Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Old Russian Lady

With St Anselm College being so visible in the news recently with all the presidential candidates congregated there for the debates, it was hard not to remember fondly, living in the shadow of the college. The story below has nothing to do with politics. Its only connection to the Presidential Primary is the location.


It doesn’t matter that my family moved from Desaulnier Street when I was but three years old. Life, for me, was idyllic and my memories sweet of our time there. My parents owned a newly constructed cape at the top of the hill, just a few houses from where Desaulnier meets College Road in Pinardville. In those days, parents didn’t worry so much about their children running free in the neighborhood. Even at the tender age of three, I traveled much as a free-range chicken, hunting and pecking my way through my world.

When I think of this place, I remember most my two older sisters, but not much about my younger brother. Ma sometimes sent my older sister on errands down the street, where there were a few Mom and Pop stores. Despite not being the oldest, she was the reliable one. Ma would give her a note so the store keeper would know what was needed. The oldest sister, being deaf, Mother would often have my sister take the oldest with her, probably to expand her world. I would want to go of course. “Hold their hands!” Ma would instruct, and off we would go, my smart sister in the middle, with the oldest on one side, and me on the other. What a trio we must have been, one who couldn’t hear the cars coming, and the other never paying attention to the direction she was going. Instead, my eyes would wander side to side inspecting the neighborhood as we went. What a great adventure!

I often wanted to play with the older kids. They were bigger and older than I was and often shooed me away. I persisted and often they relented and let me follow them about the neighborhood. Their favorite game was cowboys and Indians. Once, Ma even painted our faces so we could run through the open lot next door. The grass was so high, I couldn’t see where I was going, but I could hear the kids whooping and hollering. It sent shivers down my spine and I reveled in the drama!

The kids on the street feared “The Old Russian Lady.” This woman lived in the brick house on the corner. The kids called her mean and scary. She wore a babushka on her head. I don’t think the babushka did much to help her reputation. I kept my distance from her, until my curiosity for the cows won over. If I wanted to see the cows up close, I would have to walk past the Old Russian Lady’s house. I was intercepted on my first attempt to see the cows. With fright, I heard her calling sharply. Who knows what she was saying, as it was Russian of course. I stopped and looked in her direction not knowing what to expect. There was the Russian Lady coming toward me. I froze in my tracks. However, something didn’t seem right? The Russian Lady didn’t look mean. She was smiling! The next thing I knew, she was offering me candy. It was a root beer flavored candy shaped like a barrel. I accepted it, and popped it in my mouth. As I stood there enjoying the root beer candy, she babbled on in Russian. Then with a pat on the head, I was turned and sent on home.

That root beer candy was the first of many. I would walk in the direction of the Old Russian Lady and stop in front of her house. The other kids could be scared if they wanted. I was going to wait for candy. I was never disappointed, for soon she would appear and present the root beer barrel candy. The routine was the same. Stand and eat, listen to Russian, pat on the head, go on home. It was a good deal.

One day, she didn’t come to the door as expected. Soon I was looking across the street at the cows. I walked to the edge of College Road to watch the cows across the street. A fence stretched left and right, beyond my vision. Cows wandered downhill through the trees, making their way to the fence by the road. They reached their heads over the fence to eat the tall grass growing there. These cows, I now know, came down from St Anselm’s College. In those days, they had a hands-on agricultural program. Across the street I went, to stand near the fence and inspect the habits of dairy cows. They were having some difficulty craning their heads to reach the tender shoots of grass. To be of assistance, I plucked a few blades of grass and reached upwards with my offering. At that moment, a piercing shout made me jump out of my skin, the grass dropping from my hand. It was the Old Russian Lady, standing across the road, gesticulating wildly. For the first time, I heard English words coming from her mouth. Over and over, she repeated “COWS BITE HAND! COWS BITE HAND!” At first, confused by the thick accent, I understood her to say, “Cows bite head.” That was unsettling! Now thoroughly frightened I looked up at the cows. These cows had tender brown eyes. Surely they didn’t bite! I froze in my tracks. I saw the mean Old Russian Lady coming at me. She stopped at the edge of the road and pointed for me to go home. Off I ran. Unfortunately, it was also the end of root beer barrel candies.

We moved to another part of town later that year. I don’t know what became of the Old Russian Lady, but whenever I eat root beer barrel candies, I remember fondly those long summer days, pats on the head and the smell of tall grass and dairy cows.

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