Saturday, June 18, 2016
People often ask me what is the most memorable moment I’ve had. It is hard to choose one unforgettable moment once you’ve passed the half-century mark. There have been many pleasant and dark phases in my life. Some of them I wish had never happened, and some of them I was happy to carry throughout my life. Like many of us, I often look back, recalling joyful flashes and regretting sad moments. One thing I know for sure is that each of those moments added something to my knowledge and taught me something about other people and myself. My character has been shaped by countless lessons, learned in moments that made me, challenging my strength, beliefs, and self-worth.
I’ve prayed for many things over the years. One of them was that I would never have to say goodbye to a woman who was my guardian angel, who devoted her entire life to helping others. Her name was Maria. She was one of my mother’s older sisters, a beautiful soul with a huge heart and an endless love for people. My aunt was only 15 years old when World War II cut her youth short. She lived in the same village where I was born, hidden deep inside the Carpathian Mountains, a beautiful place to visit, but hard to adopt. Poor and neglected by its numerous governments, it switched rulers like gloves, with increasing poverty and uncertainty. When the Nazis occupied the region, they took young people to Germany and forced them to work in labor camps. In summer the young boys and girls hid in the mountains, surviving on berries and food snuck in by their parents. In winter they had no choice but to return home.
One night, Germans surrounded the village. Maria’s older sister and a few other young villagers were hiding in a hole beneath the stable, dug at night by my grandfather. The trained dogs found the hiding spot, and soldiers dragged the young teenagers to the train station, where they’d go to Germany the next morning. Parents walked all night to reach the town, carrying small packets of belongings for their children. Among them was Maria with her father. The train was packed with girls and boys, who’d been dragged from their beds in the middle of the night. Crying and screaming, they were fearfully staring at the line of armed soldiers and viciously barking dogs. Weeping, Maria begged the commander to spare her sister from the frightful journey. Laughing, he offered to take her instead. She agreed. Leaping into the horror of war that was devastating Europe, Maria disappeared from the radar.
World War II finally came to an end, but nobody had heard from Maria. The innocent young people who were taken to Germany ended up in labor camps in Siberia. The unlucky never returned, while the lucky ones came back with broken souls. Some of them joined the National Ukrainian militia that led a partisan war against the Soviet army.
Maria’s older sister did not escape her horrific fate. She was sent to Siberia a few weeks shy of her 19th birthday, where she spent her young years slaving in the Soviet forced labor camp in Kolyma, the coldest inhabited place on the planet. Surviving Kolyma was more difficult than any other Gulag locale. She was there until Stalin’s death. Her crime was that hungry Ukrainian militants stole milk from the communist farm where she was milking cows in the early morning.
As the years passed, many tears were shed and countless prayers were prayed. Life went on without the two young girls lost in postwar chaos. The country was slowly recovering from its wounds, celebrating births and weddings, anniversaries and reforms. For us, holidays were sad occasions, with two old pictures set in the center of the table. My grandma could not move on without closure.
One day, like snow in the middle of summer, a letter arrived from Poland, sent by my grandpa’s sister. Inside was a tiny picture of Maria, who had succeeded in locating her aunt in Poland. To confuse the KGB, my grandpa’s sister called the woman in the picture Mary. Healthy and beautiful, a happy Maria smiled from the picture, which had taken in the United States. That was the day I met my new Aunt Mary. The horrible ordeal of the war had not touched her spirit, which shined through her warm eyes and followed me whenever I visited my grandparents’ home. I later learned that the courageous Maria jumped from the truck taking her to the train leaving Germany to Siberia. With other young survivors, she walked for days until they found an American army unit. Years later, she was granted a visa and immigrated to America.
