Tag Archives: good luck

As Luck Would Have It

Cousin Galina always arrived with bad news:  the neighbor’s pig had died during the previous night’s drop of the outside temperatures, making its meat too stiff to consume.  But what else was the family to do, at the end of the coldest winter of the last two decades?  The postmaster had collapsed one morning from an infarct, on his way to work.  (“Well, don’t expect to get any mail until next month, now!”)  Ilyinithna — the richest and the stingiest woman in the village — was still suffering from a bout of hiccups; and the Army draft had yet again passed Ivan, the Lame Arm, which, you could bet, didn’t thrill his widowed mother much:  She was hoping he could learn more useful skills than hanging out in apples trees and shooting the crows from a homemade bow that he pulled with his teeth.

The concept of karma wasn’t even heard of in the heart my grandparents’ village at the time, but cousin Galina had a special talent for making the connections with the flow of the universal force.  She possessed an impressive memory and retained the history of every family’s generations.  Every misstep, every shame was kept on file in the old woman’s brain, allowing her to masterfully connect the dots at the culminations of each misfortune.

“Oh, no!  Here comes the thunder cloud,” my grandpa would grumble, hearing the stomping of Galina’s walking stick on the wooden staircase and making a run for the back door.  “Hold on to your courage, comrades!”

He couldn’t stand the woman and would scurry off to play dominos at the bath house.  But even though Russians weren’t big on karma (after all, it was all in the hands of either a. god or b. the Party), there was no more certain way to fuck up the good luck for one’s own and all the future generations — than to turn on one’s family.

“And shame on you, Sergei!” grandma protested, albeit unconvincingly, on behalf of her first cousin.  “We must have some mercy on the cripple!”

She was right:  Cousin Galina wore the family’s misfortune on her face.  From the age of three, when she was burnt from a bucket in which her mother was boiling the family’s whites in bleach, Galina’s face was a mangle of leathery skin.  It was impossible not to wince when looking at her stretched, shiny face with blotchy patches of red and purplish-brown, and at the unevenly misshapen eye sockets with rapidly jittering whites of her eyes inside them.  Most children in the village feared her, but what discomforted grandpa Sergei the most was the sour smell of Galina’s unwashed flesh that accompanied her, made more pungent by the tobacco that she never took a break from chewing.  The tobacco stained her teeth and colored her spit; and while the other babushkas, who flocked the village benches, projectile spat the black shells of roasted sunflower seeds, Galina marked her territory with puddles of puss-colored, foaming saliva.

He could always smell it too, grandpa Sergei, when he return home and found his wife in the kitchen:

“Had the thunder cloud passed yet?” he’d joke; and after an askance glance from his wife, proceed to open all the windows in the house.  A trail of reeking flesh hung heavy.  A scraped aluminum ashtray in the dish drain would confirm his suspicions.  “At least, she had the decency to not spit onto the floor this time.”

Truth be told, the old woman missed sometimes.  Perhaps, that’s why Galina’s thick ankles were permanently adorned with shiny galoshes:  in case she misjudged and spat onto her own foot.  No matter the weather, the season, or the heat, she also wore gray socks of thick wool.  Say what would wish about the expedited process of aging for the Russian women, but at the fairly young age of forty — bundled up in thermal underwear underneath her housedress and a cotton-stuffed peasant jacket on top — Galina looked like an arthritic.  Never could get warm, never stopped complaining about her aching joints and high blood pressure.

“The burn must’ve messed up her nerve endings!” grandma explained.  “She may not ever get comfortable again, that poor soul.”

But grandpa Sergei scoffed and offered his own bit:  “Oh, come on!  Lord knows, the cuz has skin thick enough to outlive us all, in the end!”

He had theories, my grandpop!  Coached either to fear or to compete with the remainder of the world, he harbored little hope for humanity.  So, he was often heard pontificating on the subject of the world’s ending:  which continent would be the cause of it and which race would take the majority of the blow.  And the one thing grandpa had made clear was that when the fateful hour of godly justice stuck, he would be found nowhere near other humans.  To live off of and to die from the Ocean’s insatiable force — that was the destiny the old fisherman had envisioned for himself.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

If it snowed on New Year’s, it would have to mean good luck.  That’s what the old folks said.  Or, so my motha told me.

