Places Where Flowers Bloom: Meeting the Landlady


The melted snow in our yard left a mess of mud behind. Dead leaves, twigs, and apricot pits littered the ground. We were glad the snow was gone, but the brown death it had for so long covered was finally revealed. Then it began to rain. Puddles collected. The yard looked like chocolate soup. The temperatures slowly rose. We stopped dipping below freezing at night. And then it happened. One day we looked out across the desolate battlefield on which winter had made its decisive victory late last fall, and we saw them, the tiniest slivers of green peaking their heads out from beneath the muck.

The flowers were coming. And they weren’t about to take their sweet time.

In a matter of days it seemed, tulip bulbs had sprouted leaves and long stems. Flowers, still closed tighter than a clamshell, formed and turned from green to all shades of orange, pink, and red. Then in a day they burst open and stretched their petals out in all their glory. I couldn’t believe it had happened again.

Of course, there’s a parable tucked away inside every last one of those tulips. No matter how long and bitter the winter may be, spring is coming. Some winters are longer and colder than others. Not a one of them lasts forever. In need of some flowers? Just wait. They’re on their way.

This April marks four years since we moved to Central Asia. We’ve had some long winters. Spring has come every single year without fail. In a special series of posts that we’ll publish once a week on Sunday, we’d like to recount some of our stories from those early days. So pull up a chair, grab a bowl of popcorn, maybe some Kleenexes, and let me tell you some tales.

Yes, all these things really happened. Yes, flowers bloomed afterward every single time.

April 2014

Week One

We thought we’d be brave and venture out to the local store at the end of our street to get some bread and sugar. It was our first night sleeping in the village on the northern outskirts of the capital. We pulled open the large, turquoise gate that led out to the street, and to our surprise, there she was. Canyon-deep wrinkles lined her round face. Her hands were dark, weathered, and strong. The scent she left in the air around her and the way she was barely able to stand were two unmistakable signs. Our landlady was drunk, and this was the first time we were meeting her. First impressions, as they say, are hard to shake.

Through a mountain of words and wild gesticulating, she managed to communicate the fact that she wanted to show us her house. We acquiesced and returned the length of the property. Two structures plus an outhouse sat on the lot. Eje, our landlady, lived in one of the structures. Laura and I occupied one room in the other, larger structure that rests not three feet away from hers. Hers was a home. Ours was a two-room community center used at the time by our coworkers for medical and educational services in the village. The idea was that living there with her would be a home stay of sorts, a way to get a jump start on language and culture learning. That was the idea.

We entered Eje’s home and took off our shoes. She went on and on as she showed us her modest home. More words we’d never heard. More pointing and signing. As is typical here, one of her two rooms was used for cooking and eating. She had a gas stove running off a propane tank. She had a small table, an L-shaped bench around two sides of it, and a small fridge and freezer unit (which our coworkers told us she had just gotten within the past few years). The other room, containing a couch-like bed, a small stand, and a bookshelf at one end, she used for sleeping, sitting, and watching TV.

Laura and I immediately recognized the gentle face of Eje’s daughter on the fridge. (Some things, like pictures on refrigerators, are universal I guess.) We had met Eje’s daughter Gail in 2011 when we were here for three weeks. She was a local English teacher, and she and I taught an English camp together at the local school most kids in the village attend just inside city limits but within walking distance of the village. But that was before Gail got married and moved to Russia. Mama Eje was very proud to show us the wedding pictures.

Laura and I were finally able to get across the fact that we wanted to go to the store to get bread and sugar. Wouldn’t you know it? Eje wanted to come along. What could we say? So, with Eje clinging to Laura’s arm, the three of us began the short walk down the street to the local store. Well, it would have been short had she been sober.

About half-way down the street, it became very clear that no positive outcome was possible for this situation. If we reached the store, we were at the mercy of a woman who could barely stand upright. What would she say to the store clerk? What would she expect us to buy her? Just food? More alcohol? And what would the other people of the village think of us walking around town with this woman? So I decided to put this to a stop. We were going home. Eje wasn’t too happy, but there wasn’t any room for discussion.

After much coaxing and convincing and more pointing and signing, we finally arrived back to Eje’s property, got into our room, waved goodbye, and closed and locked the door. That night we went to bed hungry and devastated.

Later we found out that that night Eje called one of our coworkers, the one who had set up the home stay, complaining about her new tenants. “The girl,” she said, “seems nice, but I’m not sure about the boy. He seems to have too strong of a personality—too much like me—and I don’t know if it’s going to work out for them to stay. They didn’t want to talk to me or celebrate with me,” Eje said.

Great, we had failed our first encounter with a local. And not just any local. Our landlady. This wasn’t looking good.

So what do you do? Yeah, we didn’t have any idea either. Another coworker said we shouldn’t be worried about having done anything wrong. He said that the next time we saw her we should take her some bread and sausage (a very common practice here), sit with her, and show her pictures of Gale and me teaching the English camp together. It was likely Eje wouldn’t remember much if any of the night before—at least that had been their experience in the past.

God has given me about a million second chances, yet I could think of about a million reasons not to give Eje even one. Some old story about a king forgiving his servant and that servant being unwilling to forgive his fellow servant came to mind. OK. Fine. We’d buy sausage.

Saturday afternoon found us cleaning our room in the community center. (Eje had said she’d get it ready for us but hadn’t. Something about a relative’s wedding and making preparations for that.) We were feeling desperate for some semblance of order at that point. At about 5:00 or 6:00 Saturday evening, Eje returned home. She worked six days a week for minimal pay in a bazaar in the city. Here was our chance. Encounter number two.

More words we had no hope of repeating. More gesticulating. And yet the message couldn’t have been clearer. Eje wanted us over for tea. Seemed like she wanted to try again, too. This time it was different. Eje laughed—and cried—as we showed her pictures of her daughter from our trip here in 2011. Turned out moms missing their children was universal, too. Perhaps there was something to this whole second chance thing after all.


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