We lived a world apart, separated by the ocean and thousands of miles, but I felt as if I’d known my new aunt forever. Her picture was placed between two icons for as long as I can remember. As a child I thought she was one of them, sweet and beautiful, just like the Holy Mother. For years there were no letters or news from the country the Soviet Union despised so much. A few times a day my grandma sent us to the mailbox, which was a half-mile away, to check the mail. Grandpa’s sister visited us once a year. It was a huge occasion when she brought Mary’s letters and pictures. Word about the letters spread through the extended family like lightning. At evening, aunts and uncles and their countless children gathered in grandpa's house. There were more than a few dozen kids, crawling and jumping, laughing and crying, from time to time pointing at the pictures of the two Marys. Waiting for grandpa to read the letters, some children fell asleep on the homemade rugs covering the dirt floor. Grandpa read Mary’s letters slowly, savoring every word, repeating sentences and paragraphs, enjoying every moment connecting him to his lost daughter. Grandma prayed through the tears, hugging the wrinkled envelope with the picture inside. Mary’s letters were more than news; they linked us to a world we knew nothing about and gave us those special moments that people value for life. They kept us together.
Letters from Mary did not come to Ukraine until the Soviet dictator finished his life the same way that his victims had. Then something happened that no one expected. Mary found a way to send money, clothing, goods, and medication, first through Poland and then to Ukraine. For a poor family, it was a blessing from the heavens—the first sweater, the first dress, the first real doll for children. After Stalin’s regime loosened up, Mary regularly sent packages to Ukraine. The fees to receive a small package from the United States cost more than a few months of one family’s earnings, but it was worth it, because one headscarf from it sold at the market paid for the entire package. Mary’s packages came at Christmas and Easter. There were enough things for kids to have something special to remember.
A month before Easter, Grandpa left to town to get Mary’s package. We impatiently waited for the bus all day. He arrived at evening, carrying a big cardboard box on his shoulder. We walked behind him, praying he would open it as soon as he got home. But instead Grandpa locked the package inside his closet and went to sleep. That was the longest week in my life. After Sunday mass, the entire family gathered at Grandpa’s house. There were many people crammed in his tiny house, but everyone was quiet. I could hear a fly buzzing behind the door. Like a magician, Grandpa pulled from the box the colorful headscarves (babyshka/xystka), sweaters, toys, and the colorful floral fabric that made a huge impression on the girls. Their eyes were glued to Grandpa cutting it in six pieces. He gave a piece of fabric to each of his daughters. All month my mom sowed skirts for the girls, and we would wear them at Easter, looking like a bunch of happy twins. In every package Mary placed a small surprise for each child. Because of her, I tasted my first bubble gum. Later in life, whenever I bought a piece of gum, I smiled. The bubble gum reminded me of the woman whose sweaters kept me warm, whose dresses made me pretty, and whose first doll made my childhood tolerable.
Aunt Mary had her own family to raise, but it did not stop her from helping others. Without hesitation, she sent clothing and food to our neighbors, her old friends, and just people in need who wrote her. She changed many lives in the most wonderful ways, by denying herself of the things she desired. With her help, we finished universities and colleges and were able to improve our lives. We all needed Aunt Mary in different ways. Sometimes we were selfish and needy, but she did not stop loving us for what we were.
The third generation was born. My girls got their first pink dresses sent by Aunt Mary. She filled their cribs with dolls and toys. She did everything possible to give me the opportunity to live my dreams in a new country, and there is no way I could repay her for her generosity. I was the luckiest one to have Aunt Mary in my life as long as I did. My memories of her could go on and on. I could write pages about her life and kindness, but I know what she would say. She always thought that she didn't do anything extraordinary. She did it because she cared, because people should love and help each other. The world needs more people like Aunt Mary, giving, forgiving, and loving; an angel who nobly cared for others throughout her life without any expectation of recognition or glory.
Life is unpredictable. Life is struggle. You climb one hill just to see another, steeper and more rebellious. It is an ocean of problems, sprinkled with sparkles of happiness to keep us on course. But it is also beautiful once you are blessed with people like Aunt Mary, a wonderful soul who taught me the most valuable life lesson: love the person next to you if you want to be loved in return.