Chance Encounters

Used to be a standing joke with Jodi and I any time we visited a city of any size that she would meet someone she knew. Her home state, South Dakota, isn’t big, population-wise — but the combination of relatively few people and genuine need (in the rural parts of the state, especially) to get on well with your neighbors seem to add up to everyone in South Dakota knowing every else. Plus, the county-specific license plate numbering helps. So wherever we were, Jodi would pick up on some faint South Dakota signal, track at to a particular person, and immediate begin chatting like long-lost cousins.

I’m from Michigan. This doesn’t happen to me. However, one of the unexpected joys of visiting New Haven with Bren and Gabe last week was a series of three unexpected encounters, one of which brought back fond memories of a fourth.

First: I had stopped by the Yale School of Music offices to say hello to a friend and former colleague, S, from my college days. She was not in. The next day, while visiting the souvenir vendors outside the Yale Bowl ahead of the football game, I ran into her — almost literally. This isn’t hugely unexpected — Yale’s not that big of a university — but she and her husband were seated at the opposite end of the stadium. So that was cool.

Second: We sitting in the stands when a vendor stops nearby and chides the man in front of us for wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat. I look up, and see that the vendor is a black man wearing a Minnesota Vikings cap. As he passes, I tell him we’re visiting from Minnesota. He says his family’s originally from South Dakota, “so you know they were Vikings fans, too!” Then he says he needs to get back to the Twin Cities, especially for the Winter Carnival in St. Paul. Now, the strangeness of seeing a Vikings fan in Connecticut could only be rivaled two things: finding a black man from South Dakota in Connecticut (the African-American population of the entire state of South Dakota is less than 1 percent, out of a total population of less than 800,000) and finding anyone outside of Minnesota who wants to visit during the winter. (My native Minnesota friends all want to leave that time of year!)

Finally: After the game, we went to Mass at Church of St. Mary on Hillhouse Avenue — the church I used to visit sometimes when I was in college and Jodi was attempting to convert me. The homily was given by a guest speaker, Deacon George of the St. Cloud, Minnesota, Diocese — just up the road from us. As we left the church, I told him where we from — Albertville/St. Michael area. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I know just where that is — just to the north of St. Cloud.”

Well, he tried.

The latter two encounters, at the time, seemed like significant hints of home after a week away. The first — running into S outside the stadium — called to mind the queen mother of chance encounters from the last time I was in New Haven. I was working for a marketing agency and was sent to Connecticut to visit a client. I stayed an extra night with a friend to visit Yale — but that night, he had agreed to stay with S’s grandmother while S and her husband went out. “It’s fine,” he said. “We’ll have dinner with Babci.”

My ears perked up: babci (BOB-chee) is Polish for grandmother.

I arrived at the house, and there was Babci — and immaculate, tiny little Polish woman in her late 80s, who introduced herself as Stella. “Dzien dobry!” I said. “My late busia’s name was Stella, too.” Busia (BOO-sha) is how my family learned to say it — “like a small child would say,” this new Stella explained.

We talked about all sorts of stuff — in particular, about my family. She asked me about my busia’s golubki, or stuffed cabbage, and told me that the trick was to use Savoy cabbage, because the leaves hold up better for stuffing and your guests are less gassy. She asked me about my kids, and offered to knit them mittens and stockings. She was instantly dear to me, like a my own busia’s warm, paper-light kiss, and I think of her often.

She’s in her 90s now, no longer living with S, though she visits multiple times times a week. Na dzrowie, Babci! Sto lat, niech zyje nam! To your health, Babci — may you live 100 years for us all!

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