The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Tuesday, September 28

Ordinary Life: Endings and More

I should have expected it to happen. Like most people, I thought that normal everyday life would just keep on keeping on, but of course it doesn’t.

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.
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Babushka and I sharing tea with the children

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.

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