Essays On War

Mom, when did you start responding to „grandma“? Ganna Uliura

Mom, when did you start responding to „grandma“?

The elderly prefer not to leave their homes, even when the frontline approaches them. They are physically incapable of doing so, mainly because they have been living with the reality of war. So they stay to try and preserve their property for the younger generation. They are confident that nothing will happen to the elderly in the war. I read the 2022 global report released by Human Rights Watch covering the past 10 years, “No One is Spared: Abuses Against Older People in Armed Conflict.” Ukraine is mentioned there. It is written that pensioners in the East do not receive proper payments. The report was released on February 23. Information about Ukraine would look different now. It would not change the conclusions on a global scale.

“We need to talk seriously.” These words make my heart sink (while we had more than one serious conversation, we got used to saying goodbye forever during every our talk). “Daughter, where did you hide the chocolate bar in my apartment? I do not believe you wouldn’t tuck away some chocolate somewhere!” We will keep talking for as long as the shelling of her area continues. We will laugh over stupid jokes to suppress the sounds of missile strikes nearby. Then I end the video call with my mom and cry my heart out.

According to the mayor, there have been only 23 quiet days in Mykolaiv during half a year of full-scale war. A mere 23 days without shelling, explosions, or missile strikes. They stopped counting the number of air raid sirens long ago. I resorted to purely magical practices: I mentioned Mykolaiv as my hometown in all my accounts, even though I have not been living there for a quarter of a century. But my whole life is there now. The antonym of “war” is not peace; it is life.

War? It is hearing your mother’s voice and explosions from cluster shells on the phone simultaneously, wholeheartedly believing that the town will survive, for it has a stubborn and mean streak? Bashtanka, a small town in the Mykolaiv region, is now on the news. There, on March 1, a column of tanks was destroyed. The locals went bare-handed against heavy equipment. Bashtanka is well-known for its unofficial slogan: “Forget the tanks, we are Bashtankans.” No, it was invented long before this war. My mother reassures(!) me(!) after the first missile strike in her neighborhood: “What will happen to me, you ask? I’m from Bashtanka, c’mon. Whereas your dad comes from the city. That gentle soul diluted my blood in you; that’s why you get nervous about trifles.”

I get nervous about trifles. Every morning after the news about the night shelling, I draw crosses on the map of her district as if playing a hellish “sea battle” (miss-wound-miss-hit). And she distracts me from that perverted game: “A young volunteer was walking around the apartments. He asked me if I needed help with anything, like moving the furniture away from the window. Such a cute boy that I didn’t even take offense at him calling me granny.”

Older women in this war are grandmothers, grandmas, and grannies. 20-year-old+ girls think about what kind of grandmothers they will become: stingy with words and external manifestations of emotions, prudent and thrifty, focused on the survival of their loved ones… What fabulous old ladies they will be one day! One of the first memes of a full-scale war is a sign at a bus stop near the village of Myhalky: “Get out of Ukraine and our village, bitches. Signed, Grandma Nadia.” Grandma Nadia became a symbol of resistance in that fierce spring along with the woman-with-sunflowers from Henichesk and the border guards from Snake Island. The transformation of a person into a symbol perplexes me (even though it is understandable in a time of existential threats). I desperately try to imagine that grandma from Myhalky, with my fear-diluted blood and clarity, slowly returns. I have already met her more than once in this war. It’s just that the woman’s name was different.

The Kyiv witch. On the night of February 26, there were explosions, missile strikes, and sirens wailing across the city of Kyiv and the region. An old woman was standing in the yard holding an entrance mat. With every new explosion, she slams it hard against the trunk of the apricot tree. A man’s voice came from a nearby window: “What the heck are you doing?!” She answered: “Driving evil from the threshold!” and returned to what she was doing.

Mykhailovna. I often saw her when I stood in line at the nearby supermarket in the first days of the invasion: stocky, severe, constantly wearing carmine lipstick and a Lurex headscarf. Next to me, cashiers were working quickly at the cash registers. “Seems like there was an air alarm. Was it short or long, and now what? Is it short or long?” she asked. “Go back to work, Mykhailovna, and turn off the siren.” Mykhailovna is one of those people who can do anything. In the news, I just read a recommendation to put up posters with threatening content. A “Come, come here, Mikhailovna will knock you out!” sign would definitely suit my neighborhood.

Valentyna. She lived in Bucha for three weeks until she could evacuate from there, standing alone at the entrance of her apartment building, without electricity and gas, only with a cat and a bag of hard biscuits. “I think to myself: the children left with nothing, and now I will leave everything here. We will have nothing to our names. And that’s when I became so sorrowful.” She says she had jam and some canned vegetables in stock, but she couldn’t eat them alone. How can you sit down and eat them all when canned food is for the family?

Grandma Katya and Grandma Halya. I saw them in line at the pharmacy; they were neighbors. That’s why I helped them find a place to live together. They arranged a “corridor behind two walls” there. I persuaded them by explaining that cooking together would save them lots of money. Battles near Kyiv. I brought them food and bought some sweets. Katya texts me that Halya is a slob, that she littered the entire hallway with her junk, and doesn’t know how to cook porridge properly, but the sweets were delicious. And I didn’t have Halyna’s number.

Svitlana. She sometimes writes to me. She’s an incredible woman, the grandmother of already grown-up grandchildren. While being evacuated, she writes from deep behind the frontlines, where she got out from the basements of bombed-out Kharkiv in the middle of spring. She writes, among other things, so casually: “My children have decided not to return to Ukraine.” It turns out that war can be described in just a few words.

Blackmouth Polishchuchka. I saw her near the market on the first day of our evacuation to Lviv. It was easy to recognize us by our clothes; we both looked like those who were fleeing in a hurry. She was carrying a heavy bag. I offered to help her. In response, I heard a flurry of selective swearing with a peculiar Chernihiv accent: I can handle it myself, don’t bother me. Then she looked at my face and calmly added: “You better take care of yourself, look at you, rescuer.”

Grandma Nadia. The alpha-hag from my apartment building. She took up cooking for the old people in the neighborhood, and I bought and brought food for her initiative: “So you are a writer. And what books do you write? Good ones?… It might be about love. Good that they are about love. It’s good that you write books… Because you don’t know how to peel carrots. Give me the knife!” After the liberation of the Kyiv region, she sat on her strategic bench in the yard and met everyone returning to the city: “Zhenya, have you come back?! And where have you been, Zhenya?… While I was defending Kyiv here. Yes, Zhenya, I protected it myself.” Zhenya doesn’t even snap back.

In April 2022, HelpAge International released a statement: in Ukraine, every third person who needed some form of aid since the beginning of the war in 2014 until the spring of the full-scale invasion has been over sixty years old. Our war is the oldest humanitarian crisis in the world.

“Mom,” I say, “have you heard those statements from the concerned international community that it is necessary to reconcile with the Russians? They must be afraid of a nuclear strike.”

“And why are they so scared?” a woman from Mykolaiv, who already responds to ‘grandma,’ wonders sincerely.