Babushka's gift

She was happy to be useful, with little time for unkind thoughts.

All of Babushka's belongings could fit under her pillow. After years of knowing her, I came to the conclusion that it was a kind of reward for all she'd endured. That is, she had been given the gift of not being bound to either the past or possessions. She was not only extremely practical, but uniquely free.

As for being happy, she was happy being useful, and there were very few days in her life she didn't spend being useful. "Hard work empties your noggin of nonsense," she liked to say – encouragingly. By that measure, I had very little nonsense in my noggin the fall I lived in rural Vetoshkino, Russia, a village resembling an island in a sea of wheat fields 600 miles east of Moscow.

I helped teach English in the village school. After school, I worked in the garden with Babushka (grandmother), and slept in the spare bed in her room. She lived with her daughter's family; her daughter is one of my closest friends.

Before the family enlarged the house last year, Babushka's bedroom was at the end of the long, narrow kitchen. A blue flowered curtain indicated where the kitchen ended and our room started. She happily shared her room. Better to have the extra bed used by me, she reasoned, than covered with onions. A person (especially one from afar) was bound to bring a new view of the world to her village life.

She cared greatly for life. That's altogether different from caring about things, I soon learned from her quiet example.

The first night, as we were going to bed, she apologized for knowing only two prayers. A neighbor had taught them to her when she was 5. She preferred to sing them. "We'll pray now for God to keep us through the night." This we did every night. I could only imagine that the practice had begun during (and had carried her through) two wars, as many revolutions, and untold years of uncertainty.

Between our beds was a window. Hanging in front of the window was a little glass butterfly I'd given her the year before, when I'd arrived in time for her birthday. When I gave it to her, she looked at it, at me, and then said, "Milaya moya" – my dear – "why did you think I wanted a present? I was hoping you'd give me a prayer."

Though she'd meant it in the sense of my saying a prayer for her, that afternoon I went to the post office (which sells cards) and bought her one with the Lord's Prayer on it. The card was simple but beautifully done. She kept it in her apron pocket for the rest of her life, pulling it out wherever she was, whether in the kitchen separating cream from the fresh milk or in the fields sifting chaff from wheat.

This latter skill she taught me. I told her I'd only read about it in the Bible. She asked me to tell her the story while she taught me how to winnow: "Hold the sieve high and still. The secret is in being still! Let the wind separate it."

I realize this story might leave you with the impression of a simplistic woman. Babushka was anything but simplistic. Among the other things she did not possess was an unkind view of humanity, or stereotypes about others. (She didn't have time for them.) In many ways, her life was already ahead of our times. It was an example of what we all wish for our world: more high and steady caring about life, and less agitation over things.

The first time we talked on Skype, Babushka didn't bat an eye at seeing me on her daughter's laptop. I smiled at seeing our little room and the humble woman who lived there.

My possessions fit under the roof of my house, not under my pillow. Still, Babushka's example has long been one of my greatest possessions. I like to think she would be pleased.

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