Thursday, April 17, 2014

When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Luba

Luba's house and garden in spring.
One of the most wonderful things about being assigned to Starobelsk, in far-eastern Ukraine, was living with Luba on Panfelova road.  Luba had a pretty house and a fabulous garden, both meticulously and lovingly maintained.  She worked long hours as an accountant at a gas station company, then came home and worked in her garden until dark.  She'd stop every now and then to check whatever she was cooking on the stove for dinner or for the next day or for the preservation of the food that she stored for winter in her basement (a never-ending process).  She'd pop in and out of the house with fresh herbs, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, or bunches of strawberries and raspberries. She absolutely loved working in her garden best of all.  Я люблю его.

She was the best cook in Starobelsk! Fresh food, fresh produce, a variety of wonderful salads.  Egg salad, beet salad, carrot salad, potato salad.  She had chickens, so we had fresh eggs.  She made all kinds of what I called "salsas" (she laughed), mixtures of finely chopped and slow-cooked vegetables with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, carrots, and whatever else she picked from her garden. She blended them all together to create the best tasting condiments and relishes in the world.  Her soups were amazing, too, especially her Borscht.  I loved her vereneky.

She made Ukrainian Paska bread for Easter, nасха хлеб, and colored hard-boiled eggs dark red. She'd put them all into a nice basket, with a small bottle of vodka, and we walked to the church to have them blessed by the priest with willows and water. We had a great meal afterwards, I can tell you that.

Her table always looked lovely, with nice linen and china and fresh flowers. Luba was an extrovert, funny and.gregarious; she laughed easily.  She loved cooking for family and friends. She'd often get me out of bed at 9:00 or 10:00 pm and force me to join her friends for a late dinner and lots of toasts.

Oh no Luba, I can't do it.  Yes, you can,and you will.  Come on.  О нет, Люба. Я читаю. Я иду спать. Да вы можете и вы. Пойдем со мной сейчас.  It was always interesting, even if I couldn't join in the animated conversations.  Usually her dear friend Iryna was there, and Luda, Tonya, and neighbors and friends I met at the market or in town.  We tried to talk, with limited success and to her frustration, and mine. I always made the tea and brought out the cookies. чай и печенье  I was often uncomfortable,because of the language barrier, but these remain memorable moments.

One spring day I heard a scream from her garden.  Luba had gotten a phone call that changed her life forever, a tragedy involving a son.  I never got all the details, but I understood a mother's broken heart.  I heard her crying at night. A mother's grief.  I poured over the Russian-English dictionary to learn a few phrases of comfort.  It will be okay, Luba.  God is with you.  He will stay with you. He will give you strength. We all pray for you. Все будет хорошо, Люба. Бог с вами. Он останется с вами. Он даст вам силы. Мы все молимся за вас  I went to church with her.  She found solace in working in her garden, but even that took some time. Friends came and stayed with her.  A strong woman, Luba survived day by day, doing what she had to do.  She found some reason to keep going in her grandchildren, her friends, her cooking, the meals she loved to share.  She made me put on my winter clothes one cold day and prodded Iryna, her grandson and me outside to go sledding. She grabbed a colorful duster and the sled, and made it fun.  A part of her was always the exuberant Luba who loved life; a part of her was never the same.

I will always remember how she opened her home and her heart to a stranger. How she welcomed this Amerikanka on a journey into the unknown.  How she showed me around the town and helped me get from here to there.  How she shared her house, her food, her life, and made me part of her family and community. How she invited me on a joyous holiday with friends in Berdyansk on the beaches of the Azov sea.  How I wore my first bikini, which she insisted I must have.  How she helped me buy a bike and got me going (she was a whiz on hers).  How she made sure I looked okay when I walked out the door, covered my head in winter and wore skirts to meetings in the summer. How she fed me and regaled me with stories, whether I understood them or not.

It was hard to say goodbye. I will always remember. Прощай, дорогой друг. Я всегда буду помнить.
For me, Luba is eastern Ukraine.  When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Luba, and for all the wonderful people I met on my Peace Corps journey.
This is eastern Ukraine, the Starobelsk I remember: Luba's house and Panfelova road, upper and lower right; scenes from downtown, the library, the university,, the House of Culture (Christmas tree going up in front of it)  Lenin park and a little church nearby; interior of St. Nicolas cathedral. 

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