A Russian Grandma
When I was young, I had a Russian "grandma”. My real grandparents lived in Ohio and Indiana and I saw them infrequently. I would reconnect with them when we returned to the United States every three to five years. Olga took their place. She and her husband, Charles, worked side by side with my parents, visiting refugees of the second World War from Russia. They became standby parents for my parents and standby grandparents to my siblings and me. I remember her from her later years, after she became a widow.
Olga often came to our house for Easter and other holidays. She always wore a soft scarf on her head that she would take off as soon as she stepped in the door. As it fell off her grey hair, I would smell good things: lavender and other more exotic perfumes that were unfamiliar to me and took my imagination for a spin. After embracing, she would pull out a hostess gift, something tasteful for my mother to use on the dinner table. Her gift to us at Easter was a perfectly shaped and decorated Kulich, the traditional Russian Easter bread. Wrapped in the sheerest of papers, we would unwrap it to find the tall cylindrical loaf decorated with the the initials XB for "Christ is risen" and a couple of small decorative candy eggs precariously balanced on top.
After a rich and tasty dinner made by my mother, we would visit with Olga. The timbre of her voice still sounds in my head. A slight lisp and a lower vocal register made me listen to the stories she might have to tell about our Russian friends. Her French words spoken with a honeyed Russian accent soothed my ear. Everything about her radiated elegance, dignity, grace and warmth. In her role as a deaconess in the Russian church, I imagined her loving support and help to others.
Later, we would have an afternoon snack with tea and the Kulich. My mother always sliced off the top and set it aside. Then she would cut us pieces of the rich bread. The top went back on when it was rewrapped to keep it fresh for the next few days.
Today, I made a new version of this buttery egg rich bread. Saffron soaked in brandy, many eggs, loads of butter, cardamom and fruit and nuts all went in this morning. Now it rests. As it rises slowly to the top of its container, and then sends out rich smells as it bakes, I think about Olga and the gift she was to our family. She added richness to my life and opened a new world to explore while at the same time bringing us her love. As I eat Kulich at Easter, I will also do it in remembrance of her.