The Cat Lady.
I found her by posting an ad in the laundry room.
She answered it within a few hours, and this was years ago now. Thing is, in my many interactions with Val, I must admit I have never really had any sort of in-depth talk with her.
When I got back from my trip a few days ago, I noticed that Val had brought a radio up to my place and had left it on for Jack. [I had no idea he was so into music!] Anyhoo, this morning I brought the radio back down to her and she invited me in.
Minutes later, sitting on Val’s couch, her own Polish-named cat [← when Val calls this cat it sounds like she’s sneezing] was nuzzling up to me and I found that Val and I were soon talking about books. I’m not sure how this topic started, but wow!
I quickly realized how fascinating this woman is!
Val, now in her late 70’s, reveals to me that she was once a professor of Russian Literature in Moscow! [I nearly fell off the couch at this point!] Before leaving Russia, she also worked as an editor of a Moscow newspaper.
What the hell?
Instantly we start talking about Tolstoy and Pushkin and Gogol and Pasternak…. she goes to her one bookcase and shows me this ancient 1856 edition of something by Lermontov.
AND IT’S IN RUSSIAN, of course.
She tells me that she has boxes of similar books that she does not display because some of them are originals from [get a load of this] the 1700’s!
I am all of a sudden totally intrigued by speaking with this woman who owns this veritable mountain of Russian classics which she reads in the original language!
She tells me her favorite of all time is Crime and Punishment.
I tell her mine is Anna Karenina.
She tells me how to properly pronounce it.
And all this time she’s been living in my own building! And occasionally hanging out with my cat!
And not only this. Her husband was a famous Russian film-maker. She showed me black-and-white stills from several of the thirteen movies he directed. He specialized in musicals, and the photos she showed were mostly of elaborately choreographed dance scenes. “It was his genre,” she said, misty-eyed.
When they immigrated to America they were living in Hollywood, and only after his death from heart failure did Val move up here to Canada.
OK, I’ve got to summarize, but it is difficult. What I want to get to is the part where she starts talking about War and Peace.
We’re sitting there, [little Veezshnatschoo or whatever his name is, still nuzzling beside me] and Val starts telling me that when her husband died, she herself wanted to end her life. She had no will to live. As you can imagine, I am listening intently at this point…. just letting her go on.
She said that it was while re-reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace that she regained her desire to live.
Apparently, at one point in the story Natasha is mourning the death of her own husband. [I too have read the book, but for some reason could not exactly recall the vignette that Val began to describe, the very one that gave her a new lease on life… I just nodded knowingly, as she went on...]
Natasha, near dead from mourning begins to sing. And all she can eek out is a simple two notes.
“Oooo, Oooo!” Val whispered, as I sat listening.
And as she read this, way back then, she said she tried it herself… “Oooo, oooo!” [I was now leaning so far off the couch Val could have seen my bald spot…]
And she said to me, “I knew from that moment, that I would live. That I would keep living.”
You could have heard a cat purr!
But even all of this is not the greatest thing she told me, before I left.
At the door, over her shoulder I could see the little radio sitting on the floor where she had placed it. For some reason it seemed like some kind of holy thing. And Val said to me in her heavy accent, “No one else knows of these things. I never speak about my husband.”
So, in the hallway, as her door clicked shut, I felt not only grateful, but very privileged.