October 6, 1918 - March 15, 2017
It's been a year since we lost Serge. Here's one more story, my words for Serge and our amicitia mirabilis, from his memorial service:
I met Serge in 2009, when he requested a companion for his wife, MJ. I was that companion, provided one night a week, compliments of a non-profit organization. Home visits were new to me and I remember feeling intimidated by the Neprashes. Would I be interesting enough? Would I measure up?
I don't really know how to tell the story of Serge that I have in my heart. How do you articulate the process of a friendship, or who you became in that process? When MJ's health necessitated what would become a permanent move for her, Serge and I began to socialize more. We created traditions without realizing we were creating traditions, which were chiefly symphonies at Emory, dinner at the Colonnade, Sunday teas with MJ. Some of these moments were commemorated on social media (in quotation marks below).
"January 31, 2010: A fine afternoon with MJ and Serge that included white wine, roasted cashews, cocoa truffles, giant sequoias, the allegory of Pi, and individually-wrapped slices of Kraft Swiss cheese."
Anyone who knew Serge would agree that he never met a word he didn't like. He was a champion talker. He knew it. I think he knew the 1978 Scrabble dictionary by heart, because during Scrabble he played words no one would ever say, but words that held up under scrutiny. He always won. He shared his joy for words by gifting people with Word of the Day calendars for Christmas. I was on that list.
Serge designated himself my cultural mentor. He was determined to improve me, by several means. One was music. It wasn't as if I'd never been to a symphony, but concerts at Emerson Hall were narrated by Serge, who went over every word in the program out loud, and compared each performance to all performances he'd attended ever. We were well-known at Emerson Hall, and his ploy worked. Now I know that I prefer Brahms over Handel. I'll never forget when I became aware that what I was listening to was Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. That was on January 22, 2012. I cried.
"April 6, 2014: In the car, Serge asks to hear the Russian liturgical music he gave me two weeks ago. He worries that I may be finding it monotonous. No, I say, it is beautiful. This makes him happy and he turns the volume very high and yells across to me: We always have time for beautiful things."
New Yorker magazines were part of the cultural advancement package. For years Serge passed along 4th generation New Yorkers, down-cycled to him, passed to MJ when he was done, and then on to me. I was always several months behind, but didn't mind. They became a staple in my life. I devoured them from cover to cover - and for some reason from back to front.
I was issued an Audubon Society Pocket Guide at some point. Serge began to give me newspaper clippings from Charles Seabrooks AJC articles about the birds of Georgia, on topics like nesting chimney swifts, the dawn chorus of songbirds, or how much body fat a bird needed to get to the southern tropics in winter. I never understood why he pressed birds on me, the clippings, the book, and even once a pair of binoculars, which eventually returned. I suppose it made him happy, which was enough for me. I can't say that I ever turned into the birder Serge may have hoped I would be, but I do hear the chorus of songbirds in the morning. I know a cardinal and a house finch without seeing them.
"June 16, 2014: Among the cashews, figs and Heineken of Sunday, Serge reads to us about the devotion of male cardinals and why they are truly devoted fathers."
I hope it's ok to say in church that sometimes I wanted to strangle Serge. This loops back around to his being a champion talker (plus he made me sit through a viewing of Fantasia. On VHS). But mostly I wanted him to be pleased with me. That loops back around to my wondering if I measured up.
Serge had a discriminating palette for accomplishment. He did not hand out compliments easily or frequently. By 2014 we celebrated many holidays together: Thanksgivings, birthdays, mothers days, fathers days. Once Serge was very late arriving for our visit with MJ. I was worried because he slumped down in MJs wheelchair once he got there and said he saw spots before his eyes. It took me a while to get it. I was wearing a polka dot dress. He was sly. Anyway, he was intrigued this particular Father's Day, by a small handwritten card I'd given him. In it, I thanked him for all the things he'd introduced me to - those being NYer's, the symphonies, Colonnade, martinis, and a few other things. It was short and tidy, and he could not get over how well all of the words fit together, not only as complimentary words (about him), but quite literally how they fit on the tiny page. He loved it so much that he made copies of it to show people, which is the ultimate compliment from Serge. I can say that the years of waiting for a compliment were completely worth it. On that day, I measured up.
By filling in the gaps for someone else, you are quite often filling in the gaps in your own life. I did not view Serge as a father, but the lack of a living father in my own life was made less painful with someone to whom I could channel my feelings on those special holidays that required family members I did not have. In that respect I got to have a father figure for much longer than I was granted a biological father.
Four months before Serge died it became clear that his living situation had become untenable, that he must spend what time he had left with his son, who was one of the highlights of his life - the other being his granddaughter. I had a hard time conceding this, he'd become such a part of my life.
The last thing I did for Serge was pack his carry-on suitcase the night before he left Atlanta, to do the one thing I didn't want to do, but knew without a doubt had to be done - which was to let him go. But I reminded myself of something I wrote when his wife died: Don't hold on too tight. Don't make a fist with your love. And, I loved him.
"January 4, 2015: I get freckles in the sun. Serge makes fun of them, and then tells me that a face without freckles is like a sky without stars."
One of our favorite words was from the last words(s) of the last day of our 2012 word calendar. It was: annus mirabilis, which translates to a wonderful year. In keeping with something that made him smile, I'll describe the existence of Serge with the words vitae mirabilis, for his wonderful life. And for the story of Serge and Kay, I'll end with something else that would make him smile: amicitia mirabilis, for the best part of our eight years together; for something I'll always cherish: our wonderful friendship.