Twenty years ago, we “adopted” Babushka into our family. It started as a job; she cooked for us three days a week. But it wasn’t long before she was celebrating birthdays and Christmas and Easter in our home. I vividly remember her sitting on our couch, laughing at the Three Stooges with my dad. I used to sit in the kitchen while she cooked and listen to stories of her childhood.
Babushka lived through the Holodomor, the Terror Famine of Stalin. This Soviet dictator wanted to replace Ukrainian farms with state-run collectives. He wanted to destroy independent-thinking Ukrainians who wanted to be free of Soviet dictatorship. The Soviets murdered some 3.9 million Ukrainians through starvation. My Babushka tells about the death all around her. She recounts people like skeletons and her family members who died slow and torturous deaths.
Babushka lived through World War II and the Soviet Winter War against Finland. Her father served in active duty and was fighting abroad when her mother died at home. Babushka tells about their village’s occupation under German and Soviet soldiers. One German soldier used to sneak part of his daily rations outside and leave them in a bucket in the snow for her family. Babushka ran barefoot through the icy cold to bring back the food. The German soldier brought them candies and was kind. She compares the German and Soviet soldiers (whom she calls Russians), and she remembers how cruel the Soviets were to the local people of their village.
Babushka became a dear part of our family. Although we’ve lived in separate parts of Ukraine for many years, we’ve all taken regular trips to visit her. Our kids have crawled the halls of her apartment. Our son, Titus, first discovered his love for Ukrainian kasha (porridge) at Babushka’s table. We talk on the phone weekly, reminiscing, sharing about our lives now, planning future visits to see her.
In the middle of February, 2022, I called Babushka to ask if she wanted to leave her city, due to the threats of war from Russia. Babushka said emphatically, “I’m not leaving my home.” I tried to convince her, but she’s a strong, willful Ukrainian woman, and she would not budge. She would stay in her home. The home she and her husband built with their own hands. The home where her sons were raised and where they died. The home where her granddaughter visited all her childhood. Babushka would stay home.
I hung up the phone that day, just a few weeks ago, knowing the possibilities of her decision. I love my Babushka. I respect her. I admire her strength. I respect her decision. And I fear for her life.
Babushka is still alive. We still talk regularly on the phone. We all pray for her safety and protection.
Babushka is living through another Russian war, another Russian genocide.