Tuesday, September 28
Ordinary life is always changing. Usually it’s incremental and we hardly notice. But sometimes out of the shadows of consciousness, death intrudes.
We are sitting in Yelena’s small office finalizing plans for the fall. There’s excitement at Hearts of Love. The Computerized Learning Center is up and running. Thanks to a grant from USAID, four brand new computers, a printer, white board and projector are ready to introduce our children to the world of technology and learning.
Suddenly, Valaya, our bookkeeper and dedicated volunteer, enters. She is noticeably upset. She tells us that Babushka has died. She fell down from an apparent heart attack and no efforts could bring her back.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. Just last week, I ran into Babushka and her granddaughter. Both are regulars at Hearts of Love. The granddaughter is in my Friday art class. She is troubled emotionally being caught in a dysfunctional family where her mother is unable or unwilling to care for her. Babushka has stepped in and given the little girl some stability and love.
Babushka always greeted me with a smile and warmth. I thought of her as a kind and generous woman. She was constant in her presence and help. Every Friday when her granddaughter was in my art class, she joined the other women in creating beautiful beaded flowers, like the ones we sold at last year’s auction. We all took it for granted that she would keep on keeping on, but not now.
Valaya, who is a strong Ukrainian woman, tries to maintain her composure, but cannot. Her sobs underscore the change that has happened. We all confirm it with our own sadness.
Later in the afternoon, I walk through a cemetery near my new apartment. I feel like I want to be alone with my own thoughts about life and death. In the year that I have been away from America, three dear friends have died. Babushka’s death brings back memories of them. At the cemetery I feel close to the dead - both known and unknown. It seems comforting.
I wind my way into the expansive grounds. There are no paths. I must squeeze my way between crowded burial plots. Each is situated east to west as the sun rises and falls. Soon I am surrounded by gravestones and can no longer see the streets or buildings beyond.
Strangely, many of the gravestones are etched with life like portraits. The dead may be buried but a two dimensional image remains. Some stoically stare ahead and others warmly smile as I pass by. I think, “remembering the dead has a kind of realism in Ukraine.”
I notice small picnic tables and benches at many grave sites. “What are they doing here,” I wonder. It seems strange, until I learn about an ancient custom that is still practiced.
On the Sunday after Easter, families bring Ukrainian picnics to graveside. Some of the same foods that the deceased savored while living are set upon the table.
Although it is a blustery grey September day, I imagine a white table cloth embroidered in red flapping in the wind…a table laden with dark bread, cheese, kielbasa, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, salads and special dishes like the eggplant Oksana made for me a few weeks ago. All is prepared to remember the departed ones and share a family meal in their honor.
It’s called Provody combining a belief in Christ’s victory over death, the ancient wonder of spring time rebirth and continual family love for the departed. When you understand a little about another culture, picnic tables in a cemetery are not so strange.
Babushka was only 57 when she died last week. I have learned that Ukraine has an alarmingly high death rate. It’s pegged at 16.3 per thousand people. Prevalent smoking and excessive use of alcohol add to the problem. Combined with a declining birth rate, the UN warns that Ukraine could lose as many as 10 million people by 2050. That’s more than 20% of the current population of 46 million.
Of course, every generation dies and the next one creates its own everyday life. I remember my grandmother Dolphin sitting on her front sun porch. My childhood memories see her surrounded by house plants, starched laced curtains and green window shades drawn down exactly half way.
My grandmother would tell stories about this neighbor and that neighbor who had died. As a youngster, it was a little creepy, but now I understand or at least I think I do. It was her way of dealing with ordinary life that was changing - slipping away one neighbor at a time.
Babushka died suddenly. All of us at Hearts of Love are sad and we know that we will need to make even more room in our hearts for her granddaughter. She may be troubled, but she is not alone. There is always room in ordinary life for more love...always.
Saturday, September 11
We speak different languages and have lived different lives, but from the moment I met him, I sensed that we would become friends, but I had no idea how we would be thrown together
Mikhael is 70 years old and the father of Oksanna, my good friend. He's visiting from the southern part of Russia. In Konotop, it is common for some relatives to live in Russia and others in Ukraine. The border is a geopolitical construct, but for families it makes little difference. These days they can move freely.
Today is Oksanna's son's birthday party. We will go to the river for a celebration. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and myself are honored to be included in the "family."
Maxsim is 16 and in the last year of school. In Ukraine, there are 11 years of school though many young people then attend an institute. It's like an American junior college.
Ukrainians value education although their methodologies are often more geared to memorization and repetition. The educational reforms that happened in America post World War II are just beginning to seep into Ukrainian schools. Peace Corps is helping by assigning our largest group of volunteers to Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).
I am introduced to Mikhael. We shake hands as is customary among men here, but not with women. While Americans might wave a quick hello to a friend, I have seen Ukrainians take a detour to the other person, make physical contact by briskly shaking hands and then move on, sometimes, without speaking a word. It's a ubiquitous greeting even three year old boys do it.
After introductions, we pack stuff into the Soviet era utility van that Tolleg (Oxanna's husband) uses for work. There is the front seat and one passenger bench behind. The rest is open space.
A big pot of shashlick is set down. It is a special treat reserved for special occasions like this one. Chunks of pork are marinating in a creamy mixture of onions, garlic and spices.
A pit will be dug and a wood fire made. Hardwoods, like cherry, are often used since they make for the best shashlick. The meat will be skewered and cooked over the glowing coals. The men are the ones in charge here - just like an American barbecue.
Oksanna has made an eggplant relish. This blend of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, peppers and of course lots of garlic is a favorite of mine. She smiles noticing that I have spied it. She promises to show me how to make it . I will pass the recipe along.
