Gostipriimnost and snow soup

By

FAITH brought the hambone Monday, but our first blizzard came only today. When I awoke and saw the cedars gone white, I knew this was the day for Snow Soup. Faith brought the old ham and a new story for Monday's fiction workshop. ``Sorry so little meat left....''

Ted carved enough ham to feed a dozen hungry writers. Ted, a teacher who would rather write film scripts, rented our basement and began his autobiography. He isn't sure which end of a carrot scraper is which, nor has he carved many hams before, but he flailed away while Anne transformed various leaves and seeds into a salad as deftly as words into her verses. Jane brought pumpernickel and a play; Andy, grape juice and poems; Mary, cider and a story; Maxine, pieces of cheese and of her novel; Jonathan, cheesecake and an article already accepted but, like all our manuscripts, still needing repairs.

We began to read aloud and blue-pencil each other's manuscripts around the dining table. Soon thought needed no other food for itself. Sandwiched between the first tiny red fish egg and the last mint chocolate were innumerable useful criticisms. At midnight everyone trooped home to rewrite one more time before submitting ``final'' versions for publication.

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I was left with dishes, my own story scribbled over like a palimpsest, and one hambone. I left the first to soak, the second to mellow, the last to wait in the fridge. All could be reworked at dawn.

At dawn I shovel snow. Soon airports close, schools close, offices close early. Traffic snarls. Only snow is nonstop. After hours trudging home, not even pausing for groceries though little is left in the larder, I slide in the front door. Time to take down the copper pot from Damascus and start boiling up the hambone.

For as I attack it (as awkwardly as Ted did) and watch curtains of snow close in with dusk, I think of the unexpected guests other blizzards have yielded....

I'd treated as literary hyperbole the stories of Leo Tolstoy's hospitality: Friends and relatives came for supper and stayed a month. But during my first trip to Russia, in 1986, I visited Tolstoy's houses in Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana in Tula Province. Both are museums now, but dining tables remain set with a dozen plain blue-and-white plates perpetually ready for action. I imagined Tolstoy heading to his study to write one more overdue page on ``War and Peace,'' when suddenly bells jangle, sleighs arrive through blizzards, chilled guests troop in anxious for an evening or a week of his borsch and his brilliance. How he managed to write....

Tolstoy's estate, Yasnaya Polyana, was not terribly far from my grandmother's estate at Troitskoe, and there was some visiting back and forth. Though her house was appropriated by the Bolsheviks in the Revolution, and later burned by the Nazis as the Red Army advanced to reclaim it in World War II, I imagine guests of summers past gathering around an airy tea.

My father often sang the Old Russian song of the Caucasus: ``Each guest is sent to us by God/ No matter how torn his shirt.''

Or how wet his feet. Wherever my parents were living around the world, friends, relatives, and strangers of various nationalities, professions, persuasions, and hues turned up at their door, and most particularly, in snowstorms.

On this couch I've inherited slept a Siamese prince stranded during the Chicago blizzard of - was it 1935? This stained recipe card is for cold-winter-night spaghetti my parents served the young artist Moholy-Nagy and the future statesman Adlai Stevenson. Here's my grandmother's portrait by the 'emigr'e artist Serge Ivanoff, who, a later winter in Washington, came for a week and stayed six. And the strangers whose cars got stuck in drifts and were invited in for hot cider by the fire.

Hospitality is not limited to colder climes. On Cyprus, I found that the Greek word ksenos means both ``stranger'' and ``guest.'' In Malaysia I learned the greeting ``Sudah makan? - Have you eaten yet?'' One did not leave someone's house without being marvelously fed.

Others have extended hospitality to us, most memorably in crises.

Such as a Christmas Eve not long ago in Syracuse, N.Y. Our Alexander had late exams and overdue term papers, and by the time he could head home, a blizzard closed in.

All other students departed, the dorm was locked, the heat lowered. Alexander threw his suitcase out the window, then jumped into the growing snowdrift below. He could neither close the window behind him nor climb back up and in when he learned the airport was closed. With $20 in his pocket and no friends in town, he trudged through the snow to the nearest place open, the veterans' hospital, and phoned us collect.

