Last night, I wrote about what Erika and I had done on Christmas Eve each year. Christmas Day was often even busier.
For our first year together, in 2013, Erika went to be with her family at her sister’s house in Albany. I can’t find any pictures from that year, they must be on another phone or something.
The next year, we started having our traditions together. After Christmas Eve at my sister’s house, we’d wake up and open presents with my daughter McKenna. Photos of that morning seem scarce, but that afternoon, we headed to Albany. Here’s Erika and her niece Violet on Christmas Day, 2014.
Violet had a game that she liked to play on people which was to tape their pajamas to the wall. Here’s Violet after she successfully taped her grandfather’s pajamas to the wall, along with her accomplice!
But later on in the day, I thought that Violet shouldn’t be the only one to get in on the fun. Here she is when someone, *cough cough* taped her pajamas, and her Auntie Erika’s shorts, to the wall.
But Violet isn’t someone to just take these tricks lying down. Violet is and was a big fan of all sharks. She’s a bit of an expert on sharks. I’d mentioned how afraid that I am of sharks, so she placed all of her sharks on my toothbrush! So scary!
And here is Ol’ Blue Eyes on Christmas Day in 2015, in Albany:
And another with Violet in 2015.
Erika in 2016, with the prankster Violet:
She’s a prankster, because the sharks made a very scary return! I’ll let you guess whose side of the bed that these are all carefully placed on.
And the dashing couple, Christmas 2016.
Christmas in 2017 started a few days early, on Wednesday, December 20th, when Erika got what she often said was the best present she ever got. She had often said that as far back as being a teenager, she’d wanted a gray and white tiger cat and to name him Grendel. Then this little guy arrived:
These two quickly became inseparable and Grendel learned to claim his place on Erika:
She and I didn’t go to Albany that year and instead went for a walk around the lake at Lincoln Woods Park. One of Erika’s favorite activities that she called “Winter Walking.”
A few days later, we rented an AirBnB in Portsmouth, NH, which was a bit of an adventure. In spite of the outdoor temperatures being in single digits, the house had limited heat and the door didn’t lock or close tightly. We still made the best of it.
In 2018, we also stayed home. Whenever I gave Erika a gift that she really liked, I could always tell just by the look on her face when she first saw it. Like this one:
And because you can’t really see what it is just yet, here is what she’s so excited about:
Yep, she really had a thing for sloths. Loved ’em! I think there are still 10 to a dozen sloth things in the house from four stuffed ones, to a coffee mug, pajamas, socks and who knows what else. But she loved that one!
And we also did more “Winter Walking” at Lincoln Woods Park later in the day too.
And then one year ago today. Christmas Day, 2019, without knowing it’d be our last one together.
Did I mention that she liked sloths?
No, I mean she *really liked sloths.
Even Grendel would need to learn to like sloths too.
She also got this artwork with two of her favorite cats, the Russian boys, Yukos and Tolstoy.
I think she got a little misty-eyed as she stared at it for a couple minutes.
And this is also when she got her second Bruins jersey. Her first one was way back in 2014 when she got a Zdeno Chara jersey for her birthday. On this Christmas, she got a Jaro Halak jersey. I often joked that she might be the only person in the world whose last name isn’t Halak to have one of these. And if that first name sounds familiar, it should! We named our dog after him!
A jersey that she proudly wore while watching the next Bruins game two days later.
But a Christmas Day wouldn’t be complete without the tradition that we started together, Winter Walking, this time just around the neighborhood.
For this year 2020, I’d planned to keep doing the Winter Walking tradition, in hopes of taking Jaro for a walk around Lincoln Woods, but the driving rain stopped us from doing that. So instead I’ll just conclude with a picture of the day that Erika and I took Jaro for a walk to Rome Point.
At my weekly appointment, my therapist asked what were our Christmas traditions. So I told her. Just like our first Thanksgiving together, for our first Christmas, I had to wait to be with Erika. She spent Christmas in Albany, NY at her sister’s house, with her family. We’d only been together a little more than a month, so she kept on with that tradition. When she got back, we celebrated together. I still remember it fondly. This was when Erika was first re-learning how to ice skate so she could play hockey. She didn’t have any hockey equipment, so I gave Erika her first hockey stick. Even better, I wrapped it, which was of course ridiculous, because it’s impossible to hide what a hockey stick gift is when it’s wrapped. She loved it and used it when we played. She even showed it off after a few beverages at one of her house parties.
After that, we started merging our family traditions. I had often gone to see my family in northern MA on Christmas Eve, and Erika started coming with me. It looks like that next year in 2014, was the “Zdeno Chara” year, getting her a new hoodie and a little figurine.
