Friday, November 12, 2004

Shall We Gather at the River?

All advice from slav grandparents boils down to “guard your health” I think.

In my copy of Benjamin’s Moscow Diary there is a photo of a homeless child from 1926. He or she is huddled on a stoop, sleeping. Regarding begging in that post-revolutionary period WB wrote: “One rarely sees anybody give. Begging has lost its most powerful base, the guilty social conscience that opens purses far wider than pity.” In that year my grandmother (in Minsk) was 4 years old; at age 9 she would lose her father to pneumonia, and then when her mother came down with pneumonia also, she almost lost her mind at the thought that she and her three younger siblings would be orphaned: they’d be put out on the street, she said.

Well, Antonina survived the pneumonia—luckily her children were grown when she was disappeared by the Stalinist police—and the little 9 year old, sent off to earn a living picking potatoes, survived the war and famine of the German refugee camps and bad childbirths and so on, but still lives in a row home in Philadelphia, where she dispenses this advice: “Guard your health.” And then something like “Pray to God.” So every year on Easter I call her up and give her the standard Orthodox greeting in Russian: “Christ has risen.” And she: “Indeed he has risen!”

This is not a “Be Grateful for What You Have” message of the day, but perhaps an “Indestructible Slav Woman” message of the day, if you like. May our poetry be as tough as our barge-heaving ancestors.

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