About a month ago, rummaging in a drawer with old family pictures, I found a small piece of paper, only one-eighth of a standard page. On it, in sprawling handwriting, the following words were drawn:
My dearest! There’s no cholesterol here.
Love and kisses,
At first, I was puzzled, but the next moment, recalling the circumstances around writing it, I felt a lump in my throat.
That the note has survived was a miracle. Over half a century passed from the time Mama had composed it. The note was one of a kind Mama enclosed in a parcel she used to send from Odessa, Ukraine, to Moscow, where, several years before emigration, I lived with my family.
On the eve of the day she planned to send her parcel, she’d get up earlier than usual, and wake up her younger son, my brother Volodya, a teenager. She fed him breakfast and took him, still half-asleep, along to one of the city markets. She needed his help in the operation. There was no extra money in the family; she wanted to reach the market before the opening bell, the time when the sellers offered their first buyers a discount. (They spit on the first bills that touch their hands, treating them as a sign of good luck.)
She could reach the “New Market,” not too far from our home on Lanzheron Street, on foot. But, together with my brother, Mama thrust herself into the tram, jam-packed with morning-shift workers. The tram was the line that ran to the biggest Odessa farmer’s market called Privoz, “Most Recent Supply.” People assumed that the fruits and veggies are fresh there—right off the branches, straight from the garden bed…
Mama was sure that, up there, in the country’s capital, there were enough sausages, for which, came the weekend, people poured into Moscow from all the surrounding towns and villages. However, they wouldn’t find there such delicious, fragrant, still smelling of black earth, famous “Fountain” tomatoes, the kind that grew in Odessa vicinities. They were scarce, considering that her son and his wife lived on their meager Soviet salaries. If it was the season of cherries or apricots not to send a package of them to her grandchildren meant for her to sin…
Then, with her shopping bags loaded to capacity in hand, she took them back home. Having no time for a breather, she bustled around the kitchen of our apartment, whose sole redeeming quality was that it wasn’t a communal one. It was a cutout from a corner of the old laundry room for the building residents. The kitchen had no window; a small, the size of window casement opening, ran into the passageway to the back of the building. The heat in this makeshift kitchen soon became so high that Mama couldn’t stand it. She shut the door to the living room, which functioned as the bedroom, and removed her blouse. Her face became fiery from cooking and frying, and she brought into the kitchen a rotating desktop fan nicknamed a “little sycophant” in Odessa.
First, she baked. In this skill and another cookery, she was a master, recognized by all our relatives. A honey cake, puff pastries, biscuits… And the king of all bakery—strudel with raisins, apples, and nuts.
Meanwhile, in the oven, she roasted a hefty bit of boiled pork, which she larded with garlic cloves and slices of bay leaf.
When everything was ready, she dispatched my brother to Odessa central avenue, Deribas Street. She charged him with finding a cardboard box capable of accommodating the food and pastries, as well as of withstanding the journey of a thousand miles.
Mama wrapped the goodies in three layers of parchment paper and packed them into the box. Having in mind my wife’s request to go easy on calories and cholesterol, she attached the note mentioned above.
Mama didn’t even think of entrusting the parcel to the Soviet mail. She knew, until it reaches its destination, if they won’t clean it out, seduced by the culinary smells, then her tomatoes and apricots would turn into mush. So, she made use of the “Jewish mail,” as they called it in Odessa.
It worked the following way. Having prepared her parcel, Mama sent my brother to the railroad station. She instructed him to deliver it, together with a five-ruble bill, to one of the car-wagon conductors of the Odessa-Moscow train. The conductor placed the parcel under the berth of his (or her) compartment. Each time, Mama reminded my brother he shouldn’t be lazy. He shouldn’t hand it over to the conductor of the last car, close to the exit to the town. He must carry it to one of the head cars. She lectured him that, while he, a carefree schoolboy, had plenty of time to spare on his hands, up there, in Moscow, his older brother was a family man with a full-time job.
When my brother returned with the car wagon number and the name of the conductor, Mama set off to the post office at the corner of Catherine the Great and Lanzheron Streets to send me a telegram, “MEET BORIS [or MASHA] TOMORROW TRAIN #12, CAR #1.”
As a result, everyone was glad: Mama, because they didn’t drag her parcel across the country for God knows how long; my family and I savored my mother’s goodies, and the conductor felt lucky getting an unexpected five rubles for a simple favor.
These parcels were small tokens of what she’d done for me, my family, and other relatives. For her, it was nothing special; it was her ordinary act of love. In the family, in the milieu in which she grew up, it wasn’t customary to express one’s feelings. The words themselves were of little value. For her, it was natural to act according to the maxim, “Love is what love does.”
Her note, which survived for half a century, reminded me how much she mattered in my life. Rereading it, I again relived a tremendous loss. I remembered her simple wisdom: “Who else in this world will love you for the sheer fact of your existence?”
She wasn’t the only mother in the country in which I was born and raised. But she was my mother. Today, she would have been 108 years old.
But why “would have”? I read somewhere about the notion that every person on Earth dies three times. The first time is when the heart stops beating. The second time is when the brain ceases working. And the third is when the person’s name is uttered for the last time.
It means that Mama is still alive.
Professor Emeritus of Russian at Hunter College in NYC, Emil Draitser is the author of sixteen books of artistic and scholarly books, including Shush! Growing up Jewish under Stalin; Techniques of Satire; Farewell, Mama Odessa, and Stalin’s Romeo Spy. A three-time recipient of the New Jersey Council of the Arts Fellowships and numerous grants from the City University of New York, he also published his work in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, World Literature Today, Prism International, and elsewhere. His new work titled Laughing All the Way to Freedom: Americanization of a Russian Émigré is due this Fall from McFarland Publishers. (For more info, go to: www.emildraitser.com)