For Christmas Eve with my family, there were always four kids there, my daughter and three of my nephews. They got presents from each of the aunts and uncles and grandparents, but the adults found it harder each year to find a good gift for each other. So we decided to try a Yankee Swap. I have fun with them but Erika HATED it. The part that she hated was the option to take a gift away from someone else. To be honest, it did put her in a tough spot as it was generally all my family and her. If the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t take away someone’s gift either. So she stopped participating individually and she and I played it together.
There isn’t too much else that really stands out about the Christmas Eve traditions, so I can just share pictures of her from each year.
So that was our Christmas Eve traditions. More later on the Christmas Day and after traditions.
I don’t know why I keep thinking about this, but I have a few times lately, so I thought I’d share it. I keep thinking back to this one moment during our first date. I think it was the moment when we both really fell for each other. I know it was for me and the fact that Erika remembered it years later when I asked about it, said that it meant something to her too.
I’ve told the story of our first date with the Bruins game and how she drove me home after. We were on our way back in her car on the highway, and just talking about who knows what. For those who knew her, you might have seen sometimes when she was nervous or deep in thought, she’d bite on her fingertips. She was doing it just then. I also noticed that one of her curls had drifted over close to her eye. So I just reached over and gently brushed it to the side, away from her eye. She turned to me slightly, with a look that she had. It was a shy, nervous glance that she’d give, a little sideways, still biting on the tip of her finger, but also withe the cutest little smile and beam in her eye. I don’t know what it was, but it was just that look. I was done. Hooked.
Like I said, I mentioned that moment to her a few years later, and she remembered it as clearly and as fondly as I did. I’m missing that way she would look at me.
This isn’t “the look” but it is the curl drifting into her eye.
Some people have asked if there are any updates about services for Erika, and I’m sure there are others who were wondering but didn’t want to ask. I can appreciate both as I’d be wondering too. The short answer is no, not yet. I’ll explain.
We’re not waiting until COVID is over, we’ll have something remote using video meeting software. This is because Erika has people who care about her from literally all over the world. In recent weeks, I’ve been contacted by her friends in Russia, in Abu Dhabi, in the UK and from all parts of the US. Even if there was no COVID, I’d still want these people to be able to attend. It’ll be a celebration of her life with her friends and family telling remembrances of her.
So what are we waiting for and when will it be? I don’t know when, but hopefully within the next couple months. The thing is, we still don’t have answers on specifics about what happened to her and we’re still waiting for those answers. I know that she had what appeared to be a cold. She had multiple negative COVID tests, I’ve had multiple negative COVID tests and I’ve also tested negative for COVID antibodies. That doesn’t definitively rule it out, but it makes me think that she didn’t have COVID.
We went to the hospital on September 30th for what we thought was dehydration. I thought she would just be there for a few hours, but they admitted her that day. Two days later, she was gone. I know what happened to her, but I don’t yet know why. It’s the why that I’m still waiting for. I decided that I wanted to wait until we know why, and have had time to understand it before being able to have the event for her.
We are told it can take up to three months to get the information we need, and the end of that three months will come at the beginning of January. We’d hoped that it would have come sooner than this, but it could, and should come any day now.
I do look forward to hearing from all of Erika’s friends and their memories of her, and also meeting some others (virtually) that I never got to meet. When we know a day and time, I will let everyone know. I plan to go back through all the messages I’ve received, the emails, the direct messages, and also to use her email contact lists and use her Twitter account one last time to let people know. And then when there is a “normal” time again, post-COVID that we want to share a bottle of wine, watch a hockey game, go for a bike ride or have another of her famous (infamous?) MoFos parties, we will do all of those again, in her memory.
I’ve received many notes and cards, and each one of those does make me smile, knowing how much you all care for her. She was just such an amazing, strong, incredible person who was unfairly taken from us way too soon.
I always really enjoyed reading Erika’s writing. Yes, I’m so totally biased but in all honesty, I did think she was a great writer. I told her many times that one thing that I thought that made her stand apart was her ability to be thorough in very short articles. Some reporters get lost in the weeds in their stories. Some assume that the reader is current on the story’s situation. But when Erika wrote, she found ways to keep the reader current and I never came away from one of her stories thinking “What is this about?”
There were a few stories that she wrote that she was proud of, and I hope to share others here too. I recently thought of this one again. Her last article from Russia. It’s about her time there and having to close down the bureau as she was the last Moscow Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun. The Sun didn’t run this article, but Jim Romenesko did. Here it is, written December 18, 2007 and sent to her Baltimore Sun colleagues:
I am leaving Russia for good in the morning, and so is the Sun. I had hoped the piece that follows would be the last out of Moscow. Unfortunately, the paper did not find a place for it in its pages. I wanted to share it with all of you anyway, especially since some of our former colleagues, once posted here, contributed to it.
