This isn’t a story about my travels, but it’s appropriate just the same.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that, Unexplorer that I am, I’m attracted to people from other cultures. So when I met a 90-something-year-old woman from Ukraine in my neighborhood, it’s only natural that a friendship would form.
Over the past several years we’ve settled into a comfortable relationship, easily taking on the adopted grandmother/granddaughter roles. We shop at our favorite discount store together, and she educates me on the world of gardening (apparently, I have worlds yet to learn). But in between the rote activities we enjoy together, I eke out tales from her past.
Stop for a moment, if you will, and consider how many stories a woman in her 90s would have. Births, deaths, moves, reinventions, discoveries…and these are all the more amplified for her having lived through upheaval and war in Eastern Europe.
Living Lifetimes in One
Sometimes, when we’re in the middle of scoping out deals on organic food, she’ll casually throw out mention of Holomodor, the deliberate famine caused by the Soviet Union. Or how she learned English in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and was able to serve as a First Lady’s translator (I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt?).
My sweet friend lost her father at a young age to the unrest that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. (Forgive me babusya, if I get facts wrong). She has lost husbands and children, and seen more suffering than most of us ever will. Her story isn’t mine to tell, but suffice it to say, it has had an impact on me.
My chosen grandmother wrote some of her story down. It reads like an epic movie; you can’t even believe this was one woman’s life, or even that these were very real circumstances for millions of people during the middle of the 20th century. She learned multiple languages, took on jobs at a time when women didn’t work, fended off admirers she wasn’t interested in, and found her way to America, where she then experienced another dozen lives.
She invited me to read her story. Not many have been blessed enough to get that invite. What made it come alive were the photos that she had kept. Once, as a child, she’d noticed a man intently staring at her. As he followed her throughout the village, she panicked and ran home. He followed her. But rather than being some creepy guy, he, as he introduced himself to her mother, was filming a movie nearby, and was looking for a girl to play a part. Guess who he had in mind? And so she has pictures of her time as a “movie star.”
She’s got the velvet coat she sewed herself in preparation for a concert at Carnegie Hall. She was managing a band of Ukranian performers (one of whom she later married), and had winnowed her way into performance locales that she had no business getting into (i.e. Capitol Hill). She knew she needed a fancy outfit for this particular performance, but didn’t have the money to buy one. So she saw what actresses were wearing and sewed her own dress and coat. It’s still in pristine condition, and holds the thrill of that night, as well as many others since.
My adopted grandmother tells these stories with all the casualness of a grocery list. Perhaps time has softened the blow of the pains she’s endured. Or maybe she’s learned the lesson we all have to at some point: life goes on. You recover, and you experience more.
She’s my constant reminder that anything is possible. She’s as fit as a fiddle, gardens daily (and her garden is on the order of a large nursery!), and has never been sick as long as I’ve known her. There could be worse things to aspire to be like in life.