I think I am a collector of stories. I am fascinated by people and their lives, and for some reason, people, even strangers, like to tell me their stories. And from them, I learn a lot, and from one lady, I learned to appreciate what I have. These days, with the economy crashing, I am remembering a chance encounter that left a lasting impression on me, that even today makes me think,stop whining and just be happy for what you have. I call her the Lady from Latvia and here's her story.
The Lakewood ShopRite is not a place to go for a quick milk run. For me, at least, any visit there is as much for the experience, as for the shopping. You see, Lakewood is an international melting point, having perhaps as many different cultures blended there as any major urban center. Walking down the aisles, you may feel that you have stumbled onto the ancient city of Babel. The largest rabbinical college in the world is located in Lakewood, and Hassaidic Jews from all over the world come to Lakewood to study. Men with their curly sideburns and tall black hats, rush to the "Kosher Experience" for some last minute touches for their evening meal, making sure they escape before sundown. Middle Eastern men who crowd into single rooms after working at gas stations for minimum wage so they can send their earnings home to their families in Turkey, scour the dairy aisle for yogurt. Mexican men hide in chicken coops behind farm markets, by day picking tomatoes, and by night walking miles to buy plantains before Shop Rite closes at 1:00 a.m. Indian women in their saris load their baskets with onions and search the spice aisles for coriander seeds to season their rich curries. You can hear the chatter of Poles, and Czechs and Russian Jews, all searching the shelves for something that reminds them of home. And they are not disappointed. Shop Rite stocks so many varieties of food that to a curious born in the USA housewife, you can get lost in the possibilities.
It was on a lazy Sunday afternoon that my daughter and I met the Lady from Latvia. We were looking at the meat case, which covers the entire back of the store, and laughing at the packages of pigs feet, pigs ears, chicken feet, and other such delicacies. A very well dressed older woman, with shiny white hair, and brilliant blue eyes, her pale skin ashen next to the bright red lipstick painting her lips, stood next to us, fingering packets of lamb shank, examining and then selecting three. I asked her what she was going to make with the lamb shanks, since my daughter and I were always trying to come up with new recipes. She told us that she had a hard time finding lamb shanks,and when she saw them , she would buy several to keep on hand. Her speech was very formal, slightly accented, and she held her head erect. I would not call it pride, but more an air of confidence and comfort with who she was. She started to explain her recipe, and she told me it was a very European style of cooking. She would cover the shank with water, seasonings, and lots of vegetables and potatoes, and let it cook for hours. It would develop the most flavorful broth and tenderize the little meat on the shank. She was alone and she could get several meals from one pot. It was a dish she had made for many years. Although she was polite, I noted that she was a bit reserved, but nonetheless I took the bold step of asking her more. I said, may I ask what country you are from? I could feel my daughter cringing with the knowledge that her mother was at it again, interrogating perfect strangers because of her desperate curiosity to know about people. She didn't hesitate, and it almost seemed that she wanted to talk. She told me that she was from a little country, called Latvia, had I ever heard of it? And of course, I had, and told her so. She told me that she was born there, and that she had married and had an infant son. When her son was just a baby, the Russians invaded her country, and captured her husband. She was able to flee with her son to Poland where a minister from a church offered her his help to get her to America as a refugee. Knowing absolutely no one, she took her baby son and came to New Jersey. With the contacts that the minister had given her, she was able to get a small apartment and a job in a factory. She worked 50-60 hours a week, for over 40 years, in the same factory, putting every penny into funding a good education for her son. Her son was now the owner of his own computer company in California, had a PhD and was a very educated and wealthy man. She told me that her son takes very good care of her, and that she lives very comfortably now in her retirement, without any worries about money. It struck me that even with this admitted comfort, she was still searching through the cheapest cuts of meat to make a bountiful old world stew. I asked her if she ever had a chance to go back to Latvia, and she told me that she had not. Then she paused and said , but I didn't find out what happened to my husband until just five years ago. I found out that after the Russians captured my husband, they took him to a field, and executed him by firing squad. All these years, I had been waiting for some word from him, waiting to find him, and he had been dead from the beginning. Her eyes seemed a little wistful , and she said to me, is this your daughter? After acknowledging that she was, she said to both of us, America is the greatest country in the world, don't ever forget that, you are the luckiest people that you are born here and live here. And then she said, And now you know my story.
