Emily, at The Children of God, has tagged me to share three Christmas memories. Okay…
The Black Doll
We were very poor, and the blonde, blue-eyed doll cost $12.00, which for us, in 1974, was a lot to spend on a four-year-old. So we bought her the brown-skinned, black-haired version of the same doll, for half the price. It would broaden our daughter’s awareness.
That was the same Christmas my parents, in addition to inviting the whole family as usual, had invited the Brooks family. Their daughter had committed suicide earlier that year, and we didn’t want Col. and Mrs. Brooks to be alone for Christmas.
“Why did you have to go and buy a black doll just because the Brookses are coming?” asked my Mother. “What are they going to think?”
“I bought the doll before I knew they were coming!” I protested. “It has nothing to do with them! I promise, it’s just coincidence!”
So on Christmas morning, we all waited with some apprehension as Erin opened her gift (Col. and Mrs. Brooks having been forewarned). She looked at her new doll. Then she looked up at Mrs. Brooks, then down to the doll again, then up at Mrs. Brooks again. Finally she stood up, walked over to Mrs. Brooks, and held out her gift.
“If you want to play with my new dollie, you can,” said Erin. “She’s just about your size.”
A Soldier’s Memoirs
The family was gathered around the table, the Christmas meal was finished, and we were waiting for dessert, when Dad brought out his World War II diary, and, standing at the head of the table, began reading from it.
25 December, 1944, Ardennes, France. It was what would become known in history as the Battle of the Bulge, a terrible but decisive battle. Dad wasn’t supposed to keep a diary, for security reasons, but he did, anyway. Now he began reading to us the musings of a lonely and no doubt scared young officer, camped out in the cold, far from home.
“And that was 50 years ago today,” he concluded. “And now, here I am, surrounded by my children and grandchildren, in a warm and happy home, and I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I feel…” and then he couldn’t speak any more, and neither could we.
It was a while before dessert was brought out.
Christmas was past, but Demetrios and I had not had time to take down the decorations or the tree, because his mother was in the hospital. It was feared she would die; Christos had come from Greece.
I had been sitting with her in her hospital room that Monday when Christos came in and said, “Go take a break. Maybe get yourself something to eat.”
So I went to the cafeteria downstairs, and there saw a tall, bald man, two or three scraps of long beard hanging from his cheeks, crutches propped against the table, sitting with a small, dark, young woman.
I knew who they were, because they had been introduced in church the day before. They were Fr. Vladimir, come all the way from Russia for hip surgery, and his daughter, Daria, who was accompanying him because she spoke English and he didn’t.
So I took my tray to their table, introduced myself, and was invited to join them. It was pleasant, but before long, Daria excused herself. “I must go find a taxi,” she said, “to take us to my father’s orthopedist.”
“Who’s his orthopedist?” I asked, idly.
She told me, and I said, “But that’s my mother-in-law’s orthopedist! Come in my car! I know how to get there!”
Fr. Vladimir’s surgery was the next day, so when it was Christos’ turn to sit with Mama, I went and sat with Daria in the surgical waiting room.
A couple of days later, I went to Fr. Vladimir’s room. Daria had gone to do some errand. I had brought some photographs of my baptism and chrismation, which I began showing him. He recognized what they were, but didn’t know what to say. Finally, he blurted out his frustration in a prayer, which “for some reason” came out, “Ach, Gott, helfe mir!”
Whereupon God did just that. “Sie sprechen Deutsch?” I asked, startled. "You speak German?"
Now we could communicate verbally!
That night, I said to Demetrios, “You ought to stop by these people’s room when you’re through visiting your mother. They are people you will want to know.”
He did, and he came home quite upset. “The man doesn’t even have a bathrobe!” he exclaimed. “They had him walking up and down the corridor half naked in his hospital gown, a priest!” He pulled some cash out of his pocket, handed it to me and said, “If you aren’t too tired, would you please go to Penney’s and buy him the best robe you can find? Look for one just like mine.”
A few days later, Mama was ready to be discharged from the hospital. Christos went back to Greece. She asked if she could come live with Demetrios and me again, just for a little while until she recovered, and she promised to behave. So home she came, and I divided my days between caring for her and chauffeuring Fr. Vladimir and Daria to doctors. By then, they had been given a tiny guest house to live in, on the hospital campus.
“Do you know what happened to my father?” Dasha (her nickname) asked me. I didn’t, so she told me. Her father had for many years been a lay assistant to Fr. Alexander Men. The famous name meant nothing to me at the time, but she gave me to understand that Fr. Alexander had been martyred recently, axed in the head. Whereupon her father had asked to be ordained to serve that church. He had been officiating at a funeral, and was being driven back from the cemetery, when gunmen ambushed the car and shot and killed the driver. The car had gone careening down the street in Moscow, driverless, until it had hit a tree, and her father’s hip had been smashed. He had lain in the hospital for months and nobody was able to do anything for him. Now they were in America, another long story, and had some hope of his eventually getting well.
It was January 6 when I said to Demetrios, “You know, we still have our Christmas tree up, and it’s Russian Christmas. Why don’t we invite Fr. Vladimir and Dasha, and we’ll have Christmas here?”
He thought that was a splendid idea. “Yes, it must be terrible to be poor and sick and alone on Christmas! We even have some Russian Christmas music, haven’t we?”
So we picked them up that afternoon at the hospital and took them to our nearest shopping mall. Demetrios bought Fr. Vladimir a suit and a belt and some shoes. (“He hasn’t worn a suit since his wedding,” said Dasha, “and that was rented.”) Dasha we invited to pick out a skirt and sweater. She had a hard time finding any clothes that said, “Made in America,” but finally we found a lovely outfit.
Then we went home and dressed up (Demetrios tying Fr. Vladimir’s new tie for him), put on the Russian carols, and had a fabulous meal. I don’t even remember what we ate. We needed four languages among the five of us: Greek, Russian, English, and German, but we all managed very well. We read the first chapter of the Gospel of John in all four.
But what we all remember most is the joy, the stories, the tears, and the miraculous, mysterious Love, so strong, so palpable, so overwhelming, that we all realized it as the fulfillment of the promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I, in the midst of them.”
It had been a very warm December until that day, when it turned bitter cold. Just before dinner, it had begun to snow. After dinner, Fr. Vladimir took a chair and sat out on the porch to be in the cold and to watch the snow fall, because, he said, it reminded him of home.
In fact, it snowed so much our guests were obliged to spend the night. We didn’t yet know it, but that was the Blizzard of ’96. It was four days before our streets were plowed out. By that time, none of us wanted to part. Dasha and Fr. Vladimir stayed with us 13 miraculous days, until the day they had to go back to Russia.
Fr. Vladimir’s hair and beard never grew back, but his hip healed, and his male parishioners shaved their own heads and beards to welcome him home. Dasha and her husband, Fr. Vichislav, had a baby within a year, and I went to Russia to become Timofei’s godmother.
Oh, and my niece, Madison, was born during that blizzard, a snow plow preceding the ambulance which brought her mother to the hospital.
I tag Christopher and Elizabeth.
Thursday, November 29, 2007