The longer I live, the more I’m learning the importance of celebrating the people whose lives have touched mine—not just after they die, but when they are still alive.
“Emilia Pavlovna” (as she’s been called since I sat in her first-year Russian class during my freshman year of college more than 20 years ago) is one such person. I have been asked to send in recollections from her life on the occasion of her 90th birthday. She and I have been dear friends, virtually family, all these years; and next month, I’ll be raising a toast to her at her birthday party in New Haven, Connecticut.
In case it is of any encouragement to you as you celebrate those who have loved you into being and whom you have loved back, here is a recollection and celebration of the life of Emilia Pavlovna:
Emilia Pavlovna was my first-year Russian teacher. Somehow, she taught me to love Russian. In hindsight, I think it was not so much the Russian language but Emilia Pavlovna with whom I fell in love—the evidence of which was a major in Russian and East European Studies.
There have been so many things to love about Emilia Pavlovna over the 20 some years we’ve been friends. She is, in some ways, a second mother. But our care for one another really started with her care for me after an early first-year Russian test. I was nursing a wounded ego after my first-ever “D” on a test. (We Yalies didn’t get into college, after all, by regularly earning D’s.) But I had sought Emilia Pavlovna out for answers, and she assiduously and energetically (as was her way) walked me through the slew of red marks on my paper with her usual mix of cheerful equanimity and dogged determination to make me a successful Russian student, finally sending me off one hour later with clear instructions: “You must study, study, study.” She assured me that if I stuck with it I’d soon be earning A’s. (She was right, as she often is.)
Those “bright college years” were marked by frequent interactions with Emilia Pavlovna over dinner at the Russian table, where she faithfully showed up every week to bear the awkward, stilted Russian of eager students, patiently repeating for them the correct grammatical construction with almost the same motherly dedication to each carefully enunciated word that she paid to each of her students.
When upon graduation I found myself somewhat insecurely not in the ranks of most of my cohorts, who by and large had followed one of three paths (investment banking, medical school or law school), Emilia Pavlovna quite literally took me in. Her husband, Mr. Hramov, had just died, and she was alone—but she had a spare bedroom. “Well, look,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Mr. Hramov isn’t here anymore, and I could use the company.”
A few days later I had driven my boyfriend’s car up to her house with a couple suitcases of clothing and would spend the rest of the summer taking the bus into work every morning from Emilia Pavlovna’s house in Hamden.
Living with Emilia Pavlovna for a summer is when we became more like family. For one, she refused to let me pay rent. She insisted on stacking the fridge with every manner of frozen dinner; every morning would make me a lunch, despite my vigorous protests. This was when I came to learn the importance of food for a woman who had grown up in Europe during World War II. Food was one embodiment of Emilia Pavlovna’s love.
Another was her advice. Somehow she delivers it in such a winning way, that I can rarely begrudge her for it. Over the years I’ve come to know Emilia Pavlovna and what she values from the advice she has given: about the importance of hard work and being a devoted mother to my two children; about being a wife who listens (at least a bit) to and respects her husband; about the priority of family over career.
That summer Emilia Pavlovna helped me secure my very first real job. She knew I wanted to work in the news business (maybe not unlike what she did working for The New York Times in New York before meeting and marrying Mr. Hramov who soon after insisted she quit her New York—New Haven commute); so she called up an old student of hers working at ABC News to tell him I was applying for a job with the John Stossel Unit at 20/20. Not long after, I was moving my suitcases into an itty bitty apartment just a few blocks away from Lincoln Center.
Emilia Pavlovna was at my wedding. She was at my graduation from Princeton Seminary years later. For me, like for so many of her students who stayed in touch over the years, she has always been just a phone call away, quickly and eagerly engaged in the details of our lives, and always insisting that the tab for the call be on her.
Few things tell as much about a person as growing old, which I suspect is as much about learning to let go in loss over and over again. I’ve had the privilege of watching Emilia Pavlovna do this gracefully, without complaint, with the same kind of cheerful equanimity—even vivaciousness—and intellectual curiosity that she brought to early morning Russian class all those years. A knee surgery and ensuing near-death infection, chronic pain from a bad back, the loss of her independence, including the home she lived in for many years with Mr. Hramov. Emilia Pavlovna has met the ravages of old age with matter-of-fact acceptance that with every loss or mini death of sorts in this life, there comes a new beginning. New life is always just around the corner.
This wisdom and joie de vivre are gifts that Emilia Pavlovna has imparted to me. I find myself appropriating them when I tell my son in his weekly basketball games to play with heart no matter the outcome. Or when I hold my 4-year-old daughter close at the end of a long day, remembering that this moment is precious and passing away.
Emilia Pavlovna, on her 90th birthday, can celebrate a life well lived. A life that has loved and played—and for sure “studied, studied, studied”— hard. A life lived out in the company of friends, students, neighbors and the church. What more can one say about someone so beloved? “Happy 90th Birthday,” maybe. And “I love and admire you.”