What's a birthday without a cake? Actually, a cake is not so traditional in Ukraine, but I decide to Americanize this birthday by using my spring-form cake pan again. I make a yellow cake dotted with several handfuls of blueberries. It gets a chorus of "ahhhs" as I carefully lay it on top of the mound of stuff filling the van.
There are more traditional foods too. A pile of river fish have been breaded in a light batter and fried. Another pot holds boiled potatoes simply sprinkled with parsley and butter. Of course no Ukrainian meal would be complete without lots of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions along with bread and cheese.
Oh, don't forget the vodka. Now I think we are ready to go.
Mikhael and I are directed to the passenger bench where we both easily fill all available space. Neither of us are small men.
The drive is an adventure. The van's shock absorbers are long gone. The road is a washboard of pot holes and asphalt patches. There is no avoiding bumps and what feels like leaps into the air. Mikhael and I collide squashing our bodies together. We start holding on to one another for stability...as if that will help.
The road goes from asphalt to gravel to dirt. The last several kilometers are simply a cow path curving across an open field from a small village towards the river. I savor a Ukrainian sun drenched day as the the bumps and leaps become ever more intense. I look off to the horizon imaging that I am at an amusement park and riding the Dare-Devil-Twister.
Suddenly with no warning, the seat we are sitting on gives way. Both Michael and I flip backwards with a thud. The big American and the big Russian lay side by side on their backs with legs flailing in the air.
After a moment of silence, we look at one another and begin to laugh. Others want to help us get up, but we just lay there laughing and laughing. I cannot remember laughing so hard.
Eventually we unscramble our bodies. No one is hurt. My cake is the only victim. The spring-form pan has a big dent and the cake is partially smashed. We laugh again. It will still taste good.
Later in the day, we walked by the river and talk. The conversation recalls our shared Cold War history. I wonder what he thinks about the Cuban Missile Crisis. "Americans were afraid of nuclear war," I say "As a school student I use to practice hiding under my desk or cowering in the hallways as if it would protect me from a blast."
That's when I learn that Mikhael worked on rocket engines - maybe the same ones we feared.
He tells me he has no recollection of this Cuban Missile Crisis. He says, "Most Russians did not worry about nuclear attacks." I'm astonished since during the Cold War, Americans were so preoccupied with the fear of nuclear weapons. I wish my Russian was better to deepen our conversation. He says, "but life is better now - Da?" I agree.
Ukrainian picnics and dinners go on for hours, but eventually they end. As the sun sets, we drive home. The seat has been turned and leans against the inside of the van. Mickael and I are again smashed together again holding on to one another for security and now in friendship.
Wednesday, September 1
My story starts with an ordinary ride. In a country where private automobiles are still not common, folks either use foot-power or a form of public transport. It forces people from all walks of life (except the very rich) to rub shoulders with one another. I think it is a daily reminder that we all are part of the human family.
In town, Marshrutkas are common. These are mini-buses that are often used by retirement homes in the USA, except here they have been retrofitted with extra rows of seats. They make airplane seating seem luxurious.
Konotop has 17 routes. For 1 1/2 grievnah or about 18 cents you can travel from one end of town to the other and all points in between. But there are no transfers. You will need to pay another 18 cents.
Konotop has a Tram Way too. It's popular among seniors, because they get to ride free. Built during Stalin's time, Konotop is the smallest city in Ukraine with such a system.
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that during Soviet times Konotop was a center for military deployment. I recently learned that of the three major Soviet Tank Divisions, Konotop was home for the most western one.
Today, I take the Tram Way (it's free for me!) to the Vakzal and meet up with Babushka. She has invited me on an excursion into the forest. We will take an Elecktrichka instead of a Poyezd.
The Elecktrichka is an electric powered train and differs from the diesel Poyezd since it usually travels shorter distances between towns and villages. There are no sleeping compartments and people sit on benches facing one another three by three. For less than a dollar, we will travel an hour into the countryside.
As seats fill up, vendors walk the aisles hawking their merchandise. One man sells an assortment of magazines and newspapers. Another offers socks, shoe laces, gloves and other small household items. A much older woman, who seems to be permanently bent over, drags big bags filled with sodas, bottled water, candies and cookies.
We are a diverse group on the Electrishka. People, who are dressed as if they have some money, sit across from those who have little. Families with children are next to pensioners, army men, university students and on this trip, a spiked-heeled and mini-skirted young woman with painted nails about an inch long. She stands out, of course.
I settle into the bench alongside Babushka and across from several of her friends. Using my small print Russian/English dictionary, we have fun "talking" with one another. I find that smiles and laughter make for good communications in any language.
Unexpectedly, Babushka stands up. She beckons me to follow her. "Where are we going," I wonder. We sway our way through the moving car towards the front of the Elecktrishka. I see her conferring with one of the conductors and before I know what is happening, I am sitting next to the engineer looking out the train's front window.
In front of me, an array of gauges, throttles and pedals control the speed and blow the whistles. He explains some of the workings of the train and points out the safety lights that switch from green to yellow to double yellow and red. I notice the train tops at 55 kilometers per hour.
It's every child's dream.
In my childhood, I remember the family getting a 45 RPM record player. It was the kind which took a stack of records and automatically dropped the next one into play.
Among the records was a double record story about a boy and a train. I think it was called "Sparky and the Talking Train." I listened to it over and over again. Although I cannot recall the story line, I do remember the feeling. It was magical.
I beam a Grand Canyon wide smile. Today has become magical. I'm Sparky. Although I do not get to run the train, I am right next to the engineer. When he blows the whistle, I imagine some talking. Now would that be Russian or English?