There Is Always Room for One More
Guest Post by Anna Rumin
"You can look into an empty fridge and produce a gourmet meal," my husband likes to say. I'm no gourmet cook, but I never see "an empty fridge." I consider the lone onion, tired carrots and leftover mashed potatoes and wonder how they'll taste in soup. I sweat the veggies in some fat and salt, add stock and maybe some herbs and spices, use my immersion blender, and voila, the soup is ready.
Pretty plates, clear crystal glasses and candles make leftover fridge soup go a long way—useful skills I learned from my mother. But it was Tyetya Olya who taught me that if you look out the window and see an unexpected crowd arrive, just keep adding ladles of stock until there is enough for everyone.
Even though she wasn't really my aunt, I called her "moya Tyetya Olya"—my Aunt Olya. She was my father's oldest friend, my mother's dearest friend, and always welcomed me with a smile and a crippling hug. Anushka, she would say in Russian with a smile, her left arm beckoning me to sit beside her on the gold velvet chair in our living room, kissing me loudly, including me in the conversation. One year, she was my Saturday morning Russian school teacher and she would get angry with me because I hadn't learned the dates of the wars or recited The Bronze Horseman correctly or couldn't stop giggling with Katya; but she never told my parents.
After she died two years ago, I realized I hadn't seen Tyetya Olya for years. I had spoken with her a few times when she was already humming to herself and singing with a cardinal who would poke its head through the window, but like so many others, I had abandoned her in the last chapter of her life. I reasoned that she wouldn't have known who I was and that I wanted to hang onto the brighter place where and when I had known her. It was the place where I learned that if the roast runs out, there are cold cuts. If you want to drink wine out of a crystal glass, arrive early, or you'll be drinking wine out of a chipped teacup. There was always room for one more at the table at her place.
Tyetya Olya's cottage, nestled in the Laurentian woods, was my favourite place when I was a little girl, and I begged my parents to take us there on the weekends. I didn't realize then that simply arriving at someone's cottage is not done. I still believe that when Tytetya Olya said, "Just come anytime," which I am pretty sure we did, she meant it.
One summer, we rented her cottage for two weeks, and I couldn't wait for her to arrive on the weekends. During the week, my mother would make us walk through the woods for a swim before breakfast, and after that my brother and I were more or less left to do what we wanted.
When it rained, I would read Agatha Christie paperbacks, and even when it didn't rain, I would read. Once in a while, we would go into the village for ice cream or to St Sauveur for doughnuts, but otherwise, the days were long and simple and still. I would wait for the weekend when Olya would arrive with Slava, and the dacha would be jolted to life with his snoring, her laugh and the inevitable jumble of guests that followed.
Our kitchen at home was brightly lit by an east-facing window that looked out onto our garden where gladiolas grew among the tomatoes, cucumbers were neatly tied up, and the rose bushes bloomed into the fall. The white linoleum counters were home to a kettle, mix-master and knife set, and as my mother liked to say, the floors were so clean you could eat off them.
In Tyetya Olya's cottage kitchen, it was difficult to find space on the counter to put down the breakfast dishes; the sink was always full of mismatched and chipped English china; and the cupboards and spare broken fridge were packed with food that may or may not have died or come to bloom with time.
I loved cleaning the kitchen with my mother, and by the time Tyetya Olya arrived on a Friday, the kitchen sparkled, the countertops gleamed, and the cupboards were a little less bursting. She would clasp her hands together and smile, but by Saturday morning, the sink would be filled with egg-crusted pans and plates glistening with bacon fat and empty cans of Carnation milk.
We'd set the table in the corner of the screened-in porch—mismatched plates and cutlery, fancy paper napkins, wine glasses, and cups for late-comers. In no time, it would be piled with cheese, bread, meat and pickles, and the porch would groan from the group of friends seated in the corner, never imagining the table might be better placed elsewhere. If I were lucky, I'd be in between the windows, unable to get up and help, left to listen to the group argue about the state of the Soviet Union and the Russian Orthodox Church, share stories of getting married in DP camps during the Second World War, and offer solutions to the endless problem of how to get Solzhenitsyn out of the USSR.
The voices were loud, each person vying to be heard, and in later years, my husband would ask why we always argued. This volleying of voices and emotions was normal conversation, and coupled with vodka, the occasional song or recitation of a poem, it became all the merrier. And no matter who appeared in the driveway, Tyetya Olya would find another chair, another plate and another place around the table meant for four.
"The food was never that good," my parents would say, but I don't remember the food. I remember the "cat" lady with protruding front teeth and dyed black hair with a white streak down the middle who would sprinkle her conversations with "meow."
"I don't know why she invited so many people," my mother would say, but I only remember seeing my parents joining the back and forth of ideas, thoughts, and gossip.
"So many dishes," someone would lament as they got into their car to drive back to the city, but I only remember standing at the sink and washing and drying along with my mother, the two of us creating order where we could.
To my childhood and teenage mind, Tyetya Olya created places of brightness for me when she was visiting in our living room, or I was sitting with her at the table on the groaning porch, or when I'd hear her singing over others during church services. She was the aunt who wasn't really an aunt but who let me into her life and made me feel like I mattered, that my presence made her happy, but I daresay she made everyone feel that way.
And maybe too, she liked the order of my mother's house, the matching gold velvet chairs, that she was served scotch in a crystal glass and nuts on gold-rimmed china saved for the best guests. My mother taught me how to look into a fridge and create a meal. My Tyetya Olya taught me that it doesn't matter if the kitchen sink is full, or the cake is a little dry, or the wine is a little warm, there is always room for one more person around the table.