This (peace­ful) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ber­nadette Belej Re­view wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 420 and 450 words. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

“UKRAINE is poised on a knife-edge,” the jour­nal­ist re­ports. From my lounge, air escapes my chest and my eyes threaten tears. I am re­lieved that Babt­sya is not alive to see this, to re­live the Rus­sian in­va­sion of her home­land.

As a child, I would race my bike down the dirt track to my grand­par­ents’ conite house to see Babt­sya.

She never sat to talk to me, rather, I chat­ted as she worked. In her sleeve­less sum­mer dresses, her bi­ceps flexed hard like Dad’s.

Her rough­ened hands could rip apart squawk­ing chick­ens un­til they looked like those in su­per­mar­ket trays, yet del­i­cately fold per­ogi, the rich potato dumplings that took her a day to pre­pare and her grand­chil­dren only min­utes to de­vour.

She told me happy sto­ries about her farm­ing child­hood in western Ukraine (then Poland) but even though I feared it would up­set her, I al­ways wanted to hear about the war. Her hands would pause, her grey eyes wa­ter, and in whis­pers — as if some­one might over­hear — she would re­count the day the Nazis took her away.

Of the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, she could not speak, only slowly shake her head, her face col­lapsed in sad­ness.

Dur­ing the Cold War, Babt­sya would post parcels back to her fam­ily. The cov­eted denim jeans and crafted Cyril­lic script of life in Aus­tralia were some­times re­ceived, but of­ten dis­ap­peared en route.

Their replies told of eco­nomic hard­ship and my cousin with leukemia, whose treat­ment they needed money for; there were many like him in the vil­lage, af­ter Ch­er­nobyl.

Babt­sya would be amazed if she could see how we now com­mu­ni­cate on Skype. As Rus­sia moves, I get up­dated di­rectly from my cousins. Skilled and ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als, they re­main un­em­ployed and un­able to sup­port their famil- ies. My cousin Oleg, his brow etched with worry, his shoul­ders slumped by bur­den, wants to move here with his wife and daugh­ter.

In re­cent years, he and his broth­ers have all had to leave their loved ones to find work in Poland and Rus­sia. His mother, at an age when many Aussies hook up their car­a­van for coast­line ad­ven­tures, is a live-in carer for the el­derly in Italy, earn­ing four times what she can get in Ukraine. She can­not en­joy her grand­chil­dren: her wage is their lifeblood.

I hope Oleg can get a visa. We are the same age, but be­cause our grand­fa­ther em­i­grated to Aus­tralia more than 60 years ago, his grand­chil­dren born here have pros­pered, whilst those left be­hind are in tur­moil.

Babt­sya’s name was Iryna. It means “peace”. It is all she ever wanted for her fam­ily. She gave me the priv­i­lege of know­ing no other life.

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