And now so do you.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Monday, December 8, 2008
You know, when Hillary Clinton's book, It Takes a Village came out, I have to say, even without reading it, I was a critic. What do you mean, it takes a village? What kind of theory is that? I don't need a village to raise my child, or do anything else for that matter. I should have read, No Man is an Island Unto Himself! Recently, a neighbor had a baby after a difficult pregnancy. The baby has some kind of gastric problem that keeps her up and crying 24/7. It's sleeping time is about three seconds out of every five. Very difficult for the baby, and also for the parents who are rotating shifts so that they can sleep. Shortly after the baby was born, I sent over a big dish of macaroni and cheese and fudge, there's that fudge again! My neighbor across the street sent over rotisserie chicken and sides the next day. As I was getting ready for work about a week later, I noticed another neighbor standing on the bus stop with new mommy's older child. On another day, neighbor across the street called since teenage big sister was babysitting and couldn't calm the baby. I went across the street and within five minutes, another neighbor and her husband arrived as well. Our neighborhood is like that, it's like a (gulp) village. And as I sit at my computer at 5:00 a.m., before getting ready for work (the job that pays the bills, not the fun one!), I am centered right smack in the middle of a virtual village. 1000 markets was unknown to me until someone on another marketplace mentioned it in a forum. I took a look and immediately loved it. I mentioned it to a few virtual friends and before I knew it they had shops. Being somewhat graphically challenged but a big blabbermouth, I just mentioned that I wanted to snazz up my shop, and a wonderful lady, Liz Designs, took a look and gave me the finishing touches. Another virtual friend, Alyson 2, was so complimentary on this site and we patted each other's back when we were accepted! In visiting the forums, and writing my blogs and reading other blogs, I am learning a lot about people in my little village. For instance, when I mentioned to Alyson that my husband was recently laid off, she offered her expertise in resume writing, (her other career task!). I have met a lot of amazing people on this site, well, not met, you know what I mean. Amazing people who are honest, sensitive, creative, and willing to reach out and help their fellow virtual market members. I find myself racing to the computer to see what is written in the forums, or the blogs, or just strolling through the markets, incredibly impressed by my window shopping. I have learned a lot by participating, and reading and when you are a grandmother there is a lot to learn about this stuff! So to my fellow shopkeepers, I say, thank you so much, and to Hilary Clinton, I say, you were right, it does take a village, a virtual village.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
You know, my head is bursting with ideas. Now, I am not going to pretend that they spring from some creative fountain deep inside, but they are snippets from magazines, TV, internet, friends, and real life churning through my head like a subliminal slide show. I am the first to admit they are a little grandiose and if I thought logically, instead of emotionally all the time, I would realize that sometimes I bite off more than I can chew. Like my brother's surprise for his 50th birthday. I was going to make him a scrapbook of his entire life, prefaced by a genealogy, pictures and anecdotal blurbs about family members. I started with gusto, the pages filled, all six of them, the birthday came, the birthday went, and now my goal is to present it to him on his 60th. I had similar success with my grandson’s, his book is complete to his christening at six weeks. He turned six this summer. Yea, there are quite a few, like my great idea to have everyone sign the holiday tablecloth, and then I would embroider their signatures, capturing them forever. They signed, I stitched, but am about three years behind on that project. Also, the book my daughter presented me when she gave birth to my first grandchild, the one where you write all your memories and history to preserve for your grandchildren. I just can’t seem to find the right pen, plus, should I print, or script? These are big decisions when you are creating a heirloom. Don’t even ask me about the 3,000 pictures I have on my computer that I am going to organize into categories, and print out into booklets. Let’s not go there, okay? I have often said if I could eliminate work and sleep, I could get all my projects done. But recently, I learned a real lesson that taught me, just do it, and get it over with! I had read a lot about prayer shawls that some churches were doing to comfort people facing major illness. My church doesn’t do them, my son’s church does. I thought what a great idea, I want to do that, but never took the next step to join an organized group. Then my dear cousin, Tim, was given horrible