To me, it would just mean magic:  That no matter how dry the winter promised to be, we could wake up to an already sleepy town, with mellow women and hungover men; and we would move ever so slowly — ever so gently, for a change — through a brand new sheet of snow.  It would mean a clean slate.  A promise of a new beginning.  A hidden prayer — for a better year.

The only citizens of the town still giddy from the night before would be the children.  For us, the first of every year meant gifts under the sparkling pine trees in the living-room.  And it meant truce, for all of us:  for the tired adults, tortured by survival; for unhappily married parents; for the intrusive force of poverty, uncertainly and chaos. Truce, on just that one day.  Truce.

The preparations for the celebration at midnight would be in full swing, in almost every household.  Motha would prepare for it, weeks before.  She’d start with a new haircut, and possibly new color on her nails.  Regardless the tight budget affected daily by inflation, she’d manage to whip out a new outfit for herself.

The hunt for foods would begin several weeks before the holiday.  Things would be preserved.  Money — borrowed, portioned out.  And just a couple days before the actual Eve, the cooking would begin.

School, of course, would be out for me; and I was expected to help out in the kitchen for that week.  Nothing crucially important though:  Peeling of potatoes or scaling of pickled fish.  I would boil eggs and root vegetables for the layered Russian salads.  I’d roast parts of chicken or grind the meat for the stuffing of cabbage parcels.  I would battle with pots of rice that took forever to get soft, and then would burn immediately.

Some days, I would be trapped inside while watching pots of stews or motha’s reinvented borscht.  And as I tended to the burners, I studied the darkening sky for any promises of snow.  Because, despite the obvious presence of poverty and chaos in our lives, snow on the Eve would still mean magic — if not some better luck.

On the last day of preparations, motha would be chaotic.  All day long, she would run out in her leather, high-heeled boots:  to get her hair done, to pick-up a missing spice from a girlfriend across town; to drop off a gift to a high rank bureaucrat at the City Hall.  But mostly, she’d keep picking-up “deficits”, all over town:  produce, not necessarily delicacies, that we normally would not indulge in, any other time during the year.

Victorious, she would return:

“Hey, little one!  Look at this here!” she’d holler me out of my bedroom.

Just by the sound of her voice, I knew she was in a good mood.  I would emerge, with Tolstoy under my armpit, and find her beautiful flushed face in the hallway.  She’d have her make-up done, and for New Year’s, it would always entail sparkles.  The smell of crispy frost would intertwine with her perfume.

“So beautiful!” I’d think, and with my father’s eyes I’d understand the power of that woman’s witchcraft.

And then, I’d see the fox fur collar of her coat glistening with tiny drops of moisture.

“Is it snowing yet?” I’d say while motha, still in boots, would begin passing to me the tiniest jars of caviar or cans of smoked anchovies.

“I think it’s about to,” motha would respond, flirting.  (So beautiful!)

And for the first time in weeks, she’d suddenly remember that I was still a child.  And children only need magic, for survival.  Not wads of cash, or cans of “deficit”.  Not banners of protesting citizens against the old demagogues or the faces of the newest heros.  We do not need untimely compassion toward the vices of our parents.  We wish to know no gossip and no strife.

Just truce, if only on one day for every year.  Just the simple magic — of truce.

Motha would retreat into the kitchen and immediately start banging metals.  I’d brace myself for more work.

“Hey, little one!” she’d holler.

Here we go!

“You should check out that snow, outside!”

I would run out, in an unbuttoned coat.  On every flight of stairs, new smells would smack my nose from every household.  To call upon my friends would be useless on that last day of the year.  Like me, my girlfriends grew up way too quickly and would be cooking in the kitchen until the arrival of their guests.  But in magic, I rarely needed company.

I wouldn’t even go very far:  Just to the lawn in front of our apartment building.  I’d watch the waltz of snowflakes against the darkening sky.  They would catch the light of egg yolk foam colored street lights and descend onto my mittens of rabbit fur.  There would be not enough snow on the ground to make braided patterns with me feet yet.  But just the sight of a new beginning — would be magical enough.

Before heading back home, I’d look up to our window and often see my motha’s face.

“So beautiful!” I’d think and understand the magic of truce, if only once a year.