By Erika Niedowski
MOSCOW — This is a sad story.
Sad because it will be the last in the Baltimore Sun to carry a dateline from Moscow, where for nearly 55 years, the newspaper has posted a full-time correspondent to chronicle the goings-on in a nation spanning 11 time zones and a tenth of the earth’s land mass.
By the time you read this, I will have found a new home for the library that takes up a full wall of the Sun’s sixth-floor office not far from the Kremlin. I will have taken down the hanging maps, including one showing areas off-limits to foreigners during Soviet times. I will have turned out the lights, locked the door and closed a chapter on a kind of journalism this paper has been doing since 1887: the kind where foreign places like Russia and China and the Middle East are made familiar and, if we correspondents do our jobs right, what goes on in them, germane.
The Sun opened its bureau here in 1954, at least according to a document I pulled from the file cabinets and the memory of Tony Barbieri, a former Moscow correspondent and one-time Sun managing editor. It was then a grim, grey city in a state led by Communist Party Chief Nikita Krushchev, locked in an ideological war with the United States. It is still, at times, a grim, grey city, though now full of neon casino lights, restaurants that charge $10 for a French press and a tendency for excess that would, were he alive, send Lenin straight to the grave (or at least the mausoleum).
The Sun, the second American newspaper in Moscow after the New York Times, was in business here for the launch of Sputnik and the Cuban missile crisis; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Mikhail Gorbachev’s ground-breaking perestroika reforms; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Russia’s first democratically president, Boris N. Yeltsin; the free-wheeling chaos of Russia’s early experiment with capitalism in the 1990s; and the succession of Vladimir Putin and the resurgence of a country awash in oil wealth.
But this place is much more than the news inside the paper’s pages. This place has touched me and, I would venture, everyone that sat in this seat before me.
There is a saying: The more time you spend in Russia, the less you understand it. I still marvel at the contradictions: how Russians are at once sticklers for rules and adept flaunters of them. They will uncomplainingly stand in three separate lines to select, pay for and pick up an ice cream, yet they drive on the sidewalks and embrace a casual recklessness with such vigor that it’s actually driving life expectancy down.
They admire strength and a strong hand — witness Putin’s popularity — but believe that their own fate is beyond their control. They love things vast and colossal, but speak in a language filled with dimunitives. They can seem dismissive and cold on the surface, but are generous and warm to the core. In 2005, I interviewed a mother in the North Caucasus after her son was wounded by police who had accused him of taking part in a violent anti-government raid. At the end, she handed me — a complete stranger 30 minutes earlier — an entire watermelon, as a sign of thanks and respect.
Russia has taught me that Americans are uptight and overanxious, that I roll my eyes too often, that patience really is a virtue. Despite opposition talk of mass protests against Putin and an increasingly centralized state, I can’t envision a revolution here; the unwavering hardiness and endurance that have seen Russians through centuries of turmoil and unspeakable suffering are the very qualities that all but ensure they will not rise up.
Russian ingenuity, borne of necessity in Soviet times when stores were empty and even something as seemingly disposable as a ball point pen would be repaired, is unrivaled. Russians can improvise a fix to any problem. Scott Shane, the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991, told me the paper’s old Ford Crown Victoria once got a new exhaust system fashioned wholly out of welded pipes. The job cost him just two blank audio cassettes, which were incredibly hard to get at the time.
Russia is not for the thin-skinned. The answer to everything practically before you finish asking is nyet, which only if you are patient enough to try again (and again) actually often means, “Well, go ahead.” I spent three months fighting officials’ repeated refusal to allow me inside Russia’s last big piano factory for a harmless feature, which made me wonder whether there were some kind of state secrets to be found inside.
More than once I was dressed down at the all-but mandatory coat check for not having a hook inside my jacket, which requires the scowling attendant to go to the trouble of using a hanger. A friend visiting recently from Maryland had his jacket outright rejected for lack of a hook, even though there was one there. Only after my husband Chris dug it out did the woman “helping” him smile.
I asked my predecessors, some of whom worked in Moscow when it truly was a hardship post, what they remembered of their time; their memories were too many to record here. Dean Mills, the Sun’s Moscow correspondent from 1969 to 1972 and now dean of the University of Missouri Journalism School, recalled the day the U.S. embassy lifted the ban on correspondents’ access to food products — at least to the point of allowing them a spot of milk. The operation had to be carried out in “secret,”ť so Mills’ assigned driver shuttled him to the embassy to get the contraband, hiding it in the trunk for the trip home. The housekeeper put it in the refrigerator. “But none of us,” Mills explained, “said a word to each other about the milk and where it came from.”
