I met this widow in a Ukrainian village. She was terrifically strong. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It was like spending an afternoon with bedrock, weathered and worn from all the years but still standing immovable nonetheless. When she moved from room to room, it was with the slow sure grace of an oak.
We were a couple hours northwest of Kiev, one of those parts of the world where the land and its bounty were still a vital part of daily life. Foreign cars, broadband, smart phones, and garden plots, chicken coops, milk cows led by rope bridles on afternoon walks, trees whispering among the power lines, backs bent to the labor at hand.
Her husband had died a dozen years ago. She made me tea, some bitter leaf that she cut with honey both of which were harvested in the village. She let me take her photograph as she told me stories of her life, her husband, her childhood.
Her hands were in bad shape, poking out twisted from her sleeves like the exposed roots of some great tree. She asked me for help as she was by herself. I put the camera away and helped fix a gate, carried some sacks of grain or feed, helped haul a few things from one side of the property to the other. As thanks, she filled a plastic bag of onions, potatoes, garlic, lemongrass from her garden.
When I returned to Kiev, I gave the produce away to a girl I had met.
Everywhere I have visited, but especially in Eastern Europe, it is the women who are the quiet strength and foundation of a home, a village, life in general.
In Kiev, there is a great statue, the Motherland Monument, the Romina-Mat, a last relic of Soviet times. The stainless steel figure that pierces the skyline is of a warrior, sword and shield raised to the sky. The figure is enormous, standing well above the tree line, far from any buildings. Without a sense of scale in the forested landscape, it is easy to be confused and the figure does not appear to be a giant as much as it makes you feel tiny and inconsequential, as if giants had always walked among us.
The figure of course is a warrior woman, a goddess as tall as the mountains, the proud hero that stands in protection of the homeland and her people.