Occasions of Grace

Occasions of Grace March 20, 2018

My old friend Gina, one of the loveliest ladies I know, lived for years with her family in a large co-op apartment overlooking Riverside Drive in New York City.

The building, on its lower floors, was like a wedding cake swathed in white icing, but once you made it through the dark Gothic lobby and the be-capped doorman, and into the filigreed elevator, you arrived on the appointed floor thinking you’d perhaps stepped into group home, or a kind of kibbutz.

Round the corner of the hallway, and the apartment doors were always open, both of them—the back door into the kitchen and the bedroom of the eldest child in what had once been the “maid’s room,” and just a few steps away, the front door whose vestibule had been effectively turned into a library, with dark wooden bookshelves from floor to ceiling.

In the giant living room, with its lake of wooden floor, the shimmering light, and the expanse of New York were visible through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

The wonder of this house, its genius, if you will—was that it wasn’t all that hard to imagine living there myself. It was not the kind of over-decorated, suffocatingly rich New York City apartment that one might associate with the New York Observer or Elle Décor, although it was in that kind of building.

I’d been a guest in many of those kinds of apartments before, but not in this one: Gina, her husband, and children arrived there as a result of some unexpected circumstances, and that was reflected in how they decorated it, entirely sui generis, with schoolroom chairs and items picked up at jumble sales and an upholstered chair hauled up from the street. The dim and cozy kitchen had high cabinets and appeared not to have been renovated since the 1920s.

Being in this apartment, with that family, and above all, with Gina, felt like an amazing occasion of grace, and I could think of nothing more I could want than being like Gina, and having a family like that.

There was a bright September Sunday when I was visiting and Gina pressed me into service to make an impromptu meal. I followed her up the hill in Morningside Heights to the supermarket across Broadway from Columbia, where she steered me through the buckets of colorful flowers and trays of ruffled lettuce to put together something that would, like the apartment, be both elegant and simple at once.

I can still recite this menu sixteen years later, and marvel at its grace: baguettes torn and buttered, with slices of ham inside. A crystal bowl of blueberries, tossed with mint leaves, and the juice of a lime squeezed on top. A glass pitcher filled with translucent citrine-colored lemonade.

Southerners talk incessantly about the importance of place, the connection to the land, and yet here it had taken me to New York to see it in its most vivid form: the apartment, the food, the city. And Gina. All of a piece, and unified.

The whole day felt like the concrete embodiment of the admonition in the book of Titus that older women should teach the younger ones how to love their husbands, and their homes, and I did not want it to end.

Gina’s genius, though, and that of so many women I know, is that she took the arts of housewifery and domesticity, and spread them out in her care of the community, where they were fertilized into relationship and art.

She led Sunday school classes at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; she taught a sex education class to an all-boys class of Orthodox Jews. She spearheaded a fundraiser to revive the production of Medieval mystery plays, and researched the water-retaining properties of exotic plants as a method for older adults to fend off dehydration.

These are all activities you might not associate with New York City, but all of them are needed, and Gina was there.

It was about a year ago that Gina and I met on a spring day in a Midtown bistro, after not having seen her for a couple of years. We sat together in the well of a semicircular booth, and ordered steaming tea and French onion soup.

Here it was that Gina said her apartment on Riverside Drive was gone. The children were grown and the apartment had been sold, and she and her husband had moved to a new, smaller home right up at the tip of the island in Washington Heights—farther away than I could imagine going, sadly, on this one-day business trip. Magnanimous as always, she’d descended from the trees and the Cloisters and had come down from the hills to see…me.

We are in a historical moment now when the possibilities of achievement for women are said to be limitless. But we have not, I think, thought about the stresses that traversing these distances (physical and spiritual) can have on us.

And here is what Gina also said, in words that have haunted me for more than a year: I’m a pilgrim again. I had my village, my stores, I knew who I was. But now I am back on the road.

Her expression was not without grief or pain, but the look in her eyes was clear, and resolute. She was the same old Gina, blazing the path before me, and I was going to look to her again as I tried to get my footing.

Dedicated to Gina Bria.

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

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