The sun was shining that day, and I was glad to get out of the stuffy, ancient building, whose dark detritus and even darker history could not be scrubbed away no matter how hard the old babushkas worked to clean it with their worn rags that dipped in and out of gray water. Once again, I was taking my lunch break across the way from the Krasnodar opera house in the brittle remains of a Russian park. I sat on the same concrete bench as I had the day before and the day before that, hoping that she would come. Of course, by then I knew she would be there; that park seemed to be her daytime world.
From a distance, the woman I’d been observing on my lunch break in the park looked like the standard vision of a Russian babushka in history books, magazines, and art canvases—worn, gray headscarf, dark layers of rough linen, apron, and sweater, scuffed boxy shoes barely visible from under her skirt. Up close, she appeared a dirty page torn from an old history book that no one wants to read anymore.
What drew me to her from day one in the city, I do not know; maybe it was the curious yet painful wrinkles masking her face. She so clearly watched our group of American performers spill down the steps of the Krasnodar opera house. It’s true that everyone in the park watched us. Everyone on the street, in the hotel, in the city, watched the strange troupe of Americans that had ventured onto their communist turf. All of them were curious, busy questioning our agenda. Yet she seemed so alone in her watching as if seeing us scatter down the opera steps was enthralling and painful at the same time. Maybe I could feel her wrinkled face staring.
Her own people gave her a wide berth and turned their heads to ignore her. But I could not. There seemed no commonalities between us only differences, and I studied each from my concrete perch. As the days passed I craved access to her story; I was seeking parallels, wanting to discard the clashing in my Americanized mind between our lives. She barely acknowledged my presence, her head bobbing with the birds she tossed crumbs to.
I gave silent thanks for the food I was about to make myself eat and continued to watch her on the sly, wondering where she had gotten the crumbs to feed the birds and why she didn’t eat them herself. I pulled out my smelly lunch—greasy sausage on dry old bread. The thing my southern home-cooking palette could not accommodate I had come to crave—almost. Even the smell of it, fingering its way through the crinkled, thrice-used brown bag, didn’t nauseate me as it had a week earlier. I’d become grateful to have what I had.
I took a bite and saw the gray scarf turn, and she stared through glasses that looked just like the bottom of green Coke bottles. I saw hunger; I saw sadness. Food is the great equalizer, I thought. I choked down the dry bite in my mouth and wished for a cold American soda to wash it down. And then I offered her the rest of the brown bag. There was a beat of consideration; two beats, then a gnarled hand took the treasure with a whispered, Spasibo.
My reward for sharing was a toothless grin and Russian babble. Her hands began talking too, pointing at me, and then at the opera house. I had no clue what the animated verbiage meant, nor did I understand the tears I saw leaking out from under her thick glasses. I wanted to hug her, but I still felt too different to share that much.
“Zavtra?” I offered, hoping she would come tomorrow, as I headed back to the opera house. She ducked her head and went back to bobbing with the birds.
Tomorrow arrived, and so did she, and that time I handed her my whole greasy bag, contents intact. She took it and ate close enough to me that I smelled the days of unwashed body under her linen layers. I was shocked when she extracted a treasure from her apron pocket and slid it across the bench—a warm, dirty bottle of soda. I was as humbled as I was repelled—against all logic, I knew I would consume her offering.
As I sat with her through another lunch of babbling, pointing, and tears, I realized that the story I craved to know was being offered. The invisible wall of stark difference in language and life pushed us apart, but I sidled a bit closer to this lost lady of Krasnodar
What, oh what, are you trying to tell me? I said. I tossed in the few Russian words I knew to no avail. She held her hands out flat before her, wriggled her fingers back and forth in the air, then pointed to the opera house. Suddenly I felt both my hands grasped by calloused skin as tears and begging mewls came from her distorted face, eyes wild.
I was undone. I couldn’t take it anymore. Oh, Jesus, help me, I prayed. Help me understand her pain, her story. She pulled me toward the steps. Understanding hit me. She wanted me to take her into the opera house.
I couldn’t do it. There were rules. We were not to break them. They had warned us. Only our American team was allowed in, with special permissions to perform. No one, no common Russian, no one from the street, was allowed to enter this hollow shell of a shrine from one of the darkest parts of their history. Even in its heyday, it was available to a select few. Only the rich and privileged sat in red velvet seats and applauded the music, dancing, and singing—all of which was the personal property and project of Soviet leadership.
She pulled harder. I followed her and so did stares and hisses from the onlookers. I was drenched in fear but all of my anxiety was trumped by fascination and curiosity. What about my attention had made her nearly hysterical, desperate? As we neared the doors, I saw the scrub-ladies gathered in the alcove to dump their wash water begin to prattle and spit and point like a raucous murder of crows. They seemed to know her.
The only thing as clear as her desperation was that she was going in, whether allowed or not, and she clung to me as her shield and admission ticket. We stepped into the musty darkness—the touring American and the world-worn Russian—and were met by the stares of my team.
No one spoke.
The lost lady suddenly seemed found. She shuffled quietly, trembling with awe, toward our electric Yamaha, she slid right between the keys and our stunned pianist.
“Hey! Don’t touch that—”
I shushed him and mouthed, “Let it be.”
Long, worn, arthritic fingers touched the ivories, hesitantly at first, then, full of history, they found full notes of Tchaikovsky that resonated through the hall, through our souls. A redeemed smile and tears mixed and the combination washed the years off her face.
I was speechless, attending this concert of redemption. The music stopped. She was lost in silent weeping, as were we.
She began speaking quietly and, unlike our time on the bench, our interpreter was there to translate her words.
“My name is Margarita,” she whispered. “I was a beautiful young girl. My father was rich and an important man who taught me how to play the piano. I was required to be the personal pianist for Stalin. I came to this opera house every night, wearing beautiful red dresses.” She pointed toward the stage. “There was a grand piano right there, and it was mine to play for Stalin and the audience. I became well known. Many people loved me and my playing. But then, they suddenly did not need or want me anymore. When Stalin was done with me, he sent me out the scrubwoman’s door with nothing. I have never been allowed in this building since that night. I have never touched another piano. I lost my music, my life. Scorned by all because I had been his pianist, like a queen. Now I am alone and still scorned by those that remember me and what they required me to do. Thank you, thank you so much for letting me in, for letting me have my music back for a moment. Spasibo, spasibo.”
I hugged her tight. I did not want her to be the lost lady of Krasnodar anymore. I invited her to stay for our performance. She sat as an honored guest in the front row, she experienced the opera house again, and she heard about the love of a man named Jesus for the first time, one who will never turn her away.
Our missionary theatre troupe traveled to the Krasnodar opera house to bring the light, to pierce their darkness. The babushka of the park rushed into the Krasnodar opera house to share her light, braving the old darkness. Our two purposes had intersected then ran parallel, in that dark place of history, creating a composition of sweet harmony, both beautiful and pleasing to the Lord.
Cover image by Mehdi Sepehri.