The loss of her grandmother compelled an alumna to understand her heritage.
Ukraine, it is commonly observed, means “borderland” in the Ukrainian and Russian languages. This meaning is often invoked to explain that Ukrainian territory has long served as a buffer between cultures, whether between Christendom and the Islamic world in the Middle Ages, or Europe and Russia more recently.
I came to think of Ukraine as representing a borderland of my own, a psychic one. Before I had gone to Ukraine, my view of the world was fixed. I had assumed that certain things were immutable: People greeted each other with care. Certain boundaries—time, space, independence—were respected. If you were sick, you could get help. Your apartment building was whole; your lights burned at your command; water flowed freely from faucets.
Now I possessed personal experience that had proved that assumption false. I had crossed into a new understanding of how the world worked; Ukraine had revealed to me a glimmer of the unjust suffering it could hold. With this new awareness, I tightened inside. Mild acts of subversion—partying, culling a hip wardrobe from thrift store bins, sarcasm—lost their allure. I became kinder as I understood in a new way that people could not help the circumstances they were born into. I now understood that circumstances alone could be crushing. Perhaps one way of accounting for this change was simply to say that I was becoming an adult. But I also felt that visiting Ukraine had been crucial to this understanding, and that there was still more for me to learn.
After I graduated from college in 2004, I returned to Ukraine and stayed for a year on a Fulbright fellowship. My time there coincided with the Orange Revolution, a heady moment in Ukrainian history when massive public protests helped overturn a rigged presidential election. Witnessing the event was my first real political education. It opened my mind to fresh ways of thinking about all kinds of social problems: the woes of post-Soviet economies, the selective application of the rule of law, the unequal access to quality health care. Armed with these new perspectives, I started to think about how these wrongs could be righted, and how I could take part.
When I came back to the United States, I took a series of jobs that eventually led me to a policy position at a development-focused foundation in the nation’s capital, where, using the imperfect tools of briefing books and strategic plans, I sought to leverage my passion into something useful.
Sometimes, though, when I looked at my Outlook inbox for long stretches, an inner voice whispered to me that I wasn’t doing much of anything at all.
My grandmother died in the first weeks of the spring of 2013. She was eighty-eight, so it feels strange to call her death unexpected, but its cause—a heart attack or stroke that struck in the middle of the night, causing her to collapse in the bathroom—came on without warning. [Her third husband,] Mr. Sorochak, whom she had outlived by eight years, had died at ninety-seven, and we had all expected her to follow the model of his long decline, growing slower and feebler by the year, collapsing into herself so much that she finally became still, like a stone. She did not. To the end of her days, my grandmother was vibrant; she kept her agency and her spirit until, all at once, they left her.
Her death struck me like a thunderbolt. How could this beloved person, this seemingly permanent feature of life, suddenly be gone? How could her vitality be extinguished? How could her story be over? How?
My grandmother had arranged and paid for her own funeral many years earlier, so my mom, [my aunt] Olga, and I didn’t have those logistics to distract us in the days after her death. To keep busy, we threw ourselves into going through her belongings; the modest brick ranch house in Parma [Ohio] she had so carefully tended would have to be sold eventually. While my grandmother was tidy, she had lived in the house for decades and inherited the belongings of her parents, so we had quite a task before us.
My grandmother had a habit of storing papers in used mailing envelopes, on which she would scrawl descriptions of their contents in Ukrainian. The envelopes suggested she was interested in maintaining some kind of order, but in truth they were just vessels for her clutter—receipts for packages she sent to Ukraine, a bewildering number of icon cards from funerals (what was it like to lose so many friends?), bills from Medicare, a Ukrainian newspaper from the nineties. Once my mother opened a used envelope to find a thousand dollars still wrapped in a tie from the bank.
The envelopes that thrilled me the most contained old photographs. We marveled that there were so many of them that we hadn’t seen, the oldest ones crimped along their white borders, as photos once commonly were. When I found a photo of her, I felt a tingle of pleasure and studied it closely. My opportunities to have new experiences with her were dwindling. This was a way to stay close.
When I had exhausted the photos, I found myself pursuing that closeness in other ways. I finagled reading privileges at a nearby university library so I could read specialized books about my grandmother’s time and region that were too costly to buy. I wrote archives in Poland and Ukraine to request documents pertaining to my family. During meetings at work, I positioned my laptop so I could scroll unnoticed through passenger lists from Ellis Island. I dusted off recordings of the interviews I had done with my grandmother over the years, and had them transcribed and translated into English so I could understand all of their nuances.
A few months after I started down this path, I visited the ivy-clad Freud Museum in London. I stopped short at a quote on one of the walls from Virginia Woolf in which she explained that her novel To the Lighthouse had been fueled by her fixation with her mother, who died when the author was thirteen:
When it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. … I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.
I didn’t recognize the feeling of resolution, but the compulsive need to describe I knew. In my previous forays into my grandmother’s life, I had not gone far enough. I needed to know more.
Megan Buskey, AB’04, writes about Ukrainian history, politics, and culture. She is based in New York City. From Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family Story of Exile and Return. Copyright © 2023 by Megan Buskey. Reprinted with permission of ibidem Press.