Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Shifting Emotion of an Immoveable Feast

To the modern American, or global citizen, the notion that for the last 11 years I have begun contemplating what to prepare for dinner on October 18 weeks in advance may seen obsessive or silly, unless of course, I am a caterer or planning some fabulous fete for the beautiful people. (The latter, of course, would require my hiring the perfect caterer.)

My father was born on Oct. 18, 1926, and died in 2002. Planning what to make for dinner, generally one of his favorite old world meals – the old world being some mix of what was born of my Ukrainian, Polish and Russian roots.

Call it comfort food, but most certainly not in the mainstream America-meets foodie way of indulging in the food itself. It comforts me to commemorate his memory by creating and serving something he would enjoy. Of course, growing up dirt poor in the slums of Newark, N.J., my father learned to appreciate – or at least to never waste – any food.

My father was not religious in the go-to-church-every-holy-day-or-feel-really-guilty-about-it-way, like my mother. There are 13 major holy days in the Russian Orthodox Church and a much longer list of secondary holy days to commemorate various events in the lives of prophets, apostles, fathers of the Orthodox Church, martyrs, saints and others who have aided the propagation of Christianity and the Orthodox religion, as well as certain events in the life of the church. Those days are divided into movable feasts, which have no definite days or even months appointed for their celebration, and the immovable feasts, which are always celebrated on definite days of the year, by the Julian calendar.

Suffice it to say, commemorating the dead, both on their death days and birthdays, is an immovable feast.

My father, who felt more kinship with Buddhists and Sikhs, practiced meditation mostly at home (though sometimes he’d visit a gurdwara with his best friend, a Punjabi Sikh). He attended Russian Orthodox services on the highest holy days, namely Pascha, and of course always for funerals and other services for friends of the family. In the end, my father, who died of Stage IV colon cancer metastasized to the liver, requested to be buried alongside where my mother will be laid to rest and in the plot next to her parents, at one of three cemeteries at Holy Trinity Monastery in the hamlet of Jordanville in central New York State’s Herkimer County, northwest of Albany and east of Syracuse. Blink or sneeze while driving on remote winding roads past sprawling farmland and nothingness -- save for the monastery with the cathedral’s imposing gilded cupolas and bell tower -- you will miss Jordanville. Founded in 1928, the monastery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and is the first Google hit for Jordanville.

Family friends who have made what most call the pilgrimage to the monastery and cemetery have alluded to the mystical, otherworldly qualities of a place so alien from any America (or present time) they’d ever experienced. This includes hardcore atheists and agnostics.

Why my father chose to be buried there will always elude, even haunt, me. Most people closest to me say it’s because he wanted to be besides my mom, at least in the end. Those who have witnessed the terror of Stage IV colon cancer know what it does to the brain. Those who have read Russian literature know what happens to men facing their own mortality. The deathbed confession is not fictional in my world, if not quite as dramatic. My father was a philosopher and intellectual, and in many ways was like Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky (the character in Dostoyevsky's “The Devils”), although my father cared deeply and dutifully for his children while Stepan put his own interests first and was a scumbag to his son. And I doubt my father picked his final resting place because he considered himself immortal since his love for God will never die.

Why my father chose the church burial and ongoing mourning process, with all their ancient and elaborate rituals, I will never know. I do know that his decision impacted me deeply and profoundly and rattled my own beliefs – or lack thereof. If I am not compelled to follow the church rules as a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, I can at least provide a fitting memorial tribute – just twice a year – to commemorate his life on the dates of his birth and his death.

This all now sounds even sillier to most Americans, or global citizens, I’m sure. But I do derive some comfort, some closeness to my father’s legacy and my ethnic heritage by making a special meal.

Along with the menu planning comes an annual bout of profound sadness, if not deep depression. My therapist, who is far removed from this old world where I dwell emotionally, says I need to overcome this depression and to create a celebration where I invite friends over for a feast without telling them why. That’s funny, as Russians (the Russians who raised me, not the people hail from there now) never tell other people about their own birthdays and would never, ever, invite other people out with the expectation of others paying any part of the bill. It is equally wrong to not prepare and present a meal in honor of the dead on “their day,” religiously on the day they died and culturally on the day they were born.

I do not know where I stand in this cultural framework – trapped somewhere between the vast divide of a bygone Russia and a hypersocial world where people celebrate themselves on any and every platform, posting old photos of departed loves ones as a substitute for traditions they have shunned. I'm not eager to revert to a world where the closest women come to heroism is martyrdom in the form of Nastassya Filippovna. I’m also not ready to embrace a soulless world where the number of characters you're allotted dictates the depth of your musings.

I think I’ll make piroshki, to start.  

--- NOTE: This entry is the first in a series of ideas, themes or stories that will eventually appear in a novel based largely on my mother's life. Working novel title: Lubachka

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