Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Lady from Latvia

The Lakewood ShopRite is not a place to go for a quick milk run. For me, at least, any visit there is as much for the experience, as for the shopping. You see, Lakewood is an international melting point, having perhaps as many different cultures blended there as any major urban center. Walking down the aisles, you may feel that you have stumbled onto the ancient city of Babel. The largest rabbinical college in the world is located in Lakewood, and Hassaidic Jews from all over the world come to Lakewood to study. Men with their curly sideburns and tall black hats, rush to the "Kosher Experience" for some last minute touches for their evening meal, making sure they escape before sundown. Middle Eastern men who crowd into single rooms after working at gas stations for minimum wage so they can send their earnings home to their families in Turkey, scour the dairy aisle for yogurt. Mexican men hide in chicken coops behind farm markets, by day picking tomatoes, and by night walking miles to buy plantains before Shop Rite closes at 1:00 a.m. Indian women in their saris load their baskets with onions and search the spice aisles for coriander seeds to season their rich curries. You can hear the chatter of Poles, and Czechs and Russian Jews, all searching the shelves for something that reminds them of home. And they are not disappointed. Shop Rite stocks so many varieties of food that to a curious born in the USA housewife, you can get lost in the possibilities.

It was on a lazy Sunday afternoon that my daughter and I met the Lady from Latvia. We were looking at the meat case, which covers the entire back of the store, and laughing at the packages of pigs feet, pigs ears, chicken feet, and other such delicacies. A very well dressed older woman, with shiny white hair, and brilliant blue eyes, her pale skin ashen next to the bright red lipstick painting her lips, stood next to us, fingering packets of lamb shank, examining and then selecting three. I asked her what she was going to make with the lamb shanks, since my daughter and I were always trying to come up with new recipes. She told us that she had a hard time finding lamb shanks,and when she saw them , she would buy several to keep on hand. Her speech was very formal, slightly accented, and she held her head erect. I would not call it pride, but more an air of confidence and comfort with who she was. She started to explain her recipe, and she told me it was a very European style of cooking. She would cover the shank with water, seasonings, and lots of vegetables and potatoes, and let it cook for hours. It would develop the most flavorful broth and tenderize the little meat on the shank. She was alone and she could get several meals from one pot. It was a dish she had made for many years.
Although she was polite, I noted that she was a bit reserved, but nonetheless I took the bold step of asking her more. I said, may I ask what country you are from? I could feel my daughter cringing with the knowledge that her mother was at it again, interrogating perfect strangers because of her desperate curiosity to know about people. She didn't hesitate, and it almost seemed that she wanted to talk. She told me that she was from a little country, called Latvia, had I ever heard of it? And of course, I had, and told her so. She told me that she was born there, and that she had married and had an infant son. When her son was just a baby, the Russians invaded her country, and captured her husband. She was able to flee with her son to Poland where a minister from a church offered her his help to get her to America as a refugee. Knowing absolutely no one, she took her baby son and came to New Jersey. With the contacts that the minister had given her, she was able to get a small apartment and a job in a factory. She worked 50-60 hours a week, for over 40 years, in the same factory, putting every penny into funding a good education for her son. Her son was now the owner of his own computer company in California, had a PhD and was a very educated and wealthy man. She told me that her son takes very good care of her, and that she lives very comfortably now in her retirement, without any worries about money. It struck me that even with this admitted comfort, she was still searching through the cheapest cuts of meat to make a bountiful old world stew. I asked her if she ever had a chance to go back to Latvia, and she told me that she had not. Then she paused and said , but I didn't find out what happened to my husband until just five years ago. I found out that after the Russians captured my husband, they took him to a field, and executed him by firing squad. All these years, I had been waiting for some word from him, waiting to find him, and he had been dead from the beginning. Her eyes seemed a little wistful , and she said to me, is this your daughter? After acknowledging that she was, she said to both of us, America is the greatest country in the world, don't ever forget that, you are the luckiest people that you are born here and live here. And then she said, And now you know my story.

And now so do you.

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