Marisha Toumanova and I were born on the same day, in the same room, but not at exactly the same time, some 80 years ago in the mission hospital at Aba, a small station in the Northeast Corner of what was then the Belgian Congo.
Marisha’s parents were Russian aristocracy who fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. My parents were Americans who fled the United States because of the scandal of a mixed marriage in that my father was Baptist and my mother was Presbyterian.
The Toumanova’s had a coffee plantation. If you want to know what life on a coffee plantation in Central Africa was like, rent the movie “Out of Africa” with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.
My parents were missionaries. If you want to know what the life of a missionary is like, don’t go to movies or anywhere else where you might have fun.
The Toumanova’s plantation was twenty miles from where we lived on the Aba – Dungu Highway, which was a single-lane, gravel road, but the government called it a highway, probably because it was the only road that went from Aba to Dungu some 100 miles away. I’ve seen farm lanes that were bigger and in better condition than that highway, but I digress…
Being thrown together, so to speak, on the first day of our earthly odyssey, our parents saw to it that Marisha and I met again every year to celebrate the anniversary of that auspicious occasion. One year we would go to the Toumanova’s Plantation and the next year they would come to our home. That does not mean it was the only time the two families got together, but it was one of the absolutes like Christmas, New Year’s Day or Sunday service.
Marisha was always very nice about it, but I can’t believe she really enjoyed the birthday celebrations at our house. I mean; our place was as boring as cold soup. Oh, we kids could play croquet, or badminton, or have target practice with the twenty-two rifles or with bows and arrows, but that was about it. We did those kinds of things while the adults played tennis on the courts next to our house.
In comparison, going to the Toumanova’s was high adventure. Turning off the bumpy, pot-holed, single-lane, gravel government highway we drove along the plantation road, which was smooth and at least three cars wide. On the mile drive from the “highway” to the house we were likely to meet one of the elephants, who was twice as big as our station wagon, pulling a wagon that was three or four times bigger than our car.
My dad would stop and we would wait while the elephant and the wagon lumbered by us. The elephant driver, sitting high on the elephant’s head would wave to us all the slow time they were passing.
On the way into the house we would pass the small lake where the plantation’s five elephants would bathe every evening. When it was about time for the elephants to bathe Marisha and I, and her sister and my three brothers, would walk the half-mile to the lake to watch the elephants ease into the water, blowing water on themselves, each other and their drivers.
Even their house was fabulous with a large lawn on the edge of a jungle forest of trees.
They had three peacocks that strutted around the yard and often in the evenings the
tiny; forest Dikdik antelope would come to the edge of the lawn for the grain the girls threw there.
Growing up I always thought of Marisha as my girlfriend. I got in a fight with my younger (not youngest) brother one time because he said Marisha liked him better than me. I wonder now if it was her home, or her, that I was in love with.
I never saw Marisha again after our 15 birthday. But in one of my novels the most beautiful person; physically, emotionally, and spiritually is named Marisha. With a little luck (or maybe a whole lot of luck) that novel will be out sometime next year.