as hard to bear as it looks from the distance.
God gives us what we need — a dress from Mom, water shoes, friends to keep us from floating away to Indiana, bathrobes and coats and a beaming goddaughter to hand them to you. Mercy flows, more strongly than the current of the Little Miami River.
Also, sometimes you’re the one who needs to be dragged back because she’s been swept away. It is a blessing to save and it is a blessing to be saved. On days when fatigue speaks more loudly than reason, when my heart is overcast and everything looks bleak, I remember the sensation of the river water on my skin despite all those layers.
And I smile.
And I might even try it again next year.
Writing prompt: What is something you swore you’d never do, and then did do, and it changed everything?
I am grateful to everyone who still reads my blog after this difficult year of learning and love. I went back to Music School, I visited all three of my former home towns, I got to see and hug all of my siblings and children in a variety of places. I lost important, powerful, relatives and friends and am still reeling. I have been inconsistent in posting things, and one of my pocket full of New Year’s Resolutions is to try to set up more posts in advance, so if something happens, there will still be content. May God bless us all with a good, healthy, fruitful 2022.
Misheard and mis-sung lyrics are a staple in art and literature. These errors can be serious — when Desdemona is preparing for bed in Act IV, scene iii of “Othello,” she tragically sings the wrong words to the song of her mother’s forlorn maid. They can be comic — in “Dharma and Greg,” Greg sings “I want to rock and roll all night/ and part of every day.” In one of the “Ramona” books, Ramona suggests that her parents use a dawnzer, which gives off a lee light, and Ramona’s sister laughs and mocks her because she misheard “The Star Spangled Banner ” — the “dawn’s early light.” But these mistakes reveal much. Desdemona is worried about her husband, Greg is the sort of person who can limit his partying, and when Beezus mocks Ramona, it makes the parents aware of how Ramona feels about being youngest. You, too, can use mis-heard, and mis-sung lyrics to further the plot of a story or add color to an essay.
In my case, most of my misunderstood phrases have been in Russian. My family converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy when I was young, and when I was twelve, we started attending a Russian parish. My father was a high school English teacher and the teachers in my elementary school in Boston required us to over-articulate and forbade us to speak with a Boston accent. My brothers who went to this school and I developed a dichotomy of speech as a result — we would say “haht” but “Harvard.” Lunch at home was a “see-and-wich” but at school the same thing was a “sandwich.” Some words missed us. I was a senior at Wellesley College when David Ferry had to convince me that the word “poem” had two syllables. I actually argued with him, in part because I didn’t want to re-write the poem. But in general we learned to pronounce words the way they were written, when we had to, although crossing the Massachusetts border causes me to revert to the migratory r’s of my childhood. English, I had mastered. But in Russian, I listened for the words that I knew, and I heard them, even when those were not the words that were spoken.
The most egregious example was at our priest’s son’s wedding. Clergy are either married before they are ordained, in the Orthodox Church, or they become monks first, with a few exceptions. It was very kind of Eugene and his wife to invite the whole family. I had been to my father’s wedding to my stepmother, a year earlier, but that was an American affair, and a second wedding, small and humble. This was a fancy wedding, with both American and Russian guests. At the reception, at one point people started clanging their glasses with their spoons and yelling in Russian. It sounded to me like they were shouting for vodka. The waitresses were hustling as fast as they could to serve everyone, and I didn’t see the need to yell. I looked to our priest, thinking he would stop them, but he was clanking his glass and shouting, as well. I was truly scandalized. Then a friend translated.
It seems that the guest were yelling “Gorko!” The tradition was for everyone to yell that it is bitter — gorko — and the Slavic way of sweetening the bitter is for the bride and groom to kiss. This makes for entertainment for the guests, entertainment which the bride and groom do not really mind providing.
Later, we learned some Russian songs. Prior to this I had sung Church Slavonic sound by sound. It is a phonetic language, and once you learn the alphabet, you can sing. In fact, Russian church singers who have to sing in English are often perplexed by the notion that some letters are not pronounced when singing for clarity. How can “Lohd have muh-cy” be easier to understand than “Lorrrd have merrrcy?” And yet it is thus. I had learned a tiny amount of Russian through church school, and when I heard people sing a World War II song, “Katiusha,” I thought I knew what it meant.
The internet translation of this song is almost as bad as mine was, but only almost. In my defense, when I first heard the song in the late 1970’s apple dolls were a thing. If you haven’t actually seen one of these, it is hard to convey how creepy they are. But in the years that enveloped the Bicentennial, there was a focus on Early American and Revolutionary War era fashions and crafts. Some things, like quilting and canning and cooking outdoors, were amazing. And others were just weird.
Upscale gift shops and country stores started selling dolls whose heads were made of a peeled apple which was then cut into the shape of a face, dried on a stick, and dressed up to look like an old woman, preferably from two hundred years before. Some classes made them as a project, often with disastrous results. What could go wrong? Well, you have students, fruit, knives, sticks, and the apples are supposed to dry without rotting. Then you have to use scissors and needle and thread to make the clothing. This is not tracing your hand to make a turkey, folks.
So, when I first heard the words to the song, I thought I understood them.
Transliterated, they look like this:
Rascvetáli jábloni i grúsi Popylí tumány nad rekój Vyxodíla ná bereg Katjúsa Na vysókij béreg na krugój
The apple and pear trees have bloomed Fog banks have floated over the river Katiusha came out onto the river bank Onto the high and steep bank
Yes, I thought it was about a possessed apple head doll.
And I was kind of impressed to learn that they also had those in Russia.
But this is writing prompt Wednesday, when we ask ourselves how we can use what others have done. Accordingly:
Think about a time that you, a sibling, or a child misheard something.
One of my siblings heard a line from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” not as “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” but rather, “Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark pastors taught us.” He wondered why white pastors had not taught them faith.
There is a lot to unpack in an error like that.
If you write fiction, a misheard phrase can be a turning point.
The confusion of two words — embarazada” in Spanish for “embarrassed” in English rather than “pregnant” — can make all the difference.
Words that sound terrible in one language can mean something benign in another.
Or, sometimes people just don’t hear things right.
Reflect on your own misadventures.
Is there a misunderstanding that you had that reflects who you were at the time? If I hadn’t heard “Katiusha” the same year that I saw those creepy dolls, I might have made a different mistake but I wouldn’t think that the Russian war song was about a doll carved from fruit whose eyes glowed. And perhaps I might have slept better.
Be sure to share your results with friends, if you write something, and think about submitting what you write for publication. The world needs for us all to share our stories.