Stephen Nordlinger, the Sun’s correspondent in Moscow from 1965 to 1967, told me he and his wife Marjorie were the first Americans to wed in the Soviet Union. The ceremony took place at the Palace of Weddings and ended with a simple question: “Do you marry freely and with love?” They both replied, “Da.”
Antero Pietila, Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988, noted the first time he checked in to a hotel in the far Russian North with a reservation slip from the Diplomatic Service Administration. He was greeted by a woman who proclaimed: “Thank God you are here, THEY had already asked about you.”
Barbieri, who worked in Moscow from 1979 to 1984, recalled meeting dissidents across the street from the newspaper’s office outside the famous Puppet Theater. The spot provided a perfect pretext for avoiding the attention of the KGB: Parents and children gathered at the top of the hour to raise their eyes to the spectacle of the mechanical cuckoo clock, filled with fairy tale characters, which still chimes to this day.
Barbieri also recalled the inevitable scolding whenever he ventured outside in cold weather without a hat, by all manner of babushki, whom he aptly described as “Moscow’s version of high school hallway monitors for whom no infraction was too small to be noted.” The same old women would reprimand anyone of child-bearing age who rested her rear on a stone wall, warning it would make them infertile (I have been told this on numerous occasions).
Cleaning out the Sun office recently I found an old, wrinkled tie at the bottom of a box of outdated maps; a few shell casings from God knows where; and a string of black-and-white photos of a much younger Pietila. I looked for a while at a framed picture on my wall, here when I arrived 2 years ago: It contains a now-yellowed page from the Sun, displaying headshots of the correspondents the paper had in its overseas bureaus at the time, including Moscow, what was then Peking, Mexico City, Jerusalem and London. Next to each photo is a caricature of some landmark there, like the onion domes, for the Soviet Union.
At the top, the paper says: “The Sun Never Sets On The World.”
I just thought I’d use this as a chance to post more pictures of Erika, using those from each of our Thanksgivings together. I’ll also do this in reverse chronological order, starting with last year, and ending with the fun stories of our first two years together for Thanksgiving.
Last year, like many others as you’ll see, we spent it at Erika’s parents’ house in Marshfield. We were fortunate that Violet and her parents were there with us too.
2018 was similar, as we spent that one with Erika’s family as well. Around the table is Erika’s brother in law, Don, her sister Nancy, her mother Marion, her father Ray, her niece Violet and then some random guy they let join them.
But for that photo, Erika was the photographer and of course we need to see her in one too! So cheers!
In 2017, we were also at Erika’s parents’ house. I think I was designated the official photographer, which I seemed to have messed up the lighting.
Because it appears in 2016, I handled the duties somewhat better.
I don’t see a group photo for 2015, but I have this one of Erika’s mom Marion and the great turkey she made for us.
Erika’s father’s (Ray) birthday is around Thanksgiving time so we’d often celebrate it when we’d be together for Thanksgiving. Marion is legendary for her multi-layer cake, which she made for the birthday celebration.
But again, we can’t let a year go by without a picture of Erika too. Here we are, Thanksgiving 2015.
2015 was the first year that I went to have Thanksgiving with Erika’s family. In 2014, Erika was still working at the Associated Press and someone needed to work on the holidays. Erika had to work Thanksgiving, so here she is on Thanksgiving day, 2014, as I waited for her to finish up her shift so we could go home and have our dinner.
I think we just had a quiet Thanksgiving dinner at Erika’s apartment that night. I actually can’t remember it, unfortunately. It’s also possible that we thought we’d be starting a tradition and went out to a restaurant somewhere. Neither of us seemed to take any additional pictures that day, but I do see that two days later, we headed off for our California vacation where we followed the Bruins up and down the west coast and where the great black and white photo of her in the airport came from. That picture is pinned to my Twitter feed.
But there was one more Thanksgiving together, in 2013. Thanksgiving day was November 28th and our first date was November 11th. So there was some awkwardness, at least from me, about whether in the span of just 16 days, we’d spend a holiday together. It wasn’t something we talked about until very late. My manager at work always opened his home to people who were going to be alone for Thanksgiving, so I’d actually accepted an offer to attend there when finally about a week before, I brought up the subject of Thanksgiving and what Erika would be doing. She had to work! She’d be working the desk at the AP. She said that normally she’d go to her parents’ house in Marshfield, but had to work until at least 5 pm. So I asked, want to have dinner together after work? She agreed, I cancelled my invitation with my manager and Erika and I went out for dinner. Not very many places were open or available, so we actually ended up at Andrea’s on Thayer St. Yep, a Greek restaurant for Thanksgiving. This was our first one together.
