Thursday, September 29, 2011

From Russia With Love

Sweet. pretty Natale
My friend Natale was born in Siberia and came to America as a young widow with a teenaged son. She was nearly penniless and determined to put together enough money to pay off the mortgage on the house she’d shared with her beloved husband. She barely spoke English. In Russia Natale is a nurse. But, as happens with many emigres to this country, her credentials did not travel with her. She’d heard there were jobs to be had in Key West, Americans are paid far better than even the nurses in Russia, and so, based on information from Russians who’d come before her, she came to Key West. She worked in the bustling kitchen of a busy downtown restaurant. Her employer, an immigrant himself, was kind and supportive. She also worked as a caregiver. She worked many hours, usually seven days a week. She does still.
    It is difficult to imagine the challenges Natale faced seeking to find her place in the new world around her. She understood mere snatches of English, though she learned quickly and ultimately she learned well. Her son attended high school. He made friends. Nonetheless, it must have been harrowing to be not only a stranger in a strange land, but a 16-year-old stranger, with a dead father, and a mother who worked nearly every waking hour.
    I met Natale nearly a decade ago when we worked in the same place. We weren’t introduced. I did not know her name. I saw her infrequently, but when I did I was charmed by her ready smile. I was also impressed by her beauty, which is quite startling. I had no idea where she was from, what she did, or with whom she was associated. I did not know if she was married. I knew nothing, except that, via eyes and smiles, we were acquainted.
I took this pix of Natale for her sister back in Russia.
    Now Natale and I work side by side. With time, we have become good friends. She has honored me with her friendship. I know her story. And just about every day I spend with Natale, I learn something new from her about the art of living. And for me, a world-class know-it-all and poster child for Attention Deficit Disorder, that’s saying something. Natale is one of the people in the world for whom I can shut up and listen. I always come away richer for it.
     Natale is quite beautiful. She has long blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin and a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure. The overall impression of her looks is not va-va-voom, but rather wholesome. She is not photogenic.
    Incidentally, I have two very beautiful women friends. In both cases, that beauty simply does not translate into photograph imagery. I will attach photos of Natale here, but they won’t do her justice. And besides, what’s most beautiful about Natale is her spirit.
    One day, when she was 16 years old, Natale arrived home from school to find her grandmother there, with the news that her parents had both died in a car crash. She walked out the door. It was April, bitterly cold, and there really was no place to go. But she remembers walking fast, as if relief from the pain was somewhere she could get to with enough determination. There was no such place.
    She and her sister were raised by their grandmother. Then came love and marriage. A son. He was still quite young when her husband died of a heart attack. As a widow in Russia she struggled hard to make ends meet. Then, the move to America, where she really has found a better life. Natale is an American citizen now, and we are lucky to have her and her practical wisdom.
Barb and Natale, my great friends.
    One day a co-worker of ours talked about her plans to retire one day and move to a house in Georgia, where she planned to have a garden, grow potatoes, can tomatoes and bake her own bread. Natale listened. Someone said that our co-worker’s vision sounded truly wonderful.
    “I have had a garden and grown potatoes, and canned tomatoes and baked my own bread,” Natale said. “But now I am in America and I go to Publix and buy whatever I want, anytime I want it. I’m happier now because it’s much easier to go to the store.”
    Yesterday we ate lunch at our friend Barb’s house. Barb is from Kentucky, part Cherokee, warm and wise. She is also a great cook. Her home is rich with handmade quilts, beautiful rugs and homey, earthy furniture, like you find in a country home. Over lunch I told Barb that on my bucket list is a visit to Kentucky. In the car, on the way home, Natale told me that I didn’t need to travel to Kentucky. I only needed to drive up the road and visit Barb’s house.
    As for my illness, and the accompanying drama of my self-pity, Natale listens quietly to my musings on life and death with great patience. She does not tell me to not worry, that everything is going to be fine. She does not tell me stories of other people’s cancer. She just listens.
    More than once she has explained to me her survivor’s philosophy. When bad things happen she works hard to accept them as they are, put them behind her and move on. Simple, I know, but she manages to put her wisdom into action. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t grieve. But she’s learned to keep grief in its place. And she understands the power of humor.
    The other day the phone rang just when I was having a hot flash. It was Natale.
    “Natale!” I said. “I’m having a hot flash!”
    “Did you think it was your boyfriend calling?” she asked.
    I attribute it to her Russian aesthetic, but I have learned that Natale doesn’t do things half-heartedly or sloppily. If she folds a napkin, it will be beautifully folded. If she gives a gift, it will be a perfect gift.  When I had surgery for throat cancer she came to my house, bringing cream of wheat, a potted cactus, and a green house-gown. She cooked the farina and served it in the prettiest bowl in my kitchen. She taught me that the trick to lump-free farina is to stir it constantly, always in the same direction, as it cooks.
    Natale is married to a man who adores her. She has a three-legged dog, who speaks Russian—or so I hope, as Natale always talks to her in Russian.
The Kremlin in vivid technicolor.  Who knew Russia was so beautiful?
In elementary school in New York we practiced air raid drills. We huddled on the shiny, tiled halls, against the concrete walls, on our knees, with our heads wrapped in our arms, until the drill was over. This was the position we’d use when the Russians attacked. For a long time the word “Russia” evoked dark and frightening images in my mind’s eye. My husband says when he was a kid he thought of Russia as a foreboding place of guns and tanks and missiles. We marvel at how brainwashed we were back then.
    Natale has shown me beautiful photos of Moscow, where the subway stations are bright and beautiful and so clean you could eat off the floors. (“Because Russians spend a lot of time waiting for trains,” she’s explained.) Still, I dream of traveling to Russia, to see Moscow and the Kremlin for myself. But for this lifetime, my visit to Russia will be my friendship with Natale—a sweet trip indeed.

1 comment:

  1. So beautiful! I hope Natalia gets to read this. I think of you all often and I miss you all very much. I know I am so blessed to have you all touch my life. - Rachele