This morning I went to the church my grandparents went to when they were kids. According to my grandmother, it hasn’t changed a bit. Excepting the lighting and the primitive sound system, I believe her. A stuccoed building with the traditional church-y front entrance and little bell tower on top, its exterior belies the intricate painting and woodwork within. Ancient pews, the floor, and some wall ornamentations were uncovered by gold leaf. The narthex and nave was a testament to staunch conservative Belief, for no other would call for an entryway such as that. The altar and the bits behind it were covered in gold and Byzantine renderings of saints, who looked—in the way of such portraits—to be either respectful or grumpy depending on interpretation.
An old woman, a ninety-year old version of the rugged feminine grace captured in that photo from the Great Depression of a mother squinting into the distance, as iconic as The Grapes of Wrath, lifted her chair up and out to me. Not just lifting but feeling and supporting its weight. She indicated where I should put it, the matriarch granting a pale out-of-towner the right to sit next to her daughter’s daughter’s daughter. Realizing this was something of a test, I in turn ceded my newfound seat to my grandmother, who sat down obligingly. “Who knew the Americanii could respect their elders?” The eye contact between mother and daughter was telling. Crows’ feet mingled with crows’ feet, staring at the priest or the dusty hot middle distance.
In the Orthodox church it is believed that when somebody dies, their soul resides on earth for forty days, whereupon it ascends to heaven. Today was the forty days service for one of the village’s deceased. The bereaved family sat toward the front of the church, and at the completion of the liturgy and the beginning of the memorial, the vast majority of the church—those with even the most tangential relations—stood and formed a tight semicircle around the front. The priest came down and held the hands of the family, and the cantor reached a glowing resonant crescendo, a deep bass tone of another supported this. A sudden silence, and it began again. The air buzzed with the sounds of dutiful men, and the church bells began to ring. The assembled crowd kissed and smiled, glad the case is closed, and that they can sleep easy knowing that the soul has risen.
We, the entire contents of the church, went over to a nearby cafe where waiting for us was coffee and cookies and cognac. The same bonhomie perfused the crowd. Stories were told, and the women gossiped. Smiling and laughing from the cognac, an older man who spoke English cajoled me into having another. I reasoned that at 10:30 in the morning, two were plenty for me for now.
The girl with delicate features and an avian frame whose great-grandmother offered me a seat smiled at me. Eighteen, unlikely to go to college, and therefore nearing marriageable age, she seemed like she got by by living in the moment and avoiding thoughts of life’s eventualities. The air carried notes of figs and oranges, and the harsh timbre of exhaust. A somewhat lumpy man my age took her hand and looked across the church’s square at me. She blinked twice. “If only,” rendered in minimal semaphore.