Wednesday, November 10, 2004

I still have a cold and, since there've been no rallies in the past three days, I'm staying home. Of the many, many handkerchieves I'm currently using, two are very special: they are what remains of a dozen that my mama stood in an endless line to buy 18 years ago.

It was winter of 1987, less than a year after Chernobyl, and we were living in Moscow, my mother and I, sharing a tiny two-room apartment with mama's friend and the friend's elderly aunt, college-student niece, bitchy dog and, occasionally, other relatives from all over the country. My father had stayed in Kyiv, to work and look after our cat, dog and plants.

Mama was on her way home when she entered a nearby store and saw a serpentine line of people that filled the store's whole ground floor. The ritual in those years was to come up and ask what they were standing for, and then join them, even if right then you didn't need whatever you were going to buy at the end of the line - and this is what my mother did. She spent the next two hours standing in line for a dozen of handkerchieves, very nice ones.

Beautiful, I'd even say: I thought they were beautiful then and I still think so now, when we've got only two of them left, faded, each with a hole or two. They were delicate; the prints on them didn't look like they'd scratch themselves off onto your face the moment you decided to blow your nose - the prints are still there, after all these years; flowers and three butterflies, purple, orange and green on the beige background, drawn so diligently, with such an obvious, un-Soviet pleasure. Neither mama, nor I can remember now where the handkerchieves were made, in China or East Germany, but we both agree they were "foreign."

So my mama stood squeezed together with all those people and, at some point, she felt she needed some fresh air or she'd faint. She went outside, walked a little and sat down on a bench around the corner from the store. It was very cold so she sat on the plastic bag in which she carried all her stuff, including her wallet (it was a non-transparent plastic bag with some kind of a picture on it, a "foreign" one - those were harder to get than leather bags). She sat for a while, breathing, and then returned to the store: you get to know the people around you as if they are your family when you stand in line for so long, and, if you have to walk away before it's your turn, you trust them to recognize you when you come back, and normally they do, though not always; my mother had no problem getting back in.

When, at last, she was about to pay for the handkerchieves, she suddenly realized that her hands were empty - her plastic bag, and her wallet, had stayed on the bench. She ran outside again and found the bag where she'd left it. The people in the line were sweet enough to let her pay when she returned the second time, and, 18 years later, we still have two of those twelve wonderful handkerchieves.

I asked her today why she hadn't bought more than just one dozen - and she looked at me like I was crazy and said, "But they weren't giving more than one package - a dozen handkerchieves - to one person! You'd have to stand in that line again if you wanted more."

Mama used to spray them with Pani Walewska, a Polish perfume very popular (but hard to find) in the Soviet times and still available today (just about anywhere). I remember the perfume's smell as if it's still there when I look at these two old handkerchieves. (Marie Walewska was Napoleon's Polish mistress - I didn't know about it until I decided to look for a link to the perfume for this entry.)

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