A little house and big hands
The little wooden house, painted in yellow and blue, is her haven. It is surrounded by birch trees, an apple orchard, plum trees, and tall perennial grasses. It looks magical and idyllic in contrast to the lives it once sheltered.
Grandpa became orphaned after the post-war bandits killed his father traveling home through the woods from selling pottery and his mother died from typhus. With both parents gone, grandpa moved in with his uncle. It was kind of him to provide food and shelter but grandpa wanted to go to school. But instead of school, he stayed at home as a laborer to earn his upkeep. As a result, he never learned to read or write. Until the day he died, grandpa signed off with either an “X” or unreadable scribbles.
When grandpa became old enough, he started traveling to deep and cold parts of Russia to harvest wheat and build sheds and barns for collective farms. He was paid in grain, which he sold in his home village for cash. One time when he returned from another six-month long trip, he brought a new pair of boots, his first, but the uncle took the boots away and gave them to one of his sons. “You are too young for such good boots,” he said to grandpa.
Shortly after, grandpa moved in with his older brother’s family which seemed to be more sympathetic to his plight. I suspect that by that time, grandpa was already severely damaged.
I remember grandpa as a quiet, white-headed man. Instead of hugs, he gave handshakes. He engaged with us, the grandchildren, minimally, but when he did, he took us to the woods for mushroom hunting (as an expert mushroom hunter he could tell if a mossy bump on a forest floor was a mushroom or protruding forest litter) or rides in his awfully noisy and slow two-wheel tractor with a trailer. It was so slow that sometimes, out of a desire to speed things up, we jumped out the trailer, ran alongside the tractor, and then skillfully threw our little bodies back inside. The purest of the pleasures was though when grandpa allowed us to steer the noisy monster—it was deceivingly difficult to control its two small wheels.
I was never eager to visit or engage with him because he looked dead on the inside. He talked only when he needed something or when he was drunk. I was scared of his secrets, silence, extinguished narrow eyes, and drunk hysteria. I was afraid of his stiff movements and uncompromised deterrence. I was afraid of him because nobody explained him to me.
His colossally pitiful existence turned him bitter, so bitter that he tried killing grandma twice. The first time, he stopped half way through because a thought of ruining his reputation by committing a murder in front of his much-respected neighbors became unbearable. He had no choice but to release pinned to the ground grandma and drop a log he was using to suffocate her. Perhaps that was the reason why the second time he got an urge to kill, it happened inside. His drunkenness was the cause of his cruelty, but it also saved grandma. It was easier to run away from a drunk than a sober man.
Unlike grandpa, grandma became orphaned in her teens. Her father also died while returning home from selling pottery. That evening, he pulled up his horse cart to a village not far from his and, being a social drinker, he indulged. He resumed his journey at night. The following morning, his horse cart and dead body were found on the outskirts of his village. Some speculated he passed out and chocked on his vomit. It could have easily been a heart attack too. A hand-made pine coffin, quick church service, sandy cemetery, and a home-made meal marked his end.
Her mother died from pneumonia.
When my grandparents met, they both were irrevocably damaged. To make the matters even worse, they got married without knowing each other. But all of this would have probably been fine if they actually lived together. Grandpa continued doing seasonal work in Russia and grandma stayed at home to run the homestead and raise the kids. They never got a chance to know each other.
With grandpa being gone from spring to fall, the family had to survive on their own. In the summer and early fall, grandma made her three children pick cranberries and bilberries in the mosquito infested woods and marshes. They walked miles to get to the woods, then more miles to find and pick the berries, and more miles to walk home with heavy sacks on their backs. Alone, grandma transported hundreds of pounds of berries by train and sold them at an open-air market in Lviv, Ukraine.
Grandpa never shared his earrings, he was saving them. But they all disappeared after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It turned out that all his life he worked for nothing. It made him bitter even more.
While grandpa's bitterness was understandable, grandma's strength wasn’t. Somehow she transcended all the pain grandpa and life inflicted on her and kept her joie de vivre.
She lives alone in her little wooden house with no plumbing or running water. She still splits her own wood, cuts grass with a scythe, grows her own food, and hitchhikes to church. Her life is good, she says, except there is nobody to argue with now. Grandpa had long been dead.
She is living beautifully in the most unbeautiful conditions, and I’ll probably never understand how she came to that grace. Her big hands and swollen finger joints is a testament to her strength and survivalism. I hope one day my hands will also look so full of life.