Updated: Oct 3
As an immigrant, you always want to go back. The umbilical cord between you and your motherland is stronger than any distance or time. I’ve always felt it but its pull last year was different. I didn’t long anymore to see my friends or relatives, I wanted to preserve my culture. It was the only meaningful to me thing I could do to keep alive my connection to Belarus.
I decided to make a documentary about my grandmother Nina. Out of all relatives, she lived the most traditional life. I used to be ashamed of her Ukrainianized dialect; big, overworked hands; and deep wrinkles that made her look twenty years older. But as years passed, I felt increasingly more and more connected to her. There was something mystical about her and her way of life and I knew I needed to capture it before it was too late.
Mass protests against the rigged presidential election in Belarus in 2020 led to repressions, economic sanctions, and country’s isolation. It was only in the beginning of this year, that my husband and I decided to take the risk and go. It would be my first time back in the winter. I romanticized about a winter wonderland with pines buried in snow, evening fires with ceremonial tea, and cozy country living in a house with no plumbing. I would film grandma feed her chickens, carry wood, and prepare for the spring.
But nothing went according to the plan. My filming equipment didn’t arrive on time and I left with no professional camera. Our PCR test results didn’t come after the guaranteed two hours and we missed our first flight. The winter in Belarus was a depressing combination of snow and sleet. Grandma broke her hip and could barely move. I got sick (most likely Covid-19). And living in a house with no plumbing in the winter was more than just hard work.
When Matt and I arrived, my parents and aunt had already been taking care of grandma for weeks. They brought her home from the hospital, made sure she took her meds, fed her cat, and constantly reminded her to slow down. “I hope you won’t paint your ceilings anymore,” said mom. “At your age, a woman should live a slow and comfortable life and not run around like a headless chicken,” said the aunt. “If you break the hip again, you will be bed bound,” said dad.
But as soon as everyone left, grandma went back to normal. Because her hip healed miraculously fast, she could do everything she did before the surgery minus heavy lifting. This was when we started filming her. But our plan of having a plan failed. Grandma had us running after her as she refused to wait on us to set up our cameras. And when I pleaded with her to slow down, she said: “What will you do in your America with so many pictures of an old woman?”
A week in, we adapted. We kept our two iPhones and GoPro always set up with one of us on a lookout for the next thing grandma would do and the other ready to film. We followed her to the outhouse, barn, and shed but we never got what we envisioned, that is—raw footage of grandma only and with no commentary. Grandma talked to the camera and there was always background noise. Crunchy snow, squeaky floors, and unexpected visitors interrupted the silence I wanted to personify through grandma.
When interviewed, instead of answering our questions, she talked again and again about the war, all the deaths in the family, and picking cranberries in the marshes to support her three children. I often lost her. Her dialect made it hard to follow. Frustrated, I reminded her the question: “Tell me about your wedding day, grandma. Were you happy?” She laughed and started talking again about the war and deaths.
After visiting my other grandma and going through her death bundle, I decided to do the same with grandma Nina. I knew it could be the only thing she could talk about without going off on a tangent. I was right. As soon as I mentioned the bundle, she walked up to the closet, reached to the back of the middle shelf, and produced a white cotton tablecloth tied by its four corners. She set it on the couch. I sat next to her. First, she took out linen towels that she weaved decades ago. “This one would embellish the icon for the ceremony in church,” she said. “This one would stay in the coffin with me,” she continued. I touched both. Then, she took out an ankle-long snow-white dress. “I made it,” she said. “I want to be in all white and in the clothes I made with my own hands.” I swallowed heavily. “There was a man who recently died in the village, and he had nothing arranged. I had to give him one of my handkerchiefs. It’s such a shame to die with nothing prepared,” she said putting everything back in the bundle.
Another reason why we came to Belarus in January was to film a century-long ceremony of making a brotherly candle in grandma Nina’s village. In the beginning, because of the size of the village, there was no church or means to get to one. To compensate, the villagers made a big candle for the closest church to burn on their behalf. It burned for two years. Even today when many villagers can drive or hitchhike (like my grandma) to church, the ceremony still takes place. The candles are now donated to churches all over the country. Melting, molding, and shaping wax is a man’s job. And this year there were a lot of them. They talked, argued, laughed, and made fun of each other with the ruthlessness and familiarity that can only be found in a village with one road and store.
At the end of the ceremony, everyone chipped in for a celebration. Vodka, sausages, homemade pickles, and tangerines covered the table that only minutes ago was used to roll the candles. Around this time, women started singing Christmas carols and congratulating men on a good job done. And after a few shots, a man in a green wool sweater told me he was my relative, the village doctor said he treated me as a baby, and a short elderly man said he was my mom’s history teacher. We drank, laughed, and hugged each other until it was time to bring the candles into the local chapel for the priest to bless them. Accompanied by the accordion and singing, the village made its way into a small building that used to be a school. Inside the chapel, the men tenderly placed the candles in front of the alter and lit them. With their fur hats off, heads down, and hands folded in front of them these yelling, laughing, and vodka drinking men turned into the pious vanguards of their village’s traditions.
Even though I didn’t get the shots I wanted of grandma, I learned more about her than from all the years combined. For the first time in my life, she sang to me, showed her wedding dress, and taught me how to use two wooden sticks to iron. I never knew she liked cats as much as I did or that she didn’t eat bananas. I saw a little girl in her. The girl that was kind, innocent, and curious, as if eighty years of life had no impact on her. She reminded me of myself and I loved her even more.
Our journey back was hell. We were turned around twice at the Polish border, drove to Minsk in the middle of the night, and rebooked our flights twice (thanks dad!). We did three PCR tests and feared Russia would invade Ukraine. It wasn’t until we landed in Istanbul that we finally exhaled. I had never felt so trapped and stressed as I did that last week in Belarus and coming home never felt so good. But it was this trip that finally convinced me that my dad made the right decision to leave Belarus eighteen years ago. I always thought that happiness didn’t depend on indoor plumbing but pooping outside in bone-chilling temperatures didn’t add to my life.
Listening to my grandma sing and talk about her death made it all worth it. It added a new dimension to her and my understanding of myself. But more importantly, it made the umbilical cord between me and Belarus a bit stronger.