Just Boil Water

Shortly after our arrival in New York, the refugee resettlement organization—it must have been NYANA, which stands for New York Association for New Americans[1]—held various acclimatization classes for adults.  Sadly, there was nothing for my age group, or for children in general, as the wisdom of the age dictated that children are infinitely adaptable in terms of language, culture, friendships, and any other upheaval to which they might be subjected.  Yet here I am, after forty years of no trauma counseling—but I digress…

My grandmother was enthralled with the woman who led the section which my grandparents attended.  Predictably, my grandfather retained nothing from it, and continued to forge his own path, as was his way in life.  He remained unapologetically unamericanized for the duration of his stay in this country and on this Earth, which was part of his charm and character.  My grandmother, also predictably, took the word of this “real American” woman, whose name is lost to time and memory, as gospel.  This group leader, let’s call her Ms. Porter for convenience’s sake (and because I really think it might have been her name), gave the newly arrived refugees a list of all the best brands of common use products, such as toothpaste, peanut butter (we had no idea what peanut butter was), cereal (shocked that people here mix this snack with milk and pretend it’s a meal), coffee, etc. 

Ms. Porter’s coffee recommendation was separated by caffeine—Folgers with, Brim without[2].  Of course, my grandparents only ever drank instant coffee.  We are not from a coffee-drinking culture, so the instant variety was always good enough and actually quite superior to the viscous chicory drink of my childhood.   My grandmother treated herself and a nine year old me to real coffee at a café a couple of times during our first summer in the Baltics.  After each occasion, we could not sleep, and the white nights did not help, so we concluded that the fancy Western indulgence is not for the likes of us.  For many years thereafter, especially for the duration of my college years, I relied on caffeine to get me through the nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing.  (And even in high school, in pre-VCR days, when a specific episode of “Rumpole of the Bailey” or the sole showing of “Duck Soup” was in the middle of the night—what else could one do but drink some instant coffee and wait?) Then I eventually developed immunity to caffeine, and learned to enjoy coffee for its taste rather than its stimulating powers.  My life has improved at least in this one subtle way.

I had the presence of mind to snap of photo before the remnants of last night’s meal disappeared completely.

If Ms. Porter assumed that none of us would own a coffee maker, at least initially, she was not wrong.  My grandmother does not have one to this day, for why indulge such decadent bourgeois habits when one can simply boil water and mix in some powder?  In fact, at some point she when through a phase of only drinking hot water.  Why, you ask?  Well, it is actually quite simple.  Say you come to someone’s house, they ask if you want something to drink, and the beverage of your choice is not available.  The visit instantly becomes awkward and disappointing.  But, everyone has water, and everyone has the means to boil it.  Voilá—the day is saved, equanimity restored[3].

However, until she came up with this vaguely practical yet somehow grim practice, grandmother maintained fierce loyalty to that list and to Ms. Porter.  For years, I have encountered her passive aggression in my bathroom (“What, you do not use Crest?  It is necessary now to use some other brand?”), but that is nothing to the disdain heaped upon my kitchen.  I actually own a coffee maker, albeit at the insistence of my American-born spouse.  Whenever my grandparents visited, grandmother would arrive with a baggie containing a premeasured amount of Folger’s instant coffee in it.  Spouse would make a pot of coffee.  Grandparents would be invited to partake.  Grandpa would be hopeful that he might.  His hopes would be instantly dashed (if you pardon the pun).  Grandma would coldly inquire if the coffee was (1) Folger’s and (2) instant.  Both requirements had to be met.   We would perpetually fail at least one of them. 

Ms. Porter’s endorsements, however handy they might have been in our first few months of American life, were probably never meant to last a lifetime.  And yet, here we are, with my grandmother still mixing those instantly soluble crystals into the water boiled on the stove top in a teapot with a hunk of silver for better purification, over forty years later.  Plus ça change…

[1] NYANA was founded in 1949 as a local arm of the Jewish United Service for New Americans to assist in the resettlement of refugees from the Holocaust coming to the United States in the aftermath of World War II…After Jews were allowed to leave the USSR in the mid-1970s, it expanded to assist large numbers of Jewish refugees from the former USSR, approximately 250,000 by 2004. 

NYANA sought from its inception to provide one-stop services to refugees, including assistance finding housing, health, mental health and family services, an English as a Second Language school, vocational training, and licensing courses in addition to legal help with immigration and adjustment. It was closed in 2008.  Source: Wikipedia

[2] Does Brim even still exist? (Judging by how hard it was to locate a picture of it, I would guess no…)

[3]Imagine, if you will, an invited guest at your house, for whose arrival you presumably prepared by stocking up on food and drink, responding thus to an offer of a beverage:  “What will you have, Rose?  Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pop, juice, milk, beer, wine red or white, vodka, gin, any drink I can mix for you?  Just boiled water?  You are being serious right now?  Oh, you don’t want me to go to any trouble?  You don’t want to put me out? OK, boiled water for you, an Irish Coffee for me.  And I am making it a double”.