Lena was patient, gentle, sweet, and German.
Gertrude Stein, “Three Lives”
I have been thinking lately about Lena, and how much I miss her, and how exceptional she was.
I met Lena the summer of 2012, when my three children and I moved with our fourteen suitcases to Astana, Kazakhstan to join my husband, who had preceded us by six months. I was told that Lena came with the apartment, which was owned by a local government official. I didn’t think I’d need a housekeeper every day, but I didn’t have a choice. And she seemed nice.
Like Stein’s quote, Lena was patient, gentle, sweet, and German. She had married her Tatar husband when she was fourteen and he was twenty. Before she met him, her dream was to see the sea, in Turkey perhaps. She wanted to try exotic foods and feel sand in her toes. But when she met her husband, he gave her an ultimatum—marry me now or forever you will be alone. So stayed in Kazakhstan, married, and had one child before she graduated high school. Two more children would follow.
Lena had never met Americans before. She’d never met a feminist before. She didn’t think Kazakhstan had any gay people, and she thought if a woman didn’t have sex she’d go into early menopause. Let’s just say, we taught each other a few things.
Once, when it was time for Lena to go home, she stood with her coat on, shaking outside the guest bathroom.
Lena, why didn’t you go home?
Because, I am waiting for Eva to finish her bath. I need the bathroom.
Use my bathroom.
I can’t, that is for you. The last girl who worked her did that and she got fired.
What??? I couldn’t believe what she was saying. I quickly ushered her toward my bathroom, told her about the film, “The Help” and that everyone in my house could use whatever bathroom was available.
Over the course of the nearly three years we lived in Kazakhstan, Lena taught us how to make beef stew and bake bread and fold napkins and iron a silk shirt and how to water and sing to plants and pick the perfect head of cabbage and how to love and sacrifice, how to work hard, and how to dream.
But she died before she saw the sea. And her life and her death continue to teach me and my children—to love big, dream big, and never ever ever limit your potential. I hope that somewhere, wherever Lena is, she is lying by the sea.