Riva, my husband's 82-year-old cousin, has just arrived. Finally. We haven't seen her in nearly five years. The trip from Tel Aviv is so difficult, so long -- so necessary. Family is her everything.
"Echchch," she says, looking at me, shaking her head. This guttural noise, I know, translates to, "I love you so much, so deeply, I may suffer a heart attack right here from the joy that is pounding through my heart giving me indigestion."
"Tsk," she says, and, "Oh my Got." This is how it usually goes. Equally fluent in English, Russian, Lithuanian, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, she finds none of these languages adequate for a moment like this.
"Oh, Riva, I'm so happy you're here," I say.
"Echchch. Tsk. Oh my Got." She has to sit down. She can't take all of this in. "Alinka," she says, using her pet name for Alex, my husband. "Alinka, I have no words."
"Really?" he says. "But you're doing so well."
She laughs. She thinks he is the funniest person ever to walk upon this Earth. "The love I feel for you, Alinka . . . Echchch." She might start crying. It wouldn't be unusual. But there is more. She is about to meet Sasha, our 4-year-old daughter, for the first time. Sasha peeks around the corner. She is dressed in a glittery gown for the occasion, and spike heels.
She presents herself.
"Oh!" Riva says. "Oh. Oh." These come out as chirps. "Something special," she says. "Something . . . so . . . special." She opens her arms. And thank God Sasha is game, falling inside Riva's embrace. "Oh my Got, oh my Got, something special."
Everyone should have a Riva visiting her home. Everyone. Soon she commences adoring the house. She loves our front door. She loves our kitchen counter. She loves our kitchen sink. She loves our new mop and our old broom.
"Betty!" she says, noticing my 12-year-old mutt. "Oh, mammala." No one ever notices my dog. No one. "Betty, I missed you, my sweet. Oh, mammala, you remember me, of course you do, my sweet, I will cook for you." And thank God Betty is game, planting her head on Riva's lap.
"Oh, mammala," Riva says to me, "What you have done to create this family, what you have done, it's a miracle."
Everyone should have a Riva visiting her home. Everyone. And I suppose lots of people do, to one degree or another. A houseguest, a relative from afar who makes the trek -- they come, they see, they bring an enthusiasm for your life that infects even you. In my experience, the farther the relative has traveled, the more intense the love. That love has been gurgling on top for so long, awaiting release.
The other stuff, of course, comes later, long after the honeymoon is over.
Riva typically stays with us for a month, sometimes as long as three. Her previous visit coincided with Passover, and she spent days preparing the meal. A friend and self-described gentile volunteered to travel 30 miles to the special fish market so Riva could make her gefilte fish. "Carp," Riva told her. "It must be carp." But the guy at the fish market said we don't have carp in the United States. And another woman at the counter was buying pike for her Passover dinner, and so my friend bought the pike. She then stood in our kitchen, proudly unwrapping the white paper around her gift. Riva looked at it.
"This?" she said. "You bring me this? Oh my Got! This is a disaster. A disaster!" She had to sit down. It was too much to take. "Everything is ruined. Everything. It is no use. Take this away from me. I cannot let my eyes see what they refuse to believe."
That was a shame on so many levels.
If you have a Riva in your life, you have to count on encountering her flip side.
(Intensity is . . . intensity.) But you don't exactly. No, you remember even the flip side with a smile, because time and distance have a way of turning things funny.
"Echchch," Riva says to me, when I show her the newly appointed guest room where she'll stay. "It is just as I would make. The color, the fabric, the light, it is exactly as I would choose. You and me, we share something special. Something special." We do. And I wish I knew how to express it. "Echchch," I say. "Oh my Got."
In the morning Riva announces she is ready to cook. I'm so happy. I love her cooking. I already bought a vat of garlic at Sam's Club because I know most of her dishes require it. The cloves are pre-peeled, ready for action.
"This?" she says. "But I need fresh."
"It is fresh," I say. "It's just . . . peeled."
She shrugs. "I will try. I will do my best." Then she sees the olive oil, looks closely to read the label. "My Got," she says. "This is for cooking? You eat this?"
"It's not a good kind?" I say, stupidly.
"It's okay, it's okay," she says. "It's your culture. It's not your fault, mammala. It's not your fault if we do not have the best meal."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.