The smell of wild scallions by the roadside in Belgium reminds my nose of dill and parsley drying in the attic. Nettles and raspberry brambles claw at my ankles and remind me of exploring the depths of the garden as a child, somewhere between butternut squash and the fence. The dewy emerald rewards of a climate rich in sun and rain feel like home, no matter where in the world I find them.
Maslo— Ukrainian for butter– with every meal, “makes you strong”. Desserts, and beets, are similarly good for bodily constitution. Hard work is the only way, and most things require some hard work. God, country, and family are somewhere on the list, either before or after maslo and varenyky and beets. These are the feelings that constitute home. This is an elegy for my dying Ukrainian grandmother.
Now, my grandmother is 94 years old. She no longer has an attic full of parsley, she does not clear slugs and brambles from her garden, and she has largely cleared her table of worldly affairs. She has lived longer than my grandfather and many others that travelled to the United States during the same period. She outlived the second war, emigration to a foreign country as a young widow with a young child, and survived a state-wide artificial famine in Ukraine in her childhood. She traveled to the United States in search of freedom, something I’ll never understand the way she does as I’ve never lived without it. Yet, I benefit greatly from everything she has done and, necessarily, everything that has happened in her life. She has always provided food, shelter and love for her family.
The world is a rapidly changing place which has passed her by in many ways, as it often does to people nearing one hundred years. She never drove a car, used a computer, or threw anything away that could be used again, and again, and again. When she moved out of her house several years ago, we found hundreds of small plastic yogurt containers. As a child. I remember enjoying the lemon yogurt that originally came in them, and then using them to drink water, milk, or homemade raspberry chai. She never threw them away, and must have found a hundred other uses for them around the house and in the garden.
At the dinner table, each of my grandparents would use and re-use a thin paper napkin as many times as possible before finally disposing of it, usually a handful of meals per napkin. The hand soap in the bathroom was vinegar, as a I recall. For entertainment, we would pick raspberries or peel potatoes, perhaps even take a walk to the park. Several years ago, I took her to the supermarket for the first time in nearly a year– she exclaimed, “how many kinds of cheese do you need?”. I still don’t know for sure, as I love cheese, but the answer might be only one. Because of her, I know the difference between need and want. More than nostalgia, these memories serve to inform my adult life. I am consistently astounded by how nearly my own philosophies mirror that of my grandparents, and finally, that I now love beets. I used to think that everything I knew I learned from traveling by bike, and caring for my needs. I now realize that I learned everything first from my grandparents. Live simply, and live well.
To eulogize the living is the best way to celebrate life. Before this is no longer possible, I am going home. Europe can wait. I have reached Bruxelles by way of the GR12 and by now, I am on a plane to upstate New York. I will remain there for several weeks and will return to Europe when the time is right.