By Joe Kapitan
When I was a bored kid stuck in a pew of an ethnic church during long Sunday morning services, I passed the time by making up secret identities and covert missions for the older, Eastern European members of the congregation. It was the late 1970’s—the Oil Crisis still fresh in our minds, and the cranky bear that was the USSR still bellowing in the east. The Berlin Wall still stood, but Pink Floyd’s Wall was far more popular. The Miracle at Lake Placid (1980, Eruzione scores!, Al Michaels shouting “Do you believe in miracles!?”) couldn’t even have been dreamt of yet.[blocktext align=”left”]The dour expressions of Communism were etched into their faces. They wore heavy trench coats in the style of the Kremlin and brutish hats made in Warsaw. Their accented English was real.[/blocktext] All of which explained the spies.
Holy Trinity Church in suburban Parma, Ohio, was full of them–KGB operatives posing as retired steel workers, insurance salesmen, nurses, homemakers. The dour expressions of Communism were etched into their faces. They wore heavy trench coats in the style of the Kremlin and brutish hats made in Warsaw. Their accented English was real. My siblings and I gave them all nicknames and backstories: “The Frog Lady” had a direct line to Chairman Brezhnev. “The Excommunicator” ran a coded communications network that even the CIA couldn’t break. Travel back and forth from the Fatherland was handled by “Zeke of the North,” a submarine captain who’d discovered a secret route beneath the polar ice cap. `”The Duke and Duchess of Wembley” had adopted British mannerisms and infiltrated Queen Elizabeth’s royal family.
The church was changing, although I couldn’t see it at the time. This older generation, the ones with one foot still in the old country, had built the church much like their parents had built everything else in Cleveland. They went to church because that was simply what you did. You worked hard, ate a lot of starches, got married young, had kids, paid in cash, drove a station wagon, stayed married no matter what. You wore ties or dresses on Sunday morning. Your kids didn’t daydream during the hour-and-a-half church service.
But their generation was starting to die off, a few per year. The Frog Lady went early on, as did The Excommunicator, followed shortly by Zeke of the North. The Duke and Duchess of Wembley just disappeared one Sunday morning, never to return. Their decline foreshadowed world events in years to come.
The new families, like ours, were converts, spiritual refugees looking for something different. My parents had belonged to a Byzantine Catholic church until the Bishop of Cleveland began his systematic de-Byzantining, driving out the obvious eastern-inspired spiritual trappings in an exercise of conformance to the western traditions of the Vatican. [blocktext align=”right”]No one had the power of the “Babushka Cartel,” a quiet yet dedicated contingent of older women who, week after week, year after year, gathered in the church kitchen and peeled potatoes, sliced onions, rinsed sauerkraut, kneaded dough, pinched the pierogis.[/blocktext]That drove my parents to an Orthodox church, where mysticism still reigned in the form of chanted melodies, incense, Russian-style iconography; where spies could blend into the congregation, hidden beneath pork pie hats and babushkas.
Eleven-year-old me wondered who could stop the spies. Who was strong enough? The pastor? Parish Council? None had the power of the “Babushka Cartel,” a quiet yet dedicated contingent of older women who, week after week, year after year, gathered in the church kitchen and peeled potatoes, sliced onions, rinsed sauerkraut, kneaded dough, pinched the pierogis. They toiled, gossiped, laughed. They went home tired, with flour on their clothes.
The church, as it turns out, was built largely on proceeds from ethnic food sales. The public flocked to their sales. [blocktext align=”left”]They built the church that they stood in every Sunday morning, praying underneath their wool coats, because they always said they were cold.[/blocktext]They came for the homemade pierogis, sure, (two dozen potato, one dozen kraut please!) but they scarfed up the kolachkis too, the pints of halushka, the soups. The Babushka Cartel gave the proceeds to the church on Friday afternoon and started again the following Monday, peeling potatoes. They built the church that they stood in every Sunday morning, praying underneath their wool coats, because they always said they were cold—even in May. I think they were just being humble.
It’s been more than twenty years since I left Holy Trinity, but I’ve been back to visit a handful of times and seen the empty pews. The older generation I knew is all but vanished. There is no more Babushka Cartel; I doubt the current adults in the congregation could make a batch of home-made pierogis if their lives depended on it. I worry that they can’t coast much further with their financial engine gone.
Part of growing up is making peace with anyone and anything you ever mocked as a child. I had wasted my time looking for imaginary spies, when all the while I had been surrounded by plain, aging heroes whose fingers smelled like onions.
Joe Kapitan is a Cleveland writer.