Every one of these is great memories of and with her.
I miss the look of surrender in your eyes The way your soft brown hair would fall I miss the power of your kiss when we made love Oh but baby most of all I miss my friend
The one my heart and soul confided in The one I felt the safest with The one who knew just what to say to make me laugh again And let the light back in I miss my friend
I miss the colors that you brought into my life Your golden smile, those blue-green eyes I miss your gentle voice in lonely times like now Saying it’ll be alright I miss my friend
The one my heart and soul confided in The one I felt the safest with The one who knew just what to say to make me laugh again And let the light back in I miss my friend
I miss those times I miss those nights I even miss our silly fights The making up The morning talks And those late afternoon walks I miss my friend
The one my heart and soul confided in The one I felt the safest with The one who knew just what to say to make me laugh again And let the light back in I miss my friend I miss my friend I miss my friend I miss my friend
I didn’t want to tweet this out, as it pushes it into people’s timelines. You’re reading this because you came here voluntarily. Thank you for that. But I just felt the need to tell someone about this and didn’t know who to tell.
I let our dog Jaro sleep in the bed for part of the night. She starts the night in her own bed, but usually midway through the night, she gets into the bed with me and often leans on me while she sleeps. When Erika was here, she would also often lean on me, or put her arm on me at night while we slept. She’d say it helped her to sleep better. So when Jaro leans on me, it feels similar. Also, Jaro snores. Erika snored. We used to joke that some nights I couldn’t tell who was snoring, Jaro or Erika, as they sound very similar.
Early this morning, I was in that “just waking up” phase where I was still really out of it, but not asleep any more and could hear the snoring and feel the weight on me. I had an instant thought of “Oh, I had this awful realistic nightmare that Erika had died, but fortunately it was only a dream.” I had those feelings you get when waking from a nightmare where the fear from it is still there, but subsiding as you are realizing that it was only a dream and not real. However in this case, that realization was the opposite. No, that weight I feel on me is not Erika’s arm, that’s Jaro’s head leaning on me. That snoring is not Erika, that’s Jaro. And that wasn’t a nightmare, it’s real.
It was a reverse feeling. The feeling of waking up to a never-ending nightmare.
November 11th would have been the seventh year that Erika and I had been together. I was recently going through some of the drawers in our house and found the pile of cards that she had kept. She kept all the birthday, anniversary and Valentine’s Day cards that we’d given each other. One stuck out for me. It was this one, one that she gave me for our second year together, in 2015. There are multiple things going on here:
One of the things that we had together was how I could make her laugh. I really like puns and dad jokes. She thought they were kinda corny and usually, not as funny as I did. Early on, there was one joke that I told her a few times, but didn’t remember that I’d told it to her and she’d seem to get a little exasperated that I’d already told her. So one day I thought it’d be funny to just keep telling it to her over and over again, (“A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, hey buddy, why the long face?”) and I would add on to it “Get it” and make this hand motion miming a horse’s long face and she’d just say over and over again “Yes, I get it!” and for some reason, all of that would make me laugh, really hard. Seeing me laugh this hard was the thing that then made Erika laugh. The joke itself wasn’t funny to her, but the fact that I was laughing at myself was really funny to her. I remember doing this multiple times when both of us would end up in tears from laughter. The laughing just compounded. I’d laugh at her feigned exasperation (and the joke), which made her laugh, and then I’d think it was really funny that she was laughing at me, making me laugh harder. And then it’d continue. So she thought herself to be pretty witty with the pun on the card and then the addition of “get it??”
But then I read the inside of the card and realized that our beginning was as special to her as it was to me. Here’s what she wrote on the second anniversary:
Her writing wasn’t always the most legible, so it says: “Boo, I guess we have a job interview in Boston + a Bruins game to thank for us coming together! I love you so much. Thank you for a happy, happy two years and for everything you do to take care of me + make me feel loved and special. To many more! Love, Squeaks”
Yeah, she called me Boo and she was Squeaks. The reasons this meant so much to me is that when we first got together, neither of us felt like we were doing really well. Both were coming out of relationships that had us down. I tried my best to do anything I could for her, be there for her any time she needed and to always make her feel special. Reading this card reminds me that I was doing just that. I just wish that “many more” wasn’t only five more. I wish it’d been fifty more. Happy anniversary, Squeaks.
As for her mentioning the Bruins game and job interview, here’s a little more background on that: