Not the flowers or chocolates or roses kind of love. But maybe the kind of love Valentine’s Day should be about.
Hers was a quiet, unconditional, simple and deep human love for anyone who needed it. No questions asked.
Pani Mišakova, as I always called her (the properly declined Czech way to address Mrs. Mišak, pronounced Mish-ahk), learned early on about love. And hate. She was just 19 and in nursing school in Prague when she confronted one of history’s biggest hatreds.
Her final exams happened to fall in May 1945 on the days when the Terezin concentration camp, just outside Prague, was liberated. So instead of clinical tests and paper exams, Terezin was where the class headed, and her first real patients were the emaciated and sickened survivors. A horrific sight that needed love.
The rest of her story is inspiring, but otherwise fairly typical.
She married young and the couple fled to the United States soon after the Russians arrived to begin another reign of terror in her homeland. They settled in San Francisco, where she worked at delis and cafes while her husband worked in construction.
My parents arrived in the city in 1968 and met the Mišaks in the small Czech immigrant scene there. Pani Mišakova became one of my mom’s immigrant guides, the mentors found in so many immigrant communities who help the newcomers find work and an apartment and the hard-to-locate ingredients of their homeland’s cooking. She lent my mom her sewing machine and handed over her fabric scraps, which were turned into maternity dresses and baby clothes.
She never had children but became the caretaker for the living beings around her. A San Francisco TV station did a story on her after a reporter staked out Golden Gate Park and found that she was one of the secretive ladies who fed the feral cat population there. When she had mice in her pantry, she put out small trays of food for them. When her kitchen had an ant invasion, she greased long stretches of twine with chicken fat and tied a bone to the end in her garden, leading the ants on a savory march outside — cruelty-free pest control.
And when the rest of her old-world crowd complained about the homeless population sleeping in the doorways of the Tenderloin district and their migration to the park nearby, she didn’t join in that hate fest. Instead, she quietly made them sandwiches and packed lunches and delivered them on her morning walk, slow and labored on legs tired from years of hard work and a battle with cancer. Every day, she was a godmother to the forgotten with her wicker basket of food.
I knew that when her neighborhood, the Castro, became the epicenter of San Francisco’s gay culture, she would make friends with her gay neighbors. When so many of them became mysteriously ill in the 1980s — emaciated and covered in angry Kaposi sarcoma spots — she furiously cooked soups and baked cakes and cared for them.
But it wasn’t until two decades ago, when I descended on her house with my bridal party for a day of dress shopping, that I learned about her pot days.
Never had I seen her blossom like she did that night. We opened a bottle of wine, her rosy cheeks got rosier and her stories poured forth, the alcohol doing little to soften her hard, Czech accent.
“One of my neighbors was telling me that people were jumping over the fence into his backyard and stealing his plants,” she told us.
“And I asked him, ‘Your plants? Why would they steal your plants?’ ” she said.
We all exchanged looks and laughed.
“He told me they’re special plants,” she said. “They made his pain go away. He was really sick. He looked terrible. And I know he was in a lot of pain.”
“So I told him, ‘I’ll grow your plants for you!’ ” she said. She had an enclosed courtyard safe from poachers. So she grew them. And her gift with living things extended to plants, so they grew and grew. And the sick friend distributed the plants to his sick friends.
“We eventually learned that they had the AIDS,” she said. “And the plants were marijuana. And I was a marijuana grower!” she confessed to us, giddy that her act of kindness made her such an outlaw.
She supplied them with chicken soup and pot for years, until the last of them died.
“After I stopped growing them, you know what?” she asked us. “I saved some of those seeds. In case anyone needed them again.”
She lived to see pot legalized in California, but as far as I know, she never grew again.
She was 93 when she died last weekend.
Her life was quiet and kind, no big galas or newsletters about her charity work. But she was the embodiment of the religious virtues so easily lost in the cathedrals, chapels, megachurches, pulpits and podiums of today.
Her mission wasn’t to judge how people arrived at their wretched state, but rather to comfort and care for them.
Love, unconditional, generous love.