Monday, February 8, 2016


‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
— John Keats (1795–1821), Ode on a Grecian Urn

Early one morning I was at the market purchasing some medicine and a couple of items of grocery. As I was walking past the refrigerated displays, I approached a woman who was making a careful selection of a carton of eggs. Her back was to me, and she was rather tall, but she looked very familiar somehow.

A feeling of my childhood came over me and then quickly yielded to speculative thought. It was very cold that day. Even though it was still November, an autumn month, the air was very chilly that week. In fact, that's probably why I started to feel sick the afternoon of the day before, catching a chill sitting at my desk at work. The office was very cold.

The woman was dressed in a simple but elegant long coat with luxurious fur collar, something that seemed a little out of place.

Her head was covered by a white scarf with subtle raised patterns on it. The way the head scarf was arranged over her head, combined with the long coat, and underneath a long skirt, summoned feelings I hadn't had since a young boy.

That's exactly how my grandmother dressed, my sophisticated Warsaw busia, who would never go out unless she was sure of being properly attired and head covered, but not with any old babuszka on her head, rather, something elegant like this woman's head covering. I could tell from her height and her confident stance, even from behind, she was no grandmother.

As I passed her, I very quickly and shyly looked at the face peering out of the white silken head scarf. Ah, just as I thought! An African woman. I looked hurriedly away so as not to make her uncomfortable. The speculation that my mind played with as I came up behind her, that she might be an Eastern European Orthodox woman, quickly dissipated.

One part of me fully expected to see a Polish or Russian face with rosy cheeks peering from under that headscarf, but another part of me wasn't surprised that it was probably an Ethiopian or even a Somali woman, though neither of them should have been dressed quite that way. The Somali women especially are too colorful, and their head coverings are Islamic.

This woman wore her clothing and scarf like a European woman. I'm still at a loss to decide what her ethnicity was, but she was definitely an African, and though I did not look at her facial features long enough to visualise them, I knew she was a beautiful woman. Her beauty radiated from her feminine heart, expressed in her choice of clothes, and her womanly confidence.

I haven't seen such women in a long time.

I grew up in inner city Chicago in the 1950's and early 60's. My mother wouldn't dream of leaving the house without something on her head. This wasn't just something to wear to church. No, every journey outside the home, her head was covered. My mother was very modern, though, and I knew by her style, she would do everything differently.

My older sister, five years my senior, reluctantly covered her head too when she went out, from about the age of 8 to her high school years. She would wear the head scarf, but once she passed the first house on the opposite side of the street, I think she often took it off and put it away in her purse. I did the same with my spectacles, because I was ashamed of being ‘four eyes.’

I remember, in my 7th and 8th grade class, most of the girls still tied at least a skimpy little scarf over their bouffant hair styles, and it made them look almost comical. They were all very pretty, and it seemed to me a bit ridiculous that they'd cover their heads like that. We were almost all second generation children of Polish, Ukrainian, Slovak, Greek and Italian immigrants.

We moved away suddenly as I entered high school to a new, suburban village where everyone was a transplant from somewhere else. Everyone had to form new relationships and evolve new customs and ways of dressing. I almost never saw girls or women with covered heads in that town, or anytime after that. Femininity would learn to express itself in a different way.

A lot of thoughts like these passed through my mind as I walked past the woman selecting eggs. The mystique of woman, something totally absent in today's society, was located in her. I could feel that too, and ‘I was awed by the beauty’ of it. Again, quickly, images of the Theotokos and all the women saints in the ikons, surrounding Christ the true Man, held me.

‘What have we lost?’ was answered with ‘What we have lost!’ in my rational mind, as I realised that I had just experienced a glimpse of a lost world, the world of my childhood, where men and women knew who they were, were confident enough in it that they could be different, where the secret doctrine of ‘man builds the outer world, woman nurtures the inner’ was still happening.

Strains of Chopin's Nocturne #2 in E-flat major drift through my head, as I remember that lost world. The autumn sun filtering in through the lace curtains in Busia's sitting room, as I sat quietly with her while she taught me to embroider. Embroider? Yes, for Poles it is not an art for women only. Perhaps my older sister was too rambunctious, but I could sit still.

Women's things were for women, and men's for men. Busia never went down to Grampa's workshop where he handcrafted small items of carved furniture. She let him be, and he returned the favor. There she was, all afternoon, tending the roses and vegetables in her half-lot garden, while he sat on a wooden stool talking man things with my other grandpa.

Beyond all argument in words, wisdom is proved by living, and living by the Word of God.

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