“Take the peas,” Renee said as I walked toward the door. “You can eat them for lunch tomorrow.”
I thanked her and put the container in my bag.
“So I’ll see you next Wednesday for dinner at six?”
It was less of a question and more of a declarative vision of friendship to endure a brutal winter in Warsaw.
The two of us were an unlikely pair: Renee was an 80-something, British-born widow who had been uprooted from her retirement community in Florida to join her son and his wife in Poland. I was a 22-year-old American completing an international fellowship working with Polish Holocaust survivors. Every day, I would listen to raw, fractured sound bites of their histories, straining to understand smatterings of Polish and Yiddish. I would study their delicate faces, lined and splotched like moth wings, and try to discern whether my company really mattered.
Socialising in Warsaw wasn’t easy—especially for an American Jewish ex-pat like me. I often strolled by myself through a local outdoor market, weaving between barrels of sour pickles and giant sunflowers packed with spiralling seeds.
So when I learned about Renee through a friend, I welcomed the opportunity to dine with a spirited elder who spoke English with a buttery British accent, wore bulky glasses with peach-tinted plastic frames, and didn’t carry the Holocaust in her bones. I scribbled down her address and walked 20 minutes to her tiny apartment.
Renee was feisty, petite, and a terrible cook. She usually served dry cow liver and soggy peas, or a bowl of watery mayonnaise with a scoop of canned tuna. She didn’t have a spice cabinet and cautioned me about the dangers of eating fried eggs.
“Why don’t I cook for you sometime?” I asked. But she always refused. When I suggested fresh spinach and pierogies instead of leathery liver and peas, she responded, “Don’t be silly. Broiled meat and a hot vegetable make a young girl strong.”
Dinner conversation was mostly a reprise of the same subjects: Jews in England, Jews in Poland, Jews in the United States, ballroom dancing with her late husband, and the adventure of boarding a ship from Manchester to New York. She regularly asked when I planned to get married. I wasn’t sure.
One night in February, I switched on Renee’s TV to watch the Winter Olympics. It was the ladies’ figure-skating championships.
“Look at their outfits,” Renee scoffed. “Would you ever wear something like that?”
“Only if I were vying for a medal in a competition,” I replied. “They’re costumes.”
She shuffled back to her kitchen with a mug of milky Earl Grey.
“I wouldn’t mind some exercise right now,” she mused. “Want to have a go?”
“Now? You want to exercise right here?”
She did. And she insisted I join her.
She tossed me a fuchsia sweatband, and we started doing leg lifts, hip swirls, and arm circles while women on ice tried to twirl their way to gold.
“Come on, Jordan, put a little oomph into it! You’re a healthy young woman! Punch the air like you mean it!”
The following week when I returned to Renee’s apartment, she was cleaning out her closet.
“Take my sweaters,” she said. “I won’t live forever.”
I hesitated but could tell she wanted me to have them. The pink acrylic fibres wove a pattern of weary smiles. They smelled like my late grandmother’s bedroom in Yonkers, a familiar solace in a country that wasn’t my own.
When I moved back to Boston, Renee and I occasionally spoke by phone. Then we lost touch entirely. I was navigating my first “real” job, eating sushi with friends, training for a marathon, dating. I held on to Renee’s sweaters for two years before guiltily dropping them at Goodwill.
Nearly 15 years after my dinners with Renee, my Wednesday night meals are often a jumbled rush to boil pasta and steam broccoli before hurrying to get my 4-year-old into the bath. Back in Warsaw, when I would trudge through thick snow and climb five flights to Renee’s apartment, the practice of showing up, slowing down, and being present rarely required effort. It was a soul-warming luxury. There were no schedules to juggle or tasks to complete, except the task of listening. Renee would greet me at the door in her blue and white checkered housecoat. The table would be set for two, ready to hold our laughter and our crumbs.
Sometimes, when the bustle of work and parenting wears me down, I wonder what it would feel like to reclaim a slower cadence and return to a simpler time; to listen to an elderly woman’s well-worn story on a Wednesday night instead of washing dishes or folding laundry. I imagine Renee telling me once more about dancing the foxtrot and sailing the open seas. Then the kettle would whistle, and we’d refill our cups.
This article was previously published in the Wellesley Magazine in 2019
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