``Go to their personnel office,'' I suggested, ``and volunteer. Institutions are always short-handed on holidays. They'll surely give you a meal and a bed in return. Let me know ...''

His next call reported that instant volunteering was against regulations. Nor could he hang around till dawn when flights should resume.

``Call back,'' I said. ``We'll think of something.''

Finally we got the name of a fellow journalist in Syracuse. We apologized profusely for calling, especially on Christmas Eve when nearly everyone has housefuls of relatives. And my 20-year-old's manners....''

``Don't worry,'' Ron answered. ``Here my wife has cooked a huge dinner, and our relatives are snowbound. Send Alexander along.''

We phoned the VA hospital. Alexander had disappeared.

Finally he phoned from a corner store near a housing project. An elderly black man had overheard his plight, brought him back to his efficiency apartment, served him tea which was all he had, and offered him an extra mattress on his floor.

``So I'm fine,'' Alexander insisted to us on the phone. ``I've bought groceries for my benefactor and...''

``Wonderful, but Ron expects...''

So Alexander presented the groceries to his first host, and several hours later made it through the storm to his second host's house in the suburbs. The remains of their feast could fill baskets.

Alexander turned out to be a good guest: washed dishes, cleaned the kitchen, took care of Ron's children. His manners, he assured me, were fine. Moreover, under another name, Ron turned out to be a leading television personality in Syracuse, and since Alexander was weighing a career in journalism, conversation was lively. A fabulous Christmas Eve. By morning the blizzard had abated, flights resumed, and thanks to Ron's loan for the airport taxi, Alexander reached home by Christmas noon.

And this snowy afternoon, pedestrians are slipping along sidewalks ever being resnowed, cars are grinding up and skidding down our icy hill. Inside my warm house, in dry slippers, I rush to the computer to revise Monday's story.

As I begin transferring corrections from draft to screen, someone knocks.

Adrian, a 19-year-old writer from Florida, has tramped through the snow with a gift: an 1895 Russian-French dictionary. Musty binding, pages browning, pre-Revolutionary orthography, words dropped from later Soviet editions. But the word for ``hospitality'' remains: gostipriimnost.

Adrian, wet and cold, insists he isn't hungry. Still I brew ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and honey in the small pot, then add split peas to the seething hambone bouillon in the copper caldron. Adrian unlaces his wet boots and, like Alexander, leaves them in the middle of the floor. He drinks the ginger brew and talks excitedly of F.Scott Fitzgerald, whom he just discovered.

Meanwhile I discover a can of tomatoes in the cupboard, empty it into the caldron, and scrub whatever is in the depths of the fridge: old carrots, celery, potatoes, turnips, beets, cabbage.

``Who in the world can eat all that?'' Adrian wonders as he peels onions and nibbles carrots.

I shrug, add bay leaves, peppers, salt, curry powder, garlic, parsley, then find Arthur Mizener's biography of Fitzgerald for Adrian. He settles by the fire. As the caldron simmers and snow falls, I return to the computer to rewrite one more page, or paragraph.

The unmistakable sound of a car sliding backward against the mulberry tree, grinding, dying. I close down the computer. No serious damage, but the driver needs a phone, a glass of ginger tea, a bowl of soup.

A cabbie from Ghana, unaccustomed to snow, abandons his taxi and comes to use the phone. A child shoveling sidewalks stops by. A neighbor's house guests due to fly in from Luxembourg arrive from New York by train and taxi, but their hosts haven't made it home from downtown yet. One brave cellist arrives, lugs in her instrument, and a Beethoven duet begins. Faith arrives, sits at the piano, and they slide into the ``Archduke Trio.'' The Ghanaian happens to have his saxophone in the trunk of his cab, so next....

Adrian fetches more wood for the fire. A row of wet shoes is aligned by the hearth, a row of bowls on the table. My Travelers' Hambone Snowstorm Wetboot Soup rises to the occasion, thickens and improves as it ebbs through the snowy night.

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