“Take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.” – Hebrews 12:12-13
With some thought, I can mark out the days on a calendar that I would consider “hard” in the last 5 years. Days when nothing went right. Days when everything went wrong. Days when peace was nowhere to be found. Days when there was more work for me to do than I thought I was physically capable of. Days like those. Hard days.
The Babushkas in the land of Moldova know what it means to live “hard” days and they do it every day of their lives. Babushkas are the grandmothers of the land, the elderly ladies that seemingly run the country without any form of government pay! Everyone listens when a Babushka talks. She is revered, she is heard, and she usually makes the decisions for the village.
Now, I do not claim to know for a second all things Moldova, but I have seen, heard, and lived a lot in the last month of my life. So my words fall from that experience and from what I’ve learned about it. Sometimes experience isn’t everything. Sometimes it’s just enough.
“The Babushkas deserve a blog post,” I thought to myself last week while watching one of these blessed women work harder than 4 of us American young people combined. Her story needs to be told. One Babushka? No, they all need to be told and since I am fairly limited on many accounts, I will tell their story together within the walls of this blog. The Babushka’s story matters. Her story points straight to God’s bigger story, and as you know from the history of who I am and where my passions lie, I can not WAIT for you to know her better . . . and know HIM better.
Her years go by in a state of survival and everyday monotony. She hopes to love while she can and knows that the little time she has in a day will be spent readying her home for the needs of tomorrow. Mass is the one time a week that, if she is able, she will walk possibly miles to the little white building, and claim her spot on the pew readying her heart and knees to kneel and recite the ancient prayers that will take her to new life one day.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, she readies her world for the winter. Her need and preparation for warmth in that season, takes up her time most of the rest of the year. She does not chop wood as she needs it, no, she prepares out of season so that she may take at will from her woodshed and log piles when the time is right. Her load of trees, bought and delivered earlier in the year, dwindles as she climbs to the top of the 10 ft pile year after year to drag each limb to the safety of the ground. She chops, and chops, swinging the ax as if it is a tooth pick, bringing each limb to its’ proper size, the same way she has done so her entire life.
Many of the Babushkas, most in fact, have lost their husbands long ago. The first one I worked with this month, had always lives on her own and so was just carrying out her duties from a lifetime of hard work. She truly knows nothing else. Since there is not a man, as old as he might have been, to carry out the most physically demanding chores of the land, the Babushka is forced to adapt to such labor as simply the way of life. Now, I do not mean to make it sound as if she sees it in any way as a troublesome task. She does not seem to. It’s just the way it is. She literally knows nothing else, so work she does and with stamina as you have never seen. Or at least I had never seen!
Retirement is not a word known to the Moldavan Babushka. She works until the day she is unable to further step and she is not long on the earth following that day. Most of the women I met, who worked harder than any grown man I know, were at least 85 and sometimes older. It really is hard to calculate their age, since their skin is like leather and their hands are two times larger than would be typical for their body size. Knuckles swollen, nails almost gone and impacted with dirt so deeply they could never be repaired, this is just little snippets of the things you see when you look at a Babushka while she works, for she hardly ever stands still.
Speaking of standing. She doesn’t really. Almost every Babushka I have seen this month has a permanent hunch to her back. She has spent so many years harvesting low in the fields (I can now attest to this wear and tear on the back!), milking cows and goats, chopping wood, and other sorts of bent over labor that she is now only able to straighten parallel with the ground or slightly more if she is still in her early 70s. Not just her back has been affected though, so have her knees from bearing the extra weight of terrible posture and her ankles are strong but also swollen. Her arms are beastly strong but misshapen, with the curvature of her spine.
The planting, caring for the farm animals every day of the year, the gathering of eggs and all animal byproducts throughout the year, the daily chopping, and the harvest (Not to mention laundry by hand, darning, cooking for hours every day, etc), all of this and more equals the life of the Babushka . . . and yet she smiles.
One day recently, two others from my group (Christian and one of my squad leaders, Rachel, who was visiting at the time), gathered in a circle to pray at the close of our time working hard for the Babushka as we often do. We invited her to join (This was not the first time that she had done so). This time, unlike the hesitancy displayed the time before, our Babushka, Rosa, literally DROPPED everything she had in her hands (Cane, blankets she had just washed and finished drying) onto the dusty ground and reached out for our hands. Her movements were so radical, her faith so thick, her need for community and the Lord so great . . . I was rendered speechless.
Christian prayed and as Rosa gripped my hand, tears began to seep into the slits of my tightly shut eyes. I was crying out to my God for this woman . . . and for me, that I would never forget what it looks like to want God that much. Her grip never lessoned and then the prayer was over. Immediately the three of us were brought into a prayer that we could not understand with our ears. Our hearts; however, understood every word. Babushka raised her voice in her own language and prayed words like “slava” which means “glory” and “Esus” which means “Jesus” . . .she prayed and then she was finished. She squeezed our hands and dropped them. Rosa’s normal persona is not one that “hangs out” or anything so when she didn’t move, Rachel and I began to pat her arms and stroke her hair. Rosa was crying. Not in sobs, no, but in light streams that looked like heaven on earth. She cried for a few moments and accepted the grace of those of us with her before moving on to our goodbyes for the afternoon. My Moldavan babushka wears spectacles so thick that I can BARELY see her actual eyes but that afternoon, in the blazing hot sun, Rosa’s eyes were shining. She had been touched by her God and she was grateful for Him, us, and life.
Paulina is a Babushka in our village who is unable to really care for herself. Her family does take care of her apparently and we have just aided that care with the delivery of daily meals from our church’s kitchen. Paulina is hunched over so far that eye contact is difficult. When it happens though . . .whooh. . .how to describe the peace in her eyes. This woman that is wracked daily with the pain of her years of hard work, this woman who knows loss that I will never know and a lifestyle of isolation that I will only try to understand. Paulina is a woman with peace. I prayed over her the first day I met her and her words to me over and over again were, “Glory to God! Glory to God!” How is this so, I thought? How does she recognize God’s goodness in her location and physical state? And then the Truth I already knew hit me right where I was. The God of all creation meets us right where we are. He is personal. He is here. Paulina is LOVED. By God.
Most of the time Paulina meets us at her gate, slung between ancient wooden slats, twisted every which way. She sticks her large callosed hand around one slat, leans farther over than she is already bent to grab the key that is slyly tucked in her sock, tugs at the lock until it is unlatched, and then yelps at the dog who is trying to escape to protect his Babushka from the foreign missionaries. She cracks the gate far enough to take in the plastic bag filled with cabbage soup and bread.
. . . Paulina lifts her head in gratitude, a motion that wrenches her twisted spine I am sure, and she smiles. And I can do nothing but tell you the truth, her smile makes me tremble.