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On Babushkas and Elitism

By LC Van Savage

It would be a dream trip. I was being flown to Beverly Hills for the unveiling of a huge painting I'd done for a man to give to his bewitching, bejeweled and begorgeous wife. He was Sam. She was Sue and she was so beautiful that women of the plain persuasion (thatíd be moi) would not stand anywhere near her. Comparisons are odious, they say. That may be, but still the smart ones backed into the shadows when that dazzling woman approached.

There was to be a big party at that unveiling, with lots of famous show-biz people attending. I was psyched! Queen of the world! Soon I'd be hanging with a few of the country's most high falutin'. Oh, I was just so ready!

I boarded the big silver bird that would soon be flying me to the Magical Land of the Falutiní. I looked down the planeís long aisle toward my assigned seat, and I saw her. Immense, a gigantic mass of layered fabric, she was short, with sun-roughened skin, a heavy black babushka tied tightly around her head and beneath her many chins. Her long dress, at least the top one, was a riot of vicious colors and her feet were stuffed into red, high topped sneakers. One enormous eyebrow stretched above her heavily lidded eyes, looking like a panicked caterpillar hopelessly glued to her dark forehead. A startlingly large nose hooked nearly into her widely grinning, completely toothless mouth.

"Please," I breathed. "Don't let her seat be next to mine." How could I possibly fly to Beverly Hills, I thought snootily, seated next to some person who'd never even heard of it?

Her seat was exactly next to mine. "Excuse me," I said icily, pushing past her. I soon realized there was little point in my speaking in disdainful tones, since they were utterly lost on this outlandish woman. It quite quickly became clear to me that she did not speak English anyway.

As I stumbled past this strange woman, she shouted something straight into my ear. I breathed a short curse, turned and glared at her. She grinned and this old virago began rocking, laughing, shouting and pointing wildly out the window with a weathered and arthritic finger. This was obviously her first flight and she apparently thought we were airborne. Not only had we not yet left the ground, the plane hadnít even begun to taxi down the tarmac. I glared at her, shook my head and sat down.

"What IS she?" I mouthed at the flight attendant, gesturing with my head toward my seatmate. The uniformed woman mouthed one word back. "Czech."

"Oh no," I thought. I did not then and still do not know a single word of Czechoslovakian.

Laughing, trumpeting, the peasant woman kept at me. I turned away from her and she jerked a magazine from the steward's arm as he passed.

She delivered a painful cuff to my shoulder. I glared at her. And then she said in fractured, guttural English, "You like papa?"

"Well, yes, my father's OK I guess," I stuttered and again turned away.

"Nonononononono!" she brayed, stabbing me with her rolled magazine. This was becoming annoying.

"NODDAYU FODDUH," she yelled. "Papa! Papa! You see?" She unrolled the magazine, whacked it down on my lap and jabbed at it with her seriously gnarled finger. She was pointing at a picture of the Pope. Then from her head area came a sudden loud and horribly pulpy sniff. Oh no. She was weeping. She looked at me and with the few English words she was able to spray out, told me how she loved this holy man, how she always prayed to him and how he sent messages up to God for her. Her old, wrinkled face was dripping with tears and they blotted into her babushka.

I decided to smile, but realized that might encourage her, so I didn't. The plane mercifully taxied and then rose into the air and I soon knew I was doomed. I faked sleep, catatonia, and a small stroke; nothing worked. During the remaining 6 1/2 hours of our journey, she told me every single thing about her family--every relative, their dogs, goats, their village. Her children. At least I think that's what she was saying, not being in the least conversant in Czechoslovakian. But in spite of myself, I gradually became mesmerized and actually think I understood some of her stories.

Eventually I fell asleep somewhere in the midst of all that, but she never noticed. She was still happily babbling when I felt the plane land.

As a sort of Hollywood joke, my host had sent a huge limo to pick me up, chauffeur, cap and all. We retrieved my luggage and walked toward the long, black car.

A flash of hideous colors caught the edge of my eye and I turned. She stood alone in a corner, ratty luggage piled around those red high tops, and she was wailing horribly. I looked desperately around. No one was there to meet her.

"Oh God, no," I sighed. OK, OK. I gestured to her. With a whoop and a huge, gummy grin, she bolted toward me, holding out a soiled piece of ragged paper with an address scribbled on it. I held the paper in the tips of my fingers and showed it to my driver. He nodded and we shoved the old Czech lady into the back seat of my limo while I had to sit up front with the driver. Well! I mean really. When would all this end? At that moment, all I wanted was to be in the midst of America's finest, richest, glitziest and phoniest, and certainly not in the company of a loud old Czech peasant woman screeching from the back of an oversized limo.

We found her destination and unloaded her. She crushed me in a Heimlich hug. When we drove off, I turned to look back, my snobbery now bitter gall in my throat. At that moment, I was singularly unproud of me. As the limo purred away, I could see the old lady from Czechoslovakia in the loving and warm embrace of a huge, loudly laughing, colorful family, many wearing black babushkas. I turned back in my seat and faced the back of my implacable limo driverís capped head, and wondered with painful envy why my own childhood family had never been able to behave that way. And then, sighing, I realized the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills just didn't seem to be such a big a deal anymore.

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