A Very Convenient Affair
by Maria Kontak
Ellie King, a professor of Russian, overcomes her allergy to Moscow to attend a very special celebration. After an absence of 25 years, Ellie is edgy and nostalgic. Who besides Mariya’s daughter Katya will she meet at the celebration? Perhaps Katya’s alluring husband Grisha? Or the spectral absent daughter Sonya? The birthday party and a child’s unexpected appearance dispel Ellie’s illusions about Russia, her reunion and mostly about herself.
The e-mail seemed a little curious. I recognized the sender’s name but not the address. The message was from Katya, and it gave me a jolt. “Maminka turns one hundred this fall.” My landlady from my year in Moscow, Mariya Petrovna, would be one hundred years old in three weeks — all four foot ten, ninety pounds of her — and would I come, her eldest daughter Katya was asking.
I had to think about that. I sat back and looked out the window. Blue skies were trickling warm rays into my little office. Students were scattered like tumbling leaves across the college green now a scruffy brown, their lives before and after class silently shut out by the pane of glass that separated them from me.
My snug life unfolded in the turret of the ivy-laden main building of my college. Here, I would stuff into my book bag copies of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Fathers and Sons, or their companions from the bookshelves that sat patiently on the shelf for their turn.
I took great care with my notes. Written in long-hand, on yellow pads that now could only be gotten online, I could recite them by heart down to the lines that had flaked off the page. College life has a hypnotic sort of flow, and maybe I had been riding its smooth current too long.
I hadn’t been back to Moscow since my dissertation year twenty-five years ago, and only one note had passed between us in the interim. That note, handwritten by Katya, was a one-liner and not hard to digest. It read: ‘Grisha — in Israel.’ The clever Russian language can dispense with tense.
The clever Russian creed did not deny the trinity of being:
- An e-mail.
- Before the email, a one-line hand-written, hand-delivered note. Call it special delivery.
- And before the special delivery, a court order with three signatures, two in Cyrillic, and one in Latin, mine.
Instinctively, I latched on to the special delivery. Who was it that had brought the message? A friend of Katya’s? Grisha’s? Of course, it must have been Katya’s. It had reached me shortly after my dissertation defense, not long after my return from Moscow.
I remembered wondering, even as I took the note from Katya’s Moscow messenger, how Katya had found out about my dissertation victory, but the messenger had slipped away before I could say anything. Not slipped, but turned rather awkwardly with a heavy tread. I remembered the heavy tread of a man as I read the note that did not celebrate my triumph.
Twenty-five years later, Katya had come up trumps again. “Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim. Come! Tseluyu.”
A Russian closing sealed with a hi-tech kiss and a comfy dip into the grab-bag of folk sayings.
‘Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim’ means literally ‘How many summers, how many winters.’ It was a common greeting in Russia. I’d heard it often in steamy buses, on crowded streets, way before I heard Mariya Petrovna use it. My Russian landlady had a lot of handy folk sayings and they, like everything about Mariya Petrovna, fascinated me.
Katya, her eldest daughter, on the other hand, had been more urban, more up-to-date, tsk-tsking Maminka for “having old commonplaces weighing down the corners of your lips, as if...”
And as for Katya’s husband Grisha, Mariya Petrovna put it best: “Grisha wants nothing to do with Russian ways. He’s only interested in foreign ways... of saying things.” She would furrow her brow at her foreign-crazed son-in-law but the big smile on her gentle face, like an oversized bow on a tiny box, hinted at something else.
Mariya Petrovna’s perpetually smiling lips had probably grown less red, less full at a hundred, less willing to open and close with folk sayings than they had been when I had been around. But not me. Russian sayings were the thing from Leninsky 17B number 43 that I had kept close to my chest even when I shut out other things from that year, things that had no clever overlay or pat answer, things like ‘Grisha — in Israel.’
Takie dela — Such is life.
Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim.
In my first year of teaching, I had cobbled together a mini-course on Russian sayings at college. How my students loved to analyze the bits of wisdom that helped generations of Russians get through their day under the white or red lash. Wishing someone “neither down nor feathers” fascinated students as much as my chairman when she saw enrollments in the department rise.
Of course, in 1975 my fascination with Russia went beyond folk sayings, especially when the door of Leninsky 17B number 43 opened to me.
“Dobro pozhalovat!” Mariya Petrovna had smiled, doubling the welcome, going the extra mile.
And by adding an extra thousand miles for me to the three thousand I had traveled to get here, I had escaped the fate of my peers, who languished in spartan dorms, sharing broken plumbing with frustrated exiles from nations more friendly than the U.S. I had my own room, in a private home. I was actually swept into real Russian life, in a room that was beautifully furnished with a wrap-around balcony full of potted plants whose fragrance in the morning breeze replaced the dread alarm clock.
Here I would taste Russian life for a whole Russian year.
Here I would live in forbidden freedom as Russians did, leaving the daily do’s and don’ts of the gorgons at the gates of the Lenin library. Here there was no need to accessorize burned-out bulbs, no overheated or underheated rooms. Here I would set aside larger-than-life tomes, and fold it all into the experience of a lifetime.
“Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim.”
But does a change in seasons replace all the snow with mud, and the mud with buds, and the buds with full blooms? Can you truly flip the calendar page and peel away what was there before? Rub out a line, a phrase, a signature on a piece of paper? Or does that signature corrode on its own, suffocated by the weight of seasons and fresher files of the New Russia’s domestic disputes about housing claims and property rights?
“Come” is a word that wears two hats in English and Russian. A gentle invitation. A stern command. Which was it? This is what made my fifteen minutes dangle and my legs shake, not like a jelly, but enough to dislodge the book bag in my lap.
Today’s lecture was a serious affair. We had come to the section of War and Peace that my students liked least. Among them, Tolstoy’s great treatise went by the moniker “the art and fart of war.” My students were sometimes wonderfully apt, sometimes not. Today they were amazing, filling the auditorium with youthful grogginess, and my footstep felt light and up to anything when I took the podium on the shallow stage.
“War, not peace...” I began.
Yes, not No. Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim.
No, not Yes. Skol’ko zim, skol’ko let.
“General Kutuzov had a bad hair morning,” I heard myself say, “didn’t he?”
There was a grudging sort of guffaw that clued me to steer away from too much camp, an Achilles heel for the ablest teacher, a precipice that either swallowed you up, as happened to hapless colleagues, or made the crawl back up impossibly hard.
“Page three hundred seventy-three,” a student called out in a sharp tone that roused all in the room, down to the wood-paneled auditorium walls, from their hundred-year long nap.
A hundred years. Mariya Petrovna had seen a hundred years.
Whether General Kutuzov’s disastrous morning or Count Bezukhov’s meandering on the battlefield was making any impression on my students I couldn’t tell, because I found myself meandering too.
Yes. No. Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim.
“I don’t see why we should spend all this time on something that means so little to us, really.” The shiny-haired girl with excellent Russian from the front row stood up, “We’re here to learn something useful from Tolstoy, about how people live, not how people fight. I mean, this isn’t ROTC! And what’s the point of all this battle strategy to any of us?” She surveyed the room with a deft glance upwards and behind. “More dead white men.”
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak