In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 

Mosaic

The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.

 

homeless

You see them and try not to see them, but there they are: standing on the intersections of boulevards and roads, with dog, child or crutch in tow, and always with a sign. You may think that they are lazy, or unwilling, or you may feel sorry for them, or you may dig into your reliable trove of excuses and explanations and then the light turns green. Few who have not actually stood on corners asking for help and sending cardboard blessings know what it’s like. I have an inkling, and every time I see them, I cringe.

At a certain point in my life, for reasons still unclear to me, I ended up working 15-hour days, 6-times a week, for a full summer. Almost the entirety of each day was spent outside, in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, selling educational study-guides door-to-door. Baltimore summers are toasty, and sometime mid-summer I noticed that I had formed burn-scars on my knuckles from knocking on so many white-hot doors. But what I also noticed, from the very first day, was the inordinate toll that being outdoors, in a man-made environment, takes on a human body and on a human psyche.

Let’s start with the obvious: the elements. You are out there rain or shine, and sometimes you wish it was the rain because after being outside in 90+ degree weather in 100% humidity for a couple of hours, you start seeing things. You are lucky if you come across a McDonalds or a kind person who will offer you water. Mostly, though, you suffer. The wind messes up your hair, the drivers splatter you with puddle-grime, mosquitos sting you, as do bees, spiders, nettles and sometimes dogs. By three in the afternoon you are lobster-boil red, by five your blisters have popped. If it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. But whatever the weather, you are completely vulnerable, completely unsafe and mostly helpless against it.

Before all of your senses are dulled as a survival mechanism, the smells are as abrasive as the sensations of freezing and heat. You are bombarded with olfactory information that you do not need: gasoline and fumes, garbage odors, toxic whiffs of $5.99 perfume. The tantalizing aromas of fresh, sugary donuts and coffee wafting out of Starbucks wannabes are no better. You are hungry and have no place to sit down and eat your food. And when you have eaten, you have no place to relieve yourself.

The sights, too, are overwhelming. Hundreds of eyes bore into you: questioning, suspicious, misunderstanding, empathetic, apologetic, frustrated, disgusted. Before they know what you’re about, they have already passed a judgement. We all do this, don’t we? Standing precariously close to oncoming traffic, those in need must see a thousand averted glances, a thousand cars, busses, cyclists, trucks, vans – within a span of a few hours. They see everything, and, what’s worse, everyone sees them. There is no place to hide. No place to be alone, to be safe.

You’d think the visual overload would be the worst, but for me, walking up and down the streets of those subdivisions that are now permanently charred into my cerebral cortex, the worst was the noise. The cars screech, the gusts of wind howl menacingly, there is a general hummmmm to the city that insidiously bores into your sub-consciousness and slowly replaces everything else. By 7pm, there are no more songs running through your head, no thoughts, no worries; nothing at all. And this is just the first day.

For years afterwards I had nightmares that I was lost in those streets, alone and helpless and drowning in the intensity of it all. I cannot imagine what such a life does to someone who is forced to live it for months or years. Unable as I am to solve the problems of poverty, when I see folks out on the street, my heart goes out to them because I know that they must be hurting.

orbeez

The mailman hands Gri a small, oblong package marked with foreign stamps and caligraphy. He brings it in and shows me, “It’s from China,” he explains. “Do you know what it is?” I ask. “Not a clue. Do you?” “Nope..” This is a common exchange in our household, where parcels and packages of all caliber arrive almost daily. He starts tearing impatiently through the tape, “Shall we find out?” Not waiting for an answer he pulls a piece of triangular, folded cardboard out of the shipping bag. It’s orange with Russian lettering: Sanaga, where the tools are just that good. China? With Russian packaging? Upon closer examination, we see that it’s from a Sanaga branch in Vladivostok, which kind of makes more sense, geographically. But then we also notice that its headquarters are in Tel Aviv. Sincerely stumped at the possible content, we pry the box open and…seven brightly colored pea-sized squishy gelatinous balls make their appearance. “Of course!” Gri exclaims, “These are the self-growing jelly balls I ordered for Verusha a couple of weeks ago!” Naturally.

With globalization and commercialization in full swing, the age of the internet brings the fulfillment of all of our material wants within a finger’s reach, and right to our very doorstep. Some deliveries take two days, many take several weeks and, if buying artisan objects from around the world through Etsy, even months. So, it’s no wonder that sometimes we lose track. We can allow ourselves a break from the relentless tracking and keeping track, but we cannot lag too behind in the handling of the relentless flow of boxes crowding us in our own hearth and home. Cats sleep in them, children play in them, we trip over them and shuffle them to one side, and ultimately we Cut, Collapse, Stage in the recycling area and Haul outside every Thursday. Our home is a veritable post dispatch.

If we fall behind, the boxes threaten to pack us in and ship us to Thailand. So, Cut, Collapse, Stage and Haul we must.

Stranger things have come to us than colorful, translucent gellatinous self-growing orbs. We start thinking back: 36 miniature glass birds, rooibos tea from South Africa (the only place in the world where it is grown), Russian stamps, marinated fennel with orange rind, Timothy hay for guinea pigs, seashells, old brass instruments in moldy cases, Malachite from the Congo, a 19th century watercolor, small plastic mushrooms (a bag of 47), green cheetah ripstick wheels, black seamless scull face tube mask, 4,000 Orbeez, wedding bands (2), Eastwing E24A sportsman hatchet and a 16″ Rinco boomerang. If Peter the Great decided to assemble a Künst Kamera in the 21st century, our home would be a great place to start. Granted, many of the objects that come in eventually find their way out – as gifts to friends, purchases for those who do not have credit cards, and objects stealthily dumped into the trash in the deep of night.

Cheaper objects get stacked by the mailman wherever they fit, and especially around Christmas time they cover half of our door and create fire hazards. More expensive articles require signatures, trips to the post office, urine samples and retinal scans. The most expensive object we’ve ever received by mail was a custom-made sound system purchased for a Russian heart surgeon that topped 10K. Anyone other than a devout musicophile wouldn’t even know what to do with the thing, but we were still on edge when it arrived in a small, nondescript box requiring no receipt confirmation of any kind. Another time a weeping willow came in the mail, soil pack and all. Flowers from secret admirers, hate letters delivered to the wrong address…And of course the time Gri and I both ordered the same, identical game (Carcassonne) without telling each other about it, and both came the same day and we both thought Amazon made a mistake by sending us double.

As we reminisce, we notice the delivery man drop another box outside. Gri goes to open it, and, slightly confused, comes back to me. “Did you order these?” This time it’s nothing so exotic. Just your usual gray baseball pants, youth medium size. “I’m working to expand my style.” I grin back. “The cleats should come in tomorrow…”

night

This year for the holidays we’re learning a 10-composition-long cantata in our church choir. One of the composition is a medley of Christmas favorites, including the Silent Night. Except in this version, the composers introduced several brilliant and sublime harmonies, which make the Night not quite so peaceful and pastel-colored. The sheep are not perfectly round, the minor, somewhat unresolved chords and counter-melodies seem to be asking more than stating.  The top line of the melody is the same, and the congregation, as they begin to sign along with the choir, won’t know to expect the lyrical hues and the questioning. We, the altos and the male voices will create that vibrancy and depth.

When we first read through the score, half-way through I couldn’t sing any longer, it touched me so. It seemed a more accurate rendition of the mood of so long ago: will this infant, so frail, so vulnerable, really save mankind? Will we be rescued from all of the evils that dwell within us by this little child? Now, hidden in the cocoon of intimacy with his mother, will he one day be called Emmanuel? The overtones make me see him through Mary’s eyes: the endless love of a parent, the awe and the timidity at the miracle of witnessing a new life, of witnessing the birth of the Savior.

Grisha comes up and I try to explain the ingenuity of the composers, to transmit even a bit of why this rendition of Silent Night sends me shivering and unable to hold a steady B. I mention that they are playing with everyone’s expectations, they’re innovators, I try to describe the majors and minors, and he nods – of course he knows all about them. Enthralled in the ancient mystery, I feel a thousand light years away from him. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. How can I possibly send my little beam of feeling across that vast expanse?

Wanting to hold on to the eternal, I aim for the door to the room where I can listen to the recording of the composition. This is a rare moment when I want to feel close to Him rather than him. But, there is a pile of dishes and, succumbing to the inevitable, I stop short and we tackle Sisyphus’ mount together. As I soap up and he brings the remnants from the table, Gri picks up, “You know, there’s an entire school of thought in the Philosophy of Music about major and minor tonalities and about how they’re supposed to make you feel. It turns out, it is not a gut feeling you have from birth – you are trained into reacting to certain sounds a certain way…” Yeah, our reaction to it is imprinted on our collective, western consciousness, I respond. He goes on: “And once you’ve identified that certain way that you’re “supposed” to react, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and starts to play with that expectation. And then someone bends the rules further, and still further, until finally you’ve so completely neglected the way things ought, that you’re in a universe of your own. You get someone like Berg…”

Somewhat disgruntled, still, by being stuck washing the dishes while the Divine calls, I retort that I don’t see how this is a unique thought. What other option is there? That’s how all the arts evolve: you get a status quo, then there’s a renegade, then the nouveau is slowly accepted and then it becomes the new traditional. It’s a matter of exploration, Grisha suggests. Innovators in music explore alternative ways that emotions can be superimposed on sounds. Feeling like I am about to sink into the logic the way the spoons and forks are sinking into the pot of watered-down ex-macaroni and cheese, I remain silent. He senses that I am not into a philosophical discussion. I explain, that I, for one, am having trouble fathoming how talks of the philosophy of music can be superimposed onto myself, standing there up to the elbow in cold orange gloop.

He sighs. Well, that is a fair question. Thinking a little, he adds, “But that’s the big question of life, isn’t it: We’re up to our elbows in shit, and we have to rise above it, still have to think about the Beautiful and the Sublime. We have to learn be greater than our circumstances…In a way, that’s what life is all about…”

Save for the clink-clink of the forks and spoons, the evening is quiet. We ruminate on things unsaid. Outside it is night. I am silent, he hums a familiar, Christmas favorite.

(Painting by Liza Ezhevskaya)

(Painting by Liza Head)

A one, a two, a one, two, three…

The day begins, unfolding in a geometric progression of regular plans, emails to write, things to do on a flat screen of the computer, everything is two-dimensional.

These are the days when I feel strongly the frailty of other people. That elderly gentleman walking up to the store in slacks and an off-white, starched dress shirt when it’s 98 degrees outside. He is honoring tradition, a sense of decorum, hearkening back to a time and place where you dressed up to go out, even to the nearest mercado. It hurts to see the shirt hang straight down off his spare shoulders.

Every one of us carries a certain burden, a certain doubt. Standing at a light with the windows down, the chain-smoker in the next car over hollers, “Cheer up, kid, it can’t be that bad!” Thanks, lady. I wish you wouldn’t kill yourself slowly with those cigarettes. But really, I appreciate the sentiment.

Then at the next light – “Hungry, every bit helps”. C’om on, guy, why won’t you get a job? He can’t get a job, he has no permanent address, no clean pants to wear for the interview, no toothpaste, no quiet evening at home to get his paperwork together. He is living the permanent vacation. Doesn’t even know what he wants, but every bit helps. I pull out a sock stuffed with soap, deodarent, hygiene items and the other sock, and flag the homeless man. “Thanks,” he says, “I’m wearing a pair of those right now.” And he sure is. “I’m sorry we’ve collectively failed you” I murmer and thank God for the green light.

Some of us – brave and powerful, some – meek and barely looking up. Slinking through life on our bellies, it’s like for a very brief moment I am given insight to all of the hurting.

At the gas station, I pay and cannot help notice her hands: just regular hands but ones that someone has loved, someone has kissed tenderly. These hands that wring out clothes before drying them, that peel potatoes and soak to the elbow in dishwashing detergent. Many years ago, they might have been the tiny baby fingers that a mother gently caressed, or maybe they had perpetual fingernail dirt and no love at all.

People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone. I want to pull in and hide inside my shell, but it is transparent and there is no place to shield yourself from all of the faces, the hands, the carefully tucked-in shirts, the buffed shoes, the frailty, the vulnerability. This is what Jim might have felt. They are so painfully familiar, and yet, you feel strange.

And when you’re strange, faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name…

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