This is my friend Lydia.
Not everyone is friendly to foreigners, but she always was.
Not everyone wears a dependable smile, but she always did.
We met a year ago, as D and I moved into this building. She was sitting on the bench outside as he and I approached the doorway, arms filled with stuff. I later realized that she loved to watch all the comings and goings and daily dramas from that bench. She came over to meet us and turned up again later with two plants- "this one is for money, and the other is to bring you love!" she promised.
Lydia was constantly in motion. She worked at the entrance of a neighboring building and I'd see her gardening in rubber boots, gossiping from the bench, sweeping, scrubbing. She was never at rest for long. Sometimes she'd stop to tell me about the difficult parts of her life or worry over whether she should take an extra cleaning job in Gorky Park to help support her daughter's family. Other times she would break into song and reminisce over her younger days traveling the country and singing. She explained how she took up smoking in her 20s out of the worry that not knowing how to smoke would make her seem awkward on a date.
Lydia was only 63. She had blond curls like a 40s starlet and she never appeared without her trademark bright lipstick, blush, and heavy mascara. She'd go tanning and swimming on the weekends at a park near her home. Coming back to work, she'd roll up her sleeves to show off her tan and scold me for being so white. Lydia took us to this spot in April and we had a wonderful picnic lunch together. I still remember how she wore heels to our picnic :p
Lydia was forever asking about life in America, saying she'd like to meet an older American guy. When my brother came to visit she fussed over him, saying "I knew he was a good man the moment I saw him", offering to set him up with a "nice Ukrainian girl". She would ask me again and again if life was better in Ukraine or in America, as if she expected my answer to change from one day to the next. I always said I loved both and that the two countries were too different to compare. She'd sigh and say "America is better, I just know it" but then go on to talk about the richness of Ukrainian language and culture.
My most recent memory of her is from a couple of weeks ago. It was probably the last time we sat down and spent time together. It was a hot afternoon that day and a thunderstorm lurked overhead in wait. Several days earlier she'd given me the phone number of an apartment available for rent (as well as writing out by hand all the spelling rules related to the Russian letters з and с... and reminding me that all my language problems would be solved if I'd just read Tolstoy in the original Russian). At that moment the owner's daughter happened to be in the building and Lydia wanted me to go view the apartment. The thunderstorm broke while we were waiting. Water poured down like someone had turned on a shower from above. Next thing we knew, the entrance to Lydia's building had severely flooded. She put on her rubber boots, grabbed some old pots, and we got to work on bailing out the submerged floor. Then she marched upstairs with me in tow to check out the apartment, introducing me to the owner's daughter with such kind words of praise.
The mood in the neighborhood now is very somber. Today was the cremation and a number of people from the neighborhood were in attendance. Lydia's death was no slow illness, for I don't think she could ever slow down enough for any disease to catch up. Instead, Lydia went swimming last Sunday, swimming at the park near her house where we had that lovely picnic, and there Lydia drowned. It's been a terrible, terrible shock for everyone that a placid little river and a vibrant woman could collide in such an awful way.
If Lydia could be here now, I know she'd be angry at seeing tears. She'd insist that we take the cookies and sweets that were dropped off after the cremation, make tea, and remember the good times we shared over the past year. She was always concerned for us, saying that since we didn't have any family or relatives in the area, she would take their place. And she did in fact manage to do just that. She'll always have a place now in my heart, a little corner where she can correct my bad Russian, ask all she wants about salaries in America, and sing the songs of her youth.
Thank you, Lydia, for everything. You will be missed.