This (peaceful) life
“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.