news. Lung cancer that had spread. This was about two years ago, and I thought, wow, wouldn’t a prayer shawl be nice. Of course, it would, and after all that thinking, it would be nice, I finally bought the yarn, but there it sat, I worked it a little, put it aside. I felt guilty for not being part of a prayer group, and doing it on my own. I researched that to see if it were as effective. These things take time, you know. It should have taken a weekend, it took months. One weekend, I just got a burst and finished it. I mailed it off to him and late on a Monday he called. He wanted to tell me that he had gotten awful news. All treatment was suspended, the cancer had spread into his bones. The pain in his shoulder that he was suffering with was because his shoulder had disintegrated, laced with cancer. There was really nothing more that they could do. But he had received the shawl, and he loved it, he immediately wrapped it around him, he loved the softness of it, he said it made him feel better. I told him, when you wrap it around you, I hope you can feel all my love and prayers and the hope that went into making it. A few days later, he collapsed and went to the hospital. The shawl went with him. His wife said it made him feel better, he said it made his shoulder not hurt so much. It never left him. He lapsed into a coma, and was taken home by hospice. Never waking up, he died the next day. One week after getting the shawl that was two years in the making. His sister said to me the day he died, “ I thought there was more time, I guess I have learned not to delay, not to put things off.” She is right, as it seems that life is speeding away like a runaway train and I am holding on for dear life, hoping to make it around the next bend. They say life is what happens when you are busy making plans. Life - like Aunt Edna always used to say, "nobody gets out alive." Guess I better try to change my mantra from I’m gonna to I did, it’s going to be hard, but I think it is time to start being a verb and not a noun.
I had just clicked "send" on my All Users email for my co-workers birthday, when it seemed instantly, an attorney from our office sent me a message from his blackberry at court "did you make that awesome pie/cake thing". I emailed back, "yes, and fudge too," and the reply came immediately, "can you save some of it for me because when I get back it will be all gone." And as predicted, when he did come into the office, the foil tray was in the garbage, virtually licked clean. My nephew had a housewarming party yesterday, invites went out quite a while ago, but on Monday he called, and after some idle chit chat, asked if I could make "your meatballs". This is what I called the curse recipe, because once you bring this dish to an event, you are forever, for the rest of your life doomed to have to bring it again. I have renamed it Peggy's curried meatballs, as my mother had torn it out of some newspaper, and the worn and stained clipping was tossed from drawer to drawer over the years until it actually was lost. Thankfully, a friend had diligently copied down the recipe while my mother was making it and years later, nonchalantly said, "oh, that recipe, I have it." It's not that I mind making it, but it is a two day project. You have to make all the meatballs, not spaghetti and meatball size, but those little appetizer size, as uniform as you can get them, and make sure they don't burn. Then you make the special sauce and you have to soak the meatballs in the sauce in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours so everything blends. Then the day of the event, you have to put them in a crockpot for at least six hours to heat, because these are not the throw in the microwave type of food. Yea, it is a curse, but the expression on everyone's face first when you walk into a party with them, and second, as they are savoring their third and fourth helping, all makes it worthwhile. I think everyone has their special dishes, and there is always that person in the family that you associate with a special food. Food that is made from scratch, time consuming, multi-step, always tastes just right, a creation. And that how it is with the artisans in this market. Anyone can pick up a machine made mass marketed scarf, but how many people can crochet or knit one, choosing the yarn, choosing the stitch, all with the intention of sharing a craft, giving of yourself and creating a memory. Whatever the product, the fact that is hand made is special, unique and lasting. I just can't imagine being associated with some mass produced, big box store , grab from the freezer, shove in the microwave speciality, and come to think of it, I have never heard anybody rave about Mary's Sara Lee cake, or Laura's bagel bites, or John's Beefaroni. The fact that people associate the creator with the creation, like Aunt Edna's apple pie, or Aunt Alice's doilies, those are the things that last, that endure, that fill hope chests and are passed from generation to generation. Things that are made by hand, by people,and with